It’s not uncommon for survivors of narcissistic abuse to separate themselves from friends and loved ones, but there are ways to heal.
Abuse can sometimes be hard to recognize. While physical abuse can leave visible bruises and scars, other types of abuse can involve tactics such as manipulation, frequent insults, and deception.
Narcissistic abuse can be difficult to identify. It may even be hard for the person experiencing abuse from a partner with narcissistic personality disorder to realize that it’s happening.
Over time, this type of abuse can affect a person’s mental health and self-esteem. In some cases, it can lead to self-isolating.
The person may begin to miss social events and make excuses for not participating in social gatherings with family and friends.
If you or someone you know is a survivor of narcissistic abuse and has been self-isolating, there are ways to cope and recover.
Narcissistic abuse is commonly used to refer to a specific pattern of psychological manipulation where a partner with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) may attempt to control their partner in ways that are disorienting and disparaging.
It can overlap with many of the patterns of intimate partner violence, but also commonly include these features:
- Narcissistic rage, verbal abuse, and emotional abuse. This is often used to create dependency. The narcissistic partner may engage in put-downs designed to belittle and control the person and prevent them from leaving. They may lash out in rage in response to perceived slights, conditioning the person to be fearful of expressing themselves and to walk on eggshells.
- Jealousy. A narcissistic partner may manufacture love triangles to make the person jealous on purpose. A 2017 study suggested a link between jealousy induction and narcissistic traits. This tactic may be used to gain power and control in the relationship.
- Malicious envy. People with NPD tend to be envious of others. A
2016 reviewlinked both narcissistic and psychopathic traits to malicious envy, which includes sabotaging behaviors designed to disrupt their partner’s progress and success.
- Love bombing abruptly followed by devaluation. Love bombing can include a “honeymoon” period of constant contact and excessive flattery and praise used to groom the person into trusting them. Since a narcissistic partner often adopts a false mask during this time, the person may not be aware of their true intentions. The behavior may then be abruptly switched to devaluing the person. This usually occurs after a significant emotional investment has been secured or even after the completion of a relationship milestone such as marriage and pregnancy.
- Chronic gaslighting. This tactic may be used to change a person’s sense of reality and cast doubt on their perceptions, memory, and emotions. Gaslighting can cause the survivor of narcissistic abuse to doubt their own experiences and prevent them from identifying what they’re experiencing as abuse.
- Intermittent reinforcement. This includes alternating hot and cold behaviors in the relationship to induce trauma bonding. Trauma bonding is an attachment that develops from the unpredictable, hostile nature of an abusive relationship. It usually involves a power imbalance. People with NPD may sweet talk you one moment, then callously put you down the next.
- Stonewalling and the silent treatment. These behaviors are used to shut down conversations about accountability and condition their partners to seek approval from them.
In addition to these tactics, a person in a relationship with someone with NPD may survive other types of abuse such as financial, physical, or even sexual abuse.
Even if survivors have already safely exited the relationship, they may need a considerable amount of time and space to recover from the aftermath.
According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition (DSM-5), one of the symptoms of PTSD can include negative changes in thinking and mood. This can affect the way that person perceives the world, others, and themselves.
These symptoms can lead to self-isolation in some cases. Other symptoms that may contribute to self-isolation include:
- hypervigilance to a perceived threat
- avoidance of reminders of the traumatic event
If the person experienced aggressive behaviors, such as narcissistic rage and malicious envy, they may self-isolate to protect themselves from further abuse and to avoid additional triggers.
You may be self-isolating as a form of avoidance if you find yourself doing the following:
- distancing yourself from previously trusted friends and family members to avoid the possibility of triggering conversations or interactions
- becoming emotionally detached from others, stemming from a belief that you can’t trust anyone or that others are out to harm you
- spending the majority of your time alone apart from work and school, even while experiencing loneliness
- not reaching out to your support system in times of great hardship
- going out of your way to cancel events, important social gatherings, or avoid places you may otherwise attend because they require some form of social interaction
While some isolation may be needed for emotional processing, reaching out to others you trust and keeping them informed about how you’re doing can also be crucial to your well-being.
Consider trying some of these strategies.
Seek support communities and therapy, if needed
The type of social support you seek matters. Finding a support group, either in-person or online, with people who share similar experiences can often be helpful.
If you’ve lived through a traumatic experience, you may experience symptoms such as flashbacks. Consider reaching out to a healthcare or mental health professional.
They may recommend trauma therapy to help manage your symptoms. This could include specialized therapies to help you process your trauma experiences and build coping tools.
Join ‘low effort’ social activities
While you’re seeking social support, try not to overexert yourself, particularly if too much social interaction or communication is a trigger for you.
Consider engaging in social activities that demand less effort than your nervous system is comfortable with but that still help in your healing.
This could look like maintaining daily contact with family members, friends, and neighbors virtually through outlets such as video calls and text messages with occasional in-person meetings.
It could also mean joining community activities that don’t require intensive disclosure or a focus on trauma.
For example, joining a trauma-informed yoga class not only provides a reset for your body and mind but can also connect you to like-minded people in a safe space where you can share only what you’re comfortable sharing.
Use digital options for self-care to make the most of your alone time
Watching relaxing content such as nature videos and listening to soothing music every morning or night can also help you de-stress.
Avoid the use of substances or other activities that may worsen your symptoms
Try not to overuse alcohol or other drugs that can change your nervous system during this time.
When you’re processing and healing during times of isolation, it’s crucial to keep note of any other addictive avoidant behaviors that you’re engaging in.
A mental health professional can help you process your traumas rather than avoid them.
Narcissistic abuse is often a debilitating and traumatizing form of intimate partner violence that may lead to symptoms such as avoidance and self-isolation.
If you’re a survivor of narcissistic abuse, a brief time of self-isolation may help you process your trauma. But over time, you can find ways to ease your symptoms and move toward recovery.
Building a safe support system and using self-care strategies such as yoga may help.
It may also be helpful to talk with a trauma therapist. They can provide you with tools to cope with your traumatic experiences and help you heal.
Shahida Arabi, MA, is a summa cum laude graduate of Columbia University and best-selling author of three books, including “Becoming the Narcissist’s Nightmare and Power.” Her new book, “The Highly Sensitive Person’s Guide to Toxic People,” published by New Harbinger Publications, is available in all major bookstores. Her viral articles have garnered over 18 million views and her work has been featured on Psychology Today, Salon, Bustle, Psych Central, The Huffington Post, Inc., Origin, Thought Catalog, VICE, and The New York Daily News. She’s currently a graduate student at Harvard University conducting research on romantic relationships with individuals with narcissistic and psychopathic traits.