I have been on a transformative journey over the past two years. A journey through the depths of my mind, which enabled me to recover from something I believe, would have qualified me for mild borderline personality disorder, if ever I got properly diagnosed.
I described my recovery journey in my earlier post about meditation and yes meditation was a very important tool on that journey. But there was something more that enabled me to access the early childhood trauma behind my rejection and abandonment panic, self-harming, self-hatred and chronic sleep problems. There was a catalyst – a close encounter with a narcissist.
Who the hell are narcissists?
Narcissists, people high in narcissistic traits, are everywhere amongst us and to be honest, they look like pretty normal people. Actually, they quite frequently look like really cool people. Until you clash with them, question them, try to hold them accountable or get too close and personal with them. In other words until you dive below the surface, until you peel off the mask the narcissist is wearing.
Clashing with a narcissist is hard. Narcissists have a sixth sense for detecting people’s weaknesses and they love pushing people’s buttons. They love to see people react. In an argument with an narcissist, you constantly feel like there must be a misunderstanding but no matter how hard you try to clarify, explain and make the other person see and validate your point, you are not getting anywhere. It’s mind-fuck and it makes you react. And that’s what narcs love. They love to see you react. They love to see you getting emotional. They stand there calm and detached and point the finger at you – you are crazy, you are losing it. That grants them what is called narcissistic supply, the fuel they need to survive.
I used to be a narcissistic magnet
I used to be a narcissist magnet. If ever there was a narc anywhere in my vicinity, it would be me who would clash with him or her (narcissism is by far more prevalent among men). I would clash with narcs at work, at school…. and ultimately, in a relationship.
At first, like every narc magnet, I would obviously blame the narcs – they are crazy, they act totally odd, they are mean, they want to hurt you, they are lying. I would want to expose them. I would want everyone to understand that I am right and they are wrong. That I am the good one and they are the bad one. But that does not work.
It’s your trigger
Over the many chapters of my life’s narcissistic workbook, I eventually learned the big truth – it’s your trigger that makes you react to the narc. It’s your trigger and it’s your responsibility to heal this trigger. The only correct reaction to a narc is to detach, to look inside and understand what is the trigger about. What is this trigger telling you about yourself? Where does it come from? What are you trying to gain by desperately trying to prove your point to the narc or everyone around by that matter? Why are you getting so emotional about it? Why does it feel like a matter of life and death?
It’s easier said then done and it honestly did take me many attempts and many failures to finally figure that out (and I am aware that I still may have quite a few hooks unhealed).
But in fact, this approach is helpful in dealing with all sorts of interpersonal tensions. The only difference is that with relatively normal people (who is normal anyway?), you will be able to find a resolution. With a narc you will not. At least not one you would feel deeply at peace with. The only resolution with a narc is for you to accept the narc’s version of reality.
Pedestal – devaluation – discard
Narcs behave in extremely surreal ways in romantic relationships. The positive thing, however, is that no matter what the exact characteristics of the given narc, they follow very identical patterns. While some narcs are rude and physically abusive, others, the covert ones, maintain their calm facade under most circumstances and discharge their narcissistic rage (a reaction to narcissistic injury), in passive aggressive ways.
The fact that these patterns are so identical and the fact that we have internet these days allows people to eventually find out what it really is they are standing against.
The trajectory of a relationship with a narcissist is really quite surreal and totally different from a normal break-up of a relationship. It is generally much harder to recover from a relationship with a narcissist because it is based on pretence (the false self). The non-narcissistic person is only retrospectively piecing all the bits together. This process is very painful and challenges everything the person believed about the relationship.
It all starts like the dream come true. The narc is the prince charming, the answer to everything you ever needed in your life. They love you, adore you and worship you. You are the love of their life, the match made in heaven; you are the best couple, better than any other couple. They would always love you, they would never hurt you, they would never leave you…
This is called the pedestal phase. Narcs, while incapable of forming deep connections with people, can feel infatuation. In this stage, you are making them feel amazing about themselves and they would do anything to have you in their lives. You are the best thing that has ever happened to them (just for a while though).
However, the pedestal phase eventually ends. Once the narc stops feeling the high, he totally loses interest in the object (narcs generally view people as objects), starts devaluing the object and eventually discards of it. The narc makes the object know that the object doesn’t mean anything to him anymore and that in fact the object never really meant that much.
The object – the other person – is in shock. Didn’t they promise to love me forever? Didn’t they call me the best thing that has ever happened to them so many times? How could they don’t care about me anymore? How could they be so heartless?
Who falls into the narc trap?
The truth is that not everyone is prone to falling into the narcissistic trap. If you are someone with healthy boundaries, and healthy self-esteem, you would unmask the narc quite quickly and you would have no trouble leaving that person. (I have described the red flags, which I have personally ignored from the early to later stages of the relationship with the narc in this article on Quora).
However, if you are someone who has grown up in a toxic environment and whose parents were high on the narcissistic spectrum, you get attached.
There are two reasons for that: First of all, you are a love deprived, emotionally damaged child and the narc’s love bombing is extremely soothing for you. Second of all, you have zero boundaries, you are used to be blamed for everything, you are used to be manipulated. On the deeper level you have no self-love and self-respect, because deep down you blame yourself for the fact that your parents didn’t love you.
In short – you are a co-dependant.
Subconscious connections and trauma bonding
Looking back, I absolutely loved the love bombing during the pedestal phase. Emotional invalidation has very much always been the modus operandi in my family. I have never properly bonded with my mother. She would only see me as an extension of herself and frequently raged at me when I was little. My father was no better, using physical aggression as a primary tool for disciplining for very minor transgressions. Both of my parents were pretty much unpredictable and I always felt sort of hated by them. In fact, my father even told me to die when I was a teen.
I developed an eating disorder and all sorts of behavioural problems by my early teens. As soon as I started dating, it was clear that something was off with me since I would have these mad paranoid rejection and abandonment fears that would prompt me to act like a crazy person.
And then one day came the narc and the love-deprived traumatised parts of me hidden behind all sorts of psychological defences fell in love. My adult mind may have had objections to his character but my traumatised inner child thought it found the cure for her inner turmoil – the narc’s supposed undying love.
A massive hook for me was the narc’s compassion with my problems. When I was a toddler, I was getting cold showers when I had temper tantrums. The shock of the cold water may have supressed the tantrums at the moment but I believe these cold showers were the major contributor to me later developing my borderline symptoms. Among my symptoms, obviously, was intense anger and raging. I would always be judged for my anger – by my family who caused it in the first place as well as by everyone around. I felt faulty and guilty.
But the narc had all the compassion for my anger. He would never judge me. He even found it cute. At least during the pedestal phase. My wounded child for the first time in her life felt fully accepted.
But the happy ever after never lasts with a narc
The hooks that make it hard to recover from a narcissistic relationship
The problem is that when the second and third act starts unfolding in the story of a narcissistic relationship, you have no idea what you are dealing with. You only know the person that loved you, adored you and worshipped you like no other. And out of the blue, this person totally loses interest in you.
You are in denial. You want to work on the relationship. You don’t believe that the person doesn’t love you anymore. He was proclaiming his undying love for you only a few weeks ago and suddenly he wants to break –up? It doesn’t make sense.
The traumatised inner child that was lulled into thinking that her inner trauma had been healed by the magical love of the narc starts screaming. The emotional wounds of the childhood that the narc plastered with his love bombing are ripped apart and bleeding due to his sudden rejection. The pain is pouring out from all pores of the body like from a volcano.
And you expect the narc to come back to his old ways and make everything good again.
Big mistake. You are on a toboggan of devaluation and discard, which will stop at the exactly opposite end than where it started. You are a piece of garbage and the narc doesn’t want to have to do anything with you.
(I have described the devaluation and discard process in an article on Quora. There are plentiful description by other people).
It’s not about the narc
It took me several months of trying to figure out how the ‘love of my life’ could have so totally lost interest in me, before I stumbled on an article about the narcissistic relationship cycle.
What I noticed even before was how all the painful feelings that were coming to the surface, in fact mirrored everything that I felt as a child in my family.
I started meditating and with meditation, I dived inside and allowed content from my subconscious to start coming to the surface (and god, there was a lot of content and it wasn’t nice).
How the narc mirrors your trauma
Narcs have some sort of sixth sense to read people and adjust their behaviour in order to be liked by them. In superficial interactions, this doesn’t do that much harm but in romantic relationships, it’s a massive challenge for the narc’s target.
It’s even more of a challenge because the narc doesn’t really show his or her true colours during the pedestal phase and all the red flags that he presents, the target ignores because her needy traumatised inner child wants to believe the fairy tale.
Already in the love-bombing period, the narc would read his target and present himself in the way that would make the target believe that the narc is the knight in shining armour. They have a way of probing you and testing your boundaries, mildly pushing your triggers to see what are your true vulnerabilities.
By the time the devaluation and discard starts, they have read you. It’s not happening consciously. It’s some sort of a weird adaptation mechanism they learned as children due to the circumstances they were in, which is why we can’t really blame them and demonise them. They were formed by circumstances just like us.
The problem is that the target is attached through the traumatised childhood parts and regaining the narc’s love and acceptance feels like the matter of life and death. The narc fine-tunes his radar and eventually finds the most painful and difficult triggers.
For me, the worst trigger was being ignored. I felt annihilated.
When a child doesn’t feel loved by her parents, she usually accepts that it’s her fault and that if she was different, did things differently, the parents would have loved her. She blames herself. And the same pattern kicks in with the narc – if only I manage to say things right, he would get it. If I didn’t get angry, he wouldn’t have treated me like this – everything just to protect yourself from the harsh reality that the narc doesn’t give a fuck and in fact he never truly did.
It’s a very long and challenging process. But at the end you find the courage to realise the narc’s love was always just an illusion. The reality is that the person, the amazing loving kind and supporting individual, never existed – it was the false self and it got tired of you, the object, just like a child gets tired of a toy.
Handing over supply
All your reactions to the narc’s behaviour are a source of supply, energy that feeds the narc’s ego, which has annihilated their true self. They love when they can affect people. The more intense the emotional reaction the better. It makes them feel important, omnipotent.
During my relationship with the narc, the narc would frequently say that his previous girlfriend (object), never got over him and that she was still in love with him. He would pretend to be upset about it but in reality, he loved it.
The fact that all our attempts to talk and emotional reactions are just feeding the narc’s ego is really important. Once this realisation sinks in, it is much easier to make it a total priority to stop handing over any sort of supply and instead look within and work with those painful triggers.
The cognitive realisation by itself, however, is not enough. The intensity of the emotions could be overwhelming. Some people say that if you get traumatised, part of your personality splits off. This fragment of your soul gets supressed and stops evolving. It holds all the emotional charge of the trauma that you weren’t able to cope with at that time and it is essentially as old as you were when the trauma happened.
When a narcissist smashes the particular trigger, your early childhood trauma, that has been dormant, gets re-activated and you regress into the traumatised fragment. The fragment is emotionally as old as you were when the trauma happened. While this is happening, you don’t have access to your adult evolved mind and are only handling the situation from the position of a traumatised child.
To learn to cope with these moments was extremely difficult for me and it in fact led me to some really dangerous situations with the narc.
We can only change ourselves
The important bit is that we can’t change the narcs or stop them treating us like garbage. Narcissists rarely ever change and are generally quite unable to grow and evolve because of the rigidity of their adaptations.
In fact, we can’t change anyone. Only ourselves. And it’s not our job to be trying to change anyone else but ourselves.
If we still feel that we need to sort anything out with the narc, that is our lack of self-respect and it mirrors our childhood trauma. We have projected the childhood trauma onto the narc and we think that if he doesn’t approve of us, it’s the end of the world. No it’s not. And in the same way, it’s not the end of the world if our parents don’t approve of us. We don’t need them to survive anymore and we can heal the wounds they caused us without them owning their crap. They will not own anything and so won’t the narc.
However, in addition to self-help, I would recommend anyone processing childhood trauma (as a result of an encounter with a narcissist or not) to find a good therapist. Someone, that uses in-depth approaches and knows how to help dig out childhood stuff and find connections with the present situations. The journey could be too overwhelming to walk on your own but if your approach it in the right way, it can be the most healing and enriching experience of your life.