The Science Behind Gaining Distance From the Narcissistic Abuser

the science behind gaining distance from the narcissistic abuser

In every blog, I talk about the 3 Pillars of Recovery from Narcissistic Abuse. Today I want to dig into why the second pillar is so important: gaining distance from the narcissistic abuser. Our minds and nervous systems adjust to how we are treated in close relationships. When we can be around people who feel safe, our nervous system seeks to engage with such people. When we are around people who feel dangerous then our nervous system works to protect us. If the dangerous person expects us to appear socially engaged then we may be forced to close down on the inside and seem engaged on the outside. But there is no fooling our nervous systems. When the system signals that we are around someone dangerous We cannot argue ourselves out of it.

A narcissistically abusive parent can stress the protective function of your nervous system. Being in such a physiologically closed state is hard. Everything can feel like it takes effort, you feel all alone, there is a constant sense that something bad is about to happen, and it is nearly impossible to relax. I have stated many times that creating distance from an abusive person is an act of self-care. In today’s post, I’m going to explain the science that supports this claim.

My name is Jay Reid and I’m a licensed psychotherapist in California who specializes in helping people recover from narcissistic abuse. 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 come back to the quality of life they know 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 3 features on this map that I call the 3 Pillars to 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. It is also essential to find and participate in communities of people who can get, validate, and support you on this path. My online course on Recovery from Narcissistic Abuse offers a strategy that corresponds to these 3 pillars and provides a community within which to do it via an accompanying private facebook group. You can check it out by clicking here. Today’s blog falls under Pillar #2: Gaining Distance from a Narcissistic Abuser

If you were a scapegoat survivor of a narcissistic parent or partner then I encourage you to check out my free e-book on this topic. It’s called Surviving Narcissistic Abuse as the Scapegoat and goes into other important aspects of what it’s like to be in the shoes of the scapegoat child or partner of the narcissistic abuser. From self-limiting beliefs about yourself that you must adopt to survive to why the narcissistic personality is so geared to put those closest to them down. This e-book can help you realize how none of this abuse was your fault but the product of the narcissist’s psychological and emotional problems. You can find the link to the book by clicking here.

Evolution prepared us to seek safe people and avoid dangerous ones

We have a vast network of connected cells that send electrical signals intended to adapt to our immediate circumstance. Taken together these networks are called the nervous system. There are lots of sub-nervous systems that address specific functions.

One of these sub-nervous-systems that inform what we automatically do, feel, and sense without thinking is called the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS). The cells in the ANS go all over our body. They play a big role in dictating what our internal state feels like.

The ANS has 3 sub-systems from oldest to newest – evolutionarily speaking.

1) The newest works to allow social engagement and controls our gaze, tone of speech, and ability to listen.

2) The second newest subsystem activates our fight-or-flight responses when appropriate.

3) The oldest subsystem causes us to freeze in response to threats where fight or flight will not work.

When activated each sub-system produces a different corresponding internal state. The social engagement subsystem produces a state of connection, well-being, and presence. The fight-or-flight subsystem produces a state of alarm, readiness, and hypervigilance. The freeze subsystem produces a state of dissociation, lifelessness, and absence.

There is a hierarchy to these three subsystems. In order for the social communication subsystem to activate, the other two subsystems must be deactivated. Similarly, for the fight-or-flight system to activate the freeze system must be de-activated.

How do our nervous systems determine if we are safe or not?

nervous systems determine if we are safe or not

Everything I am describing today comes from the Polyvagal Theory. This theory was developed by a man named Stephen Porges. He makes the case that Our nervous systems communicate with one another to signal whether this interaction is with someone safe or not. Via the other person’s facial cues, vocal tone, and eye contact the three subsystems determine which is most appropriate for this situation. Porges calls this process neuroception and it happens outside of our awareness.

Sensing – or neurocepting – safety is an involuntary experience. These three subsystems tell us whether we are safe – we do not tell our nervous systems that we are safe. It is why Bessel Van Der Kolk might say the body keeps the score. There is no fooling our nervous systems about who is safe and who is not.

Applying the Polyvagal Theory to Recovery from Narcissistic Abuse

If you were born to a narcissistic parent then your nervous system had to cope with danger from an early age. The dangers of being devalued, deprived and trapped by the narcissistic parent were ever present. So, your fight-or-flight and freeze nervous subsystems had to work overtime in relationship to this parent.

Appraisal of the dangers by your nervous system is involuntary. Survivors of such abuse may find that it is the mere physical or mental presence of the parent that can set off these internal alarms. And the survivor can be powerless to convince their nervous system otherwise. To prevent these two defensive subsystems from getting activated we must limit exposure to the sources of danger. We cannot be in the presence of the narcissistic abuser and tell our nervous sybsystems not to be alarmed. This is the first component of gaining distance – removal of immediate sources of danger from your life.

There is a second component to gaining distance. If your nervous system was primed to perceive danger then you may be biased towards it in ambiguous situations. So when someone who is otherwise safe does something on the borderline between safety and danger, the survivor can err on the side of danger. This can be the legacy of trauma. In order to prevent unsurvivable outcomes, we had to presume danger to anticipate and limit the damage of these events. It was adaptive to do so.

With enough distance from your narcissistic parent, you can recalibrate your safety vs danger appraisal system. This recalibration takes place with people who are otherwise safe people to be close to. It is an ongoing process that takes time but is well worth it.

Therapy is a great place to start. A therapist offers you interpersonal signals that help your nervous system determine you are safe. A therapist’s job is to remain in their social engagement nervous subsystem. This offers the client a reliable and consistent source of safety. If the client has a history of narcissistic abuse then their two defensive subsystems may still kick in at times. In therapy the client and therapist can ride those episodes out together. The goal is for the client to return to feeling safe again with the therapist.

Here is a fictionalized case example of this process of recalibration in therapy

Joanne was in therapy to recover from the growing up with a physically abusive narcissistic father. She went unprotected from this abuse throughout her childhood. She and her therapist had established a good working relationship. Joanne felt safe most of the time in her sessions. Her therapist seemed interested, compassionate and understanding.

About three months into treatment, she started the session off by discussing a realization she had about a sibling. She realized that this person held a disparaging attitude towards her. Joanne said she was going to protect herself from such treatment by limiting contact. After saying this, she suddenly experienced her therapist to be scrutinizing her in his gaze. She wanted to hide from him. She had trouble thinking in these moments. She felt outside of herself yet stuck in his cross-hairs.

Her therapist said, “It’s as if you feel taken over right now. I wonder if this is at all what it was like when your father would look at you silently?”. Her therapist silently linked her intent to protect herself from this sibling with feeling endangered. She was gaining distance from someone who was dangerous – something she was not allowed to do earlier in her life. Such changes can feel dangerous for the nervous system at first.

Joanne felt some relenting within herself. She said, “Yeah, maybe. This state is all around me right now. It feels so complete.” As more time elapsed, she felt a shift. She could now reflect on what happened with her therapist. “Wow, that came out of the blue. Suddenly you were a scary scrutinizer, not the person I’ve known these past three months.”

In this example, Joanne started the session in her social engagement subsystem. She grew alarmed after expressing her intent to protect herself from her sibling’s derision. This alarm seemed to push her in to the freeze nervous subsystem. She felt stuck and unable to escape her therapist’s scrutiny. Her therapist maintained his socially engaged presence towards her. This allowed her nervous system to pick up on this and allow her to shift back up to her socially engaged mode. Once there, they could begin to make sense of what had happened.

As these types of sequences happen over and over, the client gets to know that their time spent in the defensive subsystems does not have to be permanent anymore. Now there is the opportunity to continue taking in information and returning to a state of social engagement with people who are safe. And it becomes easier to tell who is safe and who is not.


Gaining distance from your narcissistic abuser lets your nervous system stay in the socially engaged mode. Being around someone dangerous runs the risk of activating the fight-or-flight or freeze subsystems. This can reinforce the nervous system’s conclusion that danger is still all around you. We have less choice over the conclusions our nervous systems make. We can structure our lives to protect ourselves from dangerous people and include people who seem safe. This stacks the odds for one’s nervous system to conclude they are safe now.

Once such distance is achieved, you can recalibrate your danger versus safety signals with people who are otherwise safe. Therapy is a great place to start doing this.

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.

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  1. Hi Jay, first let me say your latest book has been very helpful. I plan to read again.
    I have a situation that covers probably 90% of the issues that you discuss regarding a narcissistic mother. I am in the healing stage ( I hope). My family (wife and two adult daughters) and myself are working on the grey rock and minimal contact strategy. My question is – how do I answer her when she asks what is wrong? Why do my granddaughters not contact me as much?
    I’m pretty sure that after everything I’ve read and learned, I should not open up to her with the reasons. What’s your advise on this?

  2. My narcissistic parent recently passed away and I am finally focusing on healing from the trauma of my childhood and trying to unravel how and why I react to different situations. I watched the video of this after a work incident that left me feeling perplexed by my “fight or flight” response. The following excerpt explained my reaction perfectly: “If your nervous system was primed to perceive danger then you may be biased towards it in ambiguous situations. So when someone who is otherwise safe does something on the borderline between safety and danger, the survivor can err on the side of danger. This can be the legacy of trauma. In order to prevent unsurvivable outcomes, we had to presume danger to anticipate and limit the damage of these events. It was adaptive to do so.” Thank you for making this so understandable.