Narcissistic abuse is insidious and can cause lasting effects like low self-esteem, trust issues, self-doubt, grief, depression, and anxiety.1,2,3,4 With time and treatment, it’s possible to heal and overcome these issues, recovering parts of yourself and your life that were lost to the abuser. Recovery is a process that often occurs in the ten distinct stages outlined in this article.3,4,5
What Is Narcissistic Abuse?
People with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) are more likely to be verbally, emotionally, sexually, and physically abusive towards others.2,4,6 While narcissists can use a wide range of abusive tactics against family, friends, and romantic partners, there are some abusive behaviors that are more common.
10 Examples of Narcissistic Abuse
Specific abusive behavior from a narcissistic might look like alienating, gaslighting, or attempting to control or dominate the victim. Identifying a narcissist’s abusive cycle can be a helpful first step to addressing it.
Here are ten examples of narcissistic abuse:1,2,3,4
- Alienating a person from their support system to isolate and control them
- Financially exploiting a person or using them for some other benefit or gain
- Stonewalling, sulking, or being cold as a way to “punish” their victim
- Physical or sexual abuse or using threats of violence or abuse
- Repeated infidelity, which might be denied, weaponized, or blamed on the victim
- Playing mind games or using gaslighting techniques to make the victim doubt themselves
- Degrading someone or being verbally or emotionally abusive
- Distorting the situation and shifting blame to paint themselves as the victim
- Being controlling, domineering, jealous, or possessive
- Having unpredictable blow-ups mixed with kindness/affection
Effects of Narcissistic Abuse
Narcissistic abuse can have long-lasting effects. Being involved with a narcissist erodes your sense of self, lowers self-esteem, and causes crippling self-doubt.1,2,4,6 These impacts can show up in a number of ways for people, and often take several years (and a lot of therapy) to recover from.4
Some effects of narcissistic abuse include:2,3,4,6
- High levels of shame or feeling inadequate, unworthy, or “not good enough”
- Excessive self-doubt and difficulty making decisions independently
- Codependency or putting other people’s feelings and needs before your own
- Trust issues and trouble opening up or being vulnerable with others
- Feeling disconnected from your feelings, wants, and needs
- Trouble setting boundaries and forming healthy relationships
- Depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), suicidal thoughts, and substance use
- Inner conflict about wanting to make your relationship with a narcissist work and needing to leave
10 Stages of Healing After Narcissistic Abuse
While each person’s experience of recovery from narcissistic abuse is different, there are reports of many similarities that present in a series of ten stages.3,4,5
Here are ten common stages of healing after narcissistic abuse:
1. Denial: Initial Feeling That Something Is “Off”
Many people don’t realize that they’re dealing with a narcissist or are victims of narcissistic abuse. Instead, their process of recovery begins with a nagging feeling that something is not right in the relationship.6 They might get a sense that they are being mistreated or just feel like something is wrong or bad in the relationship, especially after a conflict.
“Narcissistic individuals often engage in a variety of behaviors to establish and maintain a position of advantage in their romantic relationships,” says Virgil Zeigler-Hill, Ph. D. “They may insult their partners during disagreements or use strategies such as intimidation or manipulation in order to maintain their position of power or dominance over their romantic partner.”
They might have moments of clarity when they recognize that the narcissist’s behavior is unacceptable or even abusive, but often remain in denial by making excuses. For example, they might chalk it up to the person having a bad day, being under a lot of stress, or cite examples of times when the person has been loving or kind to them. Denial is common in the early stages of recovery from narcissistic abuse.3,5,6
2. Shock & Confusion: Suspicions of Abuse Begin to Surface
Eventually, there may come a time when the abuse or narcissism is so bad that it is almost impossible for the person to remain in denial. The initial recognition that the person may be a narcissist or that they may be the victims of abuse is difficult to accept. It often comes with shock, confusion, and cognitive dissonance.3,4,5,7
Cognitive dissonance is the uncomfortable experience of knowing something is wrong or bad while also resisting acceptance. This can lead to an inner conflict where the person might go back and forth between blaming the narcissist and blaming themselves.4,7 This period can go on for a while, but usually ends in acceptance, marking the transition to the next stage.
3. Identification: Recognizing & Naming the Narcissistic Abuse
Eventually, the back-and-forth settles into a final recognition that the person is a narcissistic abuser. This difficult insight might come after the person does research on narcissism or narcissistic abuse, or after they open up to someone else about the abuse.5 Acknowledging and naming the abuse is an important turning point because it makes it almost impossible to return to a state of denial.
Still, it is common for people to believe that the narcissist in their life can change, recover, and stop being abusive. They may even try to “save” the relationship by seeking counseling or encouraging the narcissist to do so. These efforts rarely succeed, and often leave the person with no other option than to move to the next stage of separation.
4. Separation: Distance & Separation From the Abuser
Eventually, victims of narcissistic abuse realize that the narcissist in their life is either unwilling or unable to change, and that it is up to them to summon the strength to leave. This may begin as a “trial separation,” “break,” or just “taking space” from the abuser by limiting contact. This usually triggers a cycle of love bombing, narcissistic rage, and more abuse.1,6
Eventually, it will become clear to the person that they need to cut ties and end the relationship with the narcissist. This can be an ugly, painful experience, especially for those who had close relationships, shared assets, children, or other ties. In these cases, it’s common for the narcissist to become vengeful and cruel, sabotaging the person, leveraging legal or financial action, or finding other ways to enact revenge.4
5. Complicated Grief: Emotional Turmoil Including Anger, Guilt, & Sadness
After separation, it’s common for a person healing from narcissistic abuse to experience complicated grief or complex post-traumatic stress disorder (CPTSD).5,7 Unlike a “normal” process of mourning, complicated grief often involves a mix of emotions including anger, guilt, longing, and sadness. These conflicting feelings can make it difficult to really grieve the loss, accept that the relationship is over, and feel a sense of closure.7
These feelings might be further complicated by lasting fears about what the narcissist will do next in an attempt to hurt them.The best case scenario is often when the narcissist “discards” the person, going no-contact with them; but this also makes it hard to grieve and get closure. Because of their stunted emotional and social abilities, it’s almost impossible to have a healthy separation from a narcissist.6
6. Education: Finding Information & Support to Understand the Abuse
For many people who recently cut ties or ended a relationship with an abusive narcissist, education is a key part of their recovery process. Learning more about narcissism and narcissistic abuse from self-help books, support groups, or articles online can help them make sense of their experiences.3,5
For many people, research connects them to other survivors who have had similar experiences with narcissistic abuse. This can be very validating, and can help people in recovery find support while also helping them understand and make sense of the abuse.3,4,5 This process can empower abuse survivors, while also helping them find closure and move towards the next stage of healing.
7. Recovery: Self-care & Healing the Wounds of Narcissistic Abuse
The next stage in recovery after narcissistic abuse is finding skills, outlets, supports and self-care strategies that help them begin to heal the lasting wounds of abuse. In this stage, people learn ways to reconnect with their own feelings, wants, and needs. This often involves learning to love themselves and practice better self-care, putting themselves first.3,5
Narcissistic people tend to minimize, ignore, or violate the feelings, wants, and needs of other people, which can cause victims to disconnect from themselves. This stage of healing is all about rewiring these inner connections and learning to honor and validate their feelings and needs through self-care.3,4,5
8. Restoration: Reclaiming Independence & Rebuilding Their Life
Narcissistic people are known for guilting and coercing others into devoting most of their time and energy into meeting their needs while neglecting their own.8 They also tend to be highly controlling, using abusive tactics to try to control what they do, how they behave, where they go, and who they see.1,2,4
Many people in romantic relationships with a narcissist have developed codependent patterns, and have devoted their lives to taking care of others while neglecting themselves.7 This is why it’s so important for a person in recovery from narcissistic abuse to work on rebuilding a life of their own design. This process involves rebuilding a meaningful life based on the things they want, need, and care about.
For example, some people may decide to go back to school, change careers, or pursue their own passions and interests. For many, this stage also involves rebuilding a support system of people who are capable of having healthy, reciprocal relationships. This step is the key to moving beyond the abuse and towards a more hopeful, fulfilling, and meaningful life.3,5
9. Meaning-making: Finding Meaning In the Abuse & Getting Closure
At this stage, most people feel like they’ve healed the emotional wounds. They no longer feel plagued by grief or find themselves struggling daily with the aftermath of the abuse. For some, getting to this point is enough, but others feel the need to go further. They often describe the next step in their healing process as finding meaning from the pain of their experiences.4,5
This doesn’t mean they’re glad that they were abused or grateful for the relationship with the narcissist. It just means that they acknowledge that there were ways in which this experience made them stronger or wiser, or served as a catalyst that has improved their quality of life. For example, many people describe that their recovery process led them to develop more insight, healthier boundaries, or even self-love.3
10. Paying it Forward: Finding Ways to Give Back or Help Others
A final step in the process of moving from victim to survivor to thriver is finding ways to pay it forward by helping other victims or using their experience to make a positive impact. Some people who have overcome narcissistic abuse go on to start blogs, support groups, or other resources aimed at helping advocate for and empower other victims.3
Others find smaller and more personal ways to pay it forward. For example, they may teach their children about healthy boundaries and relationships, support a friend who is in an abusive relationship, or share their own experiences with others going through something similar. When it comes to how to move on after narcissistic abuse, these are ways of getting closure.
Benefits of Therapy
Depending on how long you were in a relationship with a narcissist, the type of relationship you had with them, and the abuse you experienced, the recovery process can be extensive. Many survivors describe that it took them a year or even several years until they felt like themselves again.4 For many, therapy was a key part of their recovery process.3,4
Some benefits of therapy include:
- Understanding narcissistic traits, tendencies, and the tactics used against them
- Identifying the specific wounds left by the abuse (i.e., low self-esteem, trust issues)
- Working through conflicting thoughts and feelings they have towards their abuser
- Resolving feelings of guilt and shame that resulted from narcissistic abuse
- Finding healthy coping skills, outlets, and supports to aid the healing process
- Identifying warning signs, red flags, and boundaries to form healthier relationships
- Resolving self-worth issues and rebuilding trust and confidence in themselves
- Identifying core values and long-term goals to rebuild their lives
How to Find a Therapist For Narcissistic Abuse
Finding a therapist who specializes in NPD, narcissistic abuse, or abusive relationships is important for those in recovery. Survivors of narcissistic abuse often suffer from anxiety, depression, self-esteem issues, and even PTSD or complex trauma symptoms. These issues can all be treated in therapy (sometimes in combination with medication).
Many people begin online by using a free therapist directory that allows them to filter and narrow their search to find therapists who specialize in these areas. Also, these filters can be used to find a therapist who is in-network with specific insurance plans, offers online or in-person sessions, or provides specific types of therapy.
Final Thoughts On the Stages of Healing After Narcissistic Abuse
Narcissistic abuse is insidious and can take many forms, including physical, sexual, and psychological abuse. Many victims describe that the road to recovery can be long and challenging, especially because of the way this kind of abuse erodes a person’s sense of self-worth. Still, it’s possible to recover and heal from narcissistic abuse, especially with a strong support system that includes a highly trained therapist.
For Further Reading
Here are additional resources recommended by survivors of narcissistic abuse:
Resources and support groups for survivors narcissistic abuse:
Self-help books for narcissism and healing from narcissistic abuse:
Other Choosing Therapy articles on narcissism and narcissistic abuse: