They lure with promises, flattery, lies and sweet words.
The mask shifts with each new person in their sights, adjusting to our likes and dislikes, filling in crevices to become whatever seems to be missing and fulfilling our long-lost dreams. What remains the same, however, is that the true nature of the narcissist remains hidden behind the mask.
With that mask, employed skillfully at the outset, the narcissist sets the stage to lure and trap by putting it back on again and again.
Untouchable. That’s what they want to be.
Imagine the narcissist with a piece of chalk. With the love-bombing they pour on us at the beginning of the relationship, narcissists draw a fat, white circle of protection around themselves. Their words and deeds during that time further cast a glittering, golden spotlight of goodness over them and we form a bond with the person standing in that spotlight that is difficult to break.
Later, each time they step out of that circle, that is, “cross the line,” and our brain and body scream at us that we have been violated, they only have to stand under the golden goodness inside that circle so we catch them in its glow to get us to override our own instincts.
“No, I’m not abusing you. I love you.”
This is why I call it “escaping” a relationship with a narcissist.
To become free of the relationship, we must psychologically change our view of it. There is no other way.*
For some, it may occur faster than others. How hard it is for us to get to the point to where we can go no-contact depends on many factors, such as the level of attachment, the length of the relationship, our willingness to give others the benefit of the doubt, our own fears and weaknesses, how hard the narcissist keeps fighting to keep us from leaving and how deeply the narcissist has obscured the idea that the relationship is abusive behind any of a dozen other smokescreens.
I’ve written before about eleven things that can happen before a partner goes no-contact. These are things I experienced in response to what I was enduring in my past relationship. I wrote this not long after I went no-contact as I thought back on the relationship and the psychological turmoil I had been suffering through at the time.
Now, however, many months later, I can see that each emotion and reaction I felt as one of those eleven things was actually a result of progressing through a painful but necessary and empowering process of awakening.
I was awakening to a new view of the relationship, one in which it was reframed from a place where I’d once felt the happiest I’d ever been to a place where I realized I was alone with a stranger and had to use all of my mental strength to pull myself out of.
It did not happen overnight. In fact, it took me over two years.
I have identified five stages of the awakening, which describe how a survivor’s view of the relationship must change in order to leave. There’s a reason it took me so long: the abuse is kept hidden from us. So I actually think of it as enlightenment to the fact that what we are enduring is abuse.**
I hope by identifying these stages, others who read this may be able to identify their own feelings more easily, view what is happening more objectively and perhaps feel less fear and confusion.
I hope that perhaps it may shed light on where you’ve been, where you are, and where you still need to go. I hope it may give you strength and hope that you can get there, and that whatever emotions you’re feeling now or fear you will feel later, you are not alone.
The Five Main Stages of Narcissistic Abuse Enlightenment
Because of the very nature of how we are abused, there are stages through which we progress during a romantic relationship with a narcissist, starting with the discovery that the relationship is not what we thought it was to purging the narcissist from our lives.
Only through the progression of these five stages can we move from passive participants in the relationship who do what the narcissist wants us to do to active performers in our own lives, who do things that may not be in the best interest of the narcissist– but are definitely in ours.
STAGE 1: AWARENESS OF THE ABUSE
This happens inevitably after the initial phase of the relationship when one has been idealized by a narcissist.
At the beginning of the relationship with the narcissist, things were perfect. We were not yet aware of what was to come. We believed in what the narcissist presented to us because we entered the relationship with good intentions.
At some point, something happens or a series of incidents occur that trigger awareness of the abuse. We may not yet call it abuse, but these are the moments that lead us to the epiphany that something is terribly wrong. Someone who loves us should not be able to do the horrifying things that were done to us.
Because these are the first glimpses behind the mask and we are bound to the narcissist at least partly if not mostly because of forces beyond our control, we likely enter a state of denial and tell ourselves that this is not what we think it is.
STAGE 2: UNDERSTANDING THAT THE BEHAVIOR IS ABUSIVE.
Reaching the second stage requires coming to understand the nature of what’s happening, that abuse is taking place. There have been too many incidents. The idealization stage has begun to fade away and we are now so miserable, we have begun to seek answers.
Perhaps we have been talking to others outside the relationship who provided us with an outsider’s perspective. We may have turned to the Internet and stumbled across details about narcissism.
The scope and magnitude of what we are up against, however, have now been planted by this external information. We now have two competing realities: one from the narcissist and one from outside the narcissist that provides us with a new and rational understanding of his or her behavior.
“Understanding,” is not usually the ticket out because it’s merely the bigger picture that is inevitably gained as we seek to make sense of the reality we live in as more of the mismatch between the narcissist’s words and deeds pile up.
At this time, it actually contributes to the cognitive dissonance we feel and now, denial is no longer sufficient as a primary method of managing our understanding of the narcissists’s behavior because the new information we have competes with the narcissist’s “version of events.”
Confusion sets in, as the narcissist returns to the white circle dozens of times and we see him or her step out of it just as many, and we now have to choose what to believe about why he or she is doing such things.
STAGE 3: ACCEPTING THAT THE BEHAVIOR IS DESTRUCTIVE.
We may remain in Stage #2 for some time, confused. We try new methods to cope with what’s happening– accepting the blame to try to keep the relationship together, denying that our partner is a narcissist, trying to use what we learned to become more compliant or prove the literature wrong– our relationship will turn out differently, we’ll get through this, we think defiantly.
Eventually, however, progression into Stage #3 generally comes with time, after persistent cruel treatment by the narcissist and our inability to get anything to change and improve.
At this point, the idealization stage is usually so far in the past, we rarely see glimpses of it anymore. Or we have been subjected to so much betrayal and pain, we don’t feel as if we are the same person anymore as we were when the relationship started.
In addition, we have been slowly conditioned not to talk about it or express or process our feelings about what has been done to us. We may have lost much of our support system or feel beaten down and our emotions may have slipped long past confusion to defeat. We come to accept that the relationship is bad for us and we need to leave it.
And yet, we do not because we cannot.
We find ourselves being drawn again and again back into it.
The awareness that we cannot leave causes us additional suffering, as now we know what is happening to us and still we cannot escape. Instead, now not only does the narcissist’s behaviors not match his or her words– ours no longer do either.
Sandra L. Brown, author of Women Who Love Psychopaths, writes that “…The partners must split in order to stay. In reality, [the survivor] has held two different relationships with the good/bad dichotomous psychopath! Each one of these relationships has required a different belief system in order to remain in it. These belief systems begin to battle each other…” These two belief systems were drawn out of us slowly over time, using our own strengths and weaknesses against us.
This is the most difficult of the stages to explain in isolation– for how can someone know and accept that a relationship is abusive and desire to leave it, and yet not do so? Yet the broader context of all the stages, both those that came before and those that come after, and how the relationship has always been about dominance and control by the narcissist can provide most of the answers.
We become paralyzed when our two belief systems are competing with one another and are at the whims of the narcissist. We begin to develop learned helplessness, in response to being unable to act effectively one way or another in the relationship– either to leave it or to be treated in the manner in which we wished to be treated.
From my own experience, I remember at one point in my relationship with my narcissistic ex-boyfriend feeling as if I would never get away from him until one of us was dead.
Thankfully, I was wrong.
STAGE 4: RE-AWAKENING ERODED ASPECTS OF THE SELF.
This helplessness we develop is created in us over time by the abusive tactics perpetrated by the narcissist. It is an illusion.
Overcoming the acute abusive tactics that keep us confused and helpless is the next stage we need to enter prior to being able to leave the relationship. These tactics the narcissist has used to get us to this point include gaslighting, refusal to discuss any of the wrong-doing, blame-shifting, and others.
The tactics keep us under the control of the narcissist. They cause us to feel both incapable and unwilling to begin to tear down the bond that the narcissist developed with us at the beginning, by manufacturing emotions in us.
We feel fear at the unknown future or what life will be like without the narcissist in our lives.
We feel guilt at doing anything to harm the narcissist, as if we are betraying him or her and start to think of the good times and good things he or she has done for us. We feel as if we are giving up if we stop trying.
We feel sadness thinking about the loss of the massive presence of that person in our lives if we do anything to remove it.
We feel doubt that we are right about how bad things are, that we are not to blame for how things have turned out, or that we are capable of even doing such a thing.
We feel weak and unable to pull off leaving, knowing it will cause a torrent of emotion and subsequent range of dramatic responses from the narcissist.
Yet– somehow– despite feeling all of these things, we must overcome them by realizing they are manufactured by what the narcissist has done to us.
They are illusions.
What is real is the anxiety we feel, perhaps in the back of our minds, knowing they will never change, or knowing that they can’t ever be faithful.
What is real is the constant “fight or flight” mode we find ourselves in and the nightmares we wake up to due to their explosive tirades we can’t predict. The lies and the gaslighting and our unease and obsessive thoughts.
What is real is the constant questioning and accusations and that persistent feeling we can’t relax into our own lives, that we have lost ourselves a piece at a time and been forced inside a tiny cage until we now live trapped inside of it.
Stage #4 is about letting those emotions and that voice that is carrying them rise closer to the top and override the false emotions that sit in the eroded parts of ourselves where the narcissist has taken up residence and parked his or her own suggestions. Those suggestions serve his or her benefit– not ours.
Overcoming the tactics the narcissist has used to bring us to the point to where we felt we can’t escape means:
- recognizing what they’re doing when they use one of these tactics
- calling out the narcissist when he or she uses them
- not treating the bad behavior they have engaged in throughout the relationship as acceptable just to keep the peace
- not letting any of what they say when they use these tactics help resolve cognitive dissonance in their favor (e.g., believing they are correct when they gaslight and we should doubt our own perceptions, etc.)
- seeing oneself as in control, empowered, and undeserving of this treatment; sometimes this involves “faking it until making it”
This is a turning point in the “enlightenment,” for it is when we begin to gain our control back– and yet it is difficult because nothing will bring it about other than a conscious effort on our parts to stop merely accepting that this is abuse and thinking differently about it.
Other things that happen in the external world may assist with moving us closer to Stage #4.
Without the narcissist’s influence during a silent treatment, we may begin to think more clearly about what has been going on because the narcissist’s tactics by default will not be of immediate influence.
For example, there will be no gaslighting during this time, so we may be able to start putting things together, or having more empowering thoughts that we don’t want to and shouldn’t let go of if the narcissist reaches out again later.
Or perhaps our health begins to decline or we suffer another loss in our lives.
Or we may have an epiphany due to an action of the narcissist and realize that, though leaving may result in an emotional crisis for us, a worse fate may result from staying in the relationship.
In my case, all three of these things happened and they gradually led me to become aware that I wanted and needed to be more in charge of myself than I had been in the past. It was almost as if I no longer had a choice. As I said, it was a turning point to where I could choose to empower myself or continue to empower him.
I realized I could not trust or rely on my narcissist ex to do what I had expected and I had to start looking out for myself.
It was not like flicking a light switch, however, where I was suddenly one day “empowered.”
It was a gradual and building sense of empowerment as I grew apart from him and let myself grow apart from him.
“You’re getting sick.”
“Something bad is going to happen.”
What this empowerment led to was a growing feeling of desperation.
I knew things would never be the same. It was only a matter of time.
STAGE 5: CHANGING PSYCHOLOGICAL MINDSET AND TAKING ACTION.
In Stage #4, the psychological shift is the attitude we have toward ourselves and our ability to do something about what we’ve gone through.
In Stage #5, our mindset changes and we no longer view the narcissist or the relationship the same way. We become ready to tear it all down. We must actually take actions to remove oneself from the abusive situation physically and psychologically. This involves two steps:
- Go completely no-contact with the narcissist forever;
- Stop idealizing the narcissist and the relationship.
As alluded to in Stage #4, stating that there is a psychological shift and that we then take action implies that the shift is very black-and-white and that the action is very purposeful.
It implies that there is some dramatic confrontation, as in the movies, where we tell off our partners and walk out the door with all of our belongings never looking back, leaving them speechless and regretful for the way they treated us.
It also implies that everything is suddenly crystal clear and every move we make from here on out is with determination and a sense of self-awareness and direction.
The end is an angst-ridden earthquake, a freefall into a future in which we no longer even know who we are. The end is a blind spot where they implanted themselves in our psyche, still dictating our actions and monitoring our thoughts for a time even as they are out of our lives.
It’s an emotional roller coaster. It’s a death, fraught with loss and uncertainty.
What Stage #5 does mean is that we pass the point of no return psychologically where we no longer just see the relationship as bad for us, we start to see the narcissist as a disordered person who we no longer wish to be with.
We are more willing to accept the unknown than to accept the nightmare we have been living.
We choose ourselves.
In the next article, I will discuss how our view of the narcissist shifts over time and must shift over time before we can move on and be free from the relationship.