Toxic relationships that begin as fairy tales before they morph into nightmares leave behind a trail of painful and haunting memories.
Due to the constant emotional tormenting, many targets struggle for some time before moving on. Reminiscing about the good times is what keeps the trauma bond strong and makes it very difficult to see past the illusion.
In this post I will address a question from one of my viewers. Carol writes:
I am trying to deal with flashbacks and missing the good times. I have to fight so hard to think of the bad times to cover the good. I seem to have a pretty good day where I can deal and then that evening or the next day, I plummet back to despair and such sadness. I am 2 1/2 months no contact. I feel like I should be further along than I am. Triggers everywhere I go even though I only go where I absolutely have to. I am isolating myself as to not see him or wonder about where he is or drive by the places we used to go. I just keep plummeting. I listen to your video about this being normal and it’s purging the poison out when I cry and cry. But I don’t feel like I can ever stop crying. Am I making it worse by crying? Is that keeping me depressed? I don’t know anything else I can do to keep on the healing journey. I would appreciate any suggestions and thank you again for sharing your knowledge and experiences.
The Trojan Horse
Relationship with a narcissist is unlike any other. It can leave us doubting our sanity and, in worst cases, it can thoroughly obliterate our sense of identity.
Narcissists are manipulative, cunning and apt at shifting the blame towards the victims. They refuse to take any responsibility for their actions.
While they know how to slip under the radar by pretending they are someone else, usually by mirroring their target, once they’re in, like a Trojan horse, they leave a carnage behind.
This is why unless people have been through this, they will not be able to fully understand the suffering of someone who has.
Most, though certainly not all, of the scars left after such a relationships are invisible. The narcissist’s psychological miming and tormenting of their targets leaves bullet holes in the soul of a person whose sole objective was to open up, help out and love.
Empathic people with high levels of conscience are primary targets of narcissists. This is likely because a person who has strong boundaries and puts themselves first makes a poor supply.
Narcissists have an unquenchable desire and need for attention. Their self-centeredness and sense of entitlement leaves no room for the need of another. No, others exist to serve them.
This is not to say that highly empathic people can’t or don’t have a healthy sense of self-protection. They can and some do. It’s just not instinctive. Many haven’t learned how to establish strong enough boundaries to recognize and keep the vampires out.
Taunted by the narcissist’s pity stories and empty promises, they open their heart too soon, and don’t realize what happened until it is too late.
As a self-proclaimed psychopath states, quoted in Sandra L. Brown’s book Women Who Love Psychopaths:
‘I can pick them out of a room full of people. There’s just a certain look, an underlying current of vulnerability. Then to check out if I’m right I’ll ask a few questions and she begins disclosing at the speed of light about being lonely or having just lost someone.’
(On a side note, the above scenario very well applies to female predators looking for male targets.)
The aftermath of abuse resembles a devastation left by a hurricane. Every thought about the toxic ex makes us feel like we just dropped on a bed of nails. It hurts. And yet . . . we still miss them. Why? Dealing with narcissistic abuse is a lot like dealing with an addiction.
The addiction has its roots in the abuse cycle. It’s lather, rinse, repeat of the worst kind. The narcissist cleverly begins their romancing, or ‘stage one’ of the cycle with what’s called ‘idealization.’
This is the stage when for a short, calculated time you become the center of their world. They manufacture attraction by appealing to your desires and satisfying your hunger to be seen and appreciated. All this makes you receptive to their game of seductions.
As they test your boundaries, they may even come off as pushy sometimes, by doing too much too soon. I remember instances where their incessant texting and calling was getting on my nerves. But once he’d stop, I’d find myself yearning for more. The hook was in. I didn’t know I was addicted.
What follows is stage of gradual dosing and withdrawal as well as boundary breaking while they suck as much supply from you as they can. This stage is typically called ‘devaluation.’
A carefully crafted and executed time of delightful rewards makes you invest deeply in the relationship. Once they have you in their grasp and know it, they can stop trying so hard. The frequent complimenting stops, affection cools off and they are spending more time anywhere but with you. That’s unless they need you to do something for them.
The sudden drop in temperature can leave you disoriented and asking yourself ‘what have I done?’ The narcissist knows this and has a zillion tricks up their sleeve to make sure you take the blame for their withdrawal. It’s always your fault!
However, if you dare to come too close to figuring out their game or, goodness forbid, threaten to leave, they can turn on a dime and bring back the good times. Before you know it, you are hooked again and the cycle starts over.
This kind of dynamic whips up an emotional storm that can last for weeks, months and even years after the relationship is over.
The narcissist gets you used to an emotional roller-coaster, which — as sick as it is — can be quite exhilarating, especially for people who enjoy excitement and tend to lead bold, extroverted lives.
Wherever the narcissist was, there was chaos, drama, superficial glee, colors and noise. Once they are gone, their absence leaves a yawning hole. Their voice, their energy, their behavior, words they said become internalized instead.
They literally take residence inside your head, hijacking your memories making it difficult to focus on the present, let alone move on.
This occurs in large partly due to an actual chemical addiction that develops inside the body after some time of close contact and regular exposure.
Stress chemicals such as norepinephrine and cortisol, mixed with dopamine (the ‘more’ chemical), serotonin (happiness) and oxytocin (bonding) produce an explosive cocktail that curses through your veins and gets you blindly hooked on a high that’s almost impossible to control, let alone shake off.
Or as Sandra L. Brown brilliantly puts it:
‘It wasn’t his cologne, it was mostly testosterone. When her thinking about the psychopath was a full time job and obsession — she was soaked in serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine — more potent than a martini but also a similar chemical combo as what is found in obsessive-compulsive disorder. ‘Intoxicated’ by him — drunk on love? Um… probably not. Just a jigger full of dopamine — the same high people get from alcohol and drugs.’
(Again, applies to males as well.)
Going hand in hand with the army of neurotransmitters is the big daddy of cognition — the brain — that gets its own fix as a side effect from the relationship.
The abuse cycle is traumatic to the brain, which struggles to protect itself from negative memories that are surging under the skull. To do this, the overactive from stress amygdala short-circuits the hippocampus — responsible for processing short term memories — and rather than sending live events for logical processing and analysis to the neocortex, it shoves them into the midbrain where they remain frozen in the subconscious.
This is similar to what happens when we eat junk food laden with poisons. The body wraps the toxins in a blanket of fat and pushes them as far away from the vital organs as it can — into the fatty layer right under your skin.
Sounds like a lot of work, doesn’t it? This process is indeed exhausting, which is why so many targets of abuse resemble living zombies after a certain time with a narcissist. Sleep gets disturbed, energy leaks and peace is nowhere to be found.
In the aftermath, once the dust settles a bit, the unprocessed old memories ditched into the subconscious begin to surface. It often happens when the brain recognizes familiar patters, like mountains, gas stations, songs, etc. that remind you of the time when you were still in the relationship.
These flashbacks are like a backward tumble into the past. Because your already exhausted brain does not want to go back to the nightmare, it will only serve you with the best memories inciting nostalgia.
Unfortunately, in this case our biology sabotages rather than serves us. Repeated flashbacks can make you double-guess and doubt yourself.
This is a state of high vulnerability that needs to be made conscious because it can very easily derail your healing process and make you susceptible to getting back to the abuse. Don’t do it! There is not a single case — not a single one — where getting back with the narcissist ended well for the target. Not one. Don’t do it!
So, what can you do? Here are some tried and tested solutions that worked very well for me and many others in their recovery:
1. Healthy distraction. Treating narcissistic abuse like the addition that it is, finding a distraction can really help. But instead drinking, smoking or shopping, do nice things for yourself. This is a very potent time to form healthy habits and begin a self-care practice to last you a lifetime. Learning to eat healthy, taking a dance or a martial arts class, as well as setting and meeting small goals will help rest your brain chemistry and help you build new neuro-pathways. When we put down on a piece of paper something we plan to do that day, even if it only means taking a shower or making ourselves herbal tea, and then we cross it off the list, that action releases a burst of dopamine (‘more’ chemical) that makes us want to do that again. It can start a nice chain-reaction guiding us along the upward spiral of recovery.
2. Self-love. Self-love is a practice, not a one-time moment of enlightenment. It has deep roots in self-respect. To respect yourself, you need to get to know yourself. To know yourself, you need to be willing to let yourself be who you are while practicing self-compassion. This is where allowing yourself a full gamut of your emotional expression becomes critical. For too long we’ve been forced to carry a fake smile and pretend we were happy while inside we may have been suffering. It is time to let yourself cry or scream, if you wish. It is your body, your life, your choice. You may do with it as you please. You are free. The key is to be there for yourself in the most vulnerable moments. This is where the flame of self-love ignites.
3. Externalization. Just like with suppressed feelings, trying to contain the thoughts inside can be toxic. Letting them out will help sort out unprocessed thoughts, clear your head, and invite fresh ideas. Engage in discussions on narcissistic recovery forums, find a friend who understands or engage with a therapist or a life coach. If none of the above are available at this time, journal your thoughts to move them from your head and onto paper, record yourself speaking on a device or try mirror talk.
4. Boundaries. A painful encounter with a narcissist can serve as a lesson to motivate us to learn to guard ourselves against such prolific predators. Putting distance between you and the narcissist is absolutely necessary to even begin the healing process. It will be difficult at first but over time you will get used to and eventually enjoy the peace that sets in. You will have so much more room to explore yourself and focus your time and attention on your dreams and aspirations. Boundaries will give you a sense of control back in your life, bringing back sanity and inner resonance. If you can, ideally go No Contact, which means completely blocking them on all your communication channels. This includes no stalking on your part. But if that is not available, look into and practice the gray rock technique to minimize contact and exposure.
5. Focus on Truth. Repeating to yourself over and over and over again who this person is and what they did will help bring clarity to the situation and alleviate the cognitive dissonance that formed during the relationship that can linger for weeks, months and even years after. The key to breaking through the fog, is to keep reminding yourself of the worst of what they’ve done to you. It’s like making a conscious catalogue of memories from hell you can use each time a flashback threatens to explode a grenade under your feet. Focus on remembering the ACTIONS, not the future faking or the venomous words glazed with sweetness manufactured for your pleasure to make you bite the hook. Extinguishing cognitive dissonance will precipitate breaking the trauma bond.
The lifestyle of a narcissist is parasitic and socially irresponsible. They are predators of their own species that bulldoze through life, leaving a carnage behind. They lack the essential qualities that allow other beings to live in harmony. Wherever they go, like The Trojan horse, they cause destruction.
You, on the other hand, are a human being who wants to love and live in peace. Rather than giving your precious time and attention to the narcissist and an illusory past that was a con, focus on nurturing yourself and your own dreams.
Training your attention, like any habit in life, will take some time and effort. But as time goes by and you grow in self-awareness and use your knowledge and wisdom to steer clear from such characters and instead focus on new exciting things in your life, energy will begin to shift.
And before you know it, you will be living a new life with the narcissist as a distant memory, a speck of dust on your windshield, reminding you of your strength and the power of self-love.
I hope this post was helpful to you and look forward to meeting you in the comments. Your 👏🏻 are the rocket fuel that inspires me to keep up this work.
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If you are suffering from the shock of being subjected to narcissistic abuse, have a look into my FREE three-step SOS program available on my website.
Click below for a video companion to this article.