Healing in the Aftermath of the Psychopath
The illustration by Walter Crane is of Red Riding Hood being rescued from the Big Bad Wolf. I think it’s safe to say that for most of us, this isn’t going to happen. Once the “relationship” with the psychopath ends, we must rescue ourselves.
We may feel that we have to find our own road to healing because many in our lives (friends, family, therapists) don’t understand the devastation we’ve been through. Even we may not understand at first. We just know we’re devastated; we know something happened to us that was out of the ordinary, far beyond a relationship gone bad.
Since what we’re dealing with is not the end of a regular relationship, no advice about healing after a breakup will help. We were victimized by predators who only pretended to establish a romantic relationship so they could manipulate and abuse us. But because this looked like a romantic relationship from the outside, it’s hard for people to see beyond that. Even some victims don’t see the truth, and are left believing they lost the love of their lives through some fault of their own.
None of us was “on the lookout for someone as brutal as a psychopath to systematically dismantle” the way we see ourselves, as author Sandra L. Brown put it. We never expected the person who claimed to love us was really out to destroy our self-worth, self-validation and self-esteem through cruel and methodical emotional manipulation. But that’s the true, abbreviated story of what happened, all details aside. No wonder victims don’t get the support they need; this scenario simply isn’t comprehensible to a normal person.
What a victim needs is validation. Brown says “It is pathology websites, books and programs that help women heal when they find their validation in other stories, research, books, forums, and organizations designed to respond to pathological love relationships. The validation you are seeking comes from others who have been through it.” From the article, “Recovering Without Validation.”
At this point, please read about emotional rape. Knowing what happened and understanding it is vital to your healing. The Emotional Rape Syndrome – a book by Michael Fox, PhD., provides deep understanding and focuses on healing.
In the aftermath, victims describe being unable to trust, feeling extremely vulnerable, experiencing rage, having obsessive thoughts, lost self-esteem, fear, anxiety, the use of alcohol or drugs, physical illness, and irrational and extreme behavior such as total isolation and withdrawal or even suicidal thoughts or actions.
Help is necessary, and there is help and support for you out there, but you need to be determined to find it. Recovery is an active process that you need to take part in. In doing so, you demonstrate to yourself that you have faith that you will heal. In believing that you will recover and in knowing that you will find understanding and compassion if you look for it, you become your own source of help and support. In helping yourself, you will realize the psychopath never really damaged your faith in yourself, your hope for your life or your belief in your self-worth.
There is understanding and support in books and websites, in reading about and talking with women online who have been through the same trauma, and in an empathetic therapist or support group led by a professional (See sources of help in the sidebar in the “healing in the aftermath” section).
The Unexamined Victim: Women Who Love Psychopaths by Sandra L. Brown, M.A., is a helpful book that examines risk factors, relationship dynamics, aftermath symptoms and prevention. This book can help you understand what happened and how it happened, and offer ideas for recovery.
Challenges for the victim of a psychopath include:
- Finding help and support;
- Recovering from intense stress;
- Recovering from harm to your psyche, heart and soul;
- Dealing with challenges to your ability to trust others and yourself;
- Experiencing cognitive dissonance, a key element that can stand in the way of healing, which I’ll talk about next; and
- The fact that you’re not only dealing with recovery from serious trauma, you’re also dealing with the loss of the person you loved. This piece of the puzzle is often neglected or diminished because the psychopath only pretended to love, but it is another important key to healing. Remember, the psychopath established an intense relationship during the idealization phase; without that, the manipulation and abuse could never have happened. While it’s true the man you loved never really existed, your love for him was real, and that love deserves and needs your acknowledgement, approval and compassion before you can let it go.
After the relationship is over, the victim may appear to be mentally ill to others due to the emotional manipulation and psychological torture she endured, according to Brown. She can be incorrectly diagnosed as paranoid, delusional, neurotic, or as having borderline personality disorder. In fact, she may have chronic stress disorder or PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder), major depression, panic disorder or an anxiety disorder. It’s imperative to get yourself to a licensed counselor who is familiar with abusive relationships.
A powerful aid in your recovery may be to “reconcile with harm.” The concept is explained in detail this article by Nancy A. Stanlick, “Reconciling with Harm: An Alternative to Forgiveness and Revenge.” It’s a useful mindset for times when “…forgiveness, revenge, and traditional reconciliation may be impossible, inappropriate, or morally undesirable.”
Resolving cognitive dissonance is vital to healing. Just understanding it can be a big help. Cognitive dissonance is a psychological defense mechanism commonly experienced during and after involvement with a psychopath. It’s a form of denial we experience when the truth about something
is too painful to comprehend doesn’t fit anywhere into our expectations about life.
In cognitive dissonance, we hold two conflicting beliefs at the same time. In our situation with the psychopath, those two beliefs are often as follows:
- The psychopath loves us
- The psychopath is deceiving us, lying to us, manipulating us and harming us.
Cognitive dissonance starts in the devaluation stage, when the psychopath is no longer as interested in you as a victim and so isn’t making much of an effort to keep his mask on. His lies, manipulation and abuse start to come to the surface of your consciousness, but it’s too painful to take. You still long for the love of the idealization phase, so you go in and out of denial.
According to Claudia Moscovici of PsychopathyAwareness, “Cognitive dissonance happens in those cases where there’s an unbridgeable contradiction between a dire reality and an increasingly implausible fantasy which, once fully revealed, would be so painful to accept, that you’d rather cling to parts of the fantasy than confront that sad reality and move on.” Remember that the dichotomous psychopath is still making intermittent appearances as who he was in the beginning of the relationship.
Sandra Brown writes in “Women Who Love Psychopaths” that cognitive dissonance is extremely strong in a psychopath’s victim because we’ve actually had “two different RELATIONSHIPS with the good/bad dichotomous psychopath.” She goes on to say that “each one of these relationships has required a different belief system in order to remain in it. These belief systems begin to battle each other increasing the intrusive thoughts and the cognitive dissonance, each feeding each other.”
Brown describes the victim as being unable to stay on the same page about who he is, which creates a “ping-pong” effect in her mind where conflicting thoughts (he’s good/he’s bad) constantly pop up but never resolve anything. She is usually having behavioral inconsistencies too, such as saying she won’t see him but then seeing him anyway.
Brown says, “Since she was in a relationship with both Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, cognitive dissonance completely makes sense.” Yes, it sure does.
Cognitive dissonance begins to resolve when a victim finally accepts that she was involved in a pathological relationship with a very disordered person, and it can resolve completely when she finally really gets that the “good” psychopath was merely a fake persona.
Pursue healing as a goal. Find the people and the things that help you. If something doesn’t work, don’t give up — try something else.
Psychology Today has series on healing after a pathological relationship, written by Brown. It’s called “Living the Gentle Life.” The series teaches “How to develop a life style that helps you heal emotionally, psychologically, spiritually and sexually.”
- Living the Gentle Life, Part One
- Living the Gentle Life, Part Two
- Living the Gentle Life, Part Three
- Living the Gentle Life, Part Four
- Living the Gentle Life, Part Five
- Living the Gentle Life, Part Six
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