As a therapist working with survivors of narcissistic abuse, I am consistently in awe of my clients' willpower, fortitude, determination, and courage as they emerge free from abuse and trauma. Whether impacted in work, family or romantic relationships, survivors of emotional abuse have a special kind of resilience that is akin to a possessing several superpowers. In the psychology community this striking empowerment is entitled post-traumatic growth, which essentially means rising to a higher level of functioning after experiencing signifiant adversity. Connect with your inner Lagertha (Viking Shieldmaiden) and read on below to "get woke" on your kick a*& superpowers....
When I first began working with survivors of narcissistic abuse, I came across the writings of pioneer Sandra Brown's seminal book Women Who Love Psychopaths: Inside the Relationships of Inevitable Harm with Psychopaths, Sociopaths and Narcissists (2009). Unlike other books and articles written for survivors of emotional and psychological abuse by personality disordered perpetrators, Brown's book was the first I encountered that actually described survivors in an empowering light (versus the common victim-shaming/blaming tone that is so prevalent on many websites). Brown is one of the first writers and experts who went beyond the "codependency" labeling of victims and actually sought to describe the many "super traits" (Brown, 2009) that survivors of psychological abuse possess. These emotionally intelligent qualities are gifts versus some inner psychic defect. So often, survivors have been gaslighted by their perpetrators into a state of cognitive dissonance whereby they feel they are to blame for the emotional abuse or that some broken quality within them brought on the abuse. I can emphatically and unequivocally say that no survivor of abuse is ever to blame. It often takes months or years of therapy for survivors to shed this self-blame and shame.
Further rubbing salt into wounds, many well-intentioned survivor websites have popped up over the last 5 years in which survivors are labeled as "codependent" and in which victim-shaming and blaming language is bountiful. Some, but no means all, survivors have codependency issues that stem from family-of-origin dynamics. It is a trend for some individuals to hop on the (unregulated) gravy-train of life-coaching, whether or not they have done their own psychotherapy. What I see online is quite appalling and would be considered malpractice if they were licensed therapists. Untrained "life coaches" are claiming to treat the very clinical concerns of depression, anxiety and complex-PTSD as a result of relationship trauma. (Basically lay people are offering to do heart surgery). The danger is that vulnerable clients who are hungry for healing from psychological trauma and seeking to find answers to complex-PTSD as a result of dizzying cycles of abuse can easily succumb to charlatan's victim-shaming lingo, resulting in further trauma and shame. Survivor communities have created forums which can be supportive, but on the contrary, some can also cause great emotional harm if not facilitated by healthy moderators (i.e. those who have done their own recovery work).. I have had to undo the emotional harm and trauma re-inflicted on my clients as a result of their stumbling upon very disempowering literature (which can also be completely inaccurate and scientifically unfounded). What is most upsetting is when a survivor is blamed in some way for their abuse. It is NEVER a survivor's fault that they were abused. Period.
Again, not all survivors are codependent. The vast majority of survivors I have worked with are actually highly emotionally intelligent and possess the "super traits" Sandra Brown discusses in her literature. Emotionally intelligent people are ironically very attractive to personality disordered individuals for the very reason that such insightful people possess the very qualities the abuser is lacking. Survivors of narcissistic abuse are not broken! On the contrary, survivors have SuperPowers that allow them to not only do the work of healing from the trauma of being in an emotionally abusive relationship but to also be great partners in healthy relationships in work, family and love.
The following are some SuperPowers that survivors of emotional abuse uniquely possess (and I should also add, need to be very protective of):
1. High empathy and compassion: Survivors I have worked with generally show an amazing capacity to empathize with their fellow human beings and creatures on the planet, and the are quite intuitive, some with deeply intuitive abilities. Many have described themselves as "empaths," which basically means highly intuitive and with a deep compassion for other living beings and nature.
2. Great ability to reciprocate and compromise/problem-solve: I saw a meme that showed a picture of a donkey's head poking out of a barn door with the phrase: " You don't have to be a Jack-Ass Whisperer." So many of my clients are outstanding problem solvers and also know how to resolve conflict and compromise in very difficult situations. They have great people skills and diplomacy. When they are in the throes of a relationship with a narcissist or other emotional abuser, they realize that to have to explain what is common sense (emotionally) to another person says a lot about the abuser, than the other way around. If you have to explain how to be humane, Houston, we have a problem!
3. Integrity and authenticity: Survivors are often known for their honesty and actions/words lining up very congruently. An abuser is drawn to this fabulous quality because, almost as if by osmosis, they can assume the personality of their partner just by being associated with him/her and the survivor's good works for the community. Even though these super powers are something to behold and to be proud of, they are also qualities that the survivor must protect and not give away unless and until they know that the recipient is worthy of receiving such gifts and that those super powers can be reciprocated back.
4. Accountability for actions: Most survivors I have had the honor of working with possess an uncanny strength to be able to have the humility to know when they need to own responsibility for their own mishap and then to take action to make that change. Unfortunately, their abusers generally do not possess this gift, and thus, gaslighting and blame-shifting/projection exacerbates the already vulnerable position a survivor finds her/himself in. When free of abuse, survivors are able to fortify and reclaim boundaries in future relationships, paving the way for healthier interactions in love, work and family.
5. Willingness/capacity to evolve a relationship into mature levels of true intimacy: An empathic survivor generally knows what it takes to experience a healthy love relationship. This understanding includes the awareness that at some point the infatuation stage will peter out and the roll-up-your sleeves work of true intimacy (and the "you left the toothpaste cap off" frustrations) of really getting to know one another on a deeper level unfold. Remember that extreme emotional abusers tend to home in on folks who know how to do the work of relationships past the shiny high of infatuation, including all the messy and not fun work of paying bills, child-rearing, house-tending, etc. We know that extreme abusers do not have the capacity to evolve the relationship to a higher, more mature level and stay stuck in cycles of idealize/devalue/discard. Survivors, however, can and do move on to experience healthy relationships in love, work and family with healthy others who are able to reciprocate deeper levels of emotional vulnerability and trust building.
So you see, there is great hope for survivors of emotional abuse to heal! The very qualities that were draws for abusers are also draws for emotionally healthy people. When survivors do the healing work of trauma recovery in psychotherapy, they move forward to gather stronger powers of discernment as well. When a survivor encounters a potential abuser, often times the "Nar Dar" Alert goes off as the survivor fine-tunes their capacity to engage in healthy connections with others post recovery. Most important for survivors in recovery from narcissistic abuse is to connect with competent and compassionate helping professionals who are licensed to provide psychotherapy for relationship trauma; broaden and deepen healthy social support tribe; ramp up self-care regimens, and to fully own and practice the Super Powers that have been uniquely bestowed upon them.
Here's to healing!
Andrea Schneider, LCSW