Narcissistic abuse (also known as narcissistic victim syndrome or narcissistic abuse syndrome) can be both tumultuous and insidious.
While we’re getting better at labeling this phenomenon, many people don’t realize the full magnitude of the abuse until they leave the relationship altogether.
And even then, unpacking and recovering from what happened can be painful and lonely. This is especially true if the narcissist is still in your life.
The length of time it takes to recover from narcissistic abuse varies for each individual and depends on factors such as the duration of the relationship and the support system in place.
That said, even though it may take time, it’s possible to recover and heal from the abuse that happened to you.
People can learn to process abuse safely with the proper support and tools. They can also move forward and build meaningful relationships.
This article talks about recovering from narcissistic abuse. It explains how long it might take to heal and what factors can affect recovery.
It also discusses the different types of abuse and provides steps to help you get back to feeling better.
How Long Do the Effects of Narcissistic Abuse Last?
There is no set timeline for struggling with (or recovering from) narcissistic abuse. The main symptoms, which include anger, confusion, low self-esteem, and shame, can take years to process genuinely.
Although there are shared experiences with narcissistic abuse, every relationship is unique. How you recover will depend on numerous factors, including:
The length of your relationship
Longer relationships with narcissists generally take longer to heal. You must regain your life when you invest significant time and resources into someone. That can be taxing, which can stunt your healing process.
Your support system
Having a solid group of family or friends can help you recover. But the opposite is also true.
If you are isolated from others, you may feel even more shattered by the impacts of narcissistic abuse.
Your general mental health
If you are predisposed to certain mental health concerns like depression or anxiety, your recovery may be more challenging.
Narcissistic abuse can also amplify your mental health issues.
The severity of narcissistic abuse
While no abuse is justified, more complex and life-threatening forms of abuse can be harder to recover from. Narcissistic rage can be especially traumatic.
That said, there is no “mild” abuse. Feeling perpetually unsafe or disrespected in any regard can affect your emotional well-being and make recovery challenging.
The status of your relationship
Going no-contact with someone can offer a faster track to recovery.
But sometimes you need to maintain a relationship with a narcissist (like if they’re you’re parent, ex-spouse, or a colleague).
In that case, dealing with the remnants of narcissistic abuse- while trying to maintain boundaries- can feel incredibly challenging.
All trauma can affect your development, but some research shows that childhood trauma, in particular, is incredibly damaging.
It can also have lifelong health consequences. Children growing up with narcissistic parents may be most vulnerable to long-term relationship problems, low self-esteem, and trauma symptoms.
Your ability to identify the abuse
If you never label the abuse for what it is, you are more prone to feeling lonely, insecure, and “stuck” in your relationship.
You’re also more likely to enable the narcissist while degrading yourself. Some people stay in this phase for many years (and some never leave it).
What Happens to Your Brain After Narcissistic Abuse?
Narcissistic abuse is generally a type of emotional abuse. However, depending on the relationship, you may have also endured physical, sexual, or financial abuse.
Research shows that relationship abuse can fundamentally change your brain. Even though most brain development occurs in utero, the brain develops rapidly after birth.
In normal development, between ages 0-5, brain volume expands, both with gray and white matter. White matter emerges from ages 7-17. During the middle years (ages 20-70), gray matter is more of a decline.
Trauma has different effects on brain development based on when the trauma occurred.
For example, studies show that people with PTSD have more memory problems and memory disturbances. They are more likely to experience symptoms of hypervigilance, dissociation, and nightmares.
Some researchers even consider emotional trauma to be a brain injury. That’s because trauma can make the amygdala overactive.
The amygdala is in charge of the body’s fight-or-flight response system. This system responds to fear (i.e. why you feel your heart race when you get nervous).
But an overactive amygdala can make your brain think there’s a danger when danger doesn’t exist. This can make you feel chronically anxious, overly irritable, or even numb to your environment.
Do You Ever Fully Recover From Narcissistic Abuse?
Full recovery is a broad term. You will never entirely forget what you endured. Healing doesn’t work that way. However, promising research shows that it’s possible to heal from complex trauma, including narcissistic abuse.
Healing often takes a long time and generally requires some form of professional support.
Recovery is more of a crooked, twisted process than a linear straight line. You may still have flashbacks or anxiety from time to time. But as you get better, these symptoms will no longer disturb you so much.
Avoiding retraumatization is essential. Unfortunately, people with histories of abusive relationships may be more prone to repeat their patterns.
This isn’t usually a conscious choice. Instead, abuse victims may simply be more resilient to abuse.
They’re also more familiar with being treated poorly (and may not think they’re worth respect and compassion).
In all of this, it’s also important to remember that the brain continues to grow and change over time.
This concept is rooted in neuroplasticity, meaning the brain can adapt based on reorganization.
In other words, by consistently choosing different actions (i.e. standing up to the narcissist or staying away from that relationship altogether), your brain starts coding those actions as the new standard.
What Type of Narcissistic Abuse Is Most Damaging?
All narcissistic abuse can be harmful. Narcissists rarely use one tactic to abuse others. Instead, they often “switch” strategies, and they do so in a way that leaves their victims feeling confused and insecure.
That said, some of the more severe types of narcissistic abuse include:
Gaslighting is a manipulation tactic intended to make you second-guess your reality and choices.
Most narcissists gaslight from time to time, but chronic gaslighting can erode your self-esteem and make you question your sanity.
Threats to hurt you or others can be highly damaging. The damage becomes more concerning if the narcissist has acted on those threats in the past.
Narcissists will often sabotage their victims as a form of revenge or petty anger.
They might, for example, try to sabotage your job, friendships, physical appearance, or anything else important to you. This can make you more reliant on them, and it can also impact your reputation.
A narcissist’s smear campaign can be especially devastating. You may find long-term friends and family sides with the narcissist, which often seems like a tremendous betrayal.
Emotional abuse is traumatic, but when the narcissist physically or sexually harms you, it adds another sense of extreme danger. Abuse can progress quickly, and people can and do die from domestic violence.
Why Do You Feel Bad After Narcissistic Abuse?
No doubt dating a narcissist changes you.
Narcissists often convince their victims that they are the problem in the relationship. They achieve this through a complex combination of gaslighting, threats, smearing, and other manipulative tactics.
To make matters worse, many narcissists will also play the victim when they sense someone is leaving the relationship (or even setting boundaries).
This can sound like:
I should have known you never really cared about me!, or, Go ahead and leave. I guess I’ll have nobody. I may as well just end things now.
All of these strategies are intended to make you feel guilty for standing your ground.
People who identify as empaths often end up in relationships with narcissists. Maybe you truly believed in the “good side” of them.
Maybe you empathize with the trauma they endured, and it gave you perspective into why they treated you so poorly.
Finally, you might worry about being single or unable to navigate life without the narcissist.
Changing the relationship becomes more challenging if you depend on them for resources (money, housing, emotional security).
How to Get Back to Normal After Narcissistic Abuse?
Healing from narcissistic abuse takes time, effort, and self-compassion.
You may lose loved ones along the way and need to make significant life changes to feel better.
That said, it’s possible to heal. Here are some steps:
Connect with like-minded individuals
No matter how isolated you feel, you are not alone in your experiences. Many other people have gone through such abuse, and many are out on the other side.
Support groups or connecting with people on online forums can help remind you that you’re in good company.
Seek professional support
A therapist can provide guidance, support, and tools as you navigate this tender time.
Remember that everything you talk about in therapy is confidential- do not allow the narcissist to have consent to your treatment records.
Remember your truth
You will likely doubt what happened many times in your healing process. You might think you’re overreacting and consider giving the narcissist another chance.
It’s helpful to remind yourself exactly what happened. Consider writing everything down as a reference point when those details get fuzzy.
Maintain your boundaries
Commit to your boundaries after changing or ending the relationship. Your healing is only as good as those limits.
Remember that the narcissist will likely double down on their efforts to reach out to you. Stay strong- refusing to give into their demands reinforces that you aren’t going back.
Repeat affirmations about your recovery
- Keep telling yourself that you are worthy of healing.
- Remind yourself that you deserve love and respect.
- If it’s helpful, write these affirmations down on notes or save them in your phone.
Commit to practicing self-care
Building a strong relationship with yourself is essential after ending an abusive dynamic.
There’s a good chance that your self-esteem is tattered right now. Take the time to reengage with old hobbies and friends.
Spend time reflecting and enjoying who you are. Implement a routine each day that makes you feel good emotionally and physically.