Learn / The Search for Solid Ground: How to Heal From Narcissistic Abuse
The term ‘narcissist’ gets thrown around a lot. And it’s often misused, or used too casually. Narcissism is more than selfishness. And for survivors of narcissistic abuse, it’s anything but casual. If you’ve experienced the intensity of a relationship with a narcissist, you may need to heal from ongoing trauma symptoms. Some people find solace in self-help resources, while others use holistic therapies like yoga or acupuncture. You can even attend residential rehab to heal from narcissistic abuse.
If you or someone you know is being threatened or abused, call 800-799-SAFE or text “START” to 88788 to connect with the National Domestic Violence Support Hotline. Their support is free and confidential.
Narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) is a serious condition1 that can affect all parts of a person’s life. It falls under the cluster B umbrella of personality disorders, featuring unpredictable behavior and intense emotions. Researchers haven’t determined the exact cause of NPD. But childhood trauma, genetics, and receiving excessive praise can all be risk factors.
NPD can be hard to recognize, but these are some common traits:
People with NPD can show arrogance, jealousy, and an unwillingness to relate to others. Because of this, many people with NPD have trouble forming and maintaining healthy relationships. This, combined with the high rates of aggression and manipulation, can easily result in narcissistic abuse. Domestic violence can take place in any relationship. But it’s often seen between parents and children, and romantic partners.
Narcissistic abuse is any abuse from a person with NPD,2 or someone who exhibits narcissistic behaviors. It’s rooted in the aggressor’s inability to show empathy. The abuser tries to control the other person with intimidation, manipulation, and deception. This can happen in any type of relationship, but it’s often seen between parents and children, and in romantic partnerships.
Between 60-158 million people experience narcissistic abuse.2 Although so many people go through it, it can be hard to recognize—which is why it’s important to know the signs:
It can be extremely difficult to recognize this behavior. It might start in small ways, and get worse over time. By the time it reaches full-on abuse, you’re so used to being treated poorly that you don’t see how bad things are. And if you love the other person, it’s easy to make excuses for them. You might even blame yourself, believing their behavior is justified.
Abusive relationships can even fool the experts. In fact, studies show that almost 60% of therapists miss the signs of narcissistic abuse.2 And because many people with NPD are charming and sociable, sometimes other people don’t take narcissistic abuse seriously. That’s especially true when the abuser is in a position of power.
People with NPD have a hard time considering other people’s needs—even their children’s. That can damage familial relationships, causing trauma on both sides.
When you’re a child, it’s natural to trust your parents. You rely on them for food, shelter, and emotional support. And, because you haven’t yet seen the world, you can’t easily compare their behavior to social norms. If gaslighting is your daily reality, you might not know there’s a better way to treat people.
Living through narcissistic abuse is one type of adverse childhood experience (ACE).3 ACEs affect your emotional development. And as an adult, ACEs can make you vulnerable to physical and mental health issues. For example, studies indicate having a narcissistic parent results in lower self-esteem4 in adulthood.
Narcissistic parents project their inflated self-views5 onto their children, who then internalize them. You may believe your role in a relationship is to give affection but never receive it. If you get stuck in that dynamic, this pattern can damage your adult relationships.
Narcissistic or not, abusive relationships are extremely difficult to escape.6 People with NPD may even show remorse after they discard you, only to leave again as soon as you forgive them. The goal here is to maintain the power imbalance, not repair the relationship. And even after you get to safety, the end of an abusive relationship rarely leaves you with closure.7
When you’re connected to your abuser financially, legally, or through children, breaking up can be dangerous. If you’re experiencing domestic violence, you can get immediate help. And you can make a safety plan before you’re ready to leave.
If you or someone you know is being threatened or abused, call 800-799-SAFE or text “START” to 88788 to connect with the National Domestic Violence Support Hotline.
Their support is free and confidential.
Abuse of any kind can do immediate damage. But even after you get to safety, you might feel the lasting effects of trauma.
Post-traumatic-stress disorder (PTSD) is a common result of narcissistic abuse.8 With PTSD, you might experience flashbacks, nightmares, or feel guilty or on edge. And because narcissistic abusers manipulate their targets, it can be difficult to trust people again.
It’s hard to build a stable relationship without trust. That’s one reason why many people have trouble connecting with others in a healthy way after abuse.9 And if your parent was your abuser, you may have learned unhealthy behavioral patterns at a young age. These could include emotional outbursts, control issues, or high-risk behaviors. In fact, studies show that experiencing abuse increases your risk of addiction.10
Narcissistic abuse also impacts your self-esteem.7 People with NPD have trouble showing empathy, so they often say cruel things to the people closest to them. This can cause anxiety or depression, which are common among people recovering from abuse of any kind.11
When you’re ready to heal from trauma, you might need specialized treatment. Trauma-informed care is often the right place to start. In a trauma-informed program, your provider will have experience working with survivors. As a result, they’ll understand the unique needs of people with a history of abuse.
This approach can include several different types of therapy:
In session, your therapist will help you break through unhelpful thought and behavioral patterns13 that come from your trauma. For example, you might be hesitant to trust a new partner. In that case, your therapist could help you trace your fears back to their point of origin. Perhaps a parent broke your trust as a child, and you now expect betrayal in your closest relationships.
Once you identify the cause, you’ll learn practical ways to reframe your response. Your therapist might ask you to check the facts, comparing your partner to the person who abused you. Given their current behavior, do you expect them to betray you? And do they have the ability to harm you as much as your parent did? When a parent never arrives to pick you up from school, you could get stuck there. If an adult partner stands you up at a restaurant, your feelings might be hurt, but you’ll still get home safely.
You’ll practice these skills in session with your therapist, and also in your daily life. There are a few specialized types of CBT that can help you recover from narcissistic abuse:
Because many people with trauma find it painful to talk about their past, talk therapies like CBT can be extremely difficult. And patients often drop out of these types of therapies17 because they can be so triggering.
In those cases, alternative treatment can be a great place to start. Holistic trauma therapies18 aren’t a replacement for other methods, but they can still have a major impact on your recovery. These are some of the most well-known holistic treatments for trauma:
Holistic treatments invite you to start healing your mind, body, and spirit at the same time. Patients reflect on the past traumas while rebuilding their sense of self. This can empower you to recover in a gentler, more sustainable way.
Physical techniques like massage and acupuncture can help you release tension stored in the body. If you survived physical abuse, this can be an extremely important part of healing. These treatments are opportunities for you to practice receiving safe, supportive touch. And by doing that, you can learn to feel safe in your own body again.
Some therapists recommend using medication to decrease trauma symptoms.19 This is a common treatment for patients with conditions like PTSD, depression and anxiety. Doctors often prescribe antidepressants like Zoloft or Prozac to help people manage intense emotions. But everyone’s experience is different. Talk to your doctor about your recovery goals, so they can guide you toward the right type of treatment.
Taking medication can lighten the emotional load during recovery. But it’s just one aspect of healing. It’s important to combine any prescription meds with other approaches to your care.
In addition to residential rehab, therapy, and medications, other resources can support your healing journey. You can start educating yourself about this complex topic, alongside your search for a provider. If you enjoy podcasts, you can start by listening to one of the following:
Or, to read about healing from narcissistic abuse, you can check out one of these books:
These resources can help you learn more about NPD, narcissistic abuse, and the healing process. For many people, they’re an important first step to recognizing realities. But they’re no replacement for therapy. Survivors also benefit from professional care.
Abuse is never the survivor’s fault. But healing from it is your responsibility. And there’s no shame in admitting you need help. If it feels like trauma symptoms are dominating your life, you might consider attending inpatient rehab for trauma. Living on-site can help you fully focus on healing, become part of a community, and get a new perspective on your recovery.
See our list of residential rehabs for information on therapies, pricing, and more.
Reviewed by Rajnandini Rathod
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