Being in a relationship with a narcissist feels like you’re constantly walking on eggshells. It doesn’t take much to set off your partner’s narcissistic rage. 

That’s something Ally Fallon, author of “Write Your Story,” knows all too well. Married to a narcissist for four years, Fallon recalls a time her ex-husband shattered his phone against a wall. Why? Because she had miscounted how many tortillas were in the fridge. On another occasion, he punched a hole in the wall because she was “acting combative.”

Events like these weren’t uncommon for Fallon. “His outbursts became like land mines I was always trying to avoid,” she said. By the time she gathered the courage to leave, the damage was done. “It obliterated my self-confidence. After the divorce, I couldn’t even order lunch without collapsing into anxiety and despair,” she said. “His voice was like a record on repeat in my head that told me I was worthless, disorganized, irresponsible, combative, and a slow learner.”

What Fallon experienced isn’t uncommon, said  Becca Reed, LCSW, a trauma therapist at Riverwood Health in Yarmouth, Maine. “Emerging from a long-term narcissistic relationship can leave profound, invisible scars,” she said. “Individuals often experience a significant blow to their self-worth and self-esteem, feeling unseen and unworthy of genuine love.”

If you’ve escaped from a narcissistic relationship, you may feel liberated. But there’s also a good chance that you feel like a shell of the person you once were. The good news? It’s possible to heal from the abuse. Whether you’ve just started your healing journey or been on it for years, keep reading for expert advice on recovering your self-confidence and worth.

How narcissists conceal their true nature

According to a 2021 article published by the American Psychological Foundation, narcissism is marked by an inherent sense of entitlement, grandiose self-perception, feelings of superiority, the exertion of abusive control over others, and lack of empathy. What’s more, narcissists have a deep-rooted need for admiration and an intolerance of criticism. 

A person with those characteristics should be easy to avoid, right? Not so fast – narcissists are masters at putting on a false front. They start with love bombing – a phase in which the victim is inundated with overwhelming affection and attention (think big gestures), Reed said. For example, they may shower you with gifts, send you flowers daily, take you on expensive trips, or tell you that you’re their soulmate very early on. 

“This initial charm can be particularly bewildering, forging a strong emotional connection and dependency on the abuser’s attention,” Reed said. It also lays the groundwork for future manipulative behaviors, she added.

Author Ally Fallon speaking
Now living her best live, Ally Fallon is the founder of Find Your Voice—a community that offers workshops, coaching, editing and support for aspiring authors. (Photo courtesy of Ally Fallon)

The cycle of narcissistic abuse

Unfortunately, there’s no “happily ever after” with a narcissist. “Any relationship with a narcissist will contain neglect and abuse,” said Carl Nassar Ph.D., LPC, a therapist specializing in emotional and mental well-being based in Denver, Colorado. Once their love bombing has you hooked, the cycle of abuse starts – with devaluation, gaslighting (make you doubt your feelings and experiences), and emotional control, he said.

An important part of the narcissistic cycle is intermittent reinforcement – a pattern of unpredictable behaviors, Reed said. For example, you might experience intervals of sudden affection followed by coldness, she explained. “After beating you down, narcissists follow this up with a sort of reconciliation, where they make amends to win you back and offer a short period of calm before the cycle begins again,” Nassar said.

This damaging behavior reinforces your emotional investment and keeps you hoping for positive moments despite the relationship’s toxic dynamic, Reed said. In other words, you’re constantly chasing the narcissist’s love.

For Fallon, the cycle of abuse was present from day one. She said it started with love bombing – her ex indulged her with gifts, trips, and profuse verbal affirmation. That transitioned into him picking fights (or accusing her of things she didn’t do), followed by an explosion and “something resembling an apology,” and then the love bombing would resume.

Why narcissistic abuse is so damaging

“Narcissistic abuse chips away at the very core of our identity and self-esteem,” Reed said. Not only does the ongoing manipulation of a narcissist leave deep psychological scars on their victim, but it makes it extremely challenging to leave, she said. 

“Many times, the fear of losing the ‘love’ and approval (however sporadic and conditional) of the narcissist keeps the victim tied to the relationship,” she explained. The manipulation involved may also isolate the victim from their support systems (like family and friends), making it even harder to leave the abusive environment, Reed pointed out. 

“Our brains are not wired to deal with people whose emotions are disingenuous and whose words are insincere,” Nassar said.  As a result, we find ourselves defenseless when a narcissist enters our lives, leaving us deeply damaged by their manipulations, he said.

“This can manifest as persistent feelings of anxiety, depression, and an exaggerated awareness of potential threat – known as hypervigilance,” Reed said. She said that because they’ve been in a prolonged state of emotional dysregulation, fear, and uncertainty, it’s not uncommon for survivors to develop symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

How to heal from narcissistic abuse

The first step in healing is recognizing that you have been a victim of narcissistic abuse and understanding the abuse had a real and significant impact on your mental health and well-being, Nassar said. Once you’ve done that, the following steps can help you heal:

  • Seek therapy: Nassar recommends seeking the support of a therapist who understands the dynamics of narcissistic abuse. “Understanding the nature of narcissistic behavior can empower you to recognize and avoid similar situations in the future.” Therapies like Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) and Brainspotting can help address the roots of your trauma to reduce feelings of anxiety and depression. 
  • Get a support system: Reconnecting with family and friends is also crucial in rebuilding your sense of community and belonging, Nassar said. “Surround yourself with people who support you,” said Reed. 
  • Set boundaries: Setting boundaries is a critical part of self-care. It helps you to recover your self-esteem and reduce anxiety by establishing a safe environment for yourself, said Nassar. Reed recommends engaging in activities that make you feel good about yourself, like yoga, journaling, or cooking a healthy meal.
  • Be patient with yourself: Rebuilding your self-worth and confidence after a narcissistic relationship takes time and effort, Reed said. She recommends setting small, achievable goals and celebrating your successes. That way, you’ll gradually restore your belief in your abilities and sense of self. 

The bottom line? Healing from a narcissistic relationship takes time and work, which Fallon can attest to. “It has taken me years and hundreds of hours of therapy and self-love to come back to the earnest, intelligent, light-hearted, self-confident woman that I am,” she said. Just remember that you’re not crazy, and you CAN do it.