Sometimes something will happen, and then out of the blue, there it is.
There’s my story staring me in the face.
You know what I’m talking about.
The story that explains why you do what you do.
Why your habits are your habits—even your bad ones.
Why you tell yourself the things you do to get through the day, even when a part of you knows those things are lies.
Why you can’t forgive yourself for some things, even when you’ve forgiven other people for worse.
Why no matter where you go, you follow yourself around like a shadow begging to be heard. Yet the voice that sometimes hisses in your ear like a wasp is so decrepit, you’ll do anything to shut it up, even if you nearly destroy yourself in the process.
Why one minute you thought you were on an upswing, that things were moving in the right direction, and then the next minute the room flips upside down again. All of a sudden, you’re right back in a fight for your life again that’s taking place in that escape room in your mind.
The Stages of Breaking Up with a Narcissist
We all have our own tales of horror and heartbreak, and yet there are the common threads that stitch them all together.
There are also the deeper shared traumas that we seek to unpack, the grief for our futures, and the unbearable pain of deep silence no one else understands.
There are so many stages of being in a relationship with a narcissist or of getting out of a relationship with one, and I’ve written about them many times elsewhere:
The gaslighting, crazymaking, and denial.
The Stockholm Syndrome.
The phases of breaking up over and over again.
The obsession with reading about narcissistic abuse and trying to figure out what happened.
Then, at some point, there is a stage at which we all end up after a relationship like this one, and that’s where I was for the longest time, although I didn’t know it: Who am I?
“I’ll Never Be the Person I Used to Be After Narcissistic Abuse”
Hundreds of people have written to me some version of the following statement: “I’ll never be the person I was before I met the narcissist.” They may even add, “I’m getting better, but still, I’ll never be the same.”
If you look back at yourself in each of those snapshots, those stages above–the one bound to the narcissist by invisible chains; the shell-shocked one; the one split in two; the one desperately begging for answers; the one so sick with grief you wanted to die; the one being ground down into ashes and then dragged back out of them so many times you were crazy with not knowing yourself anymore…
If you look back at all those versions of yourself, is it hard to believe that was you, that you made it out?
Yet you did. You did. You survived!
How could you ever be the same?
You’re not the same person you were before they came along, before their ugly violation of that “you.”
So now that it’s over, if we will never be the same, then who are we now?
Who am I?
If You Are Not Who You Were, Then Who Are You Now?
When the dust settles and we are able to sever the tie and stop caring about what the narcissist does, we are left with ourselves.
But what the narcissist left us with is not who we started with.
Narcissists slowly blend their identities with ours until we lose something crucial.
They look inside of us and see what no one else sees. They find ways to get inside, and then they violate us, scrape out what they see, stripping out flesh and soul, and replace all of that core embodiment of who we were with themselves.
After the relationship ends, they’re gone, but what they leave behind is still there: the voice that told us who they thought we were supposed to be. The life they promised to us has shaped what we believe to be possible. The presence they mirrored to use has distorted the world for what we thought it was.
The narcissist makes us believe so many cruelties about ourselves, direct and indirect, through their words and actions, we have to start unraveling them.
Our beliefs have been shaken to the core because of what we went through.
Yet we can take what happened and use it to empower ourselves beyond all measure of how we have ever been empowered in our lives.
That’s the “Who Am I” stage.
There is no roadmap.
What the “Who Am I” Stage is Not
Let’s talk about what the “Who Am I” stage is not.
Note the “I” in the “Who am I” stage.
The “Who Am I” stage is completely subjective in its conclusions.
It is not a stage for anyone to tell you what you must conclude.
No one can tell you what your experience in this relationship means in the larger context of your life–although many people may try.
There are many tools available for you to try to see what works and doesn’t work. But it is you that must come to your own conclusions. As you sift through everything, only you will know what pieces to keep and what pieces to throw away.
What is common to us all about the “Who Am I” stage are not the conclusions we will draw, but the emotions we may feel while in this stage and the methods we may use to try to move through it successfully and learn what it is we need to learn.
Yet at some point, I think we all get here and what we do here is everything. You find your story. Your story is not just about the past–it’s about your future. Once you know where you’ve been, you can know what you want going forward.
It wasn’t until recently that I realized I even had a story. Not until a little over a year ago after I went to visit my father and some other things occurred right around the same time was I able to have a vertigo moment and realize that there was something bigger going on.
Like constellations in the sky, I started to be able to pick out shapes among dead stars, but I couldn’t yet make out the pictures they formed.
Realizations about why certain things had happened to me began to dawn on me. Yet I felt as if I understood both more and less at the same time. I couldn’t comprehend how to apply the realizations reliably in my present life so that I could protect myself in a way that would keep me safe without going too far.
So, I just… went dark and went inside myself and fell inside the layers.
There were times I couldn’t quite wrap my mind around my story. I would grasp just a small piece before it slipped back under the cold, wet water again.
I would read my truth in the words of others and there it was. I would feel validated, vindicated, seen, and then I would feel myself crawling back out into the light again as if I knew who I was–or at least who I could be.
That is why I write these words now. I hope that by writing my truth in this new stage of healing, that it will help others in some small way to feel seen.
I still reside among those layers, but closer to the surface now. I’m starting to be able to sew together those layers into a quilt made of tears and hope, that can both cover and radiate warmth.
I am not scared.
I am not extinguished.
If you’re reading this, neither are you.