Six things I wish someone had told me.
When my second marriage exploded seemingly overnight, it took weeks just to wrap my mind around what had happened. Every morning I wandered around in a daze, wearing this awful, oversized, oatmeal-colored shirt with kittens on it that had belonged to my mother-in-law. I wore it every day because it was soft. But it felt like I had been born in that shirt and would die it in too. I simply wasn’t functioning.
I couldn’t understand how I had been so deluded about what my husband was actually capable of. It was months before I could admit to myself that he was a narcissist, longer to admit that he never loved me, and even longer to realize I needed to heal.
After I could think clearly again (and after I threw the cat shirt in the garbage), the only thing I cared about was keeping myself safe in the future—because this was my second marriage, and the second time I had been duped by a narcissist.
I only had one question: What can I do to keep this from ever happening again?
When I searched for advice directed at victims of narcissistic abuse, I found a ton of information out there explaining narcissists. How narcissists got the way they are, how the narcissistic cycle of abuse works, love-bombing, devalue and discard, etc. etc. There’s lots of stories here on Medium, there are amazing books you can read, there are accounts to follow on Instagram.
In short, if you want to understand narcissism, you can spend hours, days, or even years trying to learn about narcissists and what they do.
While this is all helpful information and a critical piece of the healing process, I wasn’t finding the answer to my question. How was I going to protect myself?
“Anyone can be duped by a narcissist. If you are a kind, loving, sensitive person who knows how to love, you can be duped.”
If narcissists are as diabolical as we’ve been lead to believe (and they really are), and if anyone is susceptible to being duped by a narcissist (also true), what are people like me—described by a therapist as Grade A Narcissistic Supply—supposed to do?
I believe people shy away from answering this question because it feels too close to victim-blaming, and that’s valid. An especially insidious piece of the narcissistic cycle of abuse is their use of emotional manipulation to convince the victim that everything is their fault. Breaking the habit of blaming yourself takes time. In fact, I’ll say it again in case you really need to hear it: nothing the narcissist did to hurt you was ever something you deserved and it was not your fault.
The narcissist's actions are the narcissist's fault, and no one else's. However, if we place the blame for the narcissist's behavior squarely on them without also acknowledging that there ARE things we can do to protect ourselves, we are left feeling powerless. At least I was.
But I am not powerless, and neither are you.
Here are six things I wish someone would have told me when I was desperate to learn how to protect myself:
1. What makes you Narcissist Catnip?
First of all you, need to understand that you’re probably an extremely nice person. You are empathetic, compassionate, authentic, and honest. Unfortunately, this may also mean you have shitty boundaries (as I did and often still do).
Restating because you probably need to hear it again: this still does not make the abuse your fault. It means that when the narcissist looks for someone to fulfill their need for supply, you seemed like a good candidate—again, because you are compassionate, authentic, honest, and loving—all wonderful things that we should all aspire to.
But it’s the potentially lethal combination of an empathic, loving, compassionate spirit and a lack of boundaries that make you the perfect narcissist meal:
“By being in a relationship with such a nurturing, loving person, the person with narcissism is able to consume that person’s authentic love and extract narcissistic supply. Once fed over the course of days, weeks, or months, the person with narcissism is satiated and may grow bored with his or her partner. He or she must secure the supply of another target, usually in short order.”
Your job is to learn how to protect yourself while also retaining all of the things about you that attracted the narcissist to you in the first place. It’s not easy, but also not impossible.
2. Understand That You (Probably) Fawn, and Why
“When you’ve tried fight, flight, or freeze several times without success, you may find yourself using the fawn response … You can recognize this if you notice that no matter how poorly someone treats you, you are more concerned about making them happy than about doing what’s right for you.”
Although the term “fawn” was first coined by Pete Walker, this article does an excellent job explaining the fawn trauma response.
If you grew up in a home with abuse, if you’ve been in a relationship with a narcissist for an extended period of time, or if you have often referred to yourself as a “people pleaser” you’re probably good at fawning—stroking the ego of another person as a method of self-preservation.
One way to keep yourself safe if you are in danger is to compliment, soothe, stroke the ego, and otherwise make the abuser feel good about themselves. This can diffuse tense situations and keep yourself (and maybe others, like your kids) safe.
Give yourself credit for this being an excellent strategy. It’s probably kept you safe more times than you can count—but remember that it’s a self-preservation strategy and not the only way you have of interacting with others. If you’re really used to fawning (people-pleasing) you may be neglecting your boundaries in favor of making others feel good. In short, being an expert fawner also makes you an excellent candidate for narcissistic supply.
3. Avoid the Narcissist Rabbit Hole
It’s tempting and easy to fall into a pattern of learning everything about narcissists in an attempt to protect yourself. We think that if we can only understand why they do what they do, things will finally make sense, and we will be able to recognize other narcissists in the future.
It’s a hard truth to face, but you will never understand the person who hurt you because you are not a narcissist. Their choices or reasons will never make sense because you will never be capable of such a thorough and complete disregard of the needs and feelings of others. If you have even an ounce of empathy, you are not ever going to be able to understand the rules they play by.
In fact, I believe this need to figure out and understand how narcissists work is just another way for us to, on some level, maintain our relationship with them.
Be kind to yourself: this was another survival mechanism for you, and it worked. You learned to walk on eggshells, you learned to read subtle shifts in mood and behavior, and because of this, you survived.
But now it’s time to focus on you.
Ultimately, focusing on what is wrong with the narcissist is simply another way of focusing on the narcissist. This is what you’ve been doing during your entire relationship with them, which is part of why it feels so comforting and familiar.
Spend some time in the Narcissist Rabbit Hole if you feel like you need to, but also realize that learning about narcissism is only one of the first steps on the path to healing.
4. Learn How to Parent Yourself
No one is coming to save you, except you.
This is a terrifying realization, made worse by the fact that narcissists use trauma bonding to make you believe you’re unable to survive on your own.
But as an empathetic, compassionate, authentic, and honest person (see above), I’m willing to bet that you have top-notch caregiving skills.
Turn your nurturing tendencies inward and take care of yourself instead.
YOU are the one who is MOST CAPABLE of taking care of yourself. You are the only one inside your own head, inside your own skin, who feels what you feel. You are the expert.
The best way to form healthy relationships is to spend time together, right? The same goes for your relationship with yourself. Spend time getting to know yourself well enough that you don’t turn to others when you need love and comfort. A regular journaling practice is the best way I know of to have a consistent, on-going conversation with yourself. I also recommend following @the.holistic.psychologist on Instagram for more tips on re-parenting and self-care.
5. Become a Boundary-Setting Expert
Setting boundaries when you’ve never done it before is kind of like growing a brand new body part. But setting clear boundaries is the single most important skill you can learn to protect yourself from narcissists—malleable boundaries make you easy to manipulate and basically paint a narcissist target on your back.
Before you begin another relationship of any kind (friends, neighbors, co-workers included) your number one priority is understanding your own boundaries.
This area, in particular, is one where I didn’t find a lot of helpful information. I struggled for years to understand how boundaries work, and I wrote about that here.
TLDR; you are the foremost expert on the topic of YOU, and you can protect yourself better than anyone else can. Learn to feel where your boundaries are, and practice every single day.
6. Increase Your Window of Tolerance
Your window of tolerance is essentially the space between hyPER-arousal (freaking out, probably in fight, flight, freeze, or fawn) and hyPO-arousal (feeling empty or numb). When you are living in the cycle of narcissistic abuse, you are likely outside of your window of tolerance—and because of what you’ve been through, your window of tolerance may be fairly narrow:
“When we have unhealed traumas, our systems may not be fully present. They might not fully know or feel that the danger has passed and can become fixed in states of hypoarousal and hyperarousal or fluctuate between the two states”.
In order to heal, you’ll need to not only get inside your window of tolerance, but you’ll need to learn how to stay there.
Start with a good therapist (keep trying until you find one that clicks — it’s a lot like dating) and a support group.
Maybe you also need a new exercise program, a coach, or a spiritual advisor. Maybe you need a fancy journal and lots of pretty gel pens. Maybe you need meds. Maybe you need all of these things. But a big part of self-care is understanding that it’s ongoing. It’s not one walk through the woods followed by some journaling and a hot bath, and then you’re all done.
The more you learn how to best take care of yourself, the more you will increase your window of tolerance and your ability to weather the worst of storms.
I’ve heard many women in my situation refer to themselves as warriors, and if I’m honest, the term felt hyperbolic to me at first. But as a survivor of narcissistic abuse, keeping yourself safe requires a warrior mindset: you will need to practice self-awareness, self-care, reparenting, boundary-setting, and increasing your window of tolerance every single day.
With practice, things will definitely get better. But they will also sometimes get worse. This is when you will lean into everything you’re learning now. You’ll practice your favorite self-care strategies and make sure you’re within your window of tolerance. You'll also do a boundary check and see what doesn’t currently feel right with your relationships.
And best of all, you’ll discover how much you are capable of, and realize how truly special you are.