Frequently Asked Questions:
Do I Belong Here?
If you are like most people who have been in some sort of exhausting, controlling, toxic or “crazy-making” dynamic for any length of time, you may feel really confused about what happened (or is happening) and uncertain if this person was the best thing to happen to you or the worst thing to happen to you—or if what you are experiencing falls within the realm of “normal” relationship problems. You may find yourself wondering how you got into a relationship like this in the first place, why you feel so “addicted” to them, or why no one understands or is able to support you. You may have stopped telling friends and family about what goes on during the bad times, because they are horrified—but in your mind this is normal for your relationship—and because you didn’t want to leave, but didn’t want to be lectured either, you quit reaching out. If your relationship recently ended, you may feel incredibly lonely, ground down, enraged, overwhelmed, scared, anxious, depressed, numb, and overall physically and emotionally exhausted—like you are one hundred years old or a shell of your former self.
And if you have gone back, you might have found yourself “forgetting” or glossing over much of their bad behavior and instead holding onto the fond memories of all the good times—and it’s those good times that pull you back into contacting them again—hoping that maybe this time things really will be different. But no matter what they promise, they never seem to change for good—if anything, their behavior gets worse, or they get better at hiding what they’ve been up to, and when their double life comes to the surface, you are blamed for all of their lying, cheating, controlling, manipulating, or abuse that follows.
And perhaps after going through this cycle a few times, you decided to turn to the internet in hopes of making sense of what you were experiencing. Odds are you came across some videos on YouTube on narcissism or narcissistic abuse and things began to make sense, but you aren’t sure if the person is really a narcissist (especially if they seem really likable, nice, humble, charitable, or apologetic), or if what you experienced is really narcissistic abuse (especially if you were never called names, yelled at, or abused in any outright way).
If they left you, you may wonder if you’ll ever trust people, let alone love again, especially if they moved on at lightning speed and seem so happy with their new partner while you are left to sort through all the emotional (and usually financial) devastation that they left behind—including all their lies and acting as if they are a victim of you. It’s even worse if people (including your friends, family, and children) believe them, because after all, they come across as so sympathetic and convincing while you come across as an anxious, angry, confused mess.
All of this confusion, all of these emotions are very normal, and my hope is that by the end of this book you will have a lot more clarity about your situation, as well as the next few steps to take. And odds are if you are like most of us who have gone through this journey of understanding and healing, you will continue to have questions. At times you might feel as if you’ve entered the movie “The Matrix” where you are starting to see the world around you (and the people in it) clearly—perhaps for the first time ever.
Will I Always Be this Broken?
One of the most important, potentially life-saving concepts when it comes to understanding narcissistic abuse, is that of post-traumatic growth, or PTG. A large part of healing involves breaking free from limiting beliefs about what is possible for you in this next chapter of your life. It’s vital to realize that what happened to you doesn’t have to define you and it doesn’t mean that you will be, or feel, forever broken.
Post Traumatic Growthis a concept that is associated with the positive psychology movement, and represents a major mindset shift when it comes to trauma. Traditional psychology views recovery from trauma in terms of “resilience,” which would be getting a person back to their baseline level of functioning before the traumatic event happened. The problem with this is two-fold: 1. The person’s previous baseline for normal may have been imbalanced to begin with, and 2. Life always involves growth and change, and healing from anything, let alone trauma, is never about returning to where we were before the event happened.
While we can’t go back to who we were before abuse, we can create a new and empowered sense of self now. We do this on a moment-to-moment basis, which can serve as a powerful catalyst for our personal growth.
The goal of post-traumatic growth is to replace resiliency with thriving, so that a person goes above and beyond who and what they used to be, and is able to take what happened to them and use it for their highest and greatest good. Post-traumatic growth involves massive,positive changes that can result from the struggle with a major life crisis or a traumatic event. This struggle can bring a person to a higher level of awareness and overall functioning in their life that they may not have achieved in any other way. Having your life blown apart is overwhelming. I understand—I’ve been there. However, what I wished someone would have told me is that the beauty of having your life blown apart is that you can now rebuild it—consciously—piece-by-piece, creating a life that you love. Please know that this is very possible for you to do, and my goal with this website and everything else I do is to help you along your journey to healing.
What Is Narcissistic Abuse?
Narcissistic abuse is behavior through which a narcissist targets and manipulates someone into giving up their wants, needs, feelings (and thus their identity) in order for the narcissist to get their self-esteem needs met.
The concept of narcissistic abuse was made popular by the work of psychologist Alice Miller. Her work primarily focused on exploring the family dynamics between a narcissistic parent (or parents) and their children. What Miller found in her work with emotionally abused and neglected children was that in order for them to “survive” their environment (meaning, in order for them to try to get their basic needs met—including food, clothing, shelter, love, and acceptance), they were forced to give up their own wants, needs, and feelings—and thus their identity—in order to serve their parent’s need for validation and esteem.
The term “narcissistic abuse” has since grown to include any dynamic between a narcissist (such as a “friend,” parent, child, neighbor, coworker, significant other, member of their church, etc.) and their “target” where the target is manipulated out of their wants and needs, and thus their sense of self, in order to please or satisfy the other.
If you’ve experienced narcissistic abuse, you might feel like the above-mentioned definition pales in comparison to what you’ve gone through. But keep reading. The following chapter on definitions and the cycle of narcissistic abuse gives more detailed examples of what narcissistic abuse looks like in motion.
In addition to understanding what narcissistic abuse is, it’s also critical to make two additional connections. The first is learning to identify how another person is manipulated into giving up their own wants and needs, and the second is gaining an insight into what drives this narcissistically abusive behavior.
A target is manipulated through a series of boundary pushes that, over time, erode a person’s sense of reality along with their sense of self. This “grinding down” happens slowly and systematically through some form of abusive or neglectful behavior. This includes any type (or combination of) verbal, emotional, psychological, physical, sexual, financial, or spiritual abuse. What drives abusive behavior is the need for a narcissist to get and keep power and control over another (so that they can continue to meet their own esteem needs).
These boundary erosions primarily occur when the target is alone with the narcissist, evolve in a slow and steady way, and are often minimized or denied by the abusive person. The abuser often blames the target for being the cause of such treatment. Narcissists go about erasing the core of their target in such a way that the target doesn’t realize it until much later. Generally, while this is erosion is occurring, the target tends to feel like they are letting the narcissist down or that something is wrong with them and that they deserve to be treated this way.
This erosion of another person’s sense of self is generally done in four main ways:
Slow and subtle. This is where a person is continually being undermined and their faith in their decision-making abilities and reality as a whole is slowly being erased. This happens when one person continually tells another that they are some form of wrong, bad, or incompetent. What makes this form of abuse so dangerous (and effective) is that sometimes there is a kernel of truth to what the other person is saying, and it can even come across as though the abuser is concerned about the person they are grinding down. This results in the target having a hard time developing the self-esteem needed in order to set goals and achieve them. They get caught up in self-doubt, or worse, self-loathing. They often turn to the abusive person for guidance because the abusive person seems so certain as to what they should do or how they should feel.
Fast and not so subtle. This is when the use of direct intimidation and aggression is used to gain power and control over someone. This could be yelling, cussing, throwing something at the target, hitting a wall close to the target, hitting, shoving, or acting physically or verbally aggressive towards the target, or any other act that is intimidating or violent. This kind of behavior tends to happen fast and out of the blue, escalates quickly, and their rage is disproportionate and inappropriate to the situation. Within an instant, the dynamic of the relationship has changed, and the target has now learned to never question the abuser, challenge them, or act in any way that might upset them for fear of what they might do.
Hot and cold. This is when the person experiences really good times and then really bad times with a narcissist. In an effort to get things back to the really good times, they begin walking on eggshells, “turning themselves inside out” and trying to suppress and silence anything about themselves that will upset this other person. The reason the hot and cold cycle is so hard to escape is because the target feels compelled to stay because of all the good times, feels responsible for all the bad times, or feels that this time is different, that this time they finally got through to their abuser, and that their relationship is finally turning a corner. The hot and cold cycle can also include the narcissist being “sweet or mean.” Meaning, they may be very affectionate, attentive, and on their best behavior and then out of nowhere, a switch seems to flip and they become cold, cruel, or callous in their treatment of the target.
Neglectful. Neglectful behavior often goes hand-in-hand with other forms of abusive behavior. Neglectful behavior is when a person is taught to survive on, and be thankful for, the physical or emotional crumbs that are given by the narcissist. Oftentimes if a person voices a complaint about the crumbs they are given, their concerns are minimized or dismissed, or spun around to accuse them of being ungrateful, selfish, or difficult.
The result of any of these types of abusive or neglectful patterns of behavior is that they tend to leave a person feeling like they lack a solid sense of self, and confused as to what’s “normal” and what’s dysfunctional as far as other people’s behavior goes. This is because when a person has been continually told that what’s manipulative or abusive isn’t a problem, or is somehow their fault, then they often find themselves living in a state of perpetual confusion. This can be likened to the story of “Alice in Wonderland,” where nothing is as it seems and where they struggle with having a solid footing in the reality of what’s going on or why.
This level of confusion and introspection is a large reason why people stay in abusive relationships for as long as they do, as well as why many people leave one abusive relationship only to find themselves in another one. (Because after an abusive relationship, the former target tends to doubt themselves and their perception of reality and other people’s behavior, which in turn makes them incredibly vulnerable—and odds are they don’t even realize it.) I know this can sound terrifying, but please don’t fret. I really think by the end of this book, everything will make a lot more sense.
In addition, it’s very common for a person to start learning about narcissistic abuse and then to realize that there have been a lot of abusive people in their life over the years. And while this particular current relationship might have been what made them realize there is a problem, they soon start to connect the dots and see that they’ve had a lot of narcissistic people in their life.
While this can feel overwhelming, it’s all a part of your awakening and getting back into alignment with your authentic self. The beauty and power that can come from this awakening is that once you reconnect with your intuition, thoughts, feelings, wants, and needs, you can then go about intentionally building an authentic life that you love, instead of settling for a life of mediocrity or unhappiness.
What is a narcissist?
According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition, a person with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) is someone who has an inflated sense of self-worth, or of their abilities; someone who needs admiration and approval of others, has an impaired ability to empathize with others—or is excessively attuned to the reactions of others if there is benefit to them—has relationships that are superficial and self-serving, and continually strives to be the center of attention.
However, it’s essential to also bring up the topic of Antisocial Personality Disorder (ASPD) (formerly known as “sociopaths” or “psychopaths”), as there is overlap between the two. While not all narcissists are sociopaths or psychopaths, all sociopaths or psychopaths are narcissists at the core. Some key traits of ASPD behavior is a lack of concern for feelings, needs, or suffering of others, a disregard for rules and laws, exploitation and manipulation as their primary way of relating to others, and the use of dominance and intimidation to control others.
What is a personality disorder?
A person is considered to have a personality disorder when they have pervasive and persistent problematic behavior that isn’t due to mental illness, substance use, or could be seen as a part of normal development, such as a teenager acting impulsively or pushing boundaries. Their behavior is so severe that it negatively impacts their relationships or their ability to function in society—regardless of whether or not they realize it. In terms of narcissists and antisocials, they tend to have a pattern of using, abusing, exploiting, manipulating or neglecting others in order to get what they want.
For those of us who have been on the receiving end of this behavior, their behavior is often described as: controlling, immature, crazy-making, psycho, abusive, predatory, charming or charismatic, intense, persistent (especially when they are trying to worm their way back into their target’s life), dark, sinister, evil, toxic, demonic, delusional, or terrifying. They often come across with a staggering lack of accountability, a lack of sincere empathy or remorse, a jaw-dropping level of indifference to the hurt and heartache they cause, and a blinding degree of selfishness. They are usually pathological liars (and usually cheaters), highly manipulative, and in short, emotional vampires or predators.
To sum it up, narcissists and sociopaths are all about themselves—often at the expense of others. They do whatever they want, with whomever they want, as much as they want, and they feel entitled and justified in doing so—and they will often say or do anything they need to in order to keep their emotional con game going so they can continue to use, abuse, or exploit their target(s).
Many people get stuck at this point, wanting to know if the crazy-maker in their life does in fact have a personality disorder, or if they “just” have a persistently problematic behavior. Frankly, however, either way you cut it, if their behavior is toxic it’s worthy of getting some distance from them. So while getting a diagnosis confirming that this person in your life does indeed have a personality disorder can be very validating, what’s more important is that you are able to discern what toxic behavior is to you, and then respond accordingly. In many ways, trying to figure out to what degree their behavior is toxic to you is a lot like trying to figure out what kind of poison you’ve been drinking. At the end of the day it doesn’t really matter if it’s strychnine, arsenic, or cyanide; what matters is that toxic is toxic, and that you need to distance yourself as much
as possible from it.
Dana Morningstar is a former psychiatric nurse turned domestic violence educator who specializes in abuse awareness and prevention. Her passion is working with survivors of abuse to reclaim and rebuild their self-esteem, boundaries, confidence, and identity. She is an author of multiple books on the subject, and also has a blog, podcast, and YouTube channel, as well as several online support groups, all of which you can find under the name “Thrive After Abuse.”