This is a full reprint by permission from the author.
Jacqueline Hart Gibson, Peak to Peak. Narcissistic abuse, abuse perpetrated by an individual with Narcissistic Personality Disorder, can be tricky to overcome. The wounds this specialized form of abuse creates don’t heal with time alone and have the power to change the survivor’s perspective for a lifetime.
The good news is, like many roads to psychology and emotional recovery, healing from narcissistic abuse can create strength of character and increased insight and empathy, equal to the NPD’s (Narcissistcally disordered person’s) lack of these same qualities. Not all abusers have Narcissistic Personality Disorder, but all NPD’s abuse.
How then do we know if we have been, or are currently, the target of one of these individuals? According to the DSM V, diagnostic criteria for NPD can be summarized as exploitive in interpersonal relationships, lacking empathy and lacking insight into self, among other often grandiose, attributes. What does that mean in layman’s terms? Let’s start with exploitative in relationships. An NPD will take “using people” to a whole new level. A true narcissist will “love-bomb” a target, studying them and projecting the target’s perfect partner, friend, parent, coworker, employer, etc. They will often heap praise of some kind on their mark, convincing them they are seen as special in the Narcissist’s eyes. The minute their victim loses the perception of value to them, they are discarded, usually in a humiliating and dehumanizing way. Lacking empathy can be harder to spot, as this person will often mirror the empathy they see displayed by others. A disordered narcissist doesn’t necessarily think there is anything wrong with lacking an ability to identify with the feelings of others, but they know most other people find this off putting, so they fake it. They can also genuinely feel loss, sadness or anger, if they believe they are in danger of losing something, or someone, they feel entitled to, or need in some way.
Empathetic onlookers can mistake a selfish and self-serving emotional display as authentic connection or remorse, when it is not. Narcissists use emotions to manipulate. The do not feel them in the same way that non-disordered individuals do. Most importantly, another person’s feelings are of no consequence to an NPD, except in how those feelings can be used to victimize. Insight into self can be determined to be low when a person readily deflects responsibility to others and rarely, if ever, appears to own responsibility themselves. If a narcissist lies, cheats, manipulates, steals, assaults or commits any act that harms another and gets caught, they are likely to deny until their accuser is exhausted from arguing. Photographic evidence, tape recordings, video, a failed lie detector test and multiple eyewitnesses will rarely convince a narcissist to own their behavior. They often blame the victims of their abuse, for the abuse they inflict. This sounds like, “I cheated because you’re crazy,” or “I wouldn’t have to beat the kids if you weren’t such a bad parent and spoiling them.” They use psychological warfare, usually gaslighting, to convince their targets that the insanity in these statements is plausible.
The most common diagnosis for survivors of narcissistic abuse is PTSD, post-traumatic stress disorder, and C-PTSD, complex post-traumatic stress disorder. The latter is usually caused by abuse coupled with feeling like the hostage of the abuser, as though powerless to leave. C-PTSD can take longer to heal than PTSD, but healing in both instances is likely with effort, patience and time. Time will not heal this wound. It is as foolish to wait for time to heal PTSD or C-PTSD, as it is to wait for time to heal a broken leg. Emotional and psychological wounds are as real as physical wounds. We treat injuries; we don’t wait for them to simply disappear.
The human brain is designed to remember trauma with heightened awareness. This is meant to keep us out of harm’s way. For example; remembering the exact geographic location, smells in the air, colors in the environment, feeling in our gut, etc., of the place where we had a close call with a bear, might have helped us to stay away from any location where a bear might be, back when we all lived outside. Today, the same survival function is recording psychological, emotional and physical abuse from an ex-husband, parent, employer, etc., with similar detail and intense attachment. We cannot function normally with our trauma in the forefront of our awareness daily. It’s exhausting and creates behaviors like anxiety, hyper-vigillance, lack of trust and depression. There are several appropriate treatments for emotional and psychological trauma. Eye movement desensitization reprocessing, EMDR, has proven successful in the last twenty years, and is widely used. Most therapists are trained in EMDR or can refer clients to a therapist who is. EMDR turns down the volume on traumatic memory. We don’t forget the event or relationship, we just don’t think they are as important as we did prior to treatment.
Brain spotting is a similar therapy to EMDR, that uses visual bi-lateral stimuli in the place of audio. A light, moving back and forth while the client reprocesses trauma, is used instead of headphones with a pulse moving back and forth from each ear. Neurofeedback is especially useful in treating trauma when the client can’t remember the original trauma. This therapy does not require a conversation and works directly on the brain, noninvasively. Once the acute trauma has been treated it is usually helpful for the survivor to engage in some form of counseling or specialized coaching. Attraction to toxic relationships can be or can become an addictive pattern; ask anyone who describes their relational “picker” as broken or who confesses, “Ninety-nine healthy potential partners, to one sick one, and I’ll choose the one sicko every time.” The honeymoon phase of abusive relationships, usually following a discard or other abusive incident, is only present in toxic relationships. The honeymoon phase is the survivor’s drug, not the abuse, and we will unconsciously gravitate toward relationships that provide our “high,” often unconsciously. Mindfulness training or dialectical behavioral therapy, DBT, are effective approaches to break the habit of attraction to toxic relationships. More information about healing from narcissistic abuse is available in the book “Holistic Healing from Narcissistic Abuse,” by Jacqueline Hart, available on amazon in print or instant download at: https://www.amazon.com/HolisticHealing-Narcissistic-Abuse-Jacqueline/ dp/1983132691
(Originally published in the November 7, 2019, print edition of The Mountain-Ear.)