One of the negative outcomes of a relationship with a narcissist or any kind of uncaring person is the effect it has on our ability to find a new and healthy relationship. All too often, we come away from hurtful experiences feeling not only angry and betrayed, but afraid to get involved again. This lack of trust, of both others and ourselves, can keep us from finding the love we want.
While taking a break from relationships is often a good way of getting back in touch with your own needs, desires and values, it can become all too easy to simply avoid relationships altogether under the guise of any number of self-deluding excuses. You can tell yourself you’re too busy, you need some time to yourself or that you are sick of dating. But what often lies beneath those stories is a genuine fear of intimacy. After all, getting close to someone means we run the risk of getting hurt again.
There aren’t any statistics on this, but it seems likely that highly sensitive people (HSP) would be particularly vulnerable to avoidance behaviour. We already feel overwhelmed by everyday life and need to retreat to recharge our batteries. And as we are often the targets of narcissists, getting involved with someone new can be a daunting and frightening prospect.
This decision to avoid rather than face issues is often an unconscious choice. And it can manifest itself in a variety of self-defeating ways, including procrastination, denial, blaming others, criticising, keeping constantly busy, as well as maintaining physical distance from others. All of these behaviours are defence mechanisms that are intended to protect us from getting hurt, whether from being with someone who is selfish or being rejected by someone we care about. While it feels like the right thing to do at the time and usually reduces our anxiety at first, repeating these patterns only makes our anxiety worse. Trying to avoid something you fear doesn’t make the fear go away. It only makes you more fearful. It’s like believing that there’s a ghost in your closet. If you don’t open the door and look, you’ll always believe it’s there and spend your nights cowering under the covers.
Fear also causes us to push away even those people who care about us and avoid relationships that would ultimately bring us safety, love and happiness. So instead of avoiding, blaming, and living in denial of our fears, we have to face them. And we do that by becoming aware of our attempts to avoid getting hurt and by learning how to trust.
Trust comes with experience and knowledge. You wouldn’t automatically trust someone you just met. Or at least you shouldn’t. You need to get to know them and discover what they’re like over time. Consistent behaviour will tell you what kind of person they are. You also have to trust yourself. Trust that whatever happens, you will be okay. That’s the key. If someone does reject you, that doesn’t mean you are a bad person or that there is anything wrong with you. It means that person wasn’t right for you. And if you are willing to take that chance, you might find someone who really does care.
WHY RECOVERING FROM A NARCISSISTIC RELATIONSHIP IS SO HARD
With a few exceptions, women and men who have had a relationship with a narcissist voice similar thoughts and feelings about their former partners. And this got me thinking about how we recover from losses—especially breakups of intimate and important relationships.
I asked one of my professors from my university where I am studying my doctorate, why it is so hard to recover from a relationship involving someone who has a personality disorder and this is what he said:
"People with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) are often trapped in a constant battle between wanting you and pushing you away. Post break- up that means they’ll insinuate themselves back into your life—even if it’s just to fire off an insulting text message (“You need your head examined!”) or ask an infuriating question (“What did I do that was so bad?”). It takes two people to end a relationship and many narcissists refuse to leave without a fight. Translation? Continued re-traumatization. It’s no wonder so many of my clients panic when they see an email from their ex."
Its the constant push and pull of your emotions and trying to figure out where you are in that relationship.
WHAT MAKES RECOVERY FROM A NARCISSISTIC RELATIONSHIP DIFFERENT?
Everything good you’ve ever believed about human beings is contradicted. Every thought you’ve had about loyalty, experience, and truthfulness is denied. Every trope you’ve heard about marriage, love, and partnership is hammered into silence. Every idea you’ve had about human connection is trashed by the narcissist’s behaviour.
In many concluded relationships, after the shouting has ended and our psychological immune system has kicked in (permitting us to remember all the not-so-wonderful things about our ex instead of crying our eyes out) there comes a moment of calm and detachment when we’re ready to start over. And with that comes the forgiveness moment when you actually remember some of the good times—and you’re okay with the memory. You can pick up a photograph of the two of you without wincing and maybe even smile.
BUT That doesn’t happen with a narcissist.
“Shell-shocked” is a word many survivors of narcissistic relationships use and it fits. You’re not recovering from love lost or even the failure of a marriage but from warfare.You come out shocked, battered and bruised emotionally, psychologically and maybe even sometime physically too. I still struggle to understand this but, that is exactly how it is, a survival or life and death.
Here are four reasons someone is likely to have trouble recovering from a relationship with a narcissist, as well as four things you can do to enable recovery:
1. Nothing was what it seemed.
This is huge because what appeared to be about two people was really only about one—the narcissist. Once you have absorbed this truism, you will find yourself revisiting what you thought was going on between the two of you, and what really was. If this isn't wounding enough it follows on to my next point.
2. The misery of 20/20 hindsight.
The red flags that people always talk about—those signs that no intelligent person would ever miss but you did—spring up like poppies in Flanders during the breakup, when everything you missed before or was hidden from view is suddenly in plain sight.
3. You feel like a fool.
Those of us who will be feeling the shame and guilt of not seeing those red flags will be really hard on ourselves. Why couldn't I just see them instead of ignoring them, you may be thinking. There is a fine lien between noticing and knowing and then doing nothing about them. You got to know the ex narcissist in a particular way, they earn your trust and you believed them, you went into this relationship fully present and with love. The other party were in this relationship to extract your energy and everything so that they could feel good about themselves. Is a very unfair exchange and not balanced at all.
If the red flags were so obvious, why didn't we see them if they were so 'easy' to spot... right? You were lied to, confused and attention was placed elsewhere to ever be able to make sense of what was happening. We never imagined that such a person ever existed or could ever be capable of doing such awful things to us.
You may think, “Only someone as dumb and naïve as I am could have been taken in by them,” or “There’s something really wrong or missing in me that I didn’t see who they were."
This kind of thinking is a serious impediment to your emotional recovery.
4. You feel utterly powerless.
A narcissist self-regulates by feeling powerful and in control. To be able to do that, he or she needs someone to push around, which is why it’s impossible to stop the narcissistic train. When you’re robbed of a sense of agency in one important arena—when you're in a defensive crouch and unable to be proactive—it’s very hard to stay emotionally balanced and in control in other parts of your life, except in superficial ways. Yes, you’re getting out of bed, doing your work, and paying your bills, but much of the time you're on auto-pilot. That gets in the way of recovery—as do financial anxiety, fear, and a host of other unpleasant emotions.
Think tortoise, not hare, as you work at recovery. The pace may be slow but you’ll get there, keeping the goal in sight.
Your Thoughts: have you found that you self-isolate? Are you ready to move forward into another relationship and trust that you will find a healthy individual? Would love to know your thoughts.
Further Reading: Rethinking Narcissism by Craig Malkin.
Kross, Ethan, Ozlem Ayduk, and Water Mischel, “When Asking ‘Why’ Doesn’t Hurt: Distinguishing Rumination from Reflective Processing of Negative Emotions,” Psychological Science (2005), vol. 16, no.9, 709-715.