Q-I’ve realized my parent (or partner) may be narcissistic and my world feels shattered. Now what?
Coming to the realization that you have been in or are in a relationship with someone who is narcissistic can dismantle your sense of the world. Whether it’s your parent or partner, you probably feel unsettled after this discovery; maybe even feel like you are an emotional wreck.
Many clients in this situation say things like, “I don’t know who I am now,” “I’m having a identity crisis,” or “I can’t seem to pull myself together.” Clients will refer to “The Realization” as a significant moment in their life by which they calculate time (i.e. before or after “The Realization.”) So how do you process this new information? One way to understand the process is by looking at the stages of grief. Because after all, you are experiencing grief and loss. Loss of what you thought reality was, of a future you thought you had, of a past that is no longer what you thought it was, and quite possibly the loss of a relationship.
Stages of Realizing a Narcissistic Relationship
Much like the stages of grief, this discovery is the beginning of a long journey. Elisabeth Kubler Ross defined grief in five stages; Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance. Similar to grieving, these stages are not experienced in a linear fashion. You will bounce back and forth between stages and much of the time it will feel unpredictable. Just when you think you are done with one stage, something happens to bring you back to that place again. Below is a description of what the stages can look like when discovering you have been in a narcissistic relationship.
Maybe you were reading something and came across a definition of narcissistic abuse or narcissism and it sounded just a little too familiar. Or maybe a family member or friend mentioned that this might apply to your relationship. However the discovery happened, most people will ignore this new information, regardless how true it may feel. It can take several years for this information to sink in. I have had clients come to therapy and say that they knew in the back of their mind their parent or partner was narcissistic but could just not face the truth. It took several years before they were able to acknowledge and process what they had experienced. For some the denial may be shorter. Either way, recognizing that you have been in a narcissistic relationship is painful and opens up old wounds that you may not be ready to deal with.
Yes, you get angry! Once you realize the abuse for what it is, you get angry! Many people finally recognize what they have suffered through and cannot believe the abuse they have been enduring. Finally acknowledging that you have been manipulated, lied to, gaslighted, and made to feel you will never be good enough causes the anger to surface. Recognize that under the anger is trauma and a deep sense of hurt. It is okay and understandable that you are angry, it’s a necessary part of healing process.
Another label for the bargaining phase is Doubt. People bounce to this stage often. The questions of doubt surface regularly. Doubt makes you ask yourself, “Maybe it’s me,” or “Am I right, are they really narcissistic?” Bargaining makes you rationalize, “Maybe it’s not as bad as I think.” Due to the nature of narcissistic abuse, it is normal for someone to question their reality and wonder if they are the one with the problem or if they are the narcissist. This is what you have been trained to do by your abuser.
Once you have allowed yourself to truly identify with being in a narcissistic relationship, depression can surround you like a fog. The emotional abuse you experience is deep, painful and attacks the core of who you are. It messes with your sense of self. The pain and sadness can be overwhelming and many people fear never moving past this stage. They begin to feel stuck, they lack motivation to do the emotional work, they wish they could go back to not knowing, they worry about never having healthy relationships, and they fear they will never heal.
This can look different for everyone. Acceptance happens after someone has done the emotional work of really understanding their experience and healing from the trauma. At that point, some people choose to cut off all contact with the narcissistic person and some learn how to set strong boundaries and choose to stay in relationship. There is no right or wrong answer. Acceptance is understanding the abuse was not your fault, but being able to take ownership of any unhealthy patterns you may have adopted and learn to let those go. It is being able to learn to set boundaries that allow you to be in healthy relationships and to regain a strong sense of who you are. Acceptance is not about placing blame but recognizing the abuse you experienced and taking responsibility for your healing and future growth.
Healing Is Possible
Just like the stages of grief, people will bounce back and forth between these stages, even revisiting them after years of healing. It’s a journey. There is no calculated time you have to work through them, everyone’s experience is different. Let that be okay. Allowing yourself the time and space to work through these stages is part of the healing process.
If you find yourself in one of these stages, please be kind to yourself. Pay attention to your self-talk. Adopt a hopeful mantra and continue to repeat it over and over. Post it where you can see it. Something like, ‘healing is possible’ or ‘I know that I will be okay.’ Because it is true, you can find healing and go on to live a vibrant life!