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It’s Not You, It’s Them: Understanding and Recovering from Narcissistic Abuse

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When I was little, I used to love watching the movie, The Wizard of Oz. I am not sure how many versions of this movie exist now, but I remember that in the original film, when Judy Garland’s character, Dorothy, was in Kansas, and the opening scenes were all in black and white. She was outside in a field with her dog, Toto, and she sang that glorious song, Somewhere Over the Rainbow. Her home appeared like a peaceful, beautiful place until the storm rolled in. It seemed to come out of nowhere. Dorothy was caught off guard, far away from the safety of her family. The terrible storm created a tornado, and Dorothy ran as fast as she could to get to the safety of the storm cellar in her yard. Unfortunately, she did not make it to the cellar before the twister caught up to her. It swept her up, along with her house, into its swirling winds, and carried her far, far away. 

In the wake of the tornado, Dorothy must have felt confusion, chaos, and fear. She must have also felt utterly alone. Those emotions are not all that different from how it feels in the aftermath of ending a narcissistic relationship. If you have ever seen footage of damage after a tornado, it is devastating. Huge buildings that once stood tall are obliterated. Massive trees are uprooted and thrown miles away. Full neighbourhoods are completely flattened into piles of indiscernible rubble. Now let’s imagine the survivor of the tornado, standing where her house once stood. She is surrounded by wreckage in every direction, and everything is buried in a pile of rubble. Seeing all of this would be too much for a person’s brain to process; this imagery is a close parallel to the severity of the internal damage felt by survivors of emotional abuse, and, more specifically, narcissistic abuse. This has been proven to be the most damaging kind of emotional abuse that a person can experience. 

Total Confusion

 Once it is all over, and the tornado’s winds have dissipated, an eerie calm rolls in. All you can think is, “How did I get here? What do I do now?” Everything in your life has drastically changed, and that realization probably feels uncomfortable. Perhaps it is so uncomfortable that you may be thinking about returning to the relationship. You know you will get hurt, but now you’re all alone, and going back feels much easier than facing the unknown wilderness outside of this relationship. You may start to doubt your decision to leave your narcissistic ex-spouse and wonder if you overreacted. You may be feeling crippling anxiety and start thinking about how you can fix it. Sadly, I must tell you that it can never be fixed, and it is not because of anything you did. It’s because your ex is a narcissist, and without professional help, narcissists are incapable of change. Unfortunately, most narcissists never get the help they need. You may be worried that your friends and family are judging you. If you have children, you may be fixated on what your decision is going to do to your kids. And, there’s the financial impact to consider. You’ve been stuck in this wreckage for months, or maybe years. It all feels way too impossible. But you also know that standing here, paralyzed by what you’ve just been through and staying stuck under the rubble could cost you everything–whatever little of you is left.

My Story

My own experience with narcissistic abuse began at the end of my first year at university, and lasted for eight years. I got involved with someone who I knew from high school, and in the beginning, he was funny, charismatic, loving, and generous–and I loved who he was; this feeling is what I so desperately clung onto every time things got ugly. Very early on, there were red flags that I was in a toxic and abusive relationship; and he did things that were very typical in toxic relationships, such as: 

  • Tell me he would call at a certain time and not follow through, as I would sit by the phone waiting for his call.
  • Keep in close contact with his “on-call” girls from his past, and even cheat on me with a few of them.
  • Ask me to do things that these girls used to do with him, which made me feel like I was never good enough.

Relationships with a narcissist always include manipulation of some kind. And then, there is the subtle gaslighting and emotional abuse, which usually progresses slowly over time. In my experience, these red flags manifested in ways like:

  • Getting angry when I asked him simple questions, like what he wanted for supper.
  • Tossing aside a gift I brought home for him without thanking me.
  • Leaving me alone downtown in a snowstorm one night with no coat or money to get home.

My lowest point, though, was when he manipulated my own family against me for his own personal gain and agenda. Oftentimes, the narcissist will bring other people in your life into his web of lies to use them against you… maybe you can relate to some of these things. At the time, though, these things were harder for me to see as dangerous because I had no other frame of reference; his behaviour became “normal” to me over time, and I thought that how he treated me was acceptable. This is what I call “normalizing abuse.” 

When things were not going according to his master plan of how he wanted our life to be, according to his timeline, he turned to members of my family to use them in his campaign to try and manipulate me into doing what he wanted. Of course, they didn’t know that they were being manipulated and they didn’t know about the abuse that had been going on, so they took his side and put pressure on me to do what he was asking. When I continued to resist, he threatened to leave me, and I felt completely helpless. I turned to a friend for support, which ended with a lapse in my judgment when I was kissed. My fear of what my husband would do if he found out drove me to tell him myself, and this brought out the ultimate rage in him. To punish me, he told my family that I had been cheating on him with multiple men, and that he had photographic evidence to prove it. He also told them that I needed psychiatric help.  Of course, my family had no idea that what he was saying were all lies and manipulation. They were all beside themselves thinking that I had had a nervous breakdown. I had no idea that he had told them any of this, so when they refused to speak to me and my father told me I had to be a better wife, I thought it was about the kiss. I believed that my family had alienated me because I did this terrible thing, and now I had to atone for my huge sin. This was the absolute rock bottom point of my life.

I started going to therapy on my own, and I suggested that we go to couple’s counseling, where my husband attempted to shame me to the therapist. Thankfully, she did not buy into it. After only a couple of sessions, she asked to speak to me privately. She looked me in the eye– and I will never forget this—she said, “Heather, you need to get out of this relationship and find a healthier path.” The therapist said this to me. And that’s when I knew I had to get out. I said to her, “Okay, but I don’t know what to do.” She told me, “Don’t worry. I’ve got you. I am going to help you get through this.” So, that was how I began ending my marriage and the relationship I had been in for the past eight years. I was pretty much a complete wreck, and the anxiety and guilt that I felt at times was paralyzing. I was all alone, surrounded by the wreckage of the emotional tornado that I had survived.

From Pain to Power

How did I recover from all of this? Luckily, I invested in an amazing therapist, and over time, she helped me to see all of the false beliefs that I had about myself and my worthiness. She helped to teach me about the extent of the manipulation I had endured and that I was the victim of gaslighting. She taught me about narcissistic personality traits and narcissistic abuse, and that this was exactly what I lived through. Since then, I have done a lot of personal growth work. Through being temporarily homeless and staying with friends, moving to a developing country, getting involved in new activities, meeting new people, and being open to new experiences, I rediscovered myself over those first two years living on my own. I reconnected with my previous passions that were long forgotten when I was consumed by my ex’s needs and making him happy. So, after doing all of this work, I decided to go back to school and get my master’s in counseling psychology. I realized that helping other people through their most difficult times was a passion and a calling for me. Since beginning my career as a therapist, helping women as they navigate through the end of their own toxic relationships and their journey of trauma recovery and healing has become a cornerstone of my work. 

Is my partner a narcissist?

Through this work, I created a little questionnaire to help people assess whether they are in an abusive relationship with a narcissist: I call it the “Is my partner a narcissist?” test. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Does my partner experience an exaggerated sense of self-importance?
  • Does he/she require constant admiration from others?
  • Does he/she expect total compliance from others?
  • Does he/she struggle to recognize the emotions and needs of other people?
  • Does my partner ever expect special treatment or favours from others?
  • Does he/she ever experience heightened jealousy about the success of others?
  • Does he/she insist on having the best of everything (office, car, home, etc.)?
  • Does he/she assume that others are jealous of his talents and success?

If your answer is “yes” to any one of these questions, chances are you are in an abusive relationship with a narcissist. If you are still not sure whether you have suffered from narcissistic abuse, here are some of the most common behaviours that you have likely dealt with from your partner:

  • Gaslighting
  • Grandiosity
  • Lack of accountability/Blaming others (Denial/Deflection)
  • Bullying/Intimidation tactics to get others to do what they want
  • Mocking/Verbally abusive behaviours
  • Idealization/Devaluation/Discard (Narcissistic Cycle of Abuse)

Research shows that prolonged exposure to this kind of abuse over an extended period of time has long-lasting effects on your brain, and your brain chemistry actually changes as a result of this prolonged exposure. Some of the most common symptoms that survivors of emotional abuse experience include:

  • Hypervigilance (aka “hyper-alert” mode)
  • Learned Helplessness
  • Cognitive Dissonance (feeling confused/conflicted about your feelings towards the abuser)
  • Trauma Bonding (emotional attachment to the abuser)
  • Low Self-Worth

Common Misconceptions

If you’re anything like me, you have probably become very good at explaining away and rationalizing your partner’s behaviour; you may have even gone so far as to convince yourself that you are not in an abusive relationship, especially if you have never suffered any physical violence at the hands of your partner. Maybe you’ve told yourself (and others) things like:

  • “He has never hit me, so it can’t be abuse. It’s not that bad.”
  • “He seems to feel bad and often apologizes after he has treated me poorly, so he must not be a narcissist.”
  • “He’s just tired/cranky/stressed/some other emotion. He doesn’t mean it when he treats me badly.”
  • “I could never leave because there is no way I could support myself. I am completely dependent on him.”

If any of these statements sound familiar, I am here to tell you that these are all false beliefs that we tell ourselves to be able to keep going. These are all inaccurate “explanations” to deem the abusive behaviour to be acceptable, which our traumatized brain cling to when we are constantly being retraumatized. The truth is, you’ve probably been waiting and hoping for things to “get

better.” They won’t. Most narcissists cannot admit that they need to change or that they are a part of the problem. You also already know that you do not need to have visible bruises and scars to be suffering from abuse. Think about a friend who told you she is going through your situation; my guess is that you can more easily see that she is in an abusive relationship, even if she doesn’t have bruises. 

The good news is that women have more options now than ever before. There are

organizations and community supports available to help with securing housing, finding legal aid, and providing mental health support. Above all, what I need you to know is that you can live a life that is free from paralyzing fear, you can feel safe and confident again–with or without a relationship, and there is a way for you to heal from what you’ve been through. And, most importantly, I want you to know that you are not alone.

Susan’s Story

Speaking of healing, I’d like to tell you about Susan. When I first met Susan, she said to me, “I need help because I black out when I feel extreme emotion, and I forget things that my partner tells me that I have said or done. I feel like I am going crazy.” When we explored this further, there were all kinds of red flags that something was seriously wrong:

  • Susan told me, “I used to be involved in local community theatre, I used to really enjoy reading and knitting, and I used to spend a lot of time with friends.” When I met her, she wasn’t doing any of these things.
  • She also told me that her relationship with her family was very strained, and that she didn’t really understand what happened–these are people who she loves, but her partner told her that her family had been mistreating her. This was hard for her to accept, but she thought, “Oh, he must be seeing things that I am missing or unable to see, so he must be right.” Up until this point in her life, she had been very close to her parents. When we met, she had not spoken to her family in over two years.
  • Her partner also disapproved of her relationships with her work colleagues because her “behaviour changed” when she was around them–so he encouraged her not to spend time with them outside of work.
  • She said that she frequently “misinterpreted” things that her partner said to her and that she felt stupid often because she got upset with him for “no good reason.” 

As we unpacked all of this, she slowly started to realize that she had been manipulated for the

entirety of their relationship, and everything he had told her was a lie, including things he

had told her about his life—wild and grandiose stories about his work–all lies! This was her

breaking point, and she said to me, “My worst fear has come true: I am the ‘long con,’” meaning she had been “conned” or “tricked” over a long period of time. She said to me, “I am so angry!!” 

A few days later, she shared all of the realizations she had made over the course of our work together with her partner, and he realized he could no longer pull the wool over her eyes, so he agreed to move out of her house. All of this took place in just six weeks, and by the end of June, he had packed his things and moved out. She was finally free–free from abuse, free from self-doubt and feeling like she was crazy. She was on her own, and it was a huge victory for her, but she said to me, “I don’t know what to do now… I don’t know how to live without considering his needs, I don’t really know who I am on my own.” Over the next few weeks, she followed the plan that I created. By the end of that summer:

  • Susan had reconnected with her parents and told them about the abuse, and they continue to be her main supporters today.
  • She reached out to friends and told them what happened, and she now has a very active social life.
  • She’s developed a sense of self-worth and she no longer allows people to take advantage of her.
  • She has picked up her old hobbies again.
  • She has developed an appreciation and respect for self-care, so much so that she is now an advocate and defender of self-care and preserving her mental health.

Susan continues to work on herself and further rebuild her confidence. When I saw her

recently, she said, “I am so grateful that you opened my eyes to what was going on. I am

living my best life now, and I can’t imagine where I’d be if I hadn’t met you and done this

work. Thank you for giving me my life back.”

Follow Your Yellow Brick Road

People sometimes ask me why I chose to do this work because it is heavy and requires a lot of my emotional energy. My answer to this question is because I used to be one of those women. I was in the aftermath of that tornado of abuse. I was suffering from the same trauma and PTSD as the women who have shown up in my office or reached out to me online. I know how much I benefited from the therapy work that I did at that time, and I could have definitely benefited from someone who really knew my experience and who was an expert. My clients are my why. The women whom I have had the privilege to meet and work with inspire me every day, and being a witness to their healing and growth and reconnecting with their inner badass selves is what motivates me to continue in this work and to share my message and knowledge. I am so grateful to have been called to do this work; it is a gift for me to be able to help others through their pain and recover from their traumatic past, and realize their incredible worth.

In sharing all of this with you, my hope is that you now have some insight and tools that will allow you to evaluate the relationships in your own lives, and to know whether you or someone you know is struggling with a narcissist. Above all, my big takeaway wish for you is to realize that you are not alone, and that help is available. I know it may not feel like it right now, but you are worthy of happiness and peace, respect, and love. For those of you who are standing in the middle of the ruins from that tornado, in the middle of chaos and uncertainty, I would like to leave you with the wise words of Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz: “There’s no place like home.” The only question is…are you ready to go there? If so, I would love to go on this journey with you.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Heather Kent is a Registered Psychotherapist and Trauma Recovery Specialist with an expertise in PTSD, who helps restore healthy futures for her clients. She is the co-author of the newly released book, Wellness Wisdom, and the #1 Amazon bestselling author of the books Heal From Your Narcissist Ex and I Left My Toxic Relationship – Now What?, which use elements of her own story intertwined with clinically proven therapy modalities. Surviving an abusive relationship herself, as well as witnessing the PTSD of several of her students from inner city communities where she previously taught, Heather decided to change her career path and began her training in psychology, focusing on trauma assessment and treatment. Her goal is to help people move past the feelings of shame, brokenness, and paralyzing fear through her integrative therapeutic approach to counseling, ultimately helping her clients to live well. Her C-level PTSD recovery service is geared towards professional women who are smart, silent, and stronger than their suffering. Providing Animal Assisted Therapy has also been an adjunct to her PTSD therapy services, working with two service dogs to date, and another one in training. Through her therapy programs, Heather gets to observe the empowerment process with her local, national, and international clients, through which they rediscover their voice, find self-compassion, and learn to set healthy boundaries in their personal lives. Through her speaking engagements, Heather also advises organizations concerned about decreased productivity and employee engagement, empowering their workforce to create safe spaces for everyone to thrive. She has several degrees including a Bachelor of Arts, Bachelor of Education, and a Master of Counseling Psychology. She’s a registered member of several regulatory bodies and prestigious organizations, including the College of Registered Psychotherapists of Ontario, Canadian Counseling and Psychotherapy Association, Narcissistic Abuse Awareness Alliance, Rituals for Recovery, and more. Following her passion for humanitarian work, Heather previously lived in the Dominican Republic, where she volunteered through Rotary International, and worked as a teacher for a baseball academy run by the former VP of the NY Yankees. She continues to be involved in regular humanitarian projects in the Dominican Republic through her local Rotary Club. She loves the outdoors, traveling, highland dancing at international festivals, and performing with local celtic bands in Ontario, Canada, where she currently resides. 

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