How to Heal From a Narcissistic Relationship, According to a Therapist
Breaking up with someone is already a painful experience. But if your partner is a narcissist? It can be even more emotionally devastating. According to New York-based psychotherapist Maria Bautista, LCSW-R, the toxic partnership was likely marked with instances of belittlement, gaslighting, criticism, manipulation, superficiality, and a lack of empathy.
Looking back on the aftermath of a complicated relationship can be psychologically distressing because of those harmful behaviors. It can feel crazy-making (aka a behavior that sounds logical but actually makes no sense) to retract their lies, grandiosity, and manipulative delusions to sift through what was fiction and what was real.
As a result, you might want to quickly put your ex behind you or minimize their impact to move on, but those relational wounds don't easily go away. Later on, it'll just show up as a stumbling block to hinder authentic connection, or worse, ensnare you in another narcissistic relationship to repeat a familiar cycle.
For the sake of your emotional well-being and future connections, it's wise to structure out a gentle adjustment period to recover from a narcissistic relationship. Here are some therapist-approved steps to begin the journey of healing and positively move forward to rebuild a contained, powerful sense of self.
How to heal from a narcissist:
1. Remember why the relationship needed to end and set clear boundaries.
Dating a narcissistic person comes with a host of problems (entitlement, superiority, false image projection, intense need for control, inability to take responsibility, etc.) that are not your issues to co-manage. Love and your best intentions can't fix their behavior, it's up to them to see it as a problem and want to change themselves. Bautista affirms, "Ending the relationship is the best recourse if your partner has shown no interest in fulfilling your needs and expectations in the dynamic. It may even require you taking the extra step of blocking the narcissistic partner on all social media platforms and ceasing communication [altogether]."
They might not accept your perception of the relationship because they'll be so busy defending their actions but remember: They no longer have to validate you. Your truth is good enough. Narcissistic partners are notoriously skilled at generating doubt to shift blame but don't let their manipulations make you second-guess yourself.
2. Develop self-regulating tactics to soothe yourself and practice self-care.
It's incredibly taxing to be in a relationship where you're constantly walking on eggshells to avoid potential disapproval or anger. Your parasympathetic nervous system might have been working overtime in its hyper-vigilance to protect yourself. Gently soothe your overworked signals by leaning on mindfulness, deep breathing, somatic body-work, journaling, and meditation to recalibrate.
During your post-breakup recovery, do lots of self-maintenance without shame, from listening to weepy music to watching cliché rom-coms to eating endless amounts of ice-cream to crying yourself to sleep on the couch. Use every self-care tool at your disposal because you'll need it to acknowledge what you went through to go through the feels.
You may feel uncomfortable and messy emotions might arise, so be extra-compassionate to yourself while you are processing. Try not to obsess over it and instead work on releasing whatever comes up. The endless rumination won't lead you towards enlightenment, only to more confusion.
3. Take up space and reconnect to yourself.
Narcissists and their needs take center-stage, which naturally pushes yours to the sidelines. If they imposed their ideas of how they want you to be in the relationship, you probably changed your looks, altered the way you carried yourself, or repressed certain personality traits to please them.
To find yourself again, expand your world through regaining emotional safety, taking up neglected hobbies, and reaching out to loved ones. Bautista recommends expressing your needs freely and practicing them with your loved ones. "Remind yourself that it is okay to share your thoughts, wants, and desires with your partner. Please do not forget to remind yourself that you deserve to be treated well and establish firm boundaries for undesirable behaviors," she says.
4. Understand why you found them attractive in the first place.
In the beginning, narcissistic people are seemingly captivating, affectionate, and attentive. Their charm is what makes them alluring, which is why it makes it that much more disorienting when the rug gets pulled from under your feet and you realize that's not who they really are. "Some reasons people are attracted to narcissists might be because narcissists value themselves highly thus appearing irresistible to others. This value, as superficial as it may be, places them 'above' others in an egotistical way. Some adaptive traits possessed by narcissists, like self-independence, confidence, and ambition, are attractive to those seeking a partner," Bautista notes.
"At the start of the relationship, they are solely focused on their partner, making them feel as if they are the most important person in their world. This might lead to overly complimenting, which might be short-lived should their partner become too attached to them. The undesirable/destructive narcissistic traits such as entitlement, manipulative and controlling behavior, arrogance, and lack of empathy do not appear until much later after their attractive traits have won you over," she further explains.
5. Stay grounded in yourself and your new self-awareness.
Bautista points out that the most effective way of breaking the cycle is to recognize it from the beginning. She suggests checking in with yourself and identifying unconscious motives that might have influenced your partner selection. "See what it means about your own sense of worth from being involved with someone who has a commanding presence. People-pleasing patterns are also deserving of exploration," Bautista says.
"We have to learn how to consistently love ourselves and honor our own boundaries. Only then we'll be able to identify how we do not want to be treated," she adds.