The term ‘Narcissistic abuse’ is pretty recognizable that it’s a bad thing. Like no one’s gonna sign up for some form of abuse, right? So, if you’re unfortunate enough to know firsthand such abuse then how can it be that the prospect of leaving one’s abuser can feel scarier, more conflictual, and guilt inducing than staying in the abusive situation? In this post, I want to explain how to overcome guilt felt in the process of trying to leave a narcissist.
It is very common to find the prospect of ‘escape’ scarier than the practice of hanging around. It’s also possible to understand why this is the case and use this understanding to challenge the core assumption that drives those feelings of fear, guilt, and self-loathing that can emerge when attempting to leave your narcissistic abuser. In today’s post I will offer such an understanding and offer a concrete step to take to challenge the feelings that tell you to stay when you are intent on leaving.
My name is Jay Reid and I specialize in helping individuals recover from narcissistic abuse in individual therapy and through my online course & community. We take a 3-pronged approach to recover of:
1) Making sense of what happened,
2) Gaining distance from the narcissistic abuser, and
3) living in defiance of the narcissist’s rules.
Today’s blog post sits squarely in the ‘gaining distance’ department. I recently organized the playlists to reflect these 3 categories and encourage you to take a look.
And if you were a scapegoat, this e-Book on Surviving narcissistic abuse as a scapegoat could be of interest. It falls under the ‘making sense of what happened’ heading and can help you understand the different forms of narcissistic abuse and the beliefs that you are often left with. You can click here to get it.
So, why can you feel guilty to leave someone who does not treat you well?
If you had a narcissistic parent or partner you had to deal with a pretty consistent of experience of emotional deprivation despite working hard to give to that person all the time. I’m describing what was likely your inner experience while knowing that you may have been accused the entire time of not giving anything, being thoughtless, inconsiderate, etc. So you knew that you felt like you were giving and getting little to nothing in return but the external reality with narcissistic abuser was woven with the narcissist’s claims that you don’t give enough despite how much s/he gives to you. It can be confusing, to say the least.
Surviving narcissistic abuse means making the narcissist happy with you
Often in the course of narcissistic abuse you are pressured to think that the only way to survive is to make the narcissistic abuser happy with you. For the child, this is an easy sell because they need the parent to give to them the necessary ingredients to feel loved for who they are as separate people in the world and to feel like their own love is valuable to others. The child fears that if his/her own parent doesn’t offer them this, then they will never find it in their lifetime. The narcissist feels unconsciously entitled to others’ efforts to make him/her happy because s/he believes that they are more important than you. This is why the experience in the relationship can feel so one-sided yet the narcissistic abuser seems so convicted that you are not giving them enough.
One way to make a relationship sort of work with someone upon whom you believe you must make happy otherwise suffer something much worse is to assume responsibility for their emotional well-being. So, the child can reason consciously or unconsciously that the narcissistic parent’s happiness is more important than his/her own and come to regard their own happiness as a sign of the selfishness that the parent is always accusing them of. This is an ingenious maneuver to avoid the other outcome of having no way to attach to the very person they so desperately need. It allows them to avoid feeling catastrophically alone.
…now the narcissistic abuser’s happiness takes the place of your own
The trade-off for this strategy is that now the narcissistic abuser’s happiness takes the place of your own. You have to discount the importance and even worthwhile-ness of your own happiness and elevate the importance and nobility of theirs. Again, I say this with an attitude of compassion because it’s only done in order to secure a thimble-full of attachment where no attachment is not an option. Once this trade-off has occurred in the survivor’s psychology then it can feel like what the survivor does or doesn’t do has the power to make or break the narcissist. And of course, it follows that if you do or don’t do the thing that seems like it would ‘break’ the narcissist then a torrent of guilt and self-blame can come flooding in.
Well, of course, doing something that promotes your own needs for protection and happiness such as putting distance between you and the narcissistic abuser could initially feel like something that would ‘break’ the narcissistic abuser. It flies in the face of the belief that you are first and foremost responsible for the narcissistic abuser’s happiness – before your own. I believe that defying this rule can be one source of guilt. It’s sort of like a sin might feel if you’re religious. The survivor has had to elevate the importance of the narcissistic abuser – just like a believer would with their God – and anything that goes against the ‘commandments’ of that elevated deity would feel like a sin.
There’s another – and I think deeper – reason why you can feel guilt and a host of other bad feelings. The initial dilemma with a narcissistic parent or partner is that you cared more about attaching to them than they were able to care about attaching to you – through no fault of your own. Nonetheless, if you didn’t figure out how to take responsibility for their emotional well-being as a compensatory strategy then you would have been and felt completely abandoned.
I think our systems are designed to prevent such psychological catastrophes from happening and one way of doing that is to send aversive signals when we move away from this Gerry-rigged form of one-sided attachment towards something that is hopefully more fulfilling and reciprocal. So, feelings of guilt as described above, or extreme anxiety, or even terror can often arise when you contemplate psychological separation from the narcissistic abuser. These feelings are well-documented in the psychoanalytic literature and in a lot of ways is what therapy was designed for: to offer support, understanding and relationship as you traverse the emotional terrain from the ‘bad old way’ of attaching to the ‘new untrodden good way’ of attaching to others in a more satisfying way.
If you’re interested in going deeper into the importance of and challenges within gaining distance from your narcissistic abuser, you might check out module 3 in my online course titled ‘The importance of distance from the narcissistic family’.
How to overcome guilt to leave your narcissistic abuser?
Here are 3 tactics:
Know that your guilt comes from feeling responsible for someone else
- First, you can arm yourself with the understanding offered in this post that your guilt stems from the assumption of responsibility for the narcissistic abuser’s emotional well-being and work to compassionately understand why you had to assume it in the first place. Next, you can gently challenge this premise – what could it mean if you were not responsible for them in this manner? Why are their needs more important than your own? It may feel like that’s the case, but what’s the objective evidence to suggest they are? As you practice extending your attention to the information generated in such thought exercises, it can grow to feel safer and far less guilty as you proceed in separating from the abuser.
Connect to other safe people and communities
- Second, and I can’t overstate the importance of this, is making sure you have connections to other safe people and communities. This is what can reduce the deep fear, anxiety, and guilt that comes with going away from the only way you’ve known attachment to feel. The goal is to know that although it feels similar to the trauma of separating from someone who doesn’t treat you well (i.e. the past), you’re in a different situation today. You have people who are genuinely interested in and care about how you feel as the separate unique person you are. You can find this in the form of friendships, relationships, and/or online communities. In fact, this is one of the reasons I implemented a private facebook group to accompany my online course on recovery from narcissistic abuse. To afford people a group of like-minded safe people who can see, recognize, and validate each other’s attempts to do right by themselves. It’s been a beautiful thing to see members take turns asking for, receiving and giving support at they make this separation from abusive people in their lives.
Know you deserve your own patience & compassion
- Third, and this may sound familiar, this is a process and not a switch that’s flipped. As best as possible offer yourself patience, kindness, and compassion as you take incremental steps in this direction. It’s a barge you’re trying to turn around – not a sailboat – so doing it safely and successfully requires a persistent and steady hand.
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.