Hi guys, it’s been a while since I have posted an article. I have been busy working on my novel but that’s hopefully done now.
I think that understanding the phases of recovery from a relationship with a narcissist is really important for everyone who is on this painful journey. It feels terrible when you are in the thick of it. I remember it well. But there is light.
There are several phases that people have to go through though, before they reach that light. It’s a profound transformation, a massive learning journey. I would like to help those of you still in the trenches to assess your progress.
People might go through these stages at a different pace. Some reach the Breakthrough Stage – the turning point – while still in the relationship with the narcissist. Those people have usually accepted the devaluation and then suddenly discovered some terrible truths about the narcissist that forced them to understand that all they loved about this person was a false self and that the entire thing was a fraud.
Some, such as myself, take quite a lot of time post-discard to put the pieces together and figure out the inexplicable change in the behaviour of the once “Mr. Perfect”.
Understanding the steps on this journey is especially important for those of you who desperately want to get into another relationship or harbour hopes of a reunion with the narcissist. No one should enter a new relationship before properly digesting and understanding this experience. And those of you, who still somewhere deep inside miss the narcissist or hope that he or she will come back, have not yet understood the truth of the situation. You are still in the fog, you are still brainwashed, you still don’t understand what self-love and self-respect is. It’s OK. I have been there. It’s a process. So let’s have a look at the psychological stages you have to go through after a relationship with a narcissist.
At the beginning you are confused and desperate. You have no clue how the once perfect relationship turned so terribly sour. You blame yourself and you hope that your Mr. Perfect will come back. At the end of this journey, you will feel nothing but disgust for that ‘Mr. Perfect’. You will understand that all that you ever loved was a false self – a product of a disordered mind. The actual person is worth exactly nothing. You will feel a great relief that it wasn’t you. No. Not at all. The trajectory of this relationship had been determined right from the start. Not because of you but because of the narcissist (or psychopath), who is not capable of having real relationships. You will understand that all the bad stuff that the narcissist said about you was actually not about you. They never knew you, they never saw you. You weren’t a perfect little goddess to start with but you weren’t a worthless piece of garbage either.
So let’s have a better look at how to get out of the hell:
1. Pre-discard confusion:
I dare to say that the devaluation phase is the most painful part of the process. Just a few weeks/days ago, you were the perfect little goddess on a pedestal. The narcissist was so madly in love in you and so serious about your relationship. You were planning your future together. He didn’t just love you – he adored you and worshipped you, you were the best of the best. And then …. Bam…. Kind of out of the blue, he is not so sure that you are that perfect little goddess anymore. In fact, he is not so sure he wants to stay in a relationship with you at all. Only a short while ago, you were the most important person in his life, now every random acquaintance gets more of his time and attention.
At this stage you probably know nothing about narcissists and psychopaths. You try to persuade yourself that this is just some weird relationship crisis and because you remember how that person loved and cared about you just a little while ago, you think he/she needs just a little bit of time and space.
So you give him/her that time and space. You are hanging on. You accept your degradation from ‘the love of my life’ to ‘maybe I will keep you and maybe I will not’.
You feel terrible about yourself. You are allowing the narcissist to stomp all over your confidence by staying around. You are getting more and more depressed and emotionally drained. You are blaming yourself. You are a mess now and think that if only you manage to hold it together, he will love you again the way he used to…. You are very wrong. You are showing the narcissist how weak your boundaries are, how little respect you have for yourself. The person who used to be your joy is now your kryptonite.
You start seeing the duplicity in this person. They still try somehow sloppily to maintain the façade but the cracks are getting wider and wider. The rational part of you sees that this is not a person of integrity, you know that you deserve better. But you can’t leave because the emotional part of you is still in love with the memory of the false self.
This stage is quite close to a psychotic breakdown. You are at the same time drawn to and repelled from the narcissist. The rational part of you wants to cut yourself away from them, the emotional part longs for their love, the return of the pedestal phase. You are suffering from terrible cognitive dissonance and you have no clue what has just happened.
Those of you who have been with the more openly abusive narcissists are actually luckier because you will more likely soon reach the understanding that something is terribly wrong with that person.
Those of you enmeshed with smug controlled coverts with carefully crafted Mr Nice Guy personas are likely going to struggle for longer.
2. Post-discard inner split:
At some point the narcissists either discards you or you will terminate the relationship. Since you most likely have been through other break-ups before, you will expect the inner turmoil to gradually settle but soon you will notice that it’s not happening. At times you feel OK but there are moments when you are over-flooded with extremely powerful emotions and barely holding it together. Nothing makes sense. There is no sense of closure. There was never that genuine conversation between two people who cared about each other but reached the understanding that they are not right for each other. Such a conversation would have given you a powerful release. Such conversations, however, are only possible between two individuals that have a core. But a narcissist has no core. A narcissist is just a construction of behaviours around a black hole and since you are trying to reach the core of a black hole, you are bound to fail.
The narcissist is not going to give you any answers. Some, such as the narcissist that I was involved with, would play some really sleazy games with you. They will tell you that they will always love you, respect you, that they will sort themselves out and come back – that’s all designed to maintain the narcissist’s control over you, confuse you even more, build up your expectations and then have fun when you come crashing down since your expectations will ultimately not be met. Make no mistake – most narcissists know very well what they are doing and they are doing it deliberately.
3. Searching for answers
Because no answers are coming from the narcissist, you will start searching for answers elsewhere. Maybe you will feel so bad that you find yourself a therapist. Maybe you will reach for self-help books and search for answers online. You will most likely discover that you are a co-dependent. That you have all sorts of issues that need to be sorted and you will start working on that. Maybe you will think that once you sort yourself out sufficiently, your ex will see what an awesome responsible person you are and run back to you because you are not someone to be let go.
The narcissist at this stage is likely still willing to interact with you and stir your hopes of a reunion. At the same time, as you have removed yourself from the narcissist, you might start noticing that your common acquaintances are treating you weirdly. You don’t know about it yet but the narcissist has already started his smear campaign, in which he portrays you as a broken person, madly in love with him who is rather unstable.
Sometimes you maybe even act ‘unstable’. The narcissist is pushing your triggers and you are lashing out in frustration (It’s called reactive aggression and most people don’t understand that it’s a reaction to being subject to covert abuse, hence victims get further blamed, shamed and victimised).
The difference between your cognitive self – the part of you that sees that you are much better off without this person – and your emotional self, which still longs for the narcissist – is getting bigger and bigger. The entire journey of recovery is about reaching the point when these two parts of you will reunite.
4. Discovering that you have been involved with a narcissist
I remember the day when I first stumbled on that first article about the pedestal – devaluation – discard cycle – the trajectory of a relationship with every narcissist. In the description of the pedestal phase, I read word-by-word phrases that I had heard from the narcissist’s mouth so many times. The penny dropped. I started shaking all over my body.
But this discovery was only the beginning of a much more complicated journey. Reaching the acceptance and full understanding of what really happened took me almost two years.
I started reading everything about narcissists and it was all making perfect sense: All the weird behaviours, the delusions of grandeur, the arrogance, mocking other people, the constant need for praise, the suddenly lost interest in me.
That was the moment when I discovered that I had loved a narcissist – someone, who, according to all that I read, could never change, someone incapable of healing, growing and evolving like a normal person.
Again, your rational self will be able to put the pieces together quite quickly. The problem is that your emotional self will resist. You will cling to the memory, you will really want to believe that it, at least, was real and that the narcissist indeed cared about you at least originally. He did not. Never. But you are not ready to accept that yet. You are not ready to accept that you were just an object.
At this stage you are likely making the mistake of thinking that the good one – the one you loved – was the real one and that this narcissism thing is just some weird illness that is blocking you from reaching the real one.
You are getting it totally wrong. It’s the other way round. The good one was a false self, an illusion designed to get you where the narcissist wanted you. The cruel arrogant creature you are seeing is the real deal. Has always been. And this parody of a human is having a blast watching you thinking that he or she is just a tormented little child in the clutches of a terrible disorder.
5. Clinging to the hope that the narcissist can change
It’s really difficult to accept that you have been so terribly used and duped. You have to change the entire narrative of the experience and that’s tough. There was a time when you told all your friends and relatives that this man was the love of your life, the real deal, your future. You believed in it with your whole heart. Don’t blame yourself for struggling to let go of this delusion. Yes, make no mistake. It’s a delusion. But it’s not your fault. The narcissist created this delusion. He infected you with this delusion. He virtually soul-raped you. He manipulated you to believe that he was a great person when in reality, he had always been a scum. You gave him your heart, your time, your affection, your body. Don’t blame yourself for struggling with acceptance. It’s a plot twist like from a really bad movie.
You keep trying to talk to the narcissist in a desperate hope of reaching ‘the good one’. But most of the time you get the evil creature. He might occasionally show you bits of the mask, the false self, which only serves to worsen your cognitive dissonance and keeps you clinging to the hope (hope is a bitch when it comes to narcissists, trust me).
You will follow some really poor advice available on the internet – such as the ‘be vulnerable’ instruction by Harvard psychologist Craig Malkin. You will talk to the narcissist from your heart. The narcissist will use your vulnerability to rip you apart even more, attack your innermost wounds, smash your confidence.
You will want to believe that maybe the individual is not a full-blown narcissist but just someone with narcissistic traits. You will think that perhaps you hurt him, that perhaps if you express yourself better, be kinder, the two of you will be able to clear up the mess and end the relationship in a more civilised manner.
7. Closure chasing – the emotional self is catching up
Because you are still unable to fully comprehend the reality of what a narcissist really is, you are clinging to the memory of the false self and the memories attached to this false self. You want to have a closure. That one conversation between you and the person you once thought you knew, in which they would apologise for all the poor treatment of you and express genuine remorse for their behaviour.
You are trying to leave it all behind and focus on your life. You have already covered quite a stretch but because you still don’t understand the truth fully, something in you keeps pulling you back – there are more lessons to be learned from this experience and they are going to be harsh.
The more you are trying to reach the narcissist, the less willing he or she is to engage with you. They will tell you that they never really cared about you that much, that contrary to all their excessive expressions of love, they were never really all that serious about you and the entire relationship. They will contradict everything positive they have ever said about you.
You are going to experience the narcissist’s madness fully. The word salad, the complete lack of consistency, every sentence is designed to covert aggressively attack you, demean you, make you feel bad about yourself.
They really are pathetic creatures. But you still don’t understand it. You still think that it all must be a giant misunderstanding
Your emotional self is still hooked to the memory of the once great person. You have most likely suppressed those beautiful memories of the pedestal phase because they were too painful to own during the discard. These supressed memories are now keeping you hooked.
Weeks might pass and you might think that you have gotten over this mess. Then, suddenly, you will feel the the need to talk to the narcissist again, you will miss him, you will want to make peace with him, you will want that closure. You will start experiencing urges to contact him, which you will find difficult to resist.
THIS IS A TIME OF GREAT VULNERABILTY – I am putting this into capitals because I really want you to understand it. You are exposing your true feelings to the narcissist and you don’t understand that he or she is your worst enemy and will use everything he can against you.
If you fire some angry, frustrated emails, they will come back to bite you. Make no mistake. The narcissist wants to hurt you and wants to hurt you badly. But you still don’t understand that you spent maybe years of your precious life with a psycho from a horror movie.
I really encourage you to seek help and support in this stage to come out of this time as unharmed as possible.
7. The big breakthrough
And then comes the big breakthrough. That is the moment when there is no more denying the reality. The narcissist will show you his true colours with such a ferocity that will forever kill any doubts and all hope. You will suddenly see it – the evil monster, the ruthless enemy, the tiger that had been playing with you like with a little mouse.
You will suddenly understand that they were doing it all deliberately. That they have never been a lost child in the clutches of a terrible disorder. This person has manipulated you, used you and then had fun watching you struggle. They used your struggle for self-aggrandizement, to brag in front of their followers how awesome they are because you couldn’t get over them (ridiculous, I know, but that’s what they are).
They deliberately used your triggers and weaknesses against you.
There is no one to be fond of. There is no one to be remembered with love.
The big breakthrough is the turning point. This is your liberation. But it’s not yet the end of the journey.
8. Coming to terms with the shock, mourning the relationship that never was
When the truth really hits you, you will probably enter a state of shock. You will realise that you lived in a bad movie. Your emotional self finally releases the attachment to the memory of the false self that the narcissist had created to lure you in. You will have to mourn the relationship that never was. You will have to come to terms with the fact that you have been defrauded.
At this stage, you will likely have the need to purge your home of all objects related to the narcissist. You will erase all photographs from your computer. You will start experiencing flashbacks. One by one you will have to reframe every fond memory that you have of your time with the narcissist. You will be replacing the false narrative by the truth. You will step by step learn to understand the lie, the narcissist’s game, and see the whole experience for what it was. You were an innocent victim of someone seriously deranged and ill. There was nothing you could have done to achieve a better outcome. You had to learn those lessons. This game was run by someone else. You were a little mouse.
9. Fearing the narcissist
When you finally realise who you dealt with, you might start suffering from fears that the narcissist could try to hurt you, punish you for unmasking him.
I used to suffer from those fears and sometimes I still do. You will be recalling various red flags that you observed during the relationship and ignored. Things will be falling into place and you will be building the picture of the real person you spent all that time with – the stranger, the evil ghost.
You might be discovering things you would never have expected the person might be capable of doing. The narcissist I was with, for example, hijacked my Skype account. He totally abused my trust and the fact that I used to be quite easy with my passwords around him.
This is the time when you realise how naïve and gullible you used to be. This is the time when you realise that evil is real, that there are evil people out there who function differently than you. It’s a scary time. You have been initiated. You have changed forever.
You will probably be obsessed with reading about narcissists and psychopaths. You will be scared and at the same time fascinated by the existence of this alien evil species. You will read more about mirroring, future-faking, gas lighting. You might experience hatred, disbelief and disgust. You will be shocked that someone could have done all that to you.
10. Understanding how your childhood primed you to become a narcissist’s victim
Very likely, you will identify a primary narcissistic dynamic in your family of origin. You will realise that you were essentially trained to become a narcissist’s puppet by a narcissistic parent who stomped all over you, prevented you from developing boundaries and a healthy sense of self-respect and self-love.
You will start realising that you were hooked into the sick game of the narcissist because of the damage done to you by your primary care givers. You will start understanding and healing the primary trauma and it will be tough – more anger, more hatred towards those who were supposed to love you and care about you but did not.
You might start to better understand the complexities of the narcissistic relationship dynamic. You will start understanding that they never saw you, that they never knew you. They only saw their projection. They treated you like that projection and you absorbed this projection for yours.
You will reach the understanding that you were, in the first place, a victim of being born to a person suffering from a Cluster B disorder. You will start understanding how profoundly you were damaged by that person’s dysfunction.
The same way you used to blame yourself for the relationship with the narcissist going awry, you were likely conditioned to blame yourself for your rocky relationship with the narcissistic parent.
You will reach the understanding that it was not your fault and that you were not responsible for them. In fact, you will reach the understanding that you were not given what every normal child is given. And you will mourn again – this time the childhood you never had, the relationship with your parent that never was and all the years you lost because of the damage you suffered.
11. Owning the story of your life
As you continue healing, you will develop the strength to own the story of your life. You will finally start putting yourself first. You will stop shrinking. You will stop fearing that you might trigger the narcissist if you allow yourself to be yourself. You will understand that it is your mission in life to help spread the awareness so that no one in the future has to go through what you had to go through.
The narcissistic personality disorder and other Cluster B disorders are, in my opinion, among the most dangerous mental health issues (together with psychopathy). Because of the carefully crafted masks, these individuals usually go unrecognised by the wider society. They harm those around them. Children and discarded partners of narcissists develop serious mental health problems and are frequently further blamed and victimised by the society. The narcissists manipulate the social circles and smear their victim. The victim has a choice – either to never speak up against the narcissist or be ostracized.
I don’t know about you but I think it’s time for a change.
Anyway. It’s my wish for all of you to reach stage 11 as quickly and smoothly as possible. And please, if you are stuck in one of the earlier stages, find yourself some help. It’s important to fully understand what we are dealing with. That’s the only way how we can beat the beasts.
So well-written. Thanks for the post.
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We are not alone ~ Thank you Tereza 💜
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Great article and spot on!
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So good ,and what’s happened to me
It’s pretty crazy making ,to have been born to parents with issues,to be married to a narcissist for far too long (16 years)to also be subjected to more gaslighting and not being believed
I have to believe the truth will out, and his mask will slowly but surely start coming off to reveal his true, disordered self
I fear him so I’m near the end of these stages!
Thank you !
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Thank you for your comment Kate and I hope to journey is as smooth as possible from now on. What happened to me was that once I recovered from the narc, I had to delve really deep to the damage that my parents did to me, which has been equally (perhaps even more) painful and challenging…