In our spiritually bypassing prone society, it’s common for survivors of narcissists to encounter harmful myths that, when internalized, can actually worsen trauma-related symptoms. Here are three of the biggest myths survivors of narcissists should be wary of and what research actually shows about the true nature of healing:
1) Myth: You can’t be angry on your healing journey, you have to force yourself to forgive the narcissist in order to stop being bitter.
Fact: Natural emotions like anger have to be honored and processed when it comes to trauma. Premature forgiveness can lead to a delay in healing.
Trauma experts know there are emotions known as “natural emotions” in the context of a trauma where someone has violated you. This includes anger for the perpetrator who intentionally and maliciously caused harm. These natural emotions are meant to be fully honored, experienced, and felt in order to be processed and for healing to occur. In fact, some research has shown that “empowering, righteous anger” can enable survivors to protect themselves from further abuse (Thomas, Bannister, & Hall, 2012).
“Manufactured emotions,” on the other hand, are emotions like shame and guilt that arise when you’ve been the victim of a crime (Resick, Monson & Rizvi, 2014). Unlike healthy shame which arises when you did something wrong, shame and guilt in the context of abuse are different because it is not based on the facts of the situation (e.g. You were the victim of a crime through no fault of your own) but rather the effects of the trauma and inaccurate thoughts and distorted interpretations of the event called “stuck points” (e.g. “I deserved what happened to me”).
Manufactured emotions and stuck points sustain and are part of PTSD symptomology, leading to excessive self-blame and dismissing the role the perpetrator played. Once the stuck points that sustain trauma-related symptoms are challenged (usually with the help of a trauma-informed therapist), these manufactured emotions will decrease naturally and so will trauma-related symptoms. Forgiving prematurely before you are ready or willing to do so is a sign of avoidance and can exacerbate existing manufactured emotions while leaving natural emotions unprocessed. Avoidance of the trauma and its associated natural emotions only perpetuates trauma symptoms. Processing your authentic emotions, not premature forgiveness, is what helps you to heal.
2) Myth: It takes two to tango; I am to blame for being a victim of a narcissist. I have to own my part to heal.
Fact: Identifying inaccurate self-blame and the rigidity of those beliefs is a vital part of healing and recovery. It’s important to look at contextual factors when assigning “blame” and also consider whether there was a perpetrator who was fully in control of whether abuse occurred.
Most people with PTSD, whether due to abuse from a narcissist or another trauma, tend to excessively blame themselves. Unlike an accident or a natural disaster where no one is to blame for the trauma, when there is a perpetrator who purposely harmed someone innocent, who intentionally carried out acts of malice, that perpetrator is indeed fully to blame.
Malignant narcissists and psychopaths are in control of their actions, know the difference between right and wrong, and understand the harm they are causing, since survivors relay to them that they are in pain, time and time again (Hare, 2011). Therefore, for a victim to assign full responsibility to the perpetrator is a sign of “accurate thinking” that allows healing to occur, whereas blaming oneself for being the victim of a narcissist is often a distortion or stuck point that leads to more manufactured emotions.
Many survivors may struggle with the idea that they got into an intimate relationship with the narcissist in the first place, but survivors must also address contextual factors that influenced that as well. For example, the fact that many abusers are charming and show a false mask before engaging in abusive behaviors must be taken into account as well as the fact that powerful trauma bonds can tether victim to the abuser for long periods of time before the victim feels able to leave the relationship.
While survivors can certainly acknowledge “lessons learned” from these experiences – for example, red flags they will look out for in the future – excessive self-blame or equal assignment of blame is not necessary and is in fact harmful. Abusers are the ones who hold the power in the relationship as they chronically belittle, isolate, coerce, and demean the victim. Survivors can own their power and agency to change their lives without blaming themselves. Engaging in more accurate thinking can influence emotions and behaviors that ultimately lessen trauma-related symptoms.
3) Myth: I have to send well wishes to my abuser in order to be a good person and to heal.
Fact: Whatever you feel is valid. Forcing yourself to feel a certain way toward your abuser or wishing them well when you don’t feel that way authentically can delay the healthy expression of natural emotions and ultimately delay healing. It is a form of spiritual bypassing.
As previously stated, owning and validating all of our true emotions is what helps in healing. If you feel that you wish your abuser well genuinely, that’s one thing. But if you don’t, there’s no need to feel guilt and shame about it or fake it and repress your true feelings. True morality isn’t about performativity; it is about being authentic to yourself and genuinely doing good things in the world. Wishing your perpetrator well isn’t a necessary component of being a good person. Some survivors may actually benefit from wishing justice for themselves rather than good things for their abusers.
There are many survivors who emotionally process their traumas – whether through therapy or a combination of therapy and alternative methods – but choose not to forgive their abuser, yet move forward with their lives successfully regardless. According to trauma therapists, forgiveness is more of an optional step that some survivors benefit from, while others find harmful and retraumatizing because the abuser has not repented for their crimes or has used the concept of forgiveness against them to ensnare them back into the abuse cycle (Pollock, 2016; Baumeister et al., 1998). What survivors have described to me is a natural sort of indifference that arises as they continue on their healing journey. It’s the emotional processing, rather than wishing your abuser well, that works so effectively in recovery (Foa et al., 2007).
In addition, it’s important to acknowledge the societal victim-shaming that takes place when survivors choose not to wish their abusers well, which may coerce them into feeling “guilty” if they don’t feel a certain way. I’ve heard from survivors that their narcissistic partners have said things like, “I wish you well,” after subjecting their victims to horrific incidents of abuse, yet their words have never matched their actions. Ironically, when victims are genuine about not wishing their abuser well, yet their abusers play the role of wishing their victims “the best” while abusing them behind closed doors, society shames the true victims and the narcissist comes off looking like the morally superior one. When in fact, it is the victim who had a good character all along and is simply being authentic about how they feel having been violated. Recognize that this is a double standard that does not take into account the survivor’s experiences and actually retraumatizes them by shaming them for their legitimate reactions to chronic abuse. It is time to assign the blame back to where it truly belongs – the perpetrator.
Baumeister R.F., Exline J.J., Sommer K.L. (1998). The victim role, grudge theory, and two dimensions of forgiveness. Dimensions of forgiveness: Psychological research and theological perspectives.Philadelphia, PA: Templeton Foundation Press; 1998. pp. 79–104.
Foa E.B., Hembree, E. A., & Rothbaum, B. O. (2007). Prolonged exposure therapy for PTSD: Emotional processing of traumatic experiences: Therapist guide. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Hare, R. D. (2011). Without conscience: The disturbing world of the psychopaths among us. New York: The Guilford Press.
Pollock, A. (2016, January 20). Why I Don’t Use the Word ‘Forgiveness’ in Trauma Therapy. Retrieved from https://www.goodtherapy.org/blog/why-i-dont-use-the-word-forgiveness-in-trauma-therapy-0120164
Resick, P. A., Monson, C. M., & Rizvi, S. L. (2014). Posttraumatic Stress Disorder. In D. H. Barlow (Ed.), Clinical handbook of psychological disorders: A step-by-step treatment manual(pp. 65-73). New York, NY: Guilford Press.
Thomas, S., Bannister, S., & Hall, J. (2012). Anger in the Trajectory of Healing From Childhood Maltreatment. Archives of Psychiatric Nursing, 26(3), 169-180.