Addicted to a Narcissist by Rev. Sheri Heller, LCSW
Frequently I encounter folks who are emotionally and psychologically devastated
by the wreckage of romantic involvement with a malignant narcissist. These
women and men are intelligent, attractive and empathic. Yet they cannot
extricate themselves from insidious dynamics of abuse and violence. They are
B.F. Skinner’s work with operant conditioning tells us that what we learn is
impacted by reinforcement and punishment/unpleasant consequence. A pattern
of intermittent reinforcement establishes unpredictability and confusion. The
narcissistic abuser capitalizes on this phenomenon. The victim’s mind scrambles
to discover what one has to do to acquire a positive response from the
narcissistic abuser. Eventually cognitive dissonance sets in and the desperate
urgency to discern a rhyme or reason becomes a driving force.
At this point the victim is caught up in an addictive cycle and simultaneously
views the tormenter as a redeemer. The abuser is deified by the victim. The
victim evidences signs of Stockholm Syndrome, a form of traumatic bonding in
which victims are pathologically attached to their perpetrator.
This pathological attachment is a survival strategy, which enables the victim to
dissociate from pain. By disowning the horror of this traumatic reality and taking
on the abuser’s perspective, the victim wards off the threat of helplessness and
terror actually experienced.
The victim’s locus of control centers around appeasing and pleasing the abuser,
so as to mitigate danger. Over time the victim becomes over-identified with the
abuser, ignoring one’s own needs and assuming responsibility for the abusers’
‘suffering’. The victim begins to believe the abuse is their fault.
When the victim finally bottoms out and is either degraded and discarded by the
narcissist, or has been confronted with one too many infidelities, beatings,
financial ruin, or other sundry forms of abuse, s/he may be ready to seek
In order to initiate a process of recovery, a no contact rule is advised so as to
sever the toxic bond. The victim will be challenged to manage symptoms of
withdrawal, characterized by harrowing obsession and emotional flooding.
Resources such as bodywork, meditation and medication management may be
necessary to stabilize the victim’s disregulated limbic system.
Knowledge is power. Learning about NPD and identifying traumas rooted in ones
family of origin that make one vulnerable to being targeted and victimized, are
critical aspects of the healing. Ongoing treatment may probe the complex depths
of reclaiming and rebuilding.
Ultimately life after narcissistic abuse takes on new meaning for the survivor.
Metabolizing the reality of evil alters one’s world-view. This alteration allows the
survivor to cultivate realistic boundaries. It encourages the survivor to make a
tenacious commitment to ensuring safety, predictability, and relationships that
honor personal dignity.