Are you in a Toxic Relationship
Welcome to my blog on Narcissism.
Healing after a toxic relationship with a narcissist.
It’s hard to not be aware of the ongoing trial between Johnny Depp and Amber Heard as they bring their turbulent relationship to the public arena.
For me as a Psychotherapist, it brings up questions of what we all see as acceptable in a relationship and how much we are willing to put up with in that relationship before we say “enough”.
I see clients often who are dealing with the breakup of a relationship. All break ups can be painful, especially if children are involved, but the most painful has to be a relationship with a narcissist. The abuse experienced in these relationships is insidious. It creeps up from behind and slowly chips away at you, breaking you down before you even realise what has happened.
During my Psychotherapy training there was a lot of emphasis on relationship and especially the therapeutic relationship. It is the therapeutic relationship that is the healer and change agent in therapy, so it is really important that we, as therapists, understand what people need in relationship. To be honest it turned my head around as I realised that I was not being met by Rogers (1961) Core Conditions in my relationships. These Core Conditions are empathy, unconditional positive regard (acceptance), and authenticity. The question is how many of us are experiencing these Core Conditions in our everyday relationships. Certainly not someone living with a narcissist.
How do you recognise you are in a relationship with a narcissist?
The chances are if you are regularly criticised by your partner, if you walk on eggshells trying but failing to please them most of the time. If they manipulate you into doing what they want by being super nice, but then change back to their usual critical self once they have what they want, while speaking highly of themselves and how wonderful they are, how lucky you are, if your partner tells lies, and expects to always come first then you may be living with someone who is on the narcissistic spectrum. If your partner is on the lower end of the spectrum, you may feel you can cope, but if they are at the higher end, you may need some support to leave the relationship for your own mental health and wellbeing.
What other personality traits should I look out for?
Narcissists believe that they are special and should be treated as such. The truth is that they are so incredibly insecure that they have to exhibit these personality traits to hide the lack of self-worth they feel inside. However, it would not be advisable to confront a narcissist about their lack of self-worth, as they are not only hiding it from you but most likely from themselves. Narcassists do not like to be challenged or to show weakness.
Dating a narcissist
You can’t be blamed for being drawn in by a narcissist. They are incredibly charming, probably successful, and lots of fun to be around. They may indeed make you feel more special than you have ever felt before. When we are in a vulnerable position, not feeling our best self then this can be intoxicating and incredibly exciting. They may be sharing their deepest most self with you, telling you that you’re their sole mate. You may be talking about moving in together, though you have only known each other weeks and discussing the future you can enjoy together.
There is a term for this in Psychology, its known as love-bombing. One of the narcissists tactics is to love-bomb, to draw you in, which of course is to elevate themselves that they are attractive and desirable, but it is nothing more than manipulation. It can feel really intense and really pleasurable. During this love bombing phase, they will also be doing a lot of information gathering. Showing great interest in you and asking lots of questions, which you can guarantee they will use against you at a later date, especially if you let on what makes you insecure.
Following on from all those romantic gestures comes the devaluation stage, this is when things start feeling less exciting. They will start criticising you and blaming you. If the relationship starts to break down at this stage, it will be all your fault and they will take no responsibility for any of it.
Dr Ramani, a clinical psychologist, says in her blog on dating a narcissist, "It's as though, as soon as the narcissist has you captured where they want you, they're no longer interested in you," she says. "It's like a kid fighting for a toy, getting a toy and then throwing it in the corner, because they just wanted to fight, the game of winning."
If you continue in the relationship, then expect the criticism and devaluing to continue.
The narcissist will often make comments like “you don’t know how lucky you are to have me, look how much I do for you, you couldn’t cope on your own”, “no-one would look at you will a belly like that”. Over the years and as the victim gets worn down by the comments, they come to believe what they are being told, which makes it difficult for them to leave.
The more they put you down, the better they feel about themselves, and knowing that they instilled all the beliefs they need to be sure you stay in the relationship allows them the knowledge that, for them, that self-eteem will be provided forever.
As mentioned before, the next most common tactic of the narcissist once they have drawn you into their lair is gaslighting. This in itself is emotional abuse and part of the devaluation process. The idea is to chip away at your self-esteem, causing you to question your own sanity and doubt yourself. They will criticize everything about you, mock you. They will focus on your mistakes and your insecurities and minimise your accomplishments.
The gaslighter might say they told you something which they didn’t, they may say you said something which you didn’t, to cause confusion. They will deny that they told you something which you remember but will say “I never said that”. They will dismiss and trivialise your emotions. They will say something hurtful, then say “I was only joking”. They will call you to other people, telling them you are depressed or crazy, when you are not. They will lie at every opportunity.
This puts the narcissist firmly in control. It is likely that it may take years for you to even notice the gaslighting in your relationship, as it can be difficult to spot, and you may of course doubt that you are being gaslighted.
Gaslighting is a weapon of manipulation and control. The feelings that gaslighting instills can last long after the relationship has ended as it strips away your confidence and self-worth.
Narcissism in Therapy
A narcissist would rarely ever show up to therapy. That’s because they consider themselves to be perfect. To them, there is nothing wrong with them. They don’t need or want to change. This is because their narcissism is protecting them from the feelings of insecurity and self-loathing they are so trying to hide, even from themselves.
As Dr Ramani again says, “Narcissists survive and maintain their own delusions of superiority by pulling down the individuals around them”.
However, the ones that show up to therapy are the victims of the narcissist. They arrive at therapy as they try to recover from the effects of being in relationship with a narcissist. These clients are both men and women, and though either sex can be a narcissist it is more common in men than women.
Sometimes these clients aren’t aware they are in relationship with a narcissist. They just know that something doesn’t feel right, they are not happy, they lack confidence, and they know something needs to change. If they are still in the relationship, it might be difficult for them to see a therapist, depending on how controlling the relationship is.
Quite often the client turns to therapy once the relationship is over. They are usually quite distraught, wondering how they never managed to do enough, were never good enough to save the relationship. They blame themselves and wonder how they could have done things differently. It is only through the course of therapy that they see how unhealthy the relationship was and how they are better off out of it.
The healing then begins…….
Following a relationship break up with a narcissist it is important to surround yourself with those that you love and who love you, unconditionally. It will take time to rebuild the self-esteem that has been eroded during that relationship, but it can happen. It is important to be kind to yourself, to remind yourself always that it was not your fault, that there was nothing you could have done differently that would have changed who they are. They will never see how they have hurt you and that in itself can be deeply hurtful.
You may well experience some form of grief over the ending of the relationship, and still miss certain aspects of it. It’s important that you allow yourself to feel all of these emotions as part of the healing experience.
It will take time to learn to trust again. Narcissists are in the minority and next time you will hopefully be aware of the warning signs.
In his brilliant book “Recovery from Gaslighting and narcissistic abuse”, Don Barlow goes into much detail about the recovery process, he highlights the steps.
Looking after yourself
Focus on healing
Do the deep work
Find a therapist
It’s also important to state that a narcissist is not always a romantic partner, but could be a friend, a boss, a parent, or a sibling. These relationships can be especially difficult to separate yourself from. If you do find yourself in a toxic relationship, I hope you can find the strength and courage to leave and to be in a position to have some therapy to better support you through the difficult time of separating, leaving and healing. If you do decide to stay in the relationship then understanding narcissism and being aware that is is them and not you can be empowering, but it would still be beneficial to keep some distance between you.
You can find many helpful videos by Dr Ramani on Narcissism on You Tube.
Sarah Lewin MBACP Psychotherapist and Hypnotherapist
Magnolia Therapy Centre NG5 2EF
Ransom Wood Business Centre NG21 0HJ