How can she say she loves me and wants the relationship to work and then do that?
He says he doesn’t want a committed relationship, but keeps calling. It doesn’t make sense.
How can she have changed so much? When we first met she told me I was the most amazing man she’s ever known. Now she acts like she can barely tolerate being in the same room with me.
How can he go from calling me multiple times a day to not answering my calls?
I gave her everything she said she wanted, and now she’s posting pictures of herself and her new soulmate on Facebook. What did I do wrong?
If only I’d gone over there that night. If only I’d been more patient. If only I’d been more understanding of her or his issues. If only I’d tried harder.
Sound familiar? If so, you’re not alone. These kinds of thoughts, feelings, self-doubts, self-recriminations and ruminations are very common after a relationship with a narcissist, borderline, psychopath, histrionic or other emotional predator. Ruminating is one of the first stages of the healing process and it’s a painful one. Many people get stuck here. It’s not only painful for those who are stuck, it’s also painful for loved ones to witness.
Narcissistic abuse is a mindf—k. There are more clinical terms to describe it, but mindf—k is the most evocative and accurate. During the devaluation and discard stage, most victims are in a state of shock and awe. Gaslighting and projection condition victims to blame themselves for their narcissist’s abuse. You torture yourself trying to figure out what you could’ve done differently in order not to have lost the narcissist’s love. You’d do anything to go back to the love bombing or idealization stage when you thought you had an endless supply of the narcissist’s seeming unconditional love and admiration.
What many victims don’t realize is that love bombing is nothing more than a seduction tool used to create an emotional dependency. Some people are relatively immune to love bombing and, in fact, find it creepy. Yes, creepy. They experience it as over the top and too much, too soon. While other people are especially vulnerable to love bombing, i.e., the personality disordered and the codependent. I’m not here to help the personality disordered, so let’s focus on the codependent.
To many codependents, love bombing feels like the unconditional love you didn’t get as a child in your family of origin with the added adult bonus, in many cases, of a lot of sex — at least initially. At long last, it seems as if you’ve met the woman or man of your dreams who truly appreciates and loves you. And they know it within the first 15 minutes of laying eyes on you or swiping right. (Or is it left?)
In reality, it’s an instance of the old adage, “If someone seems too good to be true, don’t believe it.” While love bombing feeds the wish to be loved and adored, it’s smoke and mirrors. Bait and switch. Narcissists give in order to get. It’s like a drug dealer giving you a free supply of cocaine. Once you’re hooked, you pay and pay and pay and, in essence, become the dealer’s bitch, regardless of gender.
Once the mask is removed and the devaluation begins, most codependents desperately look for ways to return to the love bombing stage. This is the root of the ceaseless ruminations with which many victims torture themselves while being devalued and discarded post break-up. For a time, you don’t understand there’s no going back because it was never real in the first place. These ruminations typically occur in stages.
Especially effective narcissists condition you to gaslight yourself. After awhile, they don’t need to project or blame shift. You readily take responsibility for things you did and didn’t do, real or imagined, without their prompting. Basically it’s just good time management and delegating to subordinates [Sarcasm.]
During this stage you blame yourself for not being able to turn a narcissist or psychopath into a decent, loving human being. If only you were better, more handsome, prettier, thinner, more athletic, more patient, learned not to flinch when abused, understanding of her or his infidelities, younger, taller, shorter, did yoga, texted at 7:05pm instead of 7:00pm or explained things in a way he or she can understand it could work!
No, it can’t.
By the way, you shouldn’t have to explain how to behave like a decent human being to an adult. Unless she or he was raised by wolves or is a real life version of Jodi Foster’s Nell, they should know that it’s wrong to lie, cheat, steal, tantrum and be an a–hole.
You’re blaming yourself for not being good enough to turn a narcissist into a decent human being. Think about this. I mean really, really think about this. Would you blame yourself for not being able to change a rattlesnake into a teddy bear? Of course not.
If you were a child of abusive parents, you probably developed the magical belief that you could change your parent’s behavior if you were good enough, worthy enough and lovable enough. It’s less scary than the reality, which is that mom or dad was an out-of-control, angry train wreck. As a child maybe you told yourself that if you made all A’s, kept your room clean, explained yourself better, made mom happy and didn’t bother dad after he’d been drinking they’d be nicer. Do you see the similarities to the self-blame you’ve been engaging in with your narcissist? It didn’t work with your parent(s) and it isn’t going to work with your adult abuser.
What can you do? Reality test, reality test, reality test! Also, go No Contact. If you have kids, go Low Contact. Just like actual gas poisoning (e.g., carbon monoxide), you need to remove yourself from the gas leak or gaslighting gasbag as the case may be. It takes time and distance for your head to clear from the FOG (fear, obligation, guilt). Challenge your cognitive distortions and self-delusions about how soulmatey your narcissist is. She or he isn’t your soulmate, that is if such a thing even exists.
The sex probably wasn’t as amazing as you tell yourself it was either. Selfish, self-absorbed jerks are typically selfish, self-absorbed lovers. They may howl like Traci Lords, but then she’s a two-bit lousy actor, too. Identify the similarities between your narcissist and your mother and/or father. Talk to your friends and tell them what happened. In other words, stop protecting your abuser and allow your support system to help keep you on track. If it’s difficult to keep yourself honest, let your friends or a therapist help you to do so.
Stage Two: WTF or Shock and Awe
Now you’re moving out of abject despair and heartbreak and feeling the first rumblings of anger. Good. Yes, good. You can’t bypass the anger that results from narcissistic abuse and heal. To anyone reading this whose narcissistic or borderline parents made you feel wrong or bad about expressing anger when abused or treated unfairly, it’s okay to be angry. It’s as useful a human emotion as any other. It means you’ve been hurt, betrayed or treated unjustly. You’re supposed to be pissed when someone repeatedly and unrepentantly treats you like crap.
It can be incredibly difficult to wrap your mind around the crazy, nasty, dishonest, breathtakingly selfish and entitled behavior of abusers. Even when you’ve experienced it firsthand over and over and over and over, it can still be tough to grasp.
It’s not a very intellectually or emotionally satisfying answer, but disordered people do disordered things. People lacking empathy and integrity do astonishingly cruel things. Emotionally immature adult toddlers and teens are pathologically entitled and simply don’t think beyond their own wants, needs and feelings the majority of the time. That’s the WHY. It’s just the way it is and no amount of patience, love, self-sacrifice, unconditional positive regard or radical acceptance is going to change that.
What can you do? Stop doubting what you’ve observed and experienced with your own eyes and ears. When you find yourself slipping back into the wallowing of stage one, answer the question who does that? Narcissists, psychopaths and other abusive personalities that don’t give a flying fudge. Then challenge yourself — why do you miss and want to be with someone who treated you like that?
Stage Three: That A–hole!
Now you’re good and angry. Angry at your abuser and angry at yourself. You’re angry at the narcissist for all the shitty ways she or he treated you and angry at yourself for either tolerating it or sinking to their level after being provoked. This isn’t a pleasant time, but it’s a helluva lot better than stage one and two.
You swallowed a lot of poison or abuse, now you’re sucking it out. When in an abusive relationship, many people learn to stuff their natural emotional responses to the abuse. Narcissists and other abusers don’t tolerate being held accountable. They have narcissistic rage episodes when confronted with their atrocities or gaslight and blame shift, which is crazy-making. These painful experiences and memories don’t go away just because you ignore or block them from your immediate awareness as they happen.
It’s safe for these memories and emotions to rise to the surface now that you’re out of the relationship. Don’t worry, you don’t have to get stuck here. As bad or uncomfortable as it may feel, it’s a gift. You’re getting the opportunity to do the emotional work now that you didn’t do then. There’s no reason to be afraid. As long as you don’t act out inappropriately, the only consequence to this stage is healing.
What can you do? Feel your feelings. Be compassionate with yourself. Work at a pace that is comfortable for you. Don’t contact your narcissistic ex for closure. I can’t think of a single client who’s done so that hasn’t regretted it. When has your narcissist ever given you anything that benefited you? Give it to yourself. Try journaling as a way to take the thoughts and feelings out of yourself and into a container. Physical exercise is a good way to release the emotions, too. Acknowledge just how badly you were treated, and do it without making excuses for your abuser. Then let it go.
Stage Four: Health and Happiness
You may think of your narcissist from time to time, but it won’t pack the same emotional or physical wallop. You’ll periodically be reminded of her or him, but it won’t destabilize you like it once did. In fact, you may even have a chuckle at how far away and ridiculous your old life seems to you now.
For example, two years after my relationship with my narcissistic ex ended, I was was doing my quarterly CostCo toilet paper – paper towel run. During checkout, my membership card was declined. My first thought was that it was time to pay the annual dues. No big deal. As it turned out, my ex was the primary membership holder (even though I’d always paid the annual fee) and had booted me off the account to add his new bride, the buck-toothed, mullet-haired, bisexual former child actress with whom he cheated on me.
At first, I was mad. It was an unexpected punch to the gut. He had intruded on my day. There he was where he wasn’t supposed to be. I took some deep breaths and thought about it. I remembered the day we enrolled at CostCo together. He made a big deal about it, like he was bestowing a special honor and privilege onto me. What was the honor? While he sat at home Facebook Like masturbating, I got to drive through ridiculously bad traffic, wade through crowds and wait in long lines for the privilege of purchasing bulk toilet paper for him to wipe his ass. Isn’t she the luckiest!
And then I began laughing. Full on body shaking, crossed my legs so I didn’t pee laughing. I may have even snorted. Then I felt exquisite relief and gratitude that that is no longer my life.
You may think of your narcissist or borderline from time to time. It’s to be expected. If your home was destroyed by a tornado, you’d think about that years later, too. However, it doesn’t have to hurt you or impact your emotions anymore. You can roll your eyes, laugh and say to yourself, “What the *#^@%@$ was I thinking!” and be on about your day.
What can you do? Count your blessings and enjoy your life. You’ve earned it. Healing means giving yourself the love and acceptance you didn’t get as a child, or were doled out conditionally based on how well you met your disordered parents’ needs. Once that happens, the vulnerability to emotional predators is gone. The next person who tries to love bomb you will be a major turn off, not a turn on. And you will be in control of your thoughts and feelings instead of at their mercy.
Dr. Tara J. Palmatier, PsyD provides individual services to help individuals work through their relationship issues via telephone or Skype, particularly men and women trying to break free of an abusive relationship, cope with the stress of an abusive relationship or heal from an abusive relationship. Her practice combines practical advice, support, reality testing and goal-oriented outcomes. Please visit the Services page for professional inquiries.
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