If you’ve recently ended a toxic relationship with someone with narcissistic traits, you’re likely dealing with plenty of hurt and confusion.
Even when you know, deep down, that you weren’t to blame, believing this is often another story entirely.
Wondering what you could have done differently to prevent abuse or help your loved one address their issues can add to your emotional turmoil.
Toxic relationships also share some similarities with addiction, explains Ellen Biros, a therapist in Suwanee, Georgia, who specializes in helping people recover from abusive relationships.
“The relationship is intoxicating. There is intermittent reinforcement, and there is a great deal of shame and guilt about the relationship,” Biros says.
These factors can come into play as you try to recover.
You know the relationship wasn’t healthy. You’re aware they mistreated you. But you still can’t shake your memories of how you felt in the beginning and the good times you had.
These memories might lead you to crave their company and feel like you’d do anything to earn their love and approval again.
Abuse is often deeply traumatizing, and the healing process can take some time.
If you’re feeling lost, the tips below can help you take your first steps on the path to recovery.
In the beginning of the healing process, you might have a hard time setting aside rationalizations and potential excuses for the other person’s behavior.
In fact, you may feel perfectly willing to take blame on yourself, as long as it means you don’t have to admit someone you love intentionally hurt you.
This is normal and completely understandable.
Denial can protect you, in a way. Strong romantic or familial love overshadows reality for many people.
It’s also tough to accept that some people just don’t seem to care when they hurt others.
But denying what happened prevents you from addressing it and healing from it. It can also set you up to experience more pain in the future.
If you know your loved one experienced emotional distress of their own, you might empathize with these struggles and want to give them a second chance.
Compassion is never wrong, but mental health issues don’t excuse abuse. You can always encourage them to reach out for support — while creating enough space to keep yourself safe.
“Arm yourself with education about narcissistic behaviors,” Biros recommends.
Learning to identify tactics often used by people with narcissism can make it easier to come to terms with your experience.
Therapists and abuse recovery specialists often recommend cutting off all contact with your ex-partner after ending the relationship, whenever possible.
Going no contact isn’t just a boundary for them. It’s also a boundary for you, one you might find extremely difficult at first.
It’s common to feel tempted to reach out or respond to phone calls and messages, especially if they apologize sincerely and promise to change.
Blocking their number, email address, and social media accounts can help you avoid giving in to this temptation.
Keep in mind they may still try to contact you through other routes, so it can help to have a plan for how you’ll deal with this.
But going no contact isn’t possible in every situation. Maybe you have children with them, or they’re a family member you’ll see occasionally at gatherings.
If so, think about what you want and need: “I deserve to be treated with respect.”
Then turn that into a boundary: “I am willing to have a conversation with you, but if you shout, swear, or call me names, I’ll leave immediately.”
To create essential space and distance for yourself, also consider personal boundaries, such as:
- not sharing personal information (a key step in grey rocking)
- restricting communication to one platform, like an email address you don’t use for anything else
Most breakups involve painful feelings, including:
After ending a relationship characterized by narcissistic abuse, you might experience these along with other types of emotional distress, Biros explains.
The trauma of a toxic relationship can also leave you with symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Toxic people can cause a lot of pain. But they also have a knack for getting you to believe in their reality.
So while you may have sustained some deep emotional wounds, you might still question your own actions.
Your love for them can, for example, convince you it was your fault they manipulated you and mistreated you.
Breaking off a toxic family relationship can also trigger feelings of guilt or disloyalty.
These are normal emotional experiences. Working through them alone isn’t always easy, though, especially when you feel confused by manipulation tactics.
A therapist can offer support as you begin navigating these complicated feelings.
People with narcissistic traits often expect others to behave in certain ways. They harshly belittle or criticize people for failing to meet these standards. Here’s what it can look like:
- Your ex said your hair looked “stupid and ugly,” so you changed it.
- Your parent regularly told you how “foolish” you were for “wasting time” on music, so you gave up playing the piano.
- They might try to control your time and keep you from seeing friends or participating in activities by yourself.
If you’ve changed your looks and style or lost things you used to value as a result of this manipulation, you might feel as if you no longer know yourself very well.
Part of recovery involves getting reacquainted with yourself, or figuring out what you enjoy, how you want to spend your time, and who you want to spend it with.
Biros recommends avoiding dating and forming new relationships during the recovery period.
You’re still healing, after all. Self-exploration and rebuilding your relationship with yourself can make you pretty vulnerable.
Once you acknowledge that your relationship was, in fact, abusive, you might have a lot of criticism for yourself.
But remember, no one deserves abuse, and their behavior is not your fault.
Instead of blaming yourself for falling for their manipulation or judging yourself letting them mistreat you for so long, offer yourself forgiveness instead.
You can’t change the past, and you can’t change their behavior or actions. You only have power over yourself.
But you can use this power to make the choice to honor your needs, like respect, happiness, and healthy love.
Praise yourself for the choice to end the relationship, and encourage yourself to stick to that decision.
When you feel down on yourself, try repeating a mantra like “I am strong,” “I am loved,” or “I am brave.”
Love can be difficult, in part because you can’t really control it.
You can’t always stop loving someone, even someone who hurts you.
After ending the relationship, you might still hold on to positive memories and wish you could somehow experience those days again.
But it’s important to recognize you don’t need to stop loving someone to start healing. Waiting for that to happen can stall the recovery process.
You can continue loving someone while recognizing their behavior makes it impossible for you to safely maintain a relationship with them.
Sometimes, accepting this knowledge can jumpstart an emotional disconnect that helps you feel more able to detach from the relationship.
Good self-care practices can make a big difference in your recovery. Self-care involves meeting your emotional and physical needs.
That might include things like:
- getting enough restful sleep
- relaxing when overwhelmed or stressed
- making time for hobbies and other activities you enjoy
- connecting with loved ones
- using coping skills to manage distressing thoughts
- eating balanced meals
- staying physically active
Your mind and body help support each other, so taking care of physical needs can help you feel stronger and more equipped to work through emotional distress.
Opening up to supportive friends and family members can help you feel less alone as you heal.
The people who care about you can:
- offer compassion
- validate the pain you experience
- help distract you or provide company on difficult days
- remind you the abuse wasn’t your fault
But some people in your life may not offer much (or any) support.
Some family members may take the abusive person’s side. Mutual friends might support an abusive ex.
This can cause a lot of confusion and hurt. It’s often helpful to set boundaries around your time with these people as you work to recover.
You might, for example, ask them not to mention the person around you, or to avoid sharing their opinions about the situation with you.
If they don’t respect those boundaries, consider limiting the time you spend with them.
Support groups also provide the opportunity to break your silence about the abuse you experienced.
In a support group, you can share your story with others also trying to heal.
- Narcissist Abuse Support, a website that offers information and resources about narcissistic abuse
- life coach and author Lisa A. Romano’s YouTube videos about recovery from toxic relationships
- Queen Beeing, a secure, private, and free support group for people recovering from narcissistic abuse
- Meetup groups for narcissism survivors
Talking to a therapist one-on-one can help you take a significant step toward improving emotional well-being.
If you found it difficult to leave the person abusing you, or already have thoughts of giving them another chance, a therapist can help you identify reasons behind these feelings and create a plan to avoid unhelpful choices in the future.
A therapist can also offer guidance with:
- building new coping skills
- telling people about the abuse
- fighting urges to contact the abusive person
- dealing with depression, anxiety, or other mental health symptoms
- overcoming thoughts of suicide or self-harm
Biros explains that therapy can also help you understand underlying factors that could make you more vulnerable to patterns of abuse.
To sum up, therapy offers a safe space where a trained, compassionate professional can help you explore and understand the mess of emotions you’re struggling to unpack.
You can heal, though it may not happen right away. A therapist can help you feel more supported as you begin the journey.
Crystal Raypole has previously worked as a writer and editor for GoodTherapy. Her fields of interest include Asian languages and literature, Japanese translation, cooking, natural sciences, sex positivity, and mental health. In particular, she’s committed to helping decrease stigma around mental health issues.