How to Break Out of a Relationship with a Narcissist
If you prefer to listen, here's the podcast version of this post:
This is for a person who filled out my survey – I don’t know your name, but this is for you! I hope it helps. You asked how to break out of the vicious cycle of a narcissistic relationship. Because it can be extremely terrifying and painful and feel much like a hostage situation. The reason is that if you are in a relationship with a narcissist – you know how ruthless and dark their punishing can be. It also goes deep into your heart strings, puppeting you around like a raw nerve. They are master controllers and know exactly what to do to make you do what they want. And also they are WILLING to do it, at all costs.
This is 3 parts: the what, they why, plus a few tools to help you get started.
Part 1: What is a narcissist relationship like?
A relationship that operates based on you being there for this other person – and them, not so much for you. They demand you jump through hoops and as soon as you begin to drift from them – they pull back hard on the reins – often stalking you to increase your feelings of guilt and indebtedness with torture-like manipulation. You might feel very much like you cannot get them out of your head – they play on your sense of self: making you feel guilty for things you didn’t do, and keeping you always half-proving your love to them. It’s like a terrible dance you are doing while bullets fly at your feet. You HAVE to keep going in order to avoid the wrath that you know is waiting if you slow down or stop.
Everything in your life has a reason – your trials are your greatest teachers. So this relationship attached to you for a very specific reason, and that’s something to examine. You likely began in one of the following ways: as the savior figure who supported them in their life, as a person who adored or respected something about them – a fan who they embraced and kept along, or as an instant-bestie-like bond that became a sort of addiction for you both. In all these situations, for you the draw was a lack of focus on your own pain and issues plus feeling rewarded by helping someone else. You likely always and solely talked about them, supported them – and it was never about you. In short, it’s a lopsided relationship.
Everyone has a series of hooks on their person – they are their sensitive parts, built in from our childhood. And some people – when they see you, they can just read them a mile away – and when those people grab onto your hooks, they will yank and pull at them, controlling you with your emotions – against your will. Your job is to cover yourself and protect your weaknesses by becoming aware of them. These are what they will use against you to try and get you back into their favor – and beholden to them.
They chose you as ego-food. They sensed you had love to give, which is what they need desperately. They will feed off of you forever, as they have no self-love of their own. They need to keep you to feel good about themselves. Whenever you got good at something or experienced a success, they likely dismissed you and reacted with spite. That is because they cannot support you – it is not who they are. They must use others to push themselves up: everything in their environment revolves around defining them and who they are.
If any of this sounds familiar, I must tell you that you are reading this for a good reason. You KNOW that there’s something not positive – that this relationship is hurting you and you desperately want to find the way out of it. And that has to happen – life is too short to keep relationships out of fear of repercussion. So firstly, choose to keep going – be brave, and commit to this process for the long haul. It gets bumpy – I’m not going to lie. You might look back on this as one of the hardest things you ever did. But it will be soooo worth it because you will be free of this weight you are carrying! Do not discount your feelings like you have been doing for a very long time. All those feelings of unhappiness, of “that didn’t seem right” or awareness of your relationships unevenness –you were likely talked out of several times already – of discounting your feelings as too harsh or unreasonable. Those instincts are right – and if this is not helping you and supporting you, it needs to stop. Your feelings are real and valid and you have to start listening to them and save yourself from this energy vampire. Now you’ve got to start being your own friend and protector over everyone else – including this person.
I will walk you through the timeline of what will likely happen to you while you progress away from this damaging relationship. It can get a little intense, mainly because of how your feelings about yourself can get wrapped up in this relationship.
Part 2: Why did I end up in this relationship and why are they like this?
You had the weak spot that they saw and hooked into and now they are manipulating your emotions like you are a puppet.
Why would they go there? Because they are wired in a distinctly different way – and that makes them very dangerous to you. Just like other personality disorders, there’s a scale for narcissism with varying degrees, but in general a narcissist is a person with a very particular kind of damage from their upbringing that causes them to focus primarily on themselves. They have a constant need to affirm that self with what is external – with adoration, accolades, and control over others. The rest of the world revolves around them because their definition of self comes from the external. Why? Because they feel empty inside – they swing between feeling like total scum and feeling like god. So they very much rely on the adoration and praise of people like you in order to love themselves: it is how they affirm their value. They are not capable of changing because this is a foundational trait; one created within the first five years of life.
They thrive on power and success and because they lack of empathy, they are able to be much more ruthless than other people. If you’re still not sure if you’re stuck in a relationship with a narcissist, here are the most common traits:
• unpredictable, selfish, envious, jealous, controlling, boastful, self-loathing, extreme, desperate, grandiose, manipulative, aggressive, vindictive, suck-ups. They are sensitive to criticism yet incredibly critical of others.
You likely have been stuck in this relationship and constantly on your toes with this person. They likely don’t make you feel good but you have been in this place so long you can’t figure out the way out – so this your toolkit to begin that process. Here we go.
Part 3: Tools
Firstly, move out of being the victim and let go of your fear of confrontation. You can do this one tiny step at a time: just don’t move backwards if you get bullied. This separation has to happen and the sooner the better – you are trapped in an emotional jail and life it too short to suffer here against your will.
For the tools I am going to use a colorful metaphor: think of this relationship like a demon creature has captured you and is feeding off your energy. They have no guilt and will do anything to make you do what they want. Because this process is very much an epic battle, I have wizardly tools for you to pull out as emotional reminders when you need them.
Step 1: Gain Distance and Perspective
Gain some distance with a totally neutral reason so that you can gain clarity. This is just for your own solid footing - so you can know how you feel about this relationship and whether or not you want it in your life. If you are being kept off-balance by this person – this is not a healthy or safe relationship for you to be in as you are being forced to feel a lot of unnecessary pain and stress.
Real friends are loving and supportive and if you are not in a relationship that is supportive and loving – you have got to do one more thing starting now, and that’s build your habits of self love and self protection.
But HOW to gain distance? Yes – it can be hard to even start this, I know! Whatever feels right to you is the short answer. If you’re at a loss, I’d say safely and slowly. The taper method: the name of the game is distraction and diversion. You want to get as far away as possible without having this person latch back onto you. If you tell this person you are going through some crazy work stuff and make it about YOU and nothing related to them, the relationship or anything serious, you will likely have the best chance of peaceful distancing. They assume it is about you, but they are anticipating you distancing so be aware they will be watching acutely for any signals. Keep it brief, keep it vague, keep the distance.
At a certain point you will have to acknowledge the truth in as loving and gentle a way as possible – but hopefully by then you will be far enough away that you will not be injured. You will have the stability inside yourself to say you need your space, they should respect that – and you don’t want to hurt them.
Step 2: Build a Shield of Self-Love
Work on building self-protective and self-loving habits. The most important habit being, do not accept negative behavior from others. You can change everything in your life just by changing yourself. YOU choose whether or not to engage with bad behavior and dignify it with a response. No one FORCES you to do anything, including react. Do not tolerate manipulative or abusive behavior from anyone. If you need it, get external support from a therapist or attend a help group for codependents. Whatever you can do to strengthen your footing in your own values as an individual. If something goes against what you want from another person, don’t tolerate it – get mad! Feel that anger and don’t give them what they don’t deserve! This is a big and important piece of the equation – you standing up for you and deciding that you will not bend to the will of others.
Now, onto some timeline-specific tools….
As you gain distance, there will be a distinct moment when this demon monster recognizes you are straying from their talons and they will try aggressive and desperate measures to get you to return on your knees. Their goal is to own you, at any cost – to regain your dedication to them, and take hold of your emotions. It might grow intense and you might face several kinds of character-assault – you must not give in by doubting yourself. Why is this important? Because you have to get far enough away that you can see reality objectively – and right now, you don’t have that at all. It’s not wrong of you to need your space. Keeping the distance is necessary because without it, you will grow lost in the manipulation once again. These types are powerful and driven. Get out of their control – keep going – do not engage. Deflect. Deflect. Distract. Look at ways to stay off their radar and out of range.
Tool 1: In the face of brutal venom: Recall Your Bright Golden Heart
This is for when the narcissist lashes out at you for being a bad friend, a bad person, a selfish bastard, a shallow bitch, etc. As a tactic, narcissists will attempt to bring you back to them by lashing out – forcing you to take the blame. So this tool is simply to remember your heart. Know that your motives are good, you are a good person, and they cannot make you anything different. Your decisions are coming from a self-loving place and not intended to harm them. How they feel is in their control – it has nothing to do with you. You cannot control their emotions. You are allowed to protect yourself and separate for your own sanity and self-protection. That choice is not selfish, it is actually loving to you and to others.
Here is a mantra to soothe yourself in the spit of this monster’s venom: “I am good, I am loving, I am allowed to take care of myself.”
TOOL 2: In the face of guilt: Give it The Monster Test
This is a visualization exercise for you to hold onto when you are overcome with feelings of guilt – questioning yourself and whether or not you are doing them wrong. A real loving, supportive person would never WANT you to feel bad about yourself. A monster on the other hand, loves carnage. Relishes seeing you in pain and suffering in guilt. So if you get caught in the trap of feeling guilty at the hand of this person, know that it is one of their most powerful weapons – and recognize that in the very moment. Step back and observe how they are using that power against you.
Another thing this monster will do is plant weapons on you – placing blame for acts you did not commit. If you are ever caught off guard by this person and what you did wrong by them, ask yourself, does it feel like you just woke up holding a bloody knife? Monsters will often set traps for you: accusing you of stabbing their heart and betraying them when you had no awareness of their situation at all. Don’t take the rap. You are not responsible for their pain and you don’t control them or how they feel. You are not capable of CAUSING them the pain you were completely absent from. Throw that knife on the floor and detach with love.
A narcissist will enjoy punishing you and pushing all of your emotional triggers with threats that go too far. They might resort to manipulation that blames you for not being there when you should have, which then results in something catastrophic in their life. Something you could never possibly make up to them. They are ultimate apology-traps they are pushing you into. “I was suffering, and I was going to kill myself. You weren’t even there for me – how could you…” That’s an extreme example but the structure will likely be similar.
Notice if that a person is almost enjoying seeing you in pain. Notice if thrive on it. Check their reactions against the alignment with what YOU might feel if you were in a similar state. If you were in pain and deeply in need, you would probably not act as they are acting. A real depressed and broken person will be likely shutdown and unable to reach out. If they do, it will arrive in a passive form, not an aggressive one. Remember to give it the monster test and recognize the motivation behind each emotional tactic. See through the falsities of what they tell you by examining their behavior. They do not care how much they hurt you because it is desperate, self-preservation.
In short: If you are feeling guilty, use the monster test.
Tool 3: In the face of emotional-terrorism: Build a Rainbow Force Field of Protection!
Throughout this process, you will need to soothe your anxiety and reaffirm your grounding so that you can function and maintain a forward focus on your life. It will give you a more objective perspective when you are emotionally triggered. So here are two tools to use in the face of emotional terrorism.
What is this rainbow made out of? Mental soothing for overwhelming anxiety and stress.
This process can be incredibly painful– not only are you severing a relationship that you value and detaching from a person you care about – you are doing it against your typical habits, so it feels scary and overwhelming. If this person begins obsessively provoking attention from you, it can get confusing and you might question yourself. “Am I being a jerk?” Depending on how aggressive they get, you also might fear how unpredictable their behavior can get. “Are they going to break into my house?” Not to mention all the social worries of your life in this new dynamic. “What if I run into them at a party? Are they going to make a scene?!”
Examples of attempts they will make to provoke you:
• Middle of the night texts that say something terrible and dire- in other words setting a trap.
• Calls crying about new and devastating news – suicide threats. Faked health scares. Dramatic break up news. Etc. Basically whatever they think you would absolutely HAVE to respond to.
• Attacks on your character and blame for why you are not good and loving. This usually comes with situational traps that are set just to accuse you of not being a good person, being selfish (or fill-in-the-blank insecurity you have).
I know what you’re thinking – what if something IS terribly wrong? How can I just ignore them? Well you can offer distant support by training them to stop this tactic that relies on you responding in “time” – write an email the next day saying you need some time alone and you cannot be there for them right now. If you are afraid they are really in danger, call the police and tell them. Or call their parent. Put someone else in charge and then disengage. They are not yours to babysit – maintain the distance. You are always allowed to protect yourself. You are not beholden to them at all times of day and you are absolutely not a bad person if you want your space.
As a rule do not respond to threats. You are engaging by giving them what they want: you attention. They know how to work you. This isn’t rare for them to throw up the alarms and involve you in their “serious drama” – it would be rare for you, but not for them. Keep your rules for yourself strict. This will be likely the hardest part of this process for you because they will pull on every hook they have inside you.
Your soothing tools:
• Get a Buddy
If you can have one buddy you can call and get grounded – it can be a lifeline of sorts.
So as you move through this time, reach out to one friend who knows and understands the severity of the situation. If you can’t find a fully supportive and understanding individual, attend a help group or see a therapist. Know that your buddy has to completely GET what is going on – not everyone will be able to understand this kind of individual. This is a rare trait in people – it’s a rare thing for anyone to ever have to escape, and many do not understand the power behind it. So have heart and faith that the assaults will eventually stop – that happens when they finally understand that the affects are lost on you completely.
• Soothe the Physical Anxiety
Soothe yourself with breathing exercises like hang-loose breathing and any kind of yoga inversion where your heart is above your head – that includes a forward-fold, a handstand, or downward dog.
• Detach with Love
This hurts you because you care – but there’s nothing you can do other than be loving to yourself and detach with love. To help, I practice the Hawaiian Forgiveness Prayer (shout out to Marcy Shimoff). It’s called Ho'oponopono and it goes like this: close your eyes and picture this person. Hold your hand over your heart. Say aloud, “I’m sorry. Please forgive me. Thank you. I love you.” And let it go.
Know that the reason you ended up in this relationship is because you have a big heart and you are a natural giver. However, you unknowingly allowed this person to feed off of you and not give back to you equally in return. You gave them access to you that they should not have been allowed. Why? That’s something you have to unearth and understand for the good of your future relationships. In order to not continually repeat this pattern, you need to get to the bottom of why you don’t feel deserving of the kind of friendship you give to others. Or why you don’t feel comfortable receiving that kind of attention. Why does it feel uncomfortable to be showered with love and attention? What makes you feel icky? There might be some bad discomfort inside that makes you naturally place focus away from yourself. Once you gain awareness, you can reverse engineer your ability to enjoy receiving! Trust me – I did it, and you grow to love it.
If want to choose supportive relationships from this point forth, begin enacting self-protective habits and work on finding answers to your tendencies. This crossroads is a gift in disguise and you should treat it as an opportunity. Because once you start only allowing those who DO shower you with love and support to receive your love and attention – your WORLD changes. It becomes amazing and beautiful and full of so much happiness you would never know possible. You grow times a million because now your relationships actually PUSH you and HELP you grow vs. breaking your spirit and draining you of energy. You deserve relationships like this. You can have relationships like this. It all starts with you.
Smile lovely friends!! xo Sarah-May B.