The illustration to the left shows 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. Healing is something we must purposefully pursue.
We need the support of others after this trauma, but many of us find that support is hard to come by. Many people in our lives (friends, family, and even many therapists) don’t understand psychopathy, so they may not understand the devastation we’re experiencing. As a result, they’re unable to give us the kind of support we need. Even we may not understand it 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, M.A., put it in her book, The Unexamined Victim: Women Who Love Psychopaths. We never expected the person who claimed to love us was really out to destroy our self-worth through cruel and methodical emotional manipulation. But that’s the true, abbreviated story of what happened. No wonder victims don’t get the support they need; this scenario simply isn’t comprehensible to a normal person.
One thing 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.
After going through such a severe trauma, 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 believe in your own worth and you have faith that you will heal.
Challenges for the victim of a psychopath include:
- Finding help and support;
- Recovering from harm to your psyche, heart and soul;
- Dealing with challenges to your ability to trust others and yourself;
- Breaking the ‘betrayal bond’ that keeps victims emotionally attached to their abuser;
- 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 or woman you loved never really existed, your love for him or her was real, and that love deserves and needs your acknowledgement, approval and compassion before you can let it go. Read Feelings of loss and grief after the psychopath is gone
Books and websites can be helpful, and by all means you should read and learn as much as you can. But they are more than likely not enough to help you overcome the trauma you’ve experienced.
It’s imperative to get yourself to a psychotherapist (psychologist or social worker) who specializes in psychological trauma and abusive relationships, if at all possible.
As a result of the trauma, you may be suffering with a stress disorder or PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder), major depression, panic disorder or an anxiety disorder.
You’re probably struggling with difficult or even unbearable emotions, disturbing memories, intrusive thoughts, and a sense of constant danger.
Many victims describe being unable to trust, feeling extremely vulnerable, experiencing rage, having obsessive thoughts, and experiencing fear and anxiety. Their self-esteem and self-confidence are low.
Some turn to alcohol or drugs or develop a physical illness, or experience irrational and extreme behavior such as total isolation and withdrawal. Some will contemplate suicide.
Symptoms are sometimes so severe that victims are incorrectly diagnosed as paranoid, delusional, or as having borderline personality disorder.
The aftermath of emotional trauma needs to be taken seriously. That’s why you should make every effort to see a mental health professional who is a trauma expert.
You may also want to look into a support group for abuse victims, run by a mental health professional. Your local domestic violence center may have such a group.
If you are feeling suicidal, please don’t try to deal with it alone. There are people who will listen to you, without judgement. I hope you will use one of the numbers below to connect with such a person.
U.S. and International Suicide Hotlines
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (U.S.) — 1-800-273-8255
- A list of Resources for suicide prevention, post-attempt survivors and their families, U.S. and International
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 and doesn’t fit anywhere into our expectations about life.
In cognitive dissonance, we hold two conflicting beliefs at the same time, and go back and forth between them. In our situation with the psychopath, those two beliefs are often as follows:
- The psychopath loves me
- The psychopath is deceiving me, lying to me, manipulating me, and harming me
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.”
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.”
You may be unable to stay on the same page about who he is, which creates a “ping-pong” effect in your mind where conflicting thoughts constantly pop up but never resolve anything. You might be having behavioral inconsistencies too, such as saying you won’t see him but then seeing him anyway.
Cognitive dissonance begins to resolve when a victim finally accepts that she was involved in a pathological relationship with a very disordered person. That’s why an important part of healing is understanding what a psychopath is and how a psychopath’s mind works.
Pursue healing as a goal. Be persistent. Find the people and the things that help you. If something doesn’t work, don’t give up — try something else. Give yourself time. It takes time to heal.
A wonderful book for trauma victims is Healing from Trauma: A Survivor’s Guide to Understanding Your Symptoms and Reclaiming Your Life.
With innovative insight into trauma-related difficulties, Jasmin Lee Cori helps you: Understand trauma and its devastating impacts Identify symptoms of trauma (dissociation, numbing, etc.) and common mental health problems that stem from trauma. Manage traumatic reactions and memories Create a more balanced life that supports your recovery. Choose appropriate interventions (therapies, self-help groups, medications and alternatives). Recognize how far you’ve come in your healing and what you need to keep growing. Complete with exercises, healing stories, points to remember, and resources, this is a perfect companion for anyone seeking to reclaim their life from the devastating impacts of trauma.
Exploitive relationships can create trauma bonds–chains that link a victim to someone who is dangerous to them. Divorce, employee relations, litigation of any type, incest and child abuse, family and marital systems, domestic violence, hostage negotiations, kidnapping, professional exploitation and religious abuse are all areas of trauma bonding. All these relationships share one thing: they are situations of incredible intensity or importance where there is an exploitation of trust or power.
In The Betrayal Bond Patrick Carnes presents an in-depth study of these relationships, why they form, who is most susceptible, and how they become so powerful. He shows how to recognize when traumatic bonding has occurred and gives a checklist for examining relationships. He then provides steps to safely extricate from these relationships.
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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