Abuse takes many forms.
Sometimes it is physical. Other times, it’s verbal or a combination of both. Sometimes it’s so subtle, it takes years to figure out that it has been happening. Manipulating you. Shaping ones’ thoughts, actions, and words. This is how narcissists and pathological liars break a person down and hurt them.
Abusers aren’t always scary people. They can be charming — the life of the party, lighting up any room which they enter with their charm and lively stories. But are all of those stories real? Are those warm emotions with which they greet their target and potential victims, the deluge of compliments, and grand gestures real? And what happens when that same creative energy is spun against the target, twisted and morphed into something cruel and untrue — a fabrication of an alternate reality.
Those who are in the crosshairs of the abuser may find themselves trapped in their web of deceit, often with people whom they have known and loved for many years caught up in the lie and not knowing who to trust. Often, even when those whom the abuser has attempted to turn against the victim don’t necessarily believe the complete fabrication, their opinions of the victim have somehow become tarnished and damaged by the shadow of doubt. The narcissistic abuser causes them to question their reality, as well, and the role which the victim plays within it. Regardless of not being at fault, many times it is something that the victim cannot fix because it is not their doing.
Those who are abused are often gaslit by the narcissist and those closest to the abuser. Often, there is a great deal of victim-blaming and questioning of the motives and character of the person who has been hurt by the abuser. These things lead many victims to question their reality, which is crazy-making and de-humanizing — one of the worst feelings a person can go through.
When you can’t trust your perception of reality and the things that you are experiencing, who or what can you trust?
Naming your abuser is one of the first things that a survivor can do to take back their life, but it may get worse before it gets better. Voluntarily walking into this level of emotional strife rather than simply fading into the background is one of the bravest and scariest things that a person can do. It’s a terribly difficult choice between risking everything to save yourself or remaining silent to protect what you have left — something of which I speak from recent personal experience.
Writer and activist Nik Moreno explains the feeling of sitting in silence heartbreakingly well in an article for Wear Your Voice Magazine:
“Those of us who can’t come forward, we bite our tongues until the necrosis sets in. We bite until our tongues fall off; we are silenced. For some of us, we fear deterioration of our mental health, we fear our communities will turn their backs on us. We fear our abusers will retaliate, we’ll be blamed, shamed, etc. When folks have the privilege to be able to speak up, we’re left behind, dealing with our trauma in isolation.”
Survivors need to know that if they cannot do it, they mustn’t be angry with themselves. You have the right to set limits and you know what is best — what is safest, for you and the life that you must live. However, if you choose to name your abuser and call out their behaviors, there are things for which one must steel themselves against.
While this important process may not feel like self-care, it is. We often mix up “self-care” with “self-soothing.” Caring for and protecting one's self isn’t always soothing and sometimes it uproots one’s life in the process. Sometimes it’s the only thing to do to move forward once you have become trapped by the abuser.
This is the first significant step that you must take to break free of the toxicity, reclaim your life, and then begin to pick up the pieces and self-soothe. Consider these things as you extract yourself from the web of lies and manipulation, finally naming your abuser and freeing yourself, defining your reality.
1. Create A Support Network
While your abuser may have turned many against you, there will still be people who know, love, and trust you. They believe your experience and know you well enough not to question you when you tell them that something has happened — be it physical, sexual, or emotional abuse. Find those folks and talk it out.
2. Write It Out And Analyze The Situation
Write out your story. Chronicle the incidents to the best of your ability. Have someone who you trust and who is a good listener help you piece the events together if you stumble on the timeline or details.
An important part of this process is the emotional re-discovery of figuring out what your feelings are, rather than what you have been manipulated to believe. The gaslighting and crazy-making can confuse, numb, and distract you from your reality. By writing out your experience, you can finally sort what is yours and what is theirs.
How did they suck you in? What were you seeking that they seemed to provide and how can you provide that for yourself? You can take these notes and this growth into new relationships and use them to help you spot good character as well avoiding bad character.
3. Forgive Yourself
There’s a lot of self-blame that happens after being in the cross-hairs of a narcissist. “I should have seen it coming,” “I should have seen through their charm,” and “Why did I let the lies go? Why didn’t I call out the lies in front of people when I heard them come out of their mouth?”
These are all things that I, personally, have struggled with while recovering from the attack of a narcissist whose pathological lies broke apart my life, ended years of friendship with folks who were family to me, and threatened my career. I’ve blamed myself for letting that person near those whom I love, especially every time I see a photo of them holding my friends’ children. I can’t help but think “How is this person hurting these children with their lies? Will they break apart their family, slowly pulling at every loose string as they did my relationships?” I blame myself every time I see those photographs and I mustn’t. Neither should you.
4. Learn To Listen To Your Gut
Many times the narcissist will undermine their victim's confidence and trust in one's self. It’s so important not to give them that and to learn to listen to your gut once again. If you are honest with yourself, it’s likely that there were warning signs that you ignored and often that comes down to lack of confidence in one’s judgment.
Take this experience and learn from it. Write down notes if you need to.
5. Allow Time To Heal
Like any other form of abuse, it is not your fault that this person did these things to you. No one forces folks to hurt others; while these behaviors may be a result of abuse, no one forces them to make a choice to abuse others and not seek help.
It’s okay if you are affected by the experience for a long time afterward. It’s important to acknowledge that healing takes time and that there will need to be a buffer of time and space for it to happen.
All of these emotions are valid, and you have the right to give yourself space to experience them. Being affected is normal and doesn’t mean that you are weak or giving up control. It’s important to remember that even after you identify the behavior, they can still hurt you and make you feel bad. It doesn’t just go away, especially if you find yourself having to be in contact with them or their sympathizers.
6. Limit Contact With The Abuser And Go In Prepared If You Must Speak To Them
Going into the situation with the expectation of being affected by the abuser’s manipulative actions puts you in the driver seat. You are in control when you can predict their behaviors, and once you have identified their behavior patterns, it’s surprisingly easy to predict their next move — almost to the point of disappointment, considering the damage that they can do.
It’s tremendously important to give yourself physical and emotional space from your abuser and their support group. To heal, there must be space, but it gets complicated when/if the narcissist has infiltrated your social group.
Unfortunately, sometimes it comes down to choosing between your safety and your friends. It’s a hard facade to keep up, and often those friends will see through it eventually and push them from their lives, as well. Regardless, you are the only one who can protect yourself. Sometimes that means cutting people off, even those whom you love.
Sorry, pal — you’re gonna need it. Therapy will help you process this abuse with a licensed, trained professional who knows these behaviors and how to begin to unravel the intricate web in which you have been trapped.
If you are on limited income, there are sliding scale professionals who can help you. Alternatively, there are also group therapy sessions for fellow survivors.
Remember: You are not alone. Your experience is valid. We believe you.