How Mindfulness Practices Help in Recovery from Narcissistic Abuse
There is ‘nothing worse’ than being with someone who is bitter about what happened to them, right? Wrong. What’s worse is being the person who can’t find a way to rid themselves of bitterness. Bitterness, like anger and other uncomfortable emotions, can take a long time to soften and integrate. We admire people who get through having bucket-loads of harm done to them but manage to come out without bitterness. When we’re struggling with bitterness we can wonder how on earth other people manage to free themselves of it! We are silenced and we silence ourselves, because nobody wants to be around a person who has bitterness.
Bitterness can be the result of feeling we haven’t got closure. Usually, we get some kind of closure either when justice is metered out to the perpetrator or when the person who has harmed us apologizes for their wrongdoing. If the fraudster who leaves us homeless and facing poverty is put on trial and found guilty, it can bring a sense of justice and closure. If the person who’s betrayed us recognises their betrayal and atones for it, we feel vindicated and it gives us closure of sorts. The bitterness falls away.
So how do we rid ourselves of the niggling, hot, uncomfortable feeling of bitterness if we don’t get any kind of closure? Nobody wants to hear about it. We beat ourselves up for feeling it. We might even feel a bit of envy towards people who do get closure – say through a fair and just legal process. Survivors of narcissistic abuse often need closure about injustices in every sphere of their lives because narcissistic partners help themselves to your money, your love, your generosity, your friends, your professional networks and more. They spontaneously discard you, and then launch a smear campaign to discredit you. Such abandonment sparks primal human fear and existential angst. How does a person recover from that?
Acceptance. Acceptance isn’t forgiveness. It doesn’t condone the evil machinations of a manipulator. It doesn’t return the spoils we gifted or what was swindled from us. It doesn’t insert closure into the equation. It simply says, “it is how it is”.
It also means letting go of our old visions and beliefs about the world. It is this letting go of our old world view that can be so difficult. Because we have been conditioned from a young age to believe the world is a certain way. Some of us grow up thinking it is a dangerous place. Some of us grow up believing in the good at the heart of everyone and that the world is populated by friends we haven’t met yet. The possible number of world views amongst us is equal to our number.
Awakening, consciousness or enlightenment (‘growing up’, as a Buddhist teacher might say) is not first about an expanded world-view, though expansion is a part of it. It is about loss and more loss. It is a process of dismantling our conditioning and everything we believed to be true. How can we not expect this process to be difficult? Narcissistic abuse is a huge awakening. We are suddenly faced with the intimate personal experience of having to somehow integrate the existence of real darkness into our world-view. Inwardly, it is also about integrating our own dark side. It’s about finding a way to feel our feelings of pain and despair and move on from there.
The practices of Mindfulness have been crafted and honed over thousands of years to help people do just that. The aspiration towards compassion and wisdom as two wings that lift us up beyond ignorance and denial has led millions before us on the path to enlightenment. Now the Western psychological community is learning and adapting this ancient wisdom to benefit the modern secular world. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy helps us learn to handle our own distress and regulate our emotional condition. It helps us to be our own therapist and to cope with trauma, personality disorders, mental health conditions or just ordinary day-to-day life.
The absolute bottom line about Mindfulness is for us to cultivate the habit of turning our attention inwards to our own inner condition with an attitude of kindness. Instead of perpetually looking outwards to compare, judge, measure or care-give, we learn first to apply our own oxygen mask. We retrain our brains. We practice letting go of the painful thoughts and return to curiosity about our own inner experience, day by day, over time. We practice every day, whether we are feeling upset or calmly contented, because this practice increases our resilience. When the hard times hit again – as they inevitably do – we are ready for them. We are ready to greet disturbing stimuli with patience, courage and steadiness rather than succumb to our out-grown knee jerk reactivity.
That having been said, Meditation (as opposed to Mindfulness) is not for everyone. Tackled unskillfully or with inadequate guidance, too much attendance to your own inner state when traumatised can lead to ‘flooding’ – the extremely painful experience of chaotic and uncontrollable uncomfortable emotions and thoughts. If we lack the ability to be kind to ourselves (which many people do), meditation can be no different to negative rumination. Training in Mindful Self-Compassion can teach us to pay less attention to the self-loathing voice of our harsh inner critic.
When we take the practice of Mindfulness into our daily life, we smooth out the ups and downs and grow closer to equanimity. Mindfulness is more than just thinking outside the square. It’s more than a gut feeling (which can be coloured by conditioning too). It is about tapping into our inherent wisdom. It’s about growing up all over again, but in a new and healthy way. It’s about starting again, with patience and understanding for our own way of being in the world.
Thank you to Margot MacCallum for submitting this wonderful article!
For a more in-depth exploration of Buddhist psychology (a book) and mindful wisdom and compassion practices (Guided Meditations) for Narcissistic Abuse recovery from this author, visit: