5 strong reality checks for survivors of narcissistic abuse
1. No, they have not changed nor are they likely to change. As an author who writes about psychologically abusive relationships, I frequently get letters from survivors asking me if it’s possible for an abusive, narcissistic partner to change. Theoretically, if someone is willing to change and puts an active and consistent effort in modifying their behavior every day, it may be possible, but for narcissists on the high end of the spectrum, this is highly unlikely to happen.
Throughout the course of this work, I’ve communicated with thousands of survivors who’ve had abusive relationships with malignant narcissists and have yet to hear one testimony attesting to an abusive partner changing long-term.
What I do hear many stories of are abusive partners who temporarily shift their behavior to sweet and kind in order to hook their victims back into the abuse cycle. Once their victims are sufficiently invested again, their abusers revert back to their true cruelty and contempt. So if an abuser seems to be on his or her best behavior – beware. It’s likely he or she is merely biding their time before abusing once more.
I also hear horror stories of victims attending couples therapy, which serves as a site of further manipulation and invalidation for the victim. Even the National Domestic Violence Hotline advises against couples therapy for victims in abusive relationships, and it is no wonder why. Within the therapy space, the narcissistic abuser is able to triangulate the victim with the therapist, convince the therapist that the victim is the aggressor, and retraumatize the victim.
The therapist, if he or she is unaware of the abuser’s narcissistic tendencies and is not trauma-informed, will most likely focus on improving the victim’s reactions to the covert abuse, rather than address the harmful and abusive behavior itself. A therapist who is not well-versed about narcissistic abuse can fail to see that no amount of self-improvement in the victim will ever “fix” the abusive dynamics of the relationship. The only type of therapy a victim should probably be pursuing is individual therapy with a trauma-informed professional who can help them to heal from the abuse and detach from his or her abuser.
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Here’s the thing: abusers with a fundamental lack of empathy and excessive sense of entitlement are unlikely to change because their behavior continues to reward them. Their toxic behavior has been hardwired since they were children. It would probably take a miraculous breakthrough as well as years of individual (not couples) therapy to ‘deprogram’ how a malignant narcissist behaves and navigates the world – and that might not even include effectively tackling the lack of empathy they have for others.
First and foremost, the narcissistic abuser would need to have a strong desire and willingness to want to change from within and follow through on all counts – not for their partner, but for themselves. And for that to occur, the victim would still have to wait a number of years to ‘wait and see’ whether change would occur – while potentially wasting years of their lives on an abuser who may never follow through with their promises.
Instead of investing in someone who has shown you time and time again that he or she will not change, why not invest in yourself, your goals and clear a pathway for a healthier and loving partner in the future instead?
2. Abusers have not morphed into a new person with their latest victim. Time and time again, the narcissist acts as a magician and presents the greatest illusion of all: the disappearing act, followed by a honeymoon romance with his or her latest victim.
Don’t fall for these cheap magic tricks. These are mere provocations staged to upset you and if you look closely at the idealization and devaluation phases in your own relationship with your ex-partner, you’ll realize it’s not a sudden transformation of character – it’s just a sleight of hand.
If someone doesn’t have the moral capacity to treat you with basic respect or act with integrity, it is doubtful they have changed overnight for someone else. Don’t believe in the hype when a narcissistic abuser puts their new victim through an idealization phase for the world to see. Remember – they idealized you too, and they are masters of impression management. Don’t forget all those times that the narcissistic abuser showed you off in public or treated you well in front of a witness – only to later berate, criticize and humiliate you behind closed doors.
They will devalue their new victims, just like they devalued you. The ones they appear to ‘settle down’ with are not the exception – they are the unlucky ones who will have to experience their depraved behavior within the context of a longer-term commitment. These victims are now deeply invested in a cruel, callous abuser who will continue to feed them falsehoods while living double lives. Be grateful you woke up and are privileged to pursue a life of freedom, peace and joy instead.
3. Yes, their abuse was deliberate and no, they don’t always suffer from low self-esteem. Many people are convinced that narcissists suffer from low self-esteem. I have seen friends, family members and partners of malignant narcissists dismiss, rationalize and minimize incredible acts of cruelty by justifying it as stemming from the abuser’s ‘lack of self-esteem’ rather than their outrageous sense of entitlement.
This myth that all abusers suffer from low self-esteem is why empathic people feel compelled to take care of their partner’s supposedly fragile ego while betraying their own basic needs in toxic relationships.
As Carrie Barron, M.D., notes in her article, “If You Are the Target of Narcissistic Abuse,”narcissists “take pleasure in successful manipulations” and truly believe they are superior, even if there is no objective evidence supporting these false notions of superiority.
It is this myth of all narcissists being suffering souls who lash out onto others that is preventing us, as individuals and as a society, from holding them accountable for their crimes. Recent research has shown that those scoring high in narcissism, Machiavellianism and psychopathy all reported positive feelings when looking at sad faces. They had no problem assessing the emotions of their targeted victims using their cognitive empathy; yet they used this information to strategize how they could best fulfill their own needs. Their lack of affective empathy allowed them to overlook and dismiss the harm that they posed to their victims in the process.
Narcissists who fit in the more ‘vulnerable’ type and are lower on the spectrum may struggle with self-esteem, but for grandiose, malignant narcissists, you can bet that any demonstration of vulnerability is likely a pity ploy meant to further manipulate their victims.
Grandiose narcissists with antisocial traits truly believe in their own superiority and feel contempt for those who they deem ‘below’ them. They act aggressively to meet their own needs and feel very little shame or remorse about harming others in the process.
The insults that a malignant narcissistic abuser throws at you stem from their pathological envy, rage, false sense of superiority and entitlement to be the best – not low self-esteem. They feel they have a right to punish, control and demean you – they feel they own you. They will despise you for your success, your financial security, your desirability, and a number of other qualities and attributes that they feel are a threat to their control. They might idealize those same qualities in the idealization phase, but those are the same things they will ridicule so that you remain dependent upon them.
Their cruel behavior isn’t uncontrollable, either. Ask yourself: if it wasn’t deliberate, why would they be able to change their behavior in front of a witness? How are they able to don a false mask and convince others they are the innocent party? Anyone who is able to hide the evidence of their own manipulation to avoid accountability or judgment is able to control their actions.
They know exactly what they’re doing – and they like it. So instead of spending time and energy feeling sorry for a malignant narcissist, thank yourself for getting away when you did. You can show them any compassion you have for them from a distance.
I know none of us want to seem like we’re ‘judging’ others. But guess what? Sometimes people really do meet the criteria for malicious and character disordered. There is a difference between judgment and discernment. Discerning danger can save your life. Even what appear to be merely snap ‘judgments’ can save your life if they stem from your intuition. There is no benefit to sugarcoating the predatory nature of highly manipulative people or ignoring your inner voice when it comes to highly toxic people.
4. Prematurely trying to heal and ‘let go’ will only delay the healing journey. What you went through was a serious trauma and is likely to have long-term effects. It can’t be prematurely forgiven or let go of until it’s fully processed and healed. Don’t try to spiritually bypass the pain by wishing your abuser well out of moral obligation – if you’re truly not feeling that way, it does nothing but invalidate your authentic emotions and sweep them under the rug.
Don’t get me wrong: there are many healing benefits to forgiving when one is ready. Yet the problem is, many survivors proceed to force themselves to feel forgiveness before they truly are ready or willing. Don’t jump to forgiving your abuser before you’re actually ready to do so. If forgiveness isn’t part of your healing journey, that’s okay too – trauma therapists agree that some things are best left up to the survivor.
Although forgiveness and reconciliation are most certainly not the same thing, the idea of “forgiveness” was likely used by your abuser throughout the abuse cycle to further traumatize and shame you into staying, so you may even want to use a different word when releasing resentment. For example, therapist Anastasia Pollock, LCMHC, discusses how she uses the term ‘unburdening’ instead in her article, “Why I Don’t Use the Word Forgiveness in Trauma Therapy.”
There is another reason why prematurely forgiving someone before you’re ready can be dangerous. If you force yourself to bypass processing your painful emotions, it will only cause further resentment down the road as well as repressed anger that can come out in maladaptive ways.
5. All of your emotions – including anger – are valid and you can’t conveniently bypass them to get to the other side of healing. There are many survivors who would rather avoid acknowledging their emotions and sugarcoat them because they’ve been taught that certain emotions like anger are ‘toxic’ to feel.
Anger is a destructive emotion when it is uncontrollable or used to control others, but people forget that there is a very useful function of anger: it can save our lives. Anger is a legitimate, valid emotional response to being mistreated yet it is likely that survivors will struggle with having feelings of anger towards their abusers in the aftermath. Some survivors may even feel guilty or ashamed of being rightfully angry due to their tendency to engage in self-blame after the abuse.
Remember: it’s not necessarily about holding onto anger, it’s about addressing it, validating it and processing it. You can take the time to do so and you don’t have to rush the process. Anger can be used to initially stop us from going back to an abuser. It can be used to fuel our motivation to keep going, even when we feel like giving up. It is a very useful emotion that can bring us out of our sense of powerlessness and back into a state of motivation and self-empowerment.
When anger is used in a constructive, rather than destructive way to defend and protect yourself, channeling anger into healthier outlets can be a transformative part of the healing journey. Yes, it is possible to acknowledge and validate your emotions without using them destructively against someone else. Honor your anger without acting on it in maladaptive ways.
Let anger motivate you to seek the best for yourself, to see yourself as a divine human being worthy of love, safety, respect and compassion in all facets of your life. Use it to compel you to set firmer boundaries in your relationships. See anger for what it is: a reminder that you deserve so much better than what you went through. You may find that there are layers to your anger; there may be severe pain underlying it, as well as fear, anguish and a plethora of other emotions involved in grieving a person who never truly existed beyond their false mask.
Don’t rush the grieving process, either. You will have mixed emotions and that is normal. Your brain is likely trying to resolve its own cognitive dissonance about the seemingly loving, sweet person who turned into your worst nightmare. Allow the conflicting thoughts and emotions to arise, while redirecting them back to the reality of the abuse you experienced.
There will be days where your emotions are overwhelming. Don’t try to escape or numb your emotions by engaging in self-sabotage, like breaking No Contact or getting into a new relationship before you’ve done the healing work. Instead, work with a trauma-informed counselor and find different modalities to release some of the trauma stored within your body such as a daily exercise regimen, guided meditations and trauma-focused yoga.
Do not resist the emotional “apocalypse” by desensitizing yourself to the pain. Often it takes riding what feels like the cataclysmic waves of our various emotions – such as anger, fear, grief, loss – before we get through to the other side of healing. During this “dark night of the soul,” remember that you’re not actually being destroyed, even if it feels like you are. You’re being cleansed and reborn.
Remember that healing is not linear – it is cyclical. You may have to go through the journey many times, in many different ways, before you start to see progress. It’s okay to not be okay. It’s okay to be gentle with yourself. And most of all, it’s okay to trust in the integrity of your choices and of your inner guidance.
You’ll know you made the right decision by leaving your abuser when your spirit is at ease even in the midst of chaos. While the heart and mind may still be reeling from the trauma of the abuse, the soul quietly breathes a sigh of relief, and says, “Thank you.”