You can heal after being victimized by a psychopath, even if you’re doubting that right now. It can take a significant amount of time and effort, as with any major trauma, but it can happen.
(In addition to this page, please see the ROAD MAP to recovery)
The illustration above 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 a goal 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 or pathological relationships, 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.
What we’re dealing with is not the end of a regular relationship, so no advice about healing after a breakup will help. We were victimized by predators who betrayed and abused us. But because it may have appeared to be a genuine relationship from the outside, it can be 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 would nearly destroy us with cruel and methodical psychological manipulation and devaluation. But that’s the real, abbreviated story of what happened. No wonder victims don’t get the support they need; this scenario simply isn’t comprehensible to those who haven’t experienced it.
(A helpful article I highly recommend—one that will help you understand what you’re experiencing not only from a psychological perspective, but also a neurochemical one—is “The Spellbinding Bond to Narcissists and Psychopaths – What’s Happening in the Brain?” by Rhonda Freeman, PhD, a neuropsycholgist. I also recommend her blog, NEUROINSTINCTS.).
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.”
A Word About Online Forums: In the search for support and validation, many join online forums. I am hesitant to recommend online forums for newly traumatized people, because of the potential for secondary victimization that goes on at the hands of trolls or other survivors who may mean well, but who spread erroneous and sometimes harmful ideas. It happened to me; you can read more about that in my blog post, “Fox in the Henhouse.” Even so, many people do have positive experiences in forums. There is tremendous value in speaking with other survivors. But in a forum situation, there is just as much potential for harm as there is for help. Some have suffered more trauma while participating in a forum (I was one of them). Please keep this in mind and be very careful. If something doesn’t feel right, listen to that feeling! Part of healing is learning to trust your perceptions.
Please read about emotional rape, a fitting term conveying the depravity and traumatic nature of the experience. Understanding the depth of the injury is vital to healing from it. The Emotional Rape Syndrome — a book by Michael Fox, PhD., which is written with empathy and compassion, provides a deeper 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, but also dealing with the loss of the person you loved. This perplexing 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 bond 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 actually existed in the way you believed they did, your love for him or her was real–and that love deserves and needs your acknowledgement and compassion before you can let it go. Read Feelings of loss and grief after the psychopath is gone.
Books and websites are helpful, and by all means you should read and learn as much as you can. There are many resources on this site and listed in the sidebar. But for many, it’s not enough to overcome the trauma and it may be necessary to see a psychotherapist (psychologist or social worker) *who specializes in pathological relationships and the psychological and emotional trauma they cause. As a result of the trauma, you may be suffering from Post traumatic Relationship Syndrome (PTRS), PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder), major depression, 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 as well as low self-esteem and self-confidence. 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 if you are struggling.
You may also want to look into a support group for abuse victims run by a mental health professional. Your local domestic violence center probably has 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 with empathy and 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
International Suicide Hotlines
A list of Resources for suicide prevention, post-attempt survivors and their families, U.S. and International
More information on the common issues survivors deal with, on this website:
Self-blame: Emergency: Self-Blame, At the Intersection of Truth and Lies: Self-Blame
Shame: Shame: A Festering Wound of the Soul
Difficulty trusting: Can We Ever Trust Again?
Feeling pressure to forgive: Forgiveness: The Other F-Word
Betrayal: The Unique and Powerful Harm of Betrayal
Anger: Angry? There’s a Reason for That, Backed Into an Emotional Corner
Doubt: DOUBT:Friend or Foe?
Fear: After the Psychopath: Moving From Fear to Confidence
Uncertainty: Liminality, the Unsettling Space of In-Between
A violent ex: Advice for dealing with a violent ex
In addition, please see the sidebar and the “REBOOT” page for more resources.
Resolving cognitive dissonance is vital to healing. It resolves on its own as you become clear about what happened and doubt diminishes, but it can take some time. Understanding it can help you to deal with it. 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:
- My partner loved me, and I’m wrong to think the problems were his fault; I’m the one to blame.
- My partner was a manipulator who deceived me, lied to me, betrayed me and harmed 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 begin to come to the surface of your consciousness, but it’s too painful to accept. You still long for the love of the idealization phase and 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 making up your mind not to 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. There are many articles on this website on that topic. To read more here, see “Persistence of Memory: The Phenomenon of Intrusive Thoughts.”
Pursue healing as a goal. Be persistent. Find who and what helps you. If something doesn’t work, don’t give up — try something else. Give yourself time. It takes time to heal.
BOOKS BY ADELYN BIRCH
“I loved the author’s ability to simply and compassionately describe why, and how, I feel victim to a monster. For me, she eloquently describes the most complex, confusing, horrific experience of my life.. To the author, I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart.”
“Her writing was like discovering a mentor, a friend, a sponsor, a confident who understood, who explained in detail what happened to me in my relationship with this man. I felt like something in the universe directed me to her. Her books will help you understand the hows and whys of what you went through. Your healing can begin with her writings.”
“Invaluable. Having been in a relationship with a psychopath for many years, I desperately needed some insight into what had happened and why. I have gained a tremendous amount of strength and knowledge toward healing from years of abuse by reading this book. One of the best.”
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