I like to think that shame is a temporary state for many survivors of narcissistic abuse – temporary being the keyword here – so please know that if you are experiencing those unpleasant feelings, you will not feel this way forever. I know that I felt overwhelmed with shame, embarrassment, and bombarded myself with negative self-talk after my two narcissistic relationships. For me, it was especially challenging because I work as a psychologist and have pretty substantial training in mental health and behavioural science. After my last discard, my self-talk sounded something like this:
‘Really Jenny, you got yourself into this relationship mess again? How didn’t you see what was going on? You, of all people, Ms Psychologist, should have known better. There is something wrong with you.’
Then I wanted to hide, stay in my bed, or in my house so no one would see me and so I didn’t have to risk running into my ex-narcissist or someone who heard the rumours he made up about me. After my last relationship with my covert narcissist, I was filled with shame and a host of other awful emotions related to shame, such as paranoia, anxiety, depression, hyper-vigilance, and emotional dysregulation. I was so hard on myself and really thought there was something wrong with me that I kept attracting narcissists.
There wasn’t anything wrong with me and I wasn’t a narcissism magnet. I just needed to be honest with myself about my behaviour patterns and what I learned as a child, and then work on setting healthy boundaries and loving myself more. My issue wasn’t attracting narcissists, it was staying with them and not getting out of the relationship when I saw red flags. I am very proud to say that I have made substantial personal growth because I am a survivor of narcissistic abuse and have been able to change many of my maladaptive behaviours. If I was able to defeat my shame, so can you.
My shame even made it difficult talking to my therapist about my narcissistic abuse story because well, if you are a survivor of narcissistic abuse you already know that these relationships sound so bizarre and confusing, you feel like people will judge you or think that you are the ‘crazy‘ one for getting involved and staying involved with a toxic person. It also usually does not help that only people who have intimate relationships with the narcissist know their true colours.
Narcissists are master manipulators who use charm to win everyone over and ultimately control them. I can’t tell you how many times I heard that my ex was the nicest guy. Who on earth would ever believe me or my version of the story and the abuse? As many survivors do, I even began to question my own reality. Maybe this was my fault? Maybe I could have done something different or better? As a client, my shame slowed my recovery down and made me fear that my therapist would judge me, even though as a therapist, I never think negative things about or judge survivors. I understand their feelings and believe them.
My negative self-talk and constant rumination about how I was so dumb to try to work things out over and over again, and how I was such an idiot to miss all of the red flags, was not helping me to heal from the shame I was feeling. Shame is a very powerful emotion – you feel like you have a major defect that causes you to mess things up. Shame is a much more powerful emotion than guilt or embarrassment because it makes you feel like there is something internally wrong with your core being that you cannot fix.
Here are some key points to remember if you are struggling with shame, after narcissistic abuse, to help you to heal:
- Talk to someone you trust. You need to talk about your shame story to someone you really trust, but not to everyone. Talking about shame helps to remove its power. The more you become comfortable expressing what happened in your relationship and how you feel to someone who will support you in a non-judgemental way, the less you will experience shame. The key is that you don’t need to tell the whole world about all the nitty-gritty deals that went down in your narcissistic relationship. Find maybe three people who you trust and who are good listeners to start talking about your shame.
- Try to role-play with yourself. What would you say to your best friend if she told you the same story? What would you think if you heard about a similar situation on television? Would you respond in a compassionate and empathetic way? Odds are, if you were in a relationship with a narcissist, you have high traits of empathy. Try looking in the mirror and naming your feelings and why you feel that way or journal them. Are you being kind and compassionate with yourself? Remember that, as a survivor of narcissistic abuse, you have probably been through a whole host of terrible events like emotional and verbal abuse, betrayals, gaslighting, and manipulation. You deserve and need to be gentle with yourself.
- Be realistic. Deep down you know that you are not your mistakes. All people mess up every now and then. Plus, when someone abuses you, lies to you, or takes advantage of you, the responsibility is always on them. Being the victim of a narcissist’s bad behaviour is not your fault.
- Focus on how to move forward. Getting out of a relationship with a narcissist is gruelling and is no easy task. They tend to hover and come back to haunt you. You can and will recover from this dysfunctional relationship. Please do not let the narcissist define you or your self-worth. Heartbreak can be a blessing in disguise. What can you learn about yourself and your behaviour patterns? How can you evolve, improve, and grow as a person? What are your recovery goals and your plan to move forward?
Here are some therapeutic activities to try:
- For every negative self-talk statement, write down three positive affirmations about yourself. Make a conscious effort to focus on your good traits and qualities.
- Rehearse positive self-talk statements to use when you are being hard on yourself. Try telling yourself things like: ‘I will learn from this situation and heal.’ ‘This will and is improving.’ ‘I am willing to do the work to break these patterns.’ ‘I am worthy of love.’ I also recommend writing these statements that you craft and hanging them places like on your bathroom mirror, on your refrigerator, or on your bedroom wall.
- Practise self-compassion. Name your feelings multiple times a day and make an effort to comfort yourself. Try wrapping your arms around yourself and give yourself a big hug. Tell yourself things are going to be okay, go for a walk, or do something that you enjoy.
- If you get stuck ruminating, literally change the temperature. Take a cold shower, put a cold washcloth on your neck, or go for a drive with the windows down. If you are struggling with negative self-talk, sometimes a physical change in temperature will help you to snap out of it. You can also try just standing up and leaving the room or changing your physical location.
- Forgive yourself. To me, forgiveness means that an event doesn’t evoke a strong emotional response in you and that you can recall the facts of the event without feeling extreme emotions of anger, sadness, or anxiety. Forgiveness is a process and it does not happen overnight. Remember that you are the only person you cannot escape, so you have to like yourself and accept yourself always. It’s okay to let yourself off the hook. I know a lot of beautiful, smart, and kind men and women who stayed too long with a narcissist, I consider myself to be one of them and I did it twice. But I continue to work on forgiving and improving myself and, over time, my shame associated with my toxic relationships has disappeared.
Jenny Tamasi is a psychologist, survivor, and author of The Psychologist and Her Narcissists: A Guide to Surviving Toxic Relationships.