Many narcissistic abuse survivors approach me and ask, “How long does it take to heal?” They often add, “When will the pain stop?” Unfortunately, there is no easy answer. There are many layers to healing, and there are several stages of grief. A healing timeline can be long or short, depending on how much work we put into feeling better.
First, let’s look at why it’s difficult to heal from narcissistic abuse. One of the biggest reasons is the trauma bonds that we develop with a narcissist.
Trauma bonds are emotional attachments developed out of toxic relationships, particularly when there’s a cycle of abuse. The devaluation then intermittent positive reinforcement causes trauma bonds to grow stronger as time passes. These bonds can happen after days, weeks, months, or years of abuse. It is important to understand that not all abuse survivors have trauma bonds.
Another reason it is difficult to heal from narcissistic abuse is that we are mourning a dream and not reality. The narcissist has taught us to live in their reality, then when we crash into the real world, it’s a big letdown. A narcissist’s abundant charm and empty promises lead us to live on endless hope for a better future. When we are confronted with the truth of our life as it is, it hurts deeply.
When we learn that the relationship with a narcissist is over, for any reason, we begin to go through the five stages of grief. Elizabeth Kubler Ross, MD, did years of research into the grief process and healing. The stages for grief according to Kubler Ross are:
Denial – is the first stage of the grieving process. Denial helps us cope. Without denying what has happened, the world would feel meaningless and we would feel hopeless. Denial helps us pace ourselves as we move through the process of letting go.
Anger – is the second stage of the grieving process. You may find that you are angry at friends, family members, strangers, and others. The anger will also come and go. It is rooted in your heart and soul from the narcissist, but it must escape your mind and body, so let it out. Do your best not to injure others when you are angry.
Bargaining – This stage is where survivors once again turn the magnifying lens on themselves. We bargain with God and ourselves, asking, “What can I do so this turns out to be a bad dream? What did I do wrong? If I correct my errors, can we go back to how things should be?”
Depression– The website grief.com sums up depression accurately. The website reads, “After bargaining, our attention moves squarely into the present. Empty feelings present themselves, and grief enters our lives on a deeper level, deeper than we ever imagined. This depressive stage feels as though it will last forever. It’s important to understand that this depression is not a sign of mental illness. It is the appropriate response to a great loss.”
Acceptance – This is when we understand what has happened, and we determine we will live beyond the life event, or in this case, the end of a relationship with a narcissist. We must try to live in a world where our loved one is missing. We aren’t saying “It’s ok”, but we are saying, “I get it, and I will keep going.”
We need to remember that this grieving process is not linear. You can move from one stage to another then back again. You can also jump around through this process. The important thing is that you feel. Cry. Scream. Let the emotions out in a safe place and in a safe way.
Dr. David Kessler has researched grief with Dr. Kubler Ross, and he recently added a sixth stage to the process. Kessler believes that many people need to find meaning in what happened before moving on. Survivors often desire to know what they are supposed to learn from their abuse and recovery. Did this relationship empower and teach them to help others? Did the relationship encourage them to protect their kids and family from such predators? What is the lesson here? It may not be closure but finding the reasons someone has gone through trauma or loss can help that person move on.
To help move through the stages of grief, it’s important to get help to do so. Here is a list of what many survivors do to move through the healing process.
- Find a therapist specializing in narcissistic abuse recovery
- Find a recovery coach
- Join support groups
- Write in a journal daily
- Work with a spiritual healer or minister
- Attend Divorce Care
The more you invest in your healing with time and effort, the more quickly you should feel better.
I have some final thoughts on life without the narcissist that you need to remember as you heal.
One is that life with a narcissist will not be how life “should be.” Ever. A narcissist cannot provide that and doesn’t want to provide what you need or deserve. For almost any narcissist, that would mean sharing, giving, and showing empathy. It’s not going to happen, most likely. In most cases, narcissists aren’t capable. In rare cases, if they have the capability, they don’t want to do the work a healthy relationship takes.
Secondly, this is one of those rare times in life where we can say you likely didn’t do anything wrong. I have seen men and women (who seem as close to perfect as you can be) work for decades to please a narcissist. Guess what? They weren’t ever able to meet a narcissist’s ever-changing, impossible standards. Some gave up and left the relationship, while others did not or could not.
It’s critical to remember that giving up is not losing or giving in. Sometimes giving up is choosing you, and that’s the best way to heal.