When it comes to narcissistic abuse recovery, how long does it take exactly?
Because that’s the objective here, isn’t it?
Depending on what site or forum you land on, it could take anywhere from ten minutes to ten years. And if we’re honest with ourselves, ten minutes is expecting a bit too much…but, ten years?
In the words of Kimberly “Sweet Brown” Wilkins, “Ain’t nobody got time for that!”
If you believe it could take ten years to heal from narcissistic abuse, you might be tempted to stay in your toxic situation because better the devil you know than the one you don’t. Am I right?
Sadly, most people search for a magical golden ticket that will take them to the land of healing in an instant, but such a ticket doesn’t exist.
So, what does it take to heal, then?
While healing is different for everyone, there are five essential steps that must be taken before true healing can begin. If these steps aren’t achieved, healing can take much longer than it needs to, if it happens at all! To ensure you don’t sabotage your recovery, I cover these five essential steps below.
They don’t necessarily need to be executed in the order I list them, but they do need to be achieved before you can get on with the business of true healing.
How to Get Ready for Breaking Free from Narcissistic Abuse
1 – Acceptance
When is it time to let go of a relationship? It’s time to let go when you stop growing as a person, your bond causes more pain than happiness, you are being manipulated and abused, or the relationship’s overall climate is one of anxiety, fear, and shame.
What do I mean by relationship climate? If you think of your relationship in terms of weather, what’s the overall climate? Plenty of sunshine and balmy breezes with a few rain clouds here and there, or constant thunderstorms, hurricanes, and tsunamis? Obviously, a relationship with a narcissist would be one of perpetual, tempestuous cyclones.
It’s not healthy. Once you’ve made the determination that the narcissist is abusive or emotionally unavailable and won’t change, it’s time to accept the need to end the relationship – as opposed to hanging on, vainly hoping they will go back to being the person they pretended to be when you first met.
It’s natural to want to make things work with someone you are in love with, but loving a narcissist is about as good for you as a cancer diagnosis. In fact, narcissistic abuse has been correlated with certain types of cancer. (And if you do have cancer, leaving the narcissist is the first empowering step you can take towards your recovery.)
One of the reasons it’s so difficult to leave abusive relationships is the prolonged periods of internalized shame. When you experience shame through repeated betrayals and verbal abuse, it creates neural patterns that promote core feelings of unworthiness.
Hearing shame messaging from someone you love on a consistent basis is often reminiscent of an early wound. Many traumatized people expose themselves, seemingly compulsively, to situations reminiscent of the original emotional trauma, which is referred to as repetition compulsion. (van der Kolk, 2005)
Choosing to stop this compulsion will be part of your healing journey.
2 – Letting Go
Once you’ve accepted that you must detach, the next step is to let go. Letting go is similar to acceptance, but involves an inner shift. It’s an inner process of consciously recognizing that you can make it alone and that you do not need the narcissist in order to survive emotionally.
In your mind, you let go of the unswerving belief that you need the narcissist in your life in order to feel good about yourself.
In your mind, you accept there will be a hard road ahead, but it’s one you’re willing to travel to get to a place of true healing (and make space for a loving, reciprocal relationship later on).
In your mind, you let go of waiting for apologies and closure from the person who abused you.
In your mind, you let go and release the narcissist.
In your mind, you drop the mic and walk away.
After making the decision to break free you may initially feel exhilarated and empowered, only to start doubting yourself soon after. This is normal.
This moment is your Choice Point, a place of branching, a point of possibility. The point of transformation. It’s this very crossroads that will either move you toward healing…or move you toward further chaos and devastation. In this moment, you can go back to the choices that are destroying you, or make new choices which will heal and empower you. (Firman, 2017)
3 – No Contact
Going No Contact is typically the hardest step in narcissistic abuse recovery. However, this one step is the crux in determining whether or not you will heal. You cannot finalize the first two steps without it.
In the case of shared custody, Extreme Modified Contact must be enforced to protect your emotions and allow healing energies into your personal space.
When you avoid No Contact, don’t properly block the narcissist, and attempt to stay friends, you accomplish many things, none of which are helpful or healthy for you. The consequences of these self-sabotaging traps include:
- Taking away your credibility for any boundaries you tried to set
- Coming across to the narcissist that you are colluding with or quietly accepting their unacceptable behaviors
- You’ll be incessantly looking for signs that there’s still a chance for reconciliation
- You’ll set yourself up for a no-strings sex situation (no strings from the narcissist’s side)
- You’ll put yourself in the role of “safe fallback” when the narcissist needs extra supply aside from their new partner
- You’ll develop (or deepen) feelings of self-loathing because you are holding out for a person who will never reciprocate your emotions or devotion
- Your self-esteem and confidence will plummet because you won’t be able to accept that the narcissist won’t commit (even if they pretend they will, you’ll be crushed when you find out they lied again)
- Your core abandonment wounds will only become worse, setting you up for complete dysfunction and annihilation
4 – Understand That There is More to Healing Than Just No Contact
I see so many aspiring survivors mistakenly believe that just getting out of their abusive relationship is enough for a healed and fulfilling life. Sadly, this belief is what keeps many people stuck for years after they leave, and why they continue to suffer from symptoms of trauma, depression, and panic.
The truth is, reading and watching videos – while helpful – will not heal you. Reading is wonderful for acquiring knowledge and receiving validation, but reading and listening is not enough to form new neural pathways or to release trauma from your body.
Our old programming, trauma, trapped emotions, and patterns determine our wellbeing; and we need to actively address all of those things in order to truly heal.
To leave behind those old, beaten-down and circular paths, you must devise an effective escape route (or be helped by someone who has such a plan). ~ Leslie Becker-Phelps
Understanding the origin of your emotional pain and why you keep repeating the same patterns doesn’t automatically establish healthier choices. This has to develop over time with new experiences and different choices.
5 – Make a Commitment to Yourself to Live In Reality
Once you leave a dysfunctional relationship, your brain and body will play all kinds of tricks on you in an effort to put you in contact with the source of your trauma. This is due to the trauma bond that was established inside the relationship, as well as the biochemical addiction that forms in this environment.
Chances are, you look back on the beginning of the relationship very fondly. It might have even seemed too good to be real – true love at last!
Maybe the narcissist showered you with dinners, appreciation, validation, gifts, and affection like you’ve never experienced. This is called “Love Bombing” and it’s the first stage in the love cycle of narcissism when the narcissist wants you to believe that this expression of love is genuine.
Positive experiences like romantic dates and over-the-top flattery can release dopamine in the brain. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that activates reward pathways in our brain, which then breeds automatic neural associations which link thoughts of the narcissist with pleasure and even physical survival.
But there’s a dark side to this process. Dopamine and other feel-good chemicals flow more readily in the brain when there is “intermittent reinforcement” rather than a consistent and dependable pattern. The emotional unavailability and unpredictable patterns of narcissistic individuals leave us pining for the good times despite the pathological harm we endure in between.
Just like a drug dealer who passes out first fixes for free, the narcissist has a plan for their Love Bombing: they want to get you hooked before limiting your supply.
It’s truly like breaking an addiction to cocaine.
By rewarding itself with a pleasure response for these activities, your brain conditions itself to repeat them. It even conditions itself to anticipate future dopamine releases that will be experienced when the activity is repeated – driving you to engage in it again (“Trauma Bonding: Can You be Addicted”, 2018) – such as breaking No Contact or not blocking the narcissist, waiting for that rush of feel-good chemicals when you receive a simple and rudimentary ‘smiley face emoji’ with no genuine attempt on their part to relay a sincere message.
Over time, the urge to engage in these activities becomes hard-wired into the brain. But, just like any other addiction, it can be overcome with the proper steps. Although be prepared, many addiction specialists say that helping someone leave a toxic relationship is often much more difficult than helping them beat an addiction to a substance.
Difficult, but not impossible.
You CAN Begin True Healing With These Five Steps
But remember, you must work through all five of these critical steps in order to begin your recovery. You can’t skip any of them and expect to make real progress.
This is why it’s impossible to magic away the pain of narcissistic abuse….because the toxic relationship is the cumulation of all of your emotionally traumatic experiences that haven’t been resolved (romantic or otherwise), many going all the way back to your childhood.
For this reason, I always feel sad when I see people declining to do anything more than read books and watch videos…because I know they will probably still be stuck a year from now, five years, ten years.
No matter how long the narcissist has beaten you down and told you otherwise, you really do deserve a better life. You deserve the respect, admiration, and appreciation that the narcissist dangled over you with their carrot and stick approach for so long.
Rebuilding your sense of self-worth and very identity will take a lot of work, but you’ll come out stronger and more dignified than ever.
The Break Free Program may be the missing piece of the puzzle.
I know what you’re going through and I’m here to help. Learn more about the course and see what my students and neuroscience experts have to say about it.
“To live in this world, you must be able to do three things
to love what is mortal; to hold it against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it; and, when the time comes to let it go, let it go.”
― Mary Oliver
Van der Kolk, B. A. (2005, November 27). The Compulsion to Repeat the Trauma. Retrieved from http://www.cirp.org/library/psych/vanderkolk/
Firman, D., Ed.D. LMHC, BCC. (2017, September 06). At the Choice Point. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/living-life-purpose/201101/the-choice-point
A hostile environment becomes rewarding and pleasurable, only to turn hostile. (2018, May 21). Retrieved from https://www.thecabinbangkok.co.th/blog/mental-wellness/trauma-bonding-abusive-relationships-and-addiction/