No one teaches us to identify narcissists, so by the time we realize we’re with one, we’re blindsided. Breakups themselves are hard enough, but there’s no manual for navigating one with a narcissist.
My friend and psychologist Jonathan Marshall, Ph.D., tells me that you have to see this type of breakup as a long game. “It takes consistent ongoing effort because your own issues are used by the narcissist against you,” he says. “It’s a siege.”
Here’s what I wish someone had told me when I left my narcissistic ex-partner and what I impart to my clients these days:
1. Stop trying to keep the narcissist accountable.
With most people, you can have reasonable discussions of when certain behaviors are unacceptable. With a narcissist, their response almost always flips between “you’re crazy/unreasonable/too sensitive” and “I promise to change, so give me a chance.” The goal posts are always changing, and you walk on eggshells, with your sense of reality gradually eroding. There are times when the narcissist may have appeared to have changed, except that it’s often one step forward and five steps back. And then you get blamed for calling them out, even if they’re hurting you.
Understand this as you’re walking out the door: You can never hold a narcissist accountable. It’s what’s kept you hooked, and you need to leave behind that desire to make them “get it” or “change” if you’re going to be able to truly close the door on this relationship.
2. Hold on to those moments of clarity.
By the time you’re ready to leave, a big problem is that you’re probably distant from your friends and voices of wisdom—a typical machination by the narcissist. So when you have moments of inner clarity come through, Marshall stresses the importance of hanging on to them: “These are moments when you tell yourself, I know now in this moment I must get away. Hold on to it, and come back to this moment again and again. Because you will forget the logic behind why you say that. It’s OK. As long as you remember the conclusion you’ve drawn.” This will fuel you with the strength to keep walking away and never look back.
3. Just because you’ve changed doesn’t mean they can.
Sometimes we know what it’s like to turn our lives around, and so we invest faith in others who seek redemption. The problem is, narcissists cannot and will not change. Every so-called change is piecemeal and ephemeral, and you will pay for that dearly. Know this: The only person you need to take care of, in this very moment, is yourself. You’ve been pummeled and whipped into a shadow of yourself, and you deserve to love yourself into healing.
4. Discernment does not make you a bad person.
“If I judge him, doesn’t that make me unspiritual? Then I am as bad as him!” Many clients come to me with this sort of sentiment.
There is an inherent problem with the maxim “Don’t judge.” It presupposes that anytime we decide something isn’t good for us, we’re bad people, and we judge ourselves instead. To be alive is to judge—every time you reverse your car into the parking lot, you are making a judgment call on what angle to maneuver. Discernment does not make you a bad person. It makes you a wiser person. Here’s something to consider, instead: If this relationship with a narcissist were to happen to your best friend or child, would you be OK with it?
5. Yes, you were not perfect. You did bad things too.
Not only in your life but in the relationship. When you were pushed and provoked, you might’ve snapped. You might’ve said mean things in the heat of the moment. The narcissist uses these instances against you, saying you are equally to blame. They’ll use lines like, “Remember how good things used to be between us. It’s all your fault I’m like this now.” They’ll try to make you feel you have no right to call them a narcissist.
Yes, you might’ve made bad decisions or done “bad” things. But unlike a narcissist, you didn’t deliberately set a trap to slowly hook, hoodwink, and then abuse another person for your own sick kicks.
You’re not a saint. That doesn’t mean you need to be stomaching another person’s literal and figurative punches.
6. You can’t talk it away.
A major problem I see is when clients tell me how they’ve been trying to talk things through for years in therapy, and nothing’s changed. It may have even gotten worse due to repeated re-experiencing of the trauma, and life doesn’t feel safe anymore.
You can rationalize everything away, and that’s not a good thing. Yes, there’s a reason the narcissist is the way they are—genetics, family dynamics, substance abuse, etc. It’s not your job to analyze why or to get caught in the smoke and mirrors. When it comes to narcissists, the root of the problem is them, and the reason we call it a “personality disorder” in psychiatry is because it cannot change. Nor is it serving you to rationalize your feelings or trauma away or to scold yourself for feeling a certain way, expecting yourself to “just move on.” Trauma is stored in our bodies and doesn’t disappear simply with logical or positive thinking. The only way through is to process and release it rather than analyze till the cows come home.
7. Comparing their “progress” to yours will cripple you.
Narcissists move on very quickly, even if they abruptly U-turn and tell you it’s only to forget you while they struggle with how much they love you. Words are cheap, and the narcissist thrives on messing with your head, knowing that you’ll be fixated on them rather than healing yourself and meeting someone who deserves you.
Many clients tell me they are upset by how the narcissist seems to be unscathed while they themselves are a hot mess. They question why they are “weak and useless,” and they want to give up. Here’s the deal. Narcissists move on to distract themselves, prey on a new source of attention, or punish you. More importantly, they have no affective empathy—the ability to feel what another person is feeling—much less have compassion for others. This is why they move on so easily. So, stop stalking them on social media or asking mutual friends about them. Your progress is yours and yours alone. I also advocate that my clients block the narcissist from all forms of contact if possible.
8. You will blame yourself.
For walking away, getting involved, not walking away, not seeing the red flags— basically, everything. It’ll play out in a way where you feel damned if you do and damned if you don’t. Marshall explains that from the start, the narcissist capitalizes on your tendency to self-blame. They’ll increasingly make you responsible for the fact that their world isn’t good.
“Once you leave, you continue to assume you’re to blame because that intimate person in your life has a voice in your head, speaking in your own language, because that’s what they do,” he says, adding, “It’s not obvious that it’s their voice playing; it sounds like your own.”
Many of my clients who attract narcissists tend to be both Type A and empathetic. This means they are tough on themselves and expect themselves to overgive, blaming themselves for the times they never gave enough. Instead of dedicating resources and attention to healing, they’re often ruminating and beating themselves up for everything they did wrong in that relationship, as though any modification would change the past. Here’s the deal: Every time you blame yourself, your narcissistic ex wins. They continue to abuse you because you are abusing yourself.
9. Your oldest traumas and vulnerabilities matter.
“I don’t care or want to talk about my childhood. It doesn’t matter,” some of my clients tell me. The truth is, it does. Often, we get attracted to narcissists because of something that happened at an earlier time in our lives—perhaps, our childhood—or somewhere along the family tree. In psychology, repetition compulsion is where we keep repeating the same dynamics with different people to resolve a trauma. This is done unconsciously and therefore with the wrong kind of people who are bad for us, and as such relationships play on a loop over and over like a bad magic spell, we learn to feel more helpless and hopeless.
Without obsessing for years (or months) over our childhoods, I advocate my clients explore and close chapters in their past that have scarred them, even if they feel it’s a little too pompous because “No one died” or “It’s not that bad.” The truth is, it matters to you and for you. And when you do this, you view your past in a different light—instead of blaming yourself, you are filled with empathy for your younger self. With a coherent story of your past, you start to heal. And then you can live your life guided by this question, “How can I be the champion my younger self never had?”
10. There’s never a right time to leave.
“Many clients often say, ‘I can’t do it now,'” Marshall tells me. They give reasons like the narcissist’s work is too intense, or they’re going through some tough family drama. “You need to be very wise and savvy when you hear your own voice saying ‘not now.’ There will always be another crisis next time. You are set up against an army—his manipulations, your caregiving, feeling isolation—trying to delude you of that clarity. Sometimes there is no good time; you just have to leave.”
So if you feel you left at the wrong time and want to give them another chance, know there’s no time when the stars will be aligned and the ducks are in a row.
11. It takes a village.
What if you have to maintain communications because of joint assets or children, or you’re busy fighting legal battles? In this case, the narcissist will use your history and your trauma against you, pushing your buttons so you are blindsided and look unstable. Here’s where you engage people—professionals and loved ones—to have your back, work together, and call you out whenever you self-sabotage. It takes a village, and having that village doesn’t make you weak.
12. You need to be good to yourself.
Self-compassion can feel like a fluffy term, but the truth is, it can actually up your well-being and even your work performance. My Olympian friend Peter Shmock simply calls it “being good to yourself.” The parts of you that are frightened, angry, traumatized, and confused do not need any more bullying. Just as you’d hug a frightened child or a sick puppy, kindness is exactly what you need right now. And the only stentorian discipline you need is in your devotion to your healing—practicing grounding exercises to help retrain your brain in acknowledging your feelings rather than scolding yourself and stuffing them down.
Many of my clients are extremely bright and accomplished, but they have spent their whole lives being unkind to themselves. I often remind them that learning to be kind feels harder than their surgical residency or seven-figure business deal. They laugh because it’s true. Consider it a form of training in your mental gym. The first time you train any muscle, it’s going to feel impossible, until one day it eventually stops feeling that way.
Healing starts with you rooting for yourself, just as I’m rooting for you.
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