This question comes up a lot in my experience with survivors of narcissistic abuse. And how can it not? If you have to live under the auspices of grim self-diminishing beliefs, which you had to adapt to survive narcissistic abuse then, of course, you would want to know how long until you can expect some relief. I often engage with this question as people are considering or beginning therapy to recover from narcissistic abuse. In today’s post, I want to talk about this question. The short answer to the question – in my own opinion – is that “It depends”. But I hope that what I discuss will be a little more satisfying.
My name is Jay Reid, and I’m a licensed psychotherapist in California specializing in helping people recover from narcissistic abuse. You may be here to make sense of the abuse you suffered. A great resource to help with this is my free e-book titled ‘Surviving narcissistic abuse as the scapegoat’.
Narcissistic abuse can leave us feeling lost and estranged from our sense of who we are. In individual therapy and my online course on recovery from narcissistic abuse, I try to offer a map that allows them to return to the quality of life they deserve. Of course, each survivor must travel this path themselves, but a map can be tremendously important to do this with. And there are three features on this map that I call the 3 Pillars of Recovery:
Pillar # 1: Making sense of what happened,
Pillar # 2 Gaining distance from the narcissistic abuser, and
Pillar # 3: living in defiance of the narcissist’s rules.
Lastly, one can’t do this in a vacuum. Finding and participating in communities of people who can get, validate, and support you on this path is also essential. Today’s post falls under Pillar #1: making sense of what happened.
I want to clarify that these answers are based on my clinical, professional and personal experience. These answers might be thought of as hypotheses about what could answer this question and would benefit from actual research with survivors of narcissistic abuse to see if they are correct. With that being said, I believe three factors determine how long it takes to recover from narcissistic abuse.
Factor #1: How early did the narcissistic abuse start?
If you were born to a narcissistic parent, for example, and had the misfortune of having to forge your beliefs about who you are and what you can expect from others with someone so self-absorbed, then more time will be needed to recover. In contrast, if you had a ‘good enough relationship with at least one caregiver where you felt protected, cared for, interested in, and loved, and the narcissistic abuse occurred later in your life, recovery may not take as long.
Here’s why: In the early stages of life, we are dependent on our primary caregivers to meet our physical, psychological, and emotional needs. These include being adequately fed, diapered, comforted, played with, and cared for. A young child is self-centered and, in a healthy family expects their parents to complement their self-centeredness with support, admiration, appreciation, and love. The family delights in the child’s discovery of themselves and their world. Such a child will develop beliefs that others are available, generous, and appreciative in a fairly unconditional way of who they are and that they are deserving of care, protection, and love.
Let’s say someone with this type of childhood is now in their twenties and finds a romantic partner who initially is devoted, charismatic, admiring, admirable, and seemingly all that the person hoped for. As time passes, the partner seems to grow bored and subtly starts expressing disdain towards our subject. This derision only increases, and our subject initially works very hard to restore the relationship to its initial bliss and suffers flagging self-worth from feeling unable to do so. After reconnecting with some longtime friends and family members, our subject realizes that it’s not them but the partner who is the problem. Our subject sees that their partner is treating them in ways that are at odds with their beliefs about who they are, how they should be treated, and what they deserve. This person might break up with their narcissistic partner in short order and recover from its effects relatively quickly.
In this example, the person had the fortune of forging self-worth, enhancing fundamental beliefs about themselves and others in the early parts of their lives. When their partner started to reveal their narcissistic ways, they conflicted with the person’s beliefs about themselves. That conflict allowed the person to identify what was happening after reconnecting with friends and family and know they deserved better.
In contrast, someone who forged their beliefs about themselves and others with a narcissistic parent at the beginning of life had the misfortune of learning that their needs are less important than the parent’s, that they are undeserving of the care and attention they so badly want, and that there is something wrong with them that makes them unlovable. When this person is in their twenties and falls into the same situation described above, the experience will be quite different. The initial way the narcissistic partner fawned over our subject will have felt strange, and the ensuing criticism and devaluation will feel more familiar. Our subject now does not have a conflict with how the narcissistic partner is mistreating them in the way the person earlier did.
When there is less conflict between how a current narcissistic person in one’s life is mistreated, then that can indicate a longer time required to recover from narcissistic abuse. The beliefs developed early in life with a narcissistic parent must be identified and challenged, so that mistreatment in one’s current life grows to feel like something unwarranted rather than expected. I would say that long-term therapy is an important option to consider if you find yourself in this boat. Participation in new safe relationships is the most critical ingredient to recovery from narcissistic abuse. A good, ongoing therapy can help the survivor reprogram the beliefs held to date and work out new beliefs that enhance, rather than diminish, one’s quality of life.
Factor #2: Did anyone protect you from narcissistic abuse?
Suppose you were born into a family with a narcissistic parent whose authority went unquestioned in the family. In that case, you may have had to adopt beliefs about your unworthiness and the narcissistic parent’s superiority in a more intense way. As a result, recovery can take longer.
Often a narcissistic parent will choose a spouse who enables their needs to be admired, in control at all times, and entitled. This spouse may be prone to idealizing others and possess low self-worth. I am talking about the family role of the Enabler parent, which I go into depth in this blog (point).
If you had a narcissistic parent and the other parent was an enabler, you missed out on having another adult to appeal to for protection and to model healthy disagreement with the narcissistic parent’s demands. Instead, you may have had to conclude that the narcissistic parent should be taken seriously no matter how self-absorbed and abusive they act towards you. The family’s job in such tragic circumstances is to prevent the narcissistic parent’s behavior from being exposed to the wider community. To seek protection from outside the family can feel like leaving the only reality the child knows is nearly impossible.
Suppose you benefitted from having another adult who saw your narcissistic parent for who they were and offered you a reliable connection. In that case, you may benefit from the shorter time required to recover from narcissistic abuse. In such cases, you got to experience a frame of reference that felt legitimate yet did not require you to compromise in the way the narcissistic parent required. You may have even expressed your disillusionment at this parent to this other adult or heard them express theirs. All of this can be extremely useful to the eventual process of recovery.
There is a quote from a guy named Robert Stolorow who says that bad things happening does not cause ongoing psychological suffering. The absence of anyone to tell about the bad things can turn clean pain into this kind of suffering. That’s, in essence, what I’m saying about this factor. If you had someone who stood up to the narcissist and listened to what it was like for you, the recovery process would feel familiar. If you never had this, recovery can take longer to dis-embed the beliefs that you didn’t deserve more than you got and create new beliefs that insist on your deservedness.
Factor #3: How long did the narcissistic abuse last?
The duration of the narcissistic abuse you survived can impact how much your system had to accommodate this mistreatment. A child who had to be vigilant of and prepared for his narcissistic father’s outbursts of rage for the slightest show of “disrespect” may understandably have a nervous system wired for ongoing threats. At a fundamental level of experience, living can feel like being under siege when this has been your reality from the start of life and adolescence.
In contrast, someone who had a safe enough environment as a young child will have the benefit of experiencing a time when being narcissistically abused was not their reality. Their nervous systems may have different ways of regulating than expect constant threats.
The combination of these three factors may determine how long it takes to recover from narcissistic abuse. Whatever your formula is with these factors, one of the most important parts of recovery is patience and compassion with yourself no matter where you are and how reachable or not the quality of living you seek feels. I have found that persistence pays off in this process so long as you move towards relationships with others who are safer than the narcissistic abuser.
Jay Reid is a Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor (LPCC). If you are considering therapy for overcoming a childhood with one or more narcissistic parents, please contact me for a free 15-minute phone consultation.