Your intuition has been screaming at you. You’ve seen the signs. You’ve made a mental (or a written) list of red flags… and they all check out. Your health has been failing, the headaches getting worse and it’s been hard to focus on the things that matter to you.
Your emotions (and hormones) are dysregulated and you find yourself falling into panic and depressed states with increased frequency. It’s been difficult to get out of bed and get anything done. You fantasize about escaping somewhere far and yet the idea of not seeing your partner again brings you excruciating pain. You are all in and yet feel lonelier than ever.
A Moment of Clarity
Finally, you’ve had it. Another insult, another violation of your fragile peace makes you erupt in anger. The emotion scares you at first. You’ve never felt this much raw force inside you before. Overwhelmed, you step outside to gather yourself and think. You notice that the farther away you get from them, the better you feel. As you take in your fullest breath yet, clarity descends.
It’s time to go…
The idea of freedom is no longer just an idea. It’s a real possibility. You know what to do. It feels so simple now that you’ve made the decision. You understand that if you stay, it will not end well. Especially for you. A new promise dawns — a promise of a life that’s easy, smooth and serene. A life that’s adventurous, fun and exciting. A life filled with people who love and appreciate you.
Energized and clear, you go back inside. You face your abuser. And yet… to your utter frustration and disappointment, you find yourself backpedaling and wavering. The fear is back. As are the doubt and guilt.
No, you can’t go. Not yet.
From my many conversations I’ve had with clients and friends on the topic of leaving a toxic relationship, whether romantic, work-related or familial, I get that it’s never easy. There’s never a good time. Too many obstacles stand in the way. But are they really as huge as we make them out to be?
In this series of three posts, I’ll examine what I find to be the three most common fears for not leaving a toxic relationship and offer solutions for facing and overcoming them, so that you can free yourself. The three fears are:
- Fear of losing your identity/feeling empty and lonely,
- Fear of sacrificing the wellbeing of your family, if you happen to have children with the narcissist, and
- Fear of your ability to survive due to being financially dependent on the narcissist.
Let’s unpack identity first.
It almost doesn’t matter whether you’ve been dating the narcissist for a month or a decade. They have a way of enmeshing with you quickly and in a way that it becomes almost impossible to imagine your life without them, even after they’ve hurt you way too many times. They rush sex, tell you private stories to make you feel special and extract the same from you, so that they can use it later to control you. They shower you with so much attention, it borders on the bizarre. Until they pull it away and make you crave it.
The cleverness of the narc is not so much in stealing your identity but in making you willingly give it away. You have to buy into the game and become a willing participant, you see. That’s how they can keep you responsible for what happens later.
The narcissist conditions you to become who they want you to be by using the old technique of reward and punishment — or idealization and devaluation. Once the narcissist succeeds in hooking you in with torrents of attention and affection, and they sense you are in with both feet, they will begin to withdraw. This is devastating to the target but an usual order of the day for the narc.
Fighting to bring back the good times, you try everything you can to save the relationship. Wanting to be a good partner, you avoid the behaviors that displease the narcissist and do more of what they like. Done over a period of time, makes you become a reduced version of yourself. You may even pick up some of the narc’s own traits. This is common and absolutely reversible.
If the cycle is allowed to proceed uninterrupted, the narcissist will undermine elements of your identity that feel threatening to them. Once praising your open-heartedness and intelligence, they’ll have no problem making fun of your sensitivity or making you feel stupid in front of others. They’ll have no qualms about taking advantage of your kind, empathic, forgiving nature to steal your resources.
They will shoot overt and covert criticisms like darts and then invalidate your hurt. While you’re still processing the bomb that just dropped, they turn around and act as if nothing happened. Or, they throw it back in your face, in an effort to convince you that you created it. The new age narcissist may drive the nail in deeper by reminding you that you create your own reality, which is a highly misunderstood and misused concept. You don’t create your own reality. Reality is collectively generated. What you do create and have control over is how you choose to experience and respond to this reality.
The Brain’s Betrayal
The hot and cold cycle of attention followed by neglect, or kindess followed by malice, will create a trauma bond. Your brain will oscillate between pumping out oxytocin (bonding hormone) and cortisol (stress hormone). The intensity and instability of this chemical cocktail breeds a hurricane inside your skull and heart. You feel unsafe. A simmering, background anxiety floods your state, undermining your wellbeing. It becomes difficult to sleep or focus.
Brain chemistry plays a massive role here. To stay sane through this process, you need to understand the brain’s prime motivation and mechanics. Your brain’s main goal is to keep you safe, not happy. Happiness becomes attainable only after your brain is convinced that you are safe.
To maintain enough balance to keep things humming along, regardless of how exhausted or hurt you feel, the brain wants you to forget the abuse as soon as possible. This will allow your whole organism to maintain your homeostatic baseline and ensure that you are still breathing, producing hormones and your heart keeps pumping blood. Your survival depends on it. The catch? You remember more of the good times and less of the bad, which skews your perception in favor of the narcissist.
The Solution: If you let your body’s unconscious processes drive your experience, your recovery will be slower and you will be much more prone to self-doubt, lapsing and letting the narcissist back into your life. Instead, to keep things in perspective, you’ll have to consciously remind yourself of the bad times over and over again. It will be energetically demanding at first, but the more you do it, the easier it will get, even becoming a habit. Writing down, or recording, how the narcissist hurt you and revisiting it regularly can be of immense help to kickstart this process that when honed in will lead to breaking the trauma bond.
Inside the Lion’s Den
The push and pull dynamic of casting you aside and then wanting you back is bound to make you feel confused and deeply insecure about yourself. All you wanted to do after all is to give and be good. Do your sacrifices really mean that little to them? Is your value that low? Or maybe you are the bad person here?
Confusion and rumination lead to obsession. As the old wounds surface, they evoke deep-seated fears of abandonment, feelings of unworthiness, and so on. Giving your attention and energy to such thinking will not lead to a sustainable resolution. It is like a dog chasing its tail. What you need to do is step out of yourself and gain a wider perspective.
With your wounds flared up and in full sight, now more than ever you have the power to heal them. Otherwise, they would have remained hidden in the farthest recesses of your subconscious mind, undermining your true potential by making you feel less than and somehow not deserving. Standing at this juncture, you’ve come the closest to gaining yourself back.
The Solution: To overcome your insecurities, you need to first acknowledge them, then trace them to their primal causes (familial abuse, childhood trauma, etc.) and heal them with ample doses of self-validation, self-soothing and self-championing. The narcissist can only do one thing: put the band-aid on for a short time before ripping it right off. Nothing will change until you take control of this process and make it fully conscious.
Giving Up the Illusion
Leaving a toxic relationship is not about loss. It is about gain. You are giving up an illusion, an idea of a relationship that never existed. You are giving up pointless suffering that leads to nowhere. You are giving up lies and accusations. You are interrupting old patterns that have been sabotaging your progress in life. As painful as this process is, it offers a grand opportunity.
As my mentor, Tama Kieves, writes in the opening to her newest book titled Thriving Through Uncertainty:
You may feel like things are challenging at this moment in your life. But let’s get this straight right now. It’s not because you’re failing or broken. It’s because your Spirit demands to soar, not coping. It’s your time!
To me, even though not directly addressing targets of abuse, Tama’s words speak to the overwhelming experience of drowning after the shock of betrayal. There is a lot of darkness in that moment, no doubt about it. There is death. But there is also the potential for a spectacular rebirth.
The Solution: Your wounds are illuminated. Your intuition is awakening and revving up to its full power. The walls are down so the inner voice it has room to boom and reaches you, calling you to change course and make a U-turn towards yourself. As the world around you crumbles, the calling is to not resist that undoing. Rather, it is to surrender so that what no longer serves you can compost and something new and true can sprout in its stead. Remember the old saying: the night is always the darkest before dawn? This is it. In real time. Keep moving forward.
The Hero’s SOS
For the people I work with one-on-one, the journey from crash ‘n burn to soar ‘n thrive tends to occur in three stages. It begins with SHOCK, winds its way up through re-ORIENTATION of attention, and ends at the summit with the target finding STRENGTH and wisdom. I call it the SOS. It’s an old pattern, not dissimilar to one of suffering followed by awakening and culminating in enlightenment. It’s a spiral journey that requires multiple passes in order for the traveler to arrive at a more permanent state of well-being that flows from finding freedom, self-reliance, and connection.
Humanity’s best stories follow this trajectory. The mythical hero has to face his or her own death before finding the strength to overcome the enemy and get the prize. But reading about it is very different than living through it. Things quickly get real in the trenches. That’s the difference between an idea and experience. Learning things conceptually makes them easy to forget. In an actual experience when raw emotions turn into fierce dragons and so much is at stake, this is when we hone in the lessons in a way that can’t be forgotten.
Change is painful, which is why we tend to avoid it. Even our brain doesn’t like it. If we weren’t pushed into it, none of us would ever change.
Overcoming narcissistic abuse may be the greatest battle you will ever fight. Everything you’ve ever done prepared you for it. It will make you reach deep to find a strength within you never knew you had. It will sharpen your mind, enliven your soul, make you emotionally tuned-in and turn you into the hero of your life. Having been through it, you may even feel inspired to reach back and help others. It is the pivotal shift from living life unconsciously to becoming fully embodied, conscious and purpose driven.
Appreciating the Real You
You are so much more than the people and things you surround yourself with. Your worth is inherent, always was and always will be. You were just conditioned to forget this. Your identity is not your past, so don’t let history define you. It is much deeper than the shifting tides of circumstances.
Who you are is founded on your deepest qualities and principles. They include your compassion, imagination, and desire to learn. Your sensitivity, openness and kindness. They consist of your trustworthiness, loyalty, honesty and so much more… Recovery is your time to get to know yourself better and learn to appreciate who you are. It’s a time of self-discovery.
Once you get a hold of this fascinating process, fears of loneliness and emptiness will disperse like smoke. You will realize that once you reestablish a connection with yourself, you can never be lonely. Self-awareness will lead to self-trust and that will in turn help you discern which people are safe to let into your new life.
Is a gift really a gift if it cannot be received? To be fully activated, your gifts need to be first received by you.
For much too long you’ve projected your wonderful qualities outwards first instead of inwards, towards yourself. Basing your sense of identity on other people’s interpretation of you can attract toxic people into your life. You’ve been putting too much power in other people’s hands.
You don’t have to do that anymore. You can give the gift of who you are to yourself first. This way, you will keep your tank full and be able to share yourself with others without the need of reciprocation. Your sense of identity will become solid and unshakable.