The world’s top psychologists shed light on recovering from narcissistic abuse and toxic connections.
Johnny Depp and Amber Heard’s tumultuous marriage and melodramatic courtroom antics are currently thrown in the spotlight and the talk of Tinseltown. The ensuing media circus has highlighted and brought to the forefront the pressing topic of toxic connections and dysfunctional relationships. All of us have at some point in our lives experienced the physical, emotional and mental torment of the destructive bullying by malignant and malicious people.
Toxic connections and narcissistic traits could come in the form of our family members, spouse, lovers, romantic partners, friends, colleagues, or the toxic person could even be you. I sought out and interviewed the world’s leading mental and emotional health experts, as well as survivors of failed toxic relationships to have them weigh in on the crucial subject matter of recovering and healing from abusive and toxic connections. We learn more about the psychology behind the phenomenon and how to deal with all of it, as well as preventing future encounters.
Spotting a narcissist
Narcissists are generally dodgy and shady people who thrive on chaos, drama and gossip. They are attracted to breaking rules and subverting authority. They often use vindictive sarcasm and disparaging humour in their speech to undermine others, and do not feel any remorse, guilt, or shame for their actions as they simply lack conscience and human decency. Narcissists also do not honour their promises or respect the boundaries of others. They will do whatever it takes to gratify their incessant and insatiable appetite for money, power, success, attention, travel, contacts, sex, and material possessions – all without giving two hoots as to how their actions affect or impact others.
Narcissists have a tendency towards being independent individuals with “dismissive avoidant” attachment styles. Hence, they make many shallow and superficial friendships and connections, and just maintain a limited support system comprising of one or two close friends who act and think just like them, and who have been carefully chosen to reflect and perpetuate their screwed up mentality and point of view.
Often attractive and appealing in appearance to the outside world, narcissists lead double lives by hiding behind a mask of seemingly glossy perfection. Behind the shiny veneer of excessive and outwardly showy confidence, charisma and charm is a concoction of insecurity, jealousy, arrogance, and cockiness.
Their superiority complex is just an external show to conceal their egotistical and messed up personas. Only if you are close to them and in their private moments do you get to observe and experience most of their moodiness, hostility, nastiness, anger, and aggression. Narcissists are bias and skewed in their thought processing – by mistakenly interpreting that their own internal negative feelings are caused by outside events and people. They keep their false facade intact by buying into the grand delusion that everyone else but themselves are the problem. Narcissists blame everyone for their shortcomings, and rarely accept any accountability or responsibility for their words and actions.
Clinical sexologist and relationship counsellor Dr Martha Lee who is the author of four books says, “People with narcissistic tendencies are more than simply selfish every once in a while. They care only about themselves, and always bring conversations back to their favourite topic: themselves. They will never ever accept blame or apologise for their wrongdoings. No amount of loving them will ever fix who or how they are.”
Professional therapist and life coach Patricia Tan survived a toxic marriage as well as an abusive long-term relationship, and now dedicates her life to helping other victims. She further explains, “Often times, toxic people exhibit a broad spectrum of narcissistic traits mixed in with anti-social, sociopathic, bi-polar and/or other various types of neurosis and psychosis. There is a blurring of lines and it is often complex and hence not easily distinguishable. Regardless of the conditions, any toxic relationship drains the life out of you. A narcissistic personality views themselves with grandiosity and perfection, whether revealed or unspoken. A telltale sign is the disdain with which they regard others. No one can measure up, and no one ever will. That’s why the only person worthy of their love is themselves. This is a sad, warped conundrum. It is unfortunate for anyone to be a victim of narcissistic abuse, but even sadder if this person thinks love can change a narcissist. It is the wrong medicine for the wrong diagnosis.”
Author Josh Kauffman whose own traumatic experiences in an extremely wild and toxic relationship with a narcissistic sociopath that led him to pen the Amazon bestseller “Footprints in the Desert” discloses, “Narcissists hide their insecurities and discomforts, which is why they tend towards grandiosity and empathetic people. Their shtick is a performative display of confidence, ease, and success. Victims of narcissistic abuse are left feeling isolated and crazy while the narcissist is being outwardly celebrated for acting out their larger-than-life antics online and in public. Meanwhile their victims are left to suffer alone in the shadows. The victims are being manipulated and abused by someone whom society is increasingly uplifting, causing them to doubt their own suffering and feelings of abuse. When victims take the risk to confide in others about their experiences, people cast doubt on them and unintentionally gaslight them. ‘How can this Instagram-friendly, confident, giving person be the abusive and manipulative monster?’ they would ask. In this age of superficial Insta-friendships and personas, people seem to no longer even know what true intimacy and connectivity means anymore. I was lucky to have gone through my narcissistic relationship and all of the abuse that entailed in the earlier days of social media, when people I knew could spot the tell-tale signs of my abuser’s dark and sordid underbelly. As such, I was not immediately doubted and discounted. I fear that today, most are not as lucky.”
The abusive and toxic behaviour of narcissists
Narcissists frequently use an abusive manipulative technique called “gaslighting” coupled with “ghosting” especially when being confronted on their toxic behaviours.
Gaslighting refers to when an abuser whether consciously or unconsciously misleads the target, creating a false narrative and making them question their judgments and reality which distorts a person’s memory and perception of the truth by setting up a web of lies and deception around the events, and then questioning the person’s sanity for reacting and defending themselves against the ensuing mayhem. They also try to rewrite the past or deny an event ever took place, dismissing the other person’s concerns and perception of what truly transpired as unfounded. People who gaslight others usually have mental health disorders such as narcissistic personality disorder or borderline personality disorder.
Ghosting on the other hand refers to abruptly cutting off contact with someone without giving them any warning or explanations. When the person being ghosted reaches out to reinitiate contact or to seek closure, they are met with silence. Narcissist use these types of emotional abuse tactics to exert their power and dominance over their victims in order to manipulate and control them.
A narcissist does not see themselves lacking love. They just lack “perfect people” worthy of their love.” Those suffering from narcissistic personality disorder often portray a Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde split personality of push/pull, hot one moment and cold the next that is highly confusing to their victims. They love-bomb their victims with words and actions of affections only to reject, abandon and disregard them shortly after. The hopes of the victims are being revived when the narcissist returns to profess their love once more and topped with empty promises of change. Sadly the same old antagonistic patterns repeat over and over again in an endless loop. When the narcissists are done abusing their victims, they will devalue them in their minds and even launch smear campaigns against them.
This inconsistent, flippant and facetious nature coupled with pathological lying, cheating, manipulation and betrayals are all so far from the purview of normal and acceptable social etiquette and decorum, that it sometimes makes it hard for outsiders to believe that all of this is truly happening. This can sometimes lead to further isolation of the victims, which then leads to depression and even suicide. Victims of long-term narcissistic abuse often develop autoimmune diseases and stress related ailments such as fibromyalgia, strokes and cancers.
Why do narcissists exist?
A lot of these sociopathic and psychopathic behaviours are largely due to unconscious parenting that passes on from generation to generation, and we unfortunately end up bearing the brunt of these unhealed childhood traumas and wounds into our adult lives. The murky past and inner demons of the abusers are so horrifying that they disown their feelings and shadow project them onto others. Narcissists and abusive partners are essentially emotionally disabled and also potentially mentally ill. They have the emotional quotient and maturity of a child. They demand a partner who is submissive and controllable, yet emotionally independent which is a dichotomous contradiction.
Professor of Psychology Dr Sam Vaknin who is a highly respected pioneer researcher into the academic and scholastic study of all things narcissism related and who coined the term “narcissistic abuse” back in 1995 expounds on the topic, “In the love-bombing stage, the narcissists really truly believes and idolises you as a perfect and idealised intimate partner, as that means that they themselves are ideal which fuels their narcissism and perfect God-like sense of self. But as you deviate, disagree, criticise, become self sufficient and independent, go your own way, achieve greater results than them, have your own friends, travel alone, etc and diverge from their idealised image and snapshot that they have of you in their minds, you threaten their control, equilibrium and sense of self, and then they become angry and aggressive, and that’s when they flip, rescind their declarations of love and start treating you like the enemy. The narcissist then manipulates, abuses and devalues the intimate partner before ultimately discarding them. There is nothing the partner did wrong or can do to remedy the situation as this psychological process is a simulation of the narcissist’s early childhood conflicts and separation individuation from their mothers which are all pre-existing internal conflicts of the narcissist’s mind that the intimate partner is unlucky to be caught in the crossfire of. There is no possibility of having any sustainable healthy relationship with a narcissist.”
Empaths – the victims of narcissists
Empaths are targets and easy pickings for narcissists as they are gentle, caring, gullible, and soulful people who wear their hearts on their sleeves and would not even hurt a fly. As such, they lack the usual boundaries and defences that the average person possesses. Naively and foolhardily believing that the rest of the world feels, thinks, and operates like the overly caring people pleasing pushover that they are, it is difficult for empathetic people to fathom and come to terms that narcissists do not have genuine concern for others. Empaths are generally submissive, and do not like discord or disagreements, and thus prefer to give in rather than pick a fight. They avoid conflicts whenever possible and prefer to come to a mutual consensus and settle things in a peaceful, amiable and amicable manner. Oftentimes, empaths would even make up excuses for the bad behaviours of the narcissists, thus enabling the co-dependency, trauma bonds, and perpetuation of the endless viscous cycles of toxic abuse.
Super Empaths are ultra sensitive, kind, compassionate, and loving individuals who place a high intrinsic value on building friendships and relationships. They have all the usual altruistic and nurturing traits of the average empath, but just much more amplified. On the other hand, the Greater Narcissist has a much higher than average degree of narcissism and self-absorption, and has almost no real feelings for anyone except themselves. When these two polar opposites come together, imbalances and clashes are bound to happen as while the Super Empath sees someone that they can love, help, heal and care for, the Greater Narcissist sees someone they can easily manipulate, control, cheat and exploit. The tragic love story between the Super Empath and the Greater Narcissist is one destined for disaster. Bystanders and outsiders describe it as watching an innocent doe eyed lamb led to the slaughter or witnessing a car crash in slow motion.
Actor/Singer/Author Dwayne Tan who is a survivor of an emotionally and mentally abusive relationship with an enraged narcissist, is in the midst of writing books and plays about the issues. He says, “At that time, I was not aware of what gaslighting was. Most people do not understand because they have healthier boundaries and so a narcissist would not be able to drop their mask and show their true colours on them. Only a co-dependent or people pleaser would unconsciously subject themselves to those toxic demands. These two opposing personality types form the supposedly most toxic dynamic you can find in a relationship, and there is trauma bonding, which makes it hard for one to break away. When the narcissists are cornered, they lash back by asking you to grow up and focus on blaming you. No one is perfect, so at first you believe that the problem is you. Looking back, there were friends who tried to understand. The friends who stayed neutral unwittingly did harm because it enabled the bullying to continue. The friends who did not believe me and who even took the narcissist’s charming side and revealed my confessions to them cut me the deepest.”
When the Super Empath has sustained enough abuse and trauma by the Greater Narcissist to the point where even cognitive dissonance would not allow the empath to continue to allow the bullying to persist any longer, a process known as an “Empathic Supernova” occurs. The Super Empath implodes and draws strength from within to stand in their power and turn against the Greater Narcissist, giving them a dose of their own medicine and serving up some justice, which sends the cowardly narcissist fleeing and running.
How to deal with toxic people
Highly sought after general and forensic psychiatrist Dr Tracey Marks advises, “You have to start with establishing boundaries of what you will and will not tolerate from people. If they cross those boundaries, let them know that their behaviour is unacceptable. This gives them a chance to make things right with you. However, if they chose to continue to disrespect your boundaries and disregard your wishes, then limit or eliminate contact with them. If it’s someone you don’t have to see, then eliminate contact and let them know when they reach out that you are not allowing yourself to be exposed to their offensive behaviours. If they are able to meet you on your terms, then give them a chance to do so. If it’s someone you have to interact with like a family member, then limit your contact and reduce how much you let yourself be vulnerable with them. That means you have to discount their opinions, not expect their approval or to look to them for support. You have to find someone else to meet those needs.”
Narcissistic abuse recovery expert Melanie Tonia Evans who is the creator of the popular Narcissistic Abuse Recovery Programme (NARP) and founder of the Quanta Freedom Healing method posts on her social media, “ Toxic people want the opposite of what healthy people want. They don’t listen. They don’t care about other people. They don’t have integrity. They don’t want to participate in teamwork. Recognise that toxic people don’t operate from the same perspective of compassion and empathy. In other words, stop expecting them to behave like normal human beings. Toxic people feel so broken on the inside that they have to trigger people around them. They want to be able to project their wounds onto others and bring them down. The next time they say something accusatory, step aside, don’t react and just walk away. By not reacting you don’t give them any ego feed.”
Healing from a toxic relationship
Grieving from the loss of what might have been is extremely lonely and depressive. Almost all of your closed friends and loved ones are ready to move on well before you have reached the end of processing your heartaches and heartbreaks. Be gentle, patient and kind with yourself. Treat yourself with love and compassion, and give yourself all the time and space that you require. Pay close attention to those who are genuinely supportive of you during this period of pain. Spend time with those whose comfort, emotional maturity and wisdom feels truly reassuring and soothing versus those who offer unsolicited generic textbook advice or toxic positivity. Some will pretend to have sympathy, but compare your experiences with their own sob stories with little understanding for your plight and what you are going through. While others will attempt to fix you, but who themselves have not displayed ample success or mastery in managing their own lives, or working on healing their own traumas. You will notice that only a handful of allies are willing and able to hold space for you throughout this transformational process of healing and recovery. Those people are hidden gems and angels sent from Heaven.
Professor Sam Vaknin who is the author of “Malignant Self Love: Narcissism Revisited” and who is himself a diagnosed narcissist, says, “If someone comes to you and say that they have been in an abusive narcissistic relationship and are suffering, it is your role as a family member or friend to offer them validation of their emotions and experiences, as well as to provide your unconditional support and unmitigated succour to them at this very difficult time in their lives. Do not undermine, question, doubt or invalidate your loved ones. Victimhood is a reactive and subjective perception of one’s experiences, and thus cannot be objectified. It is not the caretaker’s role to investigate who said what to whom and exactly at what hour. What matters is that the victim is feeling distressed, traumatised, and hurting. Refrain from appointing yourselves as a magistrate. Instead, educate yourselves about narcissistic abuse. Make clear to your loved ones that they have been victimised, but that they are not a victim. Just be there and listen unconditionally without making any judgements. Remind them that this is not a permanent state and that there is hope.”
Clinical psychologist and professor of psychology Dr Ramani Durvasula who is the author of four books such as the highly rated “Should I stay or should I go?”, and who has over a million subscribers and 820+ videos on all topics related to narcissism on her popular YouTube channel says, “Healing from narcissistic abuse is a process. There is no schedule. It takes as long as it takes, and there is a real risk to putting a timer on it. It’s not about going back to how things were, but it is about a new normal, one where you see the world and yourself more clearly. There will be periods of forward growth, and setbacks that can come up because you encountered the narcissistic person, or a new person. Healing from narcissistic abuse is a whole other level from an ordinary broken heart. Healing from narcissistic abuse is healing from a broken heart, yes, but also a confused psyche, a loss of self, a fractured reality, a shattered spirit. Healing means a willingness to step away from toxic people. It is about radical acceptance, and recognising that these patterns do not change, it’s about finding meaning and purpose and learning to exhale again after years of tension, and most importantly, it’s about no longer blaming yourself for someone else’s cruelty.”
Dr Martha Lee added, “Leaving a narcissistic involves filling up your own cup (what makes you happy and joyful), building yourself up (you deserve more than this), and having enough self-preservation to leave (enough is enough). Healing from a narcissistic relationship can mean taking the time and space to delve deeply into who you are (what makes you uniquely you), and fall in love yourself (yeah, I am lovable). When you truly love who you are, you will not put up with people who only take, not give, are not good for you, and most definitely are not worthy to be in your life. In the end, narcissists never win. They will never get to experience and feel the deep soul love and lasting satisfaction that can only come from healthy connections, and the willingness to be authentic and vulnerable.”
Dr Tracey Marks adds, “Often the mistake people make is hoping the toxic person will change if you just show them enough love. You believe they will eventually reciprocate. It takes a lot of therapy for a person to make small changes and often the personality disordered person (narcissistic and others) don’t see themselves as the problem, this is true especially if they are older like in their 30s and beyond. So they don’t see the need to invest in therapy.”
Relationship toxicologist and clinical psychologist Dr Denise Dart summarises, “Healing from narcissistic emotional abuse is a journey that begins with emotional, spiritual, and physical boundaries. Over time Narcissist abusers hook and hold their victims through manipulation, gaslighting, and other fear tactics. The path of healing requires a willingness to release the abuser and ultimately come back home to ourselves.”
In her TEDx Talk in Sedona, Dr Ramani concludes, “Where there are scars, beautiful things can spring forth. Out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls. The most massive characters are seared with scars. We can re-parent ourselves. Practice kindness and empathy even when other people are not. Choose your friends and romances with care. Sadly most of us put 90% of our hearts, minds and souls to our most dysfunctional, unhealthy and invalidating relationships and save the little bit that is left for the people who are good and kind to us. It is time that we flip this eschewed calculus and start to give the best of ourselves to our healthy and reciprocal relationships, and only give the bare minimum to the relationships that really aren’t helping us grow. Every life story can be a miracle or a tragedy; it just depends on how you write it. Pushing back on narcissism is a human rights issue. All of us need to stop giving permission to narcissism and narcissists, and start reclaiming our lives, our souls and our world back.”
For more resources and for professional support, please visit the following links:
|Dr Denise Dart||https://drdenisedart.com/|
|Dr Martha Lee||https://www.eroscoaching.com/|
|Dr Ramani Durvasula||http://doctor-ramani.com/|
|Dr Sam Vaknin||http://www.narcissistic-abuse.com/|
|Dr Tracey Marks||https://markspsychiatry.com/|
Images: Envato and Unsplash