5 Steps for Recovering From the Psychological Trauma of Emotional Abuse by a Narcissistic Parent
A Vicious Cycle
People who enter into abusive romantic relationships, allow their bosses or coworkers to bully them and/or tend to have friendships with individuals who manipulate and exploit them usually come from an abusive core family. This means that one, or both, parent(s) (or other guardians, if the biological parents were not around) was an abuser, typically with a cluster B personality disorder (narcissistic, borderline, histrionic, antisocial). Sometimes the abuse is physical, but there will always be emotional, psychological and even spiritual abuse present.
Some of the most common forms of emotional abuse are neglect, manipulation, gaslighting, pathological lying, exploitation, rage episodes, extreme criticism, and parentifying the child. In this type of environment, the child doesn't learn to establish healthy boundaries, how to deal with his/her emotions or what a healthy relationship is all about. This sets the stage for equally unbalanced interpersonal relationships in the future.
The rest of this post is based upon the assumption that the reader has come to the realization that they are the adult child of personality disordered parents and want to break the cycle of abuse. It also assumes that the reader is familiar with No Contact, Low Contact and Gray Rock and is either using one of these methods or is planning to in the near future.
Signs & Symptoms: PTSD
Efforts to avoid thoughts
Difficulty with sleep
Outbursts of anger
Exaggerated startle response
Sense of a fore-shortened future
1. Recognition and Acceptance
The first step in recovery from narcissistic abuse is to recognize it for what it is. Many victims do not even realize they are being abused, especially if it wasn't physical. Emotional and psychological abuse can be so subtle and covert that it is difficult to understand.
Acceptance is key, if you want to heal. Quit wishing for loving parents. Quit hoping to change a personality disordered individual into a compassionate human being. It won't ever happen. Accept that you have a parent (or both) who is incapable of loving you and treating you like a person instead of a possession. Such an unempathetic creature will never care about your happiness, only what you can do for them or how you reflect on them.
2. Admit Your Role
It is important to identify your part in it, how you allowed the abuse to occur. This does not mean beat yourself up over it; it means take a step back, asses the situation (now that you are out of it, it should be easier to do; you'll have a clearer picture), and determine what role you played.
If you were the victim of an NPD parent, chances are you had no choice about being victimized, at least as a child. As you became a teenager, you may have still been a willing participant simply by not knowing any better, because NPDs destroy boundaries. Small children have no boundaries and are completely dependent on their caregivers; when those caregivers fail to teach the children to develop healthy boundaries, it will have a negative impact.
As you become an adult, you start to make active choices as to whether or not to continue enabling your NPD parent and allowing them to abuse you. You may even keep getting into abusive romantic relationships, because you believe that abusive behavior is normal. Or because the abuser took advantage of your vulnerability at a time when you were in just the right negative emotional state due to the loss of a loved one or some other devastating event.
3. Eventually, Figure Out How to Forgive
Some victims are unwilling or unable to do this. Personally, I think it's a crucial step. Forgiveness is for YOU, not the abuser. It's about you being able to let go and move on, about not allowing the abuser to take up so much space in your head and emotions. It does not mean forgetting what was done to you or rationalizing it away or letting the abuser think that what they did was okay.
You do not have to confront the abuser or even make them aware in any way that you have forgiven them. You can even write them a letter, and either tear it up or keep it in a journal. It can be an "open letter" on your blog, not naming them. The point is that it is an exercise in helping you to heal. And, if you find that you cannot forgive your abuser, at least forgive yourself.
Victims of abuse tend to blame themselves for a plethora of stuff projected onto them by the narcissist, and this is mostly learned behavior. Your narcissistic parent likely blamed you for everything under the sun growing up - if they had a bad day, they probably blamed it on you - so of course you've learned to absorb the blame for things that are no fault of your own. Do you find yourself apologizing to others frequently, even if you've done nothing wrong? That's a tell-tale sign.
4. Wasted Time? Or a Chance for Personal Growth?
I was twenty-three and in a vulnerable state when I met the psychopath whom I would become entangled with for over a decade. It's easy to get bogged down in thinking about how much time was wasted, how much of one's life one can never reclaim, having lived with a monster for so long. How much of your creativity zapped. How much time spent walking on eggshells, waiting for the other shoe to drop. I prefer not to think of my time with an emotional vampire as wasted time, but rather as a learning experience. A chance for personal growth and change. The important thing is that you took away something fundamentally life changing from such an experience. A very difficult lesson learned. The realization that you are stronger than you ever would have thought.
By the time I left, I knew the problem was narcissistic personality disorder, and I also knew that that was the exact same difficulty in my interpersonal relationship with my father. How I didn't see the blatant similarities between the two men is beyond me; they seem so obvious now. Most important was the realization that I was okay. I wasn't crazy. I've not seen or spoken to either of them in years, nor do I regret that.
5. Journaling Is an Excellent Way to Heal
Not everyone can afford to see a therapist, but we all have access to books and the internet. Read everything you can about personality disorders and emotional blackmail. Write about your experiences and feelings, if only for yourself. You've been suppressing these emotions for so long, now you need to feel them. Think of it as self discovery; you will start to learn who you truly are as a person, not as an extension of your NPD parent who never allowed you to fully be yourself.
If you are comfortable with sharing with a close friend or even posting on a blog that's a great start. Get it all out. As you start writing it all down, you will probably recall events that you had forgotten and it may stir up strong emotions. Allow yourself to feel them, try not to stuff them back down.
When reading through posts from others who are recovering from narcissistic abuse, I frequently see such comments as, "Parents shouldn't treat their children that way." No, they shouldn't. In an ideal world, they wouldn't. Welcome to the real world. It happens all the time, every day, to millions of people to varying degrees. It sucks. It is an egregious betrayal, and it almost always leaves lasting emotional scars.
As sad as it is, be aware that it is not your fault. There was/is nothing you can do to make a narcissist love you. They simply are not capable of it. They are incapable of having symbiotic relationships with anyone; they take, others give. Try not to spend too much time pondering what's wrong with the narc in your life; instead focus on your personal growth and recovery.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
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