Narcissistic Relationships: Recovery
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Reclaiming your sense of self after a relationship void of empathy and compassion can feel like a daunting journey. Yet, it’s a pivotal step towards healing and rediscovery.
In this article, I’ll share, as a neuropsychologist, my top approaches for survivors. These insights can serve as a starting point to guide you through the healing process.
1. You will find strategies that are often beneficial for those who have survived abuse from a partner who exhibits narcissistic or antisocial personality disorders.
2. You will gain insight into personal development approaches, highlighting the empowering effect of self-compassion and the transformative impact of neuroplasticity.
React, Survive, Appease - Repeat
Often within a relationship with a person with a narcissistic personality disorder, one will find themselves reacting, surviving (e.g., appeasement, fighting), or muting their authentic self.
Individuals bonded to such a partner become aware that it is not safe to be vulnerable or themselves around the pathological narcissist.
They must watch
- what they say,
- how they say it,
- what they do,
- how they do it, and
- anticipate all the possible scenarios that could trigger their partner’s fragile ego.
It can be exhausting and frightening. The stage is set for anxiety, despair, and feeling ‘less than.’
Survivors often focus their attention and energy outward, in the presence of a partner with pathological narcissism, where connection and safety are lacking. It’s not surprising that many lose touch with their former selves due to this dynamic.
However, amidst this hardship lies a silver lining—neuroplasticity. When deliberately harnessed, it becomes a powerful tool for fostering growth after pain and guiding us toward a restorative reconnection with ourselves.
Neuroplasticity refers to the brain’s lifelong capacity to evolve, grow, learn, and change in response to experiences, thoughts, or chemicals (e.g., medication or substances).
13 Key Approaches to Consider in Reclaiming Self
The Approach: Neuropsychology
1. Neuroplasticity and Emotion Regulation: Self-directed emotion regulation exercises are a way to activate (and sometimes down-regulate overactive) regions of the brain intentionally. Those engaging in home-based activities typically focus on calming the mind, enhancing attention, fostering self-awareness, and boosting executive functions.
Examples of exercises to help regulate the brain include mindfulness, yoga, deep breathing, journaling, art, aromatherapy (olfactory), and certain cognitive games.
A psychologist can help you select at-home approaches specific to you. I also dedicate a significant portion of my course to neuroplasticity and specific strategies.
2. Neuroplasticity and professional treatment. There are several approaches, such as cognitive rehabilitation/brain training, light therapy/near-infrared light, audiology/sound therapy, speech therapy, and neurofeedback. Psychological and psychiatric treatments can create changes within various brain systems (e.g., cognitive behavioral therapy, EMDR, medication).
The Approach: Compassion
3. Compassion: Consider how to incorporate compassion into your daily life. Compassion stimulates parts of the brain associated with emotion regulation, social bonds, and positive emotions. The byproduct of compassionate acts and self-compassion can be feelings of empowerment and courage.
Here are two approaches that can assist in developing and practicing compassion:
a) Engage in compassion training.
b) Get involved in a (safe and non-triggering) cause you care about and aid those who lack the resources you have to alleviate their pain.
Help children or animals who have been neglected or abused; feed people in need of food through a nonprofit; protect the environment; or speak up for the rights of oppressed groups (examples). Only take on such tasks if you are at a point in your healing where you can observe the suffering of another without it affecting you negatively.
4. Self-Compassion: Shift focus away from self-criticism and see the self through kindness and understanding. It is unnecessary to be self-critical to facilitate change; this could hinder progress. Replace negative self-talk with gentle language. Consider self-compassion training if needed.
The Approach: Feeding the Soul through Surroundings
5. Nature and the Outdoors: An often undervalued yet potent resource for recovery lies within our natural environment. Indulging in seemingly simple pastimes, like observing bird life from my garden’s feeders, is one of my favorite daily activities. Immersing ourselves in nature’s serenity provides significant recuperative benefits for the brain. Finding a tranquil spot in nature can diminish anxiety, enhance our mood, and promote clear thinking.
6. Home & Work Settings: Organize your surroundings, deep clean, and set a vibe in your home of coziness and peace. These activities activate many brain areas outside the regions associated with threat, stress, and pain. Engaging in these tasks can lead to positive emotions, a sense of accomplishment, pleasure, improved cognition, and self-regulation.
The Approach: Nurture Yourself
7. Self-Care: Find what fuels, excites, and nurtures you and engage in those activities regularly. This will need to be a priority, as it can help you reconnect with the authentic, genuine you.
8. Forgive yourself: Some individuals feel shame because they remained with someone who disrespected them or caused harm. It will be essential to forgive yourself if this is a part of your post-relationship experience. This is where self-compassion can be vital. Learn about the neuroscience of attachment in narcissistic relationships here.
The Approach: Self-Preservation
9. Recognize when to exit. Individuals may sometimes consider reconciling with a partner who has caused them harm. However, it’s essential to acknowledge that true self-commitment cannot be achieved until a definitive decision is made regarding the relationship: in or out. Manipulative tactics often employed by abusive individuals can blur this line.
For example, guilt-tripping statements such as “You never loved me; you won’t even fight for this relationship.”
It is essential to distinguish between healthy relationship challenges and ongoing harm. Acknowledging when it’s time to depart from a destructive situation is not a failure.
10. Boundaries: It’s important to recognize that while in the relationship with a narcissist, you may have found it challenging to establish and maintain your boundaries. The presence of narcissistic personality disorder can often make setting boundaries challenging. You might have faced intense rage for expressing your opinions or for trying to shield yourself from mistreatment. For many, the threat to their safety must take priority when attempting to assert themselves. The fear of punishment for enforcing a boundary is a reality for some in these relationships.
In the absence of pathological narcissism, people are more likely to either respect your limits or choose to distance themselves without causing harm. As you heal and rebuild, it’s vital to separate past experiences with the narcissist from future interactions with others, allowing yourself to engage in healthy relationships where your boundaries are acknowledged and respected. A psychologist or therapist can be helpful.
11. Refine your trusted circle and safeguard yourself. Determine what your boundaries will be moving forward. Decide whom you will allow in your closest circle and create your approach for vetting individuals for safety. No one has the right to your trauma story or past relationship pain, particularly when you are newly dating. Not everyone has your best interest at heart. Some are manipulators. Some have personality disorders that lead them to exploit others.
Avoid divulging too much information, especially if it comes from a desire to please others. We should always have different degrees of access to our personal life; you are the one who decides the boundaries.
The Approach: Express Yourself
12. Get Creative: Explore music, art, and creative activities like cooking, gardening, baking, and knitting.
13. Move the body: Activities such as walking, dancing, cycling, and strength training can positively impact mood and thinking (e.g., executive functions, memory). Choose your favorite mode of exercise.
For those who plan to leave a partner with narcissistic personality disorder (or psychopathy), understand that leaving the relationship could potentially be an ‘ego-threat’ trigger for your partner.
Deciding to move forward without them could activate their hypersensitive threat system, placing you at risk for stalking, physical harm, or smear campaigns. Safety planning should always be a priority.
As you move forward on this path of healing, remember that the journey is as much about rediscovering the world around you as it is about reconnecting with the person within.
Each person’s road to recovery from narcissistic abuse is unique, and while it may come with its own set of challenges, every step you take is a testament to your courage and a step towards a future that is peaceful and kind to yourself.
May you find in each day a renewed sense of strength, clarity, and the joy of becoming you again.
🌱 Looking to deepen your understanding, find emotional healing, and work with me? I created a course just for that!
You’ll find actionable tools, strategies, and insights for the self-help aspect of your healing work. It’s a unique blend of neuropsychology and heartfelt compassion from a fellow survivor.
Click here to learn more and see if it’s the right fit for you. 🌱
Best ♡ Rhonda Freeman, PhD | Neuropsychologist
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