By Shahida Arabi
1. Constantly doubting your self-worth. Where once you were self-confident and assured, you are now in people-pleasing mode. Your friends and family notice that you are always on edge, doubting your strengths and experiences. You’re constantly explaining yourself, deflecting compliments or evading opportunities to shine. You obsess over whether you’re worthy, attractive, appealing or desirable enough. You begin to wonder if you’re the one who’s toxic and abusive when you start reacting to the abuse (after all, narcissists are prone to projecting their own behavior and calling us narcissists as a defense mechanism). You start to think that you must be the problem if you’re being treated in such a horrendous manner. This sort of self-blame is common after abuse, but it is one that is rooted in the effects of trauma, not reality.
2. Questioning your ability to make the right decisions or perceive reality correctly. Narcissists are masters of warping our reality and inviting us to play in their funhouse (more like torture chamber) of distortions, falsehoods, smoke and mirrors. When you’ve been gaslighted for so long into believing that what you’re experiencing isn’t real, you doubt whether you’re even perceiving your own reality correctly. You second-guess your decisions and feel a tremendous amount of conflict about doing what’s right for you versus what you’ve been conditioned to do for the narcissist. You develop a sense of cognitive dissonance (conflicting thoughts and feelings) about the toxic relationship as well as other major facets of your life.
3. Chasing after toxic people. The more toxicity a narcissistic partner brings into your life, the more likely you’ll gravitate towards people who subject you to similar trials. It’s because you’ve been subconsciously programmed to abusive behavior as a new normal. As a result, you might have a very distorted perception about what healthy behavior actually entails.
Instead of searching for healthier alternatives, those who have been abused by narcissists try to “search for a rescuer” but wind up encountering more people who are toxic. These experiences can compound the trauma you’ve experienced. It can mirror the self-sabotaging beliefs the narcissist has trained us to believe in. It perpetuates the vicious cycle. When we feel alone and abandoned, we’re less likely to know we deserve better.
4. Self-sabotaging. Narcissists program you to self-destruct. They subject you to cruel insults, harsh put-downs, subtle sabotage and taunt you with perceived flaws, manufactured insecurities and a hyperfocus on your shortcomings. By doing this, they commit covert murder with clean hands. You’re so taken aback by their attacks that you suffer from anxiety about your competence, your skill sets and even your God-given talents.
Why? Because the narcissist has convinced you that all your strengths are actually weaknesses. They do this on purpose to rob you of your sense of confidence and independence. Once you believe all the cruel things they say about you, you’ll start to sabotage yourself in the areas you naturally flourish in. When you catch yourself sabotaging yourself or engaging in negative self-talk, always ask yourself, “Do I really believe this about myself? Or is this what the narcissist wants me to believe?”
5. Being people-pleasing and perfectionistic. Every time the narcissist criticized you, they planted seeds of self-doubt which burgeoned into full-blown insecurities after the relationship ended. You did everything to please your abuser to gain their approval or even just a moment of peace from their crazymaking. So it’s no surprise that when the relationship has ended, the pattern of trying to please people remained. People-pleasing and perfectionism are survival mechanisms that developed early on so that you could try to ward off any form of violence (be it physical or emotional). So long as the abuser approved of you (even just temporarily), you felt in the clear.
The challenge in the aftermath is to become the observer of your perfectionistic tendencies as well as your habit of people-pleasing. Instead of judging these habits, mindfully observe your thoughts and feelings whenever you’re tempted to do something that is not authentic to who you really are.
Ask yourself, “Why am I really doing this? What do I think I have to gain?” Examine the root of each compulsion as it arises and find a healthier alternative that honors what you really want and what you desire. To start overcoming needless perfectionism, start to self-validate and approve of yourself. When you’ve done something well, give yourself some healthy praise instead of waiting for someone else to validate it for you. Habits can be hard to break, but new habits can form to replace destructive ones.
6. Withdrawing from others and isolating yourself. Abusers isolate you so you begin to isolate yourself as well. The narcissist is so charming and likeable that they are able to depict themselves as the sane ones while they provoke their victims into becoming unhinged. With a perceived lack of support from others, you start to feel as if you have no one there to help you. Your body, mind and spirit is reeling from the trauma and is trying to process it.
Although a period of hibernation is normal after abuse and sometimes much needed to begin the healing process, don’t isolate yourself from professional support or validating people who understand what you’re going through. Reach out to those who can help you, those who’ve been there and those who have a solid understanding of what narcissistic abuse feels like.
7. Falling into abuse amnesia. When the narcissist tells you they miss you, you’ll start to romanticize the relationship. When the narcissist shows good behavior, you’ll be tempted to fall into “abuse amnesia” as a coping strategy and rationalize that they were good, upstanding partners all along. You might fall prey to their “hoovering” attempts to get you back into the abusive relationship.
To counter abuse amnesia, it’s important to have a list of abusive incidents or at the very least, behaviors you experienced with this person. This will help you to reconnect to the reality of the abuse and keep you grounded in what you experienced. Confiding in a therapist and/or a trustworthy friend can also help to increase social accountability; when you find yourself rewriting the abuse, they’ll be there to help you get back on track and remind you of what you’re not missing out on.
8. Protecting your abuser. Being abused means that we become trauma-bondedto the abuser. This is very much like Stockholm Syndrome; we were taken emotionally “hostage” by this predator and we’ve learned how to protect them, defend them and cater to them in order to survive. That is why survivors often feel compelled to talk about how happy the relationship is, even when they are suffering behind closed doors.
That is also why survivors of narcissists may not come forward right away to friends and family members about the abuse; they fear that they are overreacting, too sensitive, or imagining things, just like the abuser has told them. Even after you break free of a narcissist, you might still be prone to protecting the abuser’s image at the risk of your own welfare.
This can manifest in many different ways, from the major to the minor. You might refuse to cooperate with law enforcement on revealing the details of abuse or become argumentative with loved ones who call out the abuse for what it is. You might refuse to get an order of protection even if the narcissist is stalking or harassing you, for fear of retaliation as well as a warped sense of loyalty you developed to the narcissist during the relationship.
When fighting the urge to protect the abuser, remember that the abuser never protected you. They never protected you from the pain they inflicted upon you or the consequences that came with it. Your only duty after leaving an abusive relationship is to protect yourself, first and foremost.
9. Having a warped sense of boundaries. One of the effects of being abused is that our boundaries become extremely malleable. We’re more compelled to say “yes” to things we desperately want to say “no” to. We’ve lost our sense of agency and control over our lives, so it takes time to rebuild our boundaries and reclaim our power. It helps to remember your basic human rights after you’ve been violated. These include the right to say no, the right to protest unfair behavior or mistreatment, and the right to feel angry and express it non-abusively.
You can also create a list of emotional and physical boundaries you commit to honoring in the future with any relationship or friendship. These are customized to your needs can include boundaries like, “I don’t tolerate anyone lying to me” and “I don’t respond to threats or ultimatums.”
Take small steps to practice your new boundaries and follow through with them. When a toxic person tries to put you down, stand up for yourself in whatever way you can – even if it just means walking away from the interaction. Being assertive doesn’t always require a grand gesture – it just requires your willingness to prioritize your safety and wellbeing. When a friend tries to take advantage of you, start calling them out – even if it’s just in a polite but firm manner. Start asking yourself every day whether you’re doing something to please someone else or because you really want to do it.
It takes practice, but you will get there. No matter what you are struggling with now, you can reclaim your life and your power after being abused by a narcissist. In fact, you can thrive.