Finding Yourself Again: Overcoming Narcissistic Abuse

Your body may not be burnished with bruises. Your skin may not be etched with scars. Your bones may be sound and your muscles supple. But that does not mean you have not been battered. That does not mean you are not wounded.

According to current estimates, upwards of 6% of the US general population suffers from Narcissistic Personality Disorder [2] and while that may not sound like much, in a nation of roughly 320 million people, that means there are more than 19 million pathological narcissists walking among us. Chances are, you’ve met more than one. You may even have loved one.

Narcissism is a Survival Tool
Narcissism, in and of itself, is not a bad thing. We are all, to some extent, narcissists. It is an essential evolutionary response to ensure our survival, a mechanism of the instinct for self-preservation.

However, pathological narcissism (i.e. narcissism which is destructive—to the self or, what is more likely, to others) is a different beast entirely.

The current version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, DSM-5, defines the pathological narcissist as one who “has a grandiose sense of self-importance…requires excessive admiration…is interpersonally exploitative … [and] … lacks empathy; is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others” [1].

To be Accepted, You Must First Loose Yourself
Thus, if you have loved an untreated, pathological narcissist, you have, almost inevitably, suffered emotional trauma at the narcissist’s hands. The pathological narcissist is the center of his or her own universe and everyone else exists only to fall into the orbit of the narcissist’s need—for admiration, for affirmation, for obedience. For the pathological narcissist, there is only the self and no other. To be accepted into the narcissist’s sphere—or at least to remain there for any extent of time—you must first lose yourself. Your world must revolve, always and only, around the narcissist.

Any deviation from the trajectory the narcissist’s grandiose need has laid out for you brings down upon you the full wrath of the narcissist’s inflamed and punishing ego. To displease the narcissist is to incur chaos, condemnation, and cruelty. Narcissists’ stock-in-trade, after all, is to tear down others in an effort to build themselves up, to nullify everyone around them in order to magnify their own sense of importance—and in the process to ensure obedience at any price.

Narcissists Systematically Dismantle Others’ Identity
This is particularly true for those closest to the pathological narcissist, whose love the narcissist readily exploits as a weapon against them. The price of admission into the narcissist’s world is self-destructive, self-abnegating love, and it is a price the narcissist will extract at all costs. This process is systematic, insidious, and relentless, the narcissist’s strategic and lethal dismantling of the loved one’s former self. The narcissist erodes the partner’s very identity through rejection, blame, shame, and repudiation. For the narcissist, this stripping away of the partner’s sense of self cannot be otherwise—because, for the narcissist, no one else can exist.

This is the heart of narcissistic abuse. It often leaves survivors bereft, devoid of self-worth, anxious, uncertain, dependent, depressed, and unmoored. Survivors may lose every sense of who they are, who they once were, and who they want to be. They are often left feeling that they must somehow rebuild their lives, and themselves, out of nothing more than the ashes and rubble that the narcissist has left behind.

It can seem like a hopeless task—this rebuilding–but it can be done. There is life after narcissistic abuse. There is a self who still lives, waiting to be found outside of the narcissist’s orbit.

Recognize the Abuse
The first step in recovering from narcissistic abuse is to recognize your experience as abuse. Not all violence is physical, and sometimes the most damaging and enduring wounds are the wounds of the spirit. Allow yourself to grieve for the innocence you have lost. Allow yourself to feel rage for the theft of your self-worth. Forgive yourself for loving someone incapable of returning that love as you deserve. Forgive yourself for getting lost to another. Above all, acknowledge what you have endured, what you feel, and the fact that you survived and you escaped.

Remove yourself from the Narcissist’s Sphere
As you first begin to rebuild your life in the wake of narcissistic abuse, you may find yourself endlessly researching the disorder or reconstructing events from your relationship in a desperate attempt to understand your abuser and yourself—your ex’s actions and your attraction. This is fine and, indeed, can be healthy for your recovery process. But only to a point. When the effort to understand turns to obsession, however—when the search for answers becomes consuming, when it endures for too long—it means you’re not really recovering at all. You’re still bound in the same self-destructive pattern. You are still stuck in the narcissist’s gravitational field, just in a different form.

The fact is, there will always be questions that remain unanswered. There will be words and deeds that cannot be explained or rationalized. There will be wounds that cannot be forgiven or forgotten. But if these become the center of your world, the mainstay of your focus, you are simply binding yourself ever tighter to your abuser. You are guaranteeing that you will never be free. At some point, you must make a clean break. Sever all ties with the narcissist. Close any door for reconciliation. And, above all, stop trying to make sense that which makes no sense. Stop trying to excuse that which is inexcusable.

Reject the Labels
Narcissists love labels. They dominate by constructing a narrative in which they are always either the victim or the hero—and everyone else? Well, everyone else is either the villain or the fool. If you have loved a narcissist, then you have been labelled— as worthless, stupid, unlovable, selfish, ugly, fill-in-the-blank. Chances are, at some point or another, you believed those labels. You internalized them. How could you not and continue to love the person? Forgive yourself for that, too, but also recognize those labels for what they are: an ugly, malicious lie meant only to serve the narcissist’s agenda of getting their own way at all costs. After all, it is far easier to compel your target to submit when you have made them believe they have no choice, made them believe they are nothing—helpless, valueless, and unlovable.

Reconstruct the Narrative
Now that you have acknowledged the abusive reality of what you have endured and the pernicious weapons used against you, the lies packaged as inescapable truths, you can begin to reconstruct your story. In the narcissist’s world, all roads lead to him or her. Nothing matters but what matters to the narcissist. When you are living the narcissist’s story, then your thoughts are, almost certainly, consumed only by what s/he wants, needs, and values. After all, deep down you know that failure to conform—to admire, affirm, and serve appropriately—will sooner or later lead to an explosion, and that explosion will be crushing, if not in the form of physical blows, then in the form of words and deeds that strike the soul just as hard. For the pathological narcissist, there are no boundaries. From their perspective, the more severe the outburst, the sooner they will get their way.

If you have lived this story long enough, it can be difficult to escape from it. You may find yourself anxious and indecisive, paralyzed without the validation of others. You may live in terror of making a mistake, of being judged, of being condemned. You may feel depressed and hopeless, or simply depleted and apathetic. After all, this is who your ex told you you were, are, and forever will be. This is the story you lived in your life with your ex.

But once you begin to relabel, to recognize and reject all those demeaning words and actions your ex volleyed at you in an effort to control you, you will slowly begin to take back your power. When we name things, we give them life, energy, and validity. The narcissist tried to pin you down with names that are not yours. So when those old tapes begin to replay in your head, stop them and replace them with a new names and new narratives. Re-language. Rewrite your story. Take your name back.

Remember Who You Are
For the narcissist, other people are mere instruments, tools to serve the narcissist’s will. When your very sense of self has been eroded in this way, it is essential to your recovery process that you focus on yourself. This is not selfishness. This is healing. This is the time to focus on who you were before you fell into the narcissist’s grasp, before you could no longer recognize yourself. What did you love? What inspired you? What soothed you? What made you proud?

As you begin to return to these former things, odds are you will find that the person you thought was lost forever was there all along—changed, perhaps; wiser, most certainly—but still there and waiting for you. And it’s a pretty good bet that in the process you will discover new talents, new joys, new passions. Best of all, these will be things that belong only to you—and no one can touch them, taint them, or take them away. They, like you, are beyond the narcissist’s grasp.

Reach Out
Healing from narcissistic abuse takes time. It is not an easy journey but it is a journey infinitely worth the undertaking because you, your peace, joy, and confidence, are infinitely worth the fighting for. But you can’t do it alone. You will need help along the way. Reach out. Seek the support and comfort of loved ones. Rely on those who love and know you best. But alongside that support, recognize that professional help may be one of your best weapons in your fight for recovery. Individual or group counseling can be incredibly beneficial in providing perspective and equipping you with the tools you need to heal, to transform your pain into your power.

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[1] American Psychiatric Association. (2012). Narcissistic Personality Disorder. DSM-IV and DSM-5 Criteria for the Personality Disorders. Retrieved from
[2] Stinson, F.S. et al. (2008). Prevalence, correlates, disability, and comorbidity of DSM-IV narcissistic personality disorder: Results from the wave 2 national epidemiological survey on alcohol and related conditions. Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, 69(7): 1033-1045.
Terri Beth Miller completed a PhD in English Language and Literature at the University of Virginia. She has taught writing and literature courses for more than a decade and is a regular contributor to the mental health self-help portal. View her profile on LinkedIn at

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