As a therapist, I have worked with many clients who are suffering from the long-term effects of psychological abuse at the hands of a narcissist. They often tell me that their friends and family, although well-meaning, say and do things that exacerbate the pain of healing in the aftermath of narcissistic abuse. People are exposed to this form of emotional abuse in love, work, family or friendships. Particularly in the area of romantic relationships, I hear so often from clients that friends and family say things such as, “Just get over it! This is taking way too long!” or “He was a jerk! Why do you feel like you still love him after all this time?” or “You sound like the crazy one because you keep talking about her non-stop!” or “I don’t understand why you can’t just start dating someone else and move on.”
These comments are not helpful to the survivor of narcissistic abuse. Although most well-meaning and empathic friends and family members have difficulty witnessing the pain of their loved ones, there are more sensitive ways to communicate. There are specific word choices and actions you can take that are far more empowering for victims going through tremendous emotional pain. Try to look at this situation as a persnickety illness or infection that is taking a while to completely shake out of the system…and be patient during the process of healing from traumatic loss. Your friend or family member will thank you.
Here’s what you can do to help a survivor of narcissistic abuse:
1. Do validate and listen. Listen to your loved one’s story and pain. Part of the healing for survivors of emotional abuse is having a safe other(s) witness/hear/validate their story of pain and healing.
2. Do encourage your loved one to get psychotherapy with a trauma-informed therapist. This form of psychological abuse can result in PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder), C-PTSD (Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder), depression, anxiety, panic attacks, and other clinical conditions that require treatment by a licensed psychotherapist. The survivor needs time to grieve the traumatic loss.
3. Do educate yourself on narcissistic abuse, the tactics involved and how to heal. For more information, read What is A Narcissist?: A Primer for the Layperson and Finding Peace After a Toxic Relationship.
4. Do know that it is NOT your job to heal or fix your loved one. See #2.
5. Your job is to offer unconditional empathy and comfort to your loved one. If there is something you do not understand about narcissistic abuse, ask your loved one. They likely will have read a library of articles and books on the subject in their quest to reduce the cognitive dissonance and effects of gaslighting associated with narcissistic abuse.
6. Do understand that your loved one is in the process of breaking a trauma bond with an abuser. Please read about what a trauma bond is, why the attachment is like crazy glue, and why your loved one is likely feeling like they are going through withdrawal from a bad drug (albeit temporarily).
7. Do encourage your loved one to engage in self-care, including good sleep and nutrition, exercise, positive social supports.
8. Do provide hope that things will be better. Because they will. Keep helping your loved one to envision what life will be like when it is free of emotional pain. Recovery can and does happen with sustained effort, fortitude, and endurance.
9. Empower them to see their strengths. Pathological people seek out smart, successful, empathic people as targets for their abuse. It is because of their emotional IQ and compassion that the survivor was targeted. S/he will heal in time and reclaim their wellness.
Here’s what you can refrain from doing:
1. Do not blame, shame, or criticize your loved one.
2. Do not question the timing of the healing process and how long it seems to be taking to heal. On average, with solid No Contact with an abuser, a survivor may take at minimum 18 months to really heal from the traumatic relationship, and usually longer even with psychotherapy and other interventions.
3. Do not encourage contact with the abuser. Part of the healing process is breaking free from a pathological person and going No Contact (or Limited Contact in the case that the survivor shares children/a business).
4. Do not suggest the survivor is responsible for their abuse. Abuse is never ok. There is no excuse for abuse, and it is not the survivor’s fault.
5. Do not intervene between the survivor and the narcissist. Allow the survivor to be empowered to seek out his/her own qualified therapy and legal support.