Our Winter Entrepreneurs are Energetic War Heroes. They are the pioneers in a new industry of healers emerging from both sides of the coin: the traditional healing arts and the western clinical approach. Ranging in age from 20s to 50s, these bright health warriors are sharing a little bit about their journeys to a new health care paradigm.
SYJ: Here at the Shakti office we’ve been getting so excited about your work as an author on narcissistic abuse and recovery. We’ve had our fair share of experiences with narcissists! So right off the bat, for anyone who feels they have never been abused or watched someone they love be abused, why should they have an interest in this?
Shahida Arabi of Self Care Haven: I believe narcissistic abuse is important for everyone to understand because it can affect us in every single context – the family, the workplace, relationships and friendships. We’re likely to encounter narcissistic classmates, professors, counselors, co-workers, bosses, and roommates; I can’t think of one situation where narcissistic abuse can’t be present. Those who believe they’ve never met such a toxic individual probably have, but just haven’t seen the man or woman behind the mask.
It’s estimated by therapists that around 60 million people are affected negatively by someone’s personality disorder – and that estimate is in the United States alone (Brown, 2010). While other personality disorders have more of a capacity for empathy, those on the high end of the Narcissistic Personality Disorder spectrum can be incredibly difficult to treat. Their lack of empathy, excessive sense of entitlement, as well as callous exploitation of others is intrinsic to their diagnostic criteria.
This problem is pervasive and needs to be addressed not only for survivors but also the public.
Narcissistic abuse has a ripple effect – survivors who have been abused are forced to cope with the trauma unsupported, and this affects everyone they come into contact with. It’s not a ‘survivor only’ problem, but a global one.
SYJ: Wow. That puts so much context around this form of abuse that can look so isolated from the outside.
Self Care Haven: This type of abuse, exploitation and manipulation doesn’t exist in a vacuum – it is interwoven into the way our court systems, mental health facilities, law enforcement, politics and our society treats abuse victims. The way institutions treat survivors of severe psychological abuse is a re-traumatization in itself. When we have a society that shames survivors of covert psychological abuse because there are no visible scars, we normalize, dismiss, deny and rationalize behavior that is utterly unacceptable.
The lack of knowledge about narcissistic abuse in society is contributing to a worldwide Gaslighting Effect in which abusers continue to devastate their victims emotionally, physically, spiritually, financially, and psychologically. The more people understand about this pandemic, the more prepared we can be as individuals and as a society to counteract the effects of heinous abuse.
SYJ: We consistently hear people linking narcissism with codependency. Where along the line does your work come in?
Self Care Haven: While I think there are may be clear criteria for Narcissistic Personality Disorder and codependent traits, I believe the ways they manifest are incredibly complex and multilayered. Narcissism exists on a spectrum, so there will be differences between covert and overt narcissists, those on the higher or lower ends of the spectrum, and even grandiose vs. vulnerable narcissists.
My work for survivors focuses on relationships with full-fledged malignant narcissists with antisocial traits – the ones who are most dangerous to society. Those who lack empathy, are unwilling to seek treatment in an authentic way, and who abuse relentlessly and seek out victims — these are the types of abusers I write about.
SYJ: Before we run to second base, what is codependency?
Self Care Haven: Codependency was a term historically used to describe relationships with substance abusers. The meaning of the word over time has evolved to include this idea of “relationship addiction” – including our interactions with abusive partners.
While helpful to some, due to the origins of the word and its intended meaning, many survivors feel the label ‘codependent’ can, at times, come with a victim-blaming stance. We face the threat of labeling someone as ‘codependent’ when a relationship involves some form of reliance between partners.
But there are certainly distinctions between the excessive caretaking of a person with substance abuse issues, and a victim of abuse who has been diminished by the abuser. As a result, I prefer to avoid the term codependency and believe the focus should be more on the narcissist and victim dynamic.
SYJ: We’ve heard the term ‘codependent’ used most for victims who keep returning to an abusive situation (when it appears they could leave). What term should we use then?
Self Care Haven: I believe the term “trauma repetition cycle” better describes victims who have grown up in abusive homes and later go onto repeat the cycle with adult partners.
Abusive relationships distort the extent of psychological reliance between abuser and victim, creating a power dynamic where the abuser is able to continually manipulate, belittle, control and distort the survivor’s reality.
SYJ: Now walk us through the abuse cycle.
Self Care Haven: The abuse cycle begins with idealization, which is a period of ‘grooming’ or what we call ‘love bombing.’ This is the excessive attention, flattery and admiration the abuser showers the victim with in the early stages of dating and the relationship.
The abuser may only show occasional incidences of cruelty and contempt, which are quickly swept under the rug with apologies and facilitated by the victim’s own cognitive dissonance about who the abuser really is.
During those smaller, ‘red flag’ incidents, the victim asks, who is this person? They assume that the sweet person is the real self, rather than the false mask, while the cruel self is somehow an anomaly. This abuse amnesia is accompanied by another round of love bombing and idealization, which enables the victim to deny, minimize, and rationalize the abuse taking place.
The abusive incidents began to increase over time and progress into a period of ‘devaluation.’ Usually this cycle is cemented by something known as intermittent reinforcement, where the abuser may be mistreating the victim chronically but still adds in a touch of kindness or tenderness here or there to keep the victim accustomed to crumbs. This keeps the victim coming back for more, hoping the idealization phase will begin again.
As I talk about in my books, Becoming the Narcissist’s Nightmare and POWER: Surviving and Thriving After Narcissistic Abuse, there are biochemical bonds as well as a trauma bond being formed through this intermittent reinforcement.
SYJ: It seems like, despite the sprinklings of kindness during “intermittent reinforcement”, the dynamic usually continues to intensify and worsen. Is that right?
Self Care Haven: Unless the abuser is sufficiently fearful that the victim will leave him or her, they will rarely idealize the victims to the same extent as they did in the beginning. Victims become increasingly devastated, traumatized and are left walking on eggshells while the narcissist becomes colder, more cruel and more unpredictable.
Finally, there is usually a discard in which the narcissistic abuser leaves the victim and sets out to destroy the victim in every way possible. This is the ultimate power play for the narcissist because he/she is done merely toying with the victim’s emotions, and now wants to annihilate every facet of his or her identity. This discard can be accompanied by a quick replacement with another source of supply, public humiliation, a smear campaign, a prolonged silent treatment…the possibilities are endless.
SYJ: As an abusive dynamic comes to close, can there be a happier ending?
Self Care Haven: In a more empowering scenario, the victim decides that he or she has had enough, finds the resources and support to validate their decision and goes No Contact with their abuser on their own terms.
This is a scenario where the victim discards the narcissist first. Discarding the narcissist first often enrages the narcissistic abuser, who will usually try to wrangle the victim back into the torturous abuse cycle in order to assuage the injury to their grandiose sense of superiority. This additional stage of the abuse cycle is called ‘hoovering,’ where a narcissist, like a Hoover vacuum, attempts to suck the victim back into the traumatic vortex that is the relationship.
In order to fully recover and heal from the narcissistic abuse experience and ensure the cycle does not repeat itself again (with an even worse discard than before), survivors must learn to resist and react to hoovering attempts with mindfulness, self-compassion and a commitment to their own self-care.
SYJ: Can you share with us the 5 most common symptoms of narcissistic abuse?
Self Care Haven:
Self-blame – Abuse survivors often blame themselves for the abuse, especially if they are seeing the abuser’s true self for the first time. They find themselves constantly questioning themselves after every abusive incident, wondering what they did to “provoke” the abuser, when in fact they did nothing. This self-blame can haunt victims even after the relationship has ended because the abuser has instilled in them a belief that everything is their fault and they caused the abuse to occur.
If you have to continually ask yourself why you were disrespected, this is a sign that the toxicity of this partner needs to be evaluated. In a healthy relationship, respect should be the default, not an ‘earned’ commodity.
Toxic shame – Trauma therapist Pete Walker believes toxic shame arises as part of Complex PTSD. Many survivors feel ashamed about the abuse they suffered due to self-blame and many carry the burden of the traumas they’ve experienced as a sign that they are somehow defective, unworthy or unlovable.
Rumination – When a trauma has occurred, memories, emotions and thoughts become disconnected. The parts of our brains responsible for planning, judgment, and decision-making become disrupted. We go into flight or fight mode, and our hypervigilance and anxiety go on overdrive.
It’s no surprise that we tend to ruminate over the abuse. It’s our mind attempting to figure out what happened and how it happened. When we find ourselves obsessing over the hurtful actions of a partner, it’s time to slow down, seek support, and think about whether this relationship is healthy for us.
High Levels of Social Anxiety – In what trauma therapists call ‘emotional flashbacks,’ we often ‘regress’ psychologically to previous states of trauma. This is a defense mechanism that keeps us on high alert, in an attempt to evade danger a second time, but what it ends up doing is distorting our discernment.
Certainly, once they’ve been abused, victims pick up a sixth sense and are much more alert to micro-level signs of abusers. But sometimes it can cross over into paranoia. We no longer feel confident in our abilities to discern who is safe and who is a predator. As a result, we’re left spinning in self-doubt and anxiety and tend to self-isolate, which exacerbates our alienation from the world.
Inner critic – The abuser’s abusive words play like a record in our minds. Especially if we’ve also been abused in childhood, we develop an inner critic who passes extreme judgment and reprimands us for everything we do.
If we’re encountering a narcissistic abuser for the first time, it can be shocking how our confidence and faith in ourselves begin to diminish as we are continually abused, and how the abuser’s cruel remarks begin to supplant the normally healthy beliefs we once held about ourselves.
SYJ: Is being lied to or cheated on an indicator of narcissistic abuse?
Self Care Haven: While lying and cheating can be signs of an incompatible relationship and are definitely narcissistic acts, they are not always signs of an emotional predator. Each situation has its unique circumstances.
In fact, I often hear from survivors who wanted to cheat on their abusive partners when they had never previously felt that way about another partner. Infidelity can be the sign of a toxic relationship, but it is not always a confirmation that the partner in question is a narcissist, as there are many other factors that come into play.
SYJ: How were you first exposed to narcissism?
Self Care Haven: In many ways, narcissistic abuse has been part of my story since I was a child. I was chronically abused by a narcissistic parent. I also had a series of narcissistic partners before I received a major wake-up call in the form of a horrifically abusive relationship with a sociopathic predator a few years ago.
I initially began researching this topic after my first romantic narcissistic abuser at the age of 17. While teenagers my age were reading Cosmopolitan, I was reading Sam Vaknin! I was looking through old Facebook posts, and it turns out I had read one of his articles on narcissism and had posted the link on my Facebook page eight years ago.
I had even created an e-mail spam filter for my narcissistic abuser called ‘The Narcissist Files’ – which is funny to think about now because it foreshadows so much of my journey. At the time, I had a rudimentary understanding of narcissism but had experienced it so intensely that I fully resonated with every word of Vaknin’s article.
I did more investigation at the age of 23 when I discovered the book Psychopath Free. I began making the connections between my childhood and adulthood. The narcissistic rage, excessive sense of entitlement and lack of empathy had been present throughout my life.
SYJ: How did you start writing and teaching?
I began blogging about my experiences and the research I was doing, and I found myself reaching other survivors. Within the span of months, I began reaching millions of people who had survived just like I had. It was incredibly empowering and encouraging to connect with those who had similar experiences, and were also going through the journey.
I noticed that though there are many survivors who have codependent and people-pleasing traits, not all of them had these traits prior to the abusive relationship. I began to realize how multifaceted and complex the healing journey is, especially when it came to covert abuse.
Over the years I’ve learned more and more about the impact of trauma and biochemical bonding, and the healing required on the level of the mind, body and spirit through a myriad of techniques – including both alternative and traditional methods discussed in my books.
SYJ: What are the mental illnesses or states that the ‘victim’ incurs from being in this kind of abuse relationship?
Self Care Haven: Survivors of chronic narcissistic abuse have been known to suffer from depression, anxiety, PTSD, and even Complex PTSD if the situation was a long-term and perceived to be inescapable.
Psychotherapist Christine Louis de Canonville calls this cluster of symptoms ‘Narcissistic Victim Syndrome.’ These are the symptoms of dissociation, compartmentalization, cognitive dissonance, and trauma bonding to the point of defending their abusers – a sophisticated survival mechanism also known as “Stockholm Syndrome.”
NVS overlaps and supplements symptoms already experienced by those with PTSD or Complex PTSD who also suffer emotional flashbacks whenever a trigger resembling the past appears, reverting them back into a state of powerlessness. Hypervigilance, reliving of abusive incidents through visual flashbacks, suicidal ideation, dissociation and somatization of symptoms can also occur.
SYJ: What is the most universally experienced after-effect that you have witnessed?
Self Care Haven: Self-blame. Victims are constantly questioning themselves about whether they did something to provoke the abuse, whether they themselves are the abusers, and it’s no wonder why. They have been taught by society the myth of ‘mutual abuse,’ which is the idea that their reaction to chronic abusive behavior is somehow equivalent to the abuse their perpetrator has subjected them to. The ignorant social systems around them have enabled them to believe that “it takes two to tango,” while dismissing the deliberate cruelty of the abuser.
SYJ: Sometimes the journey of becoming more conscious is bitter sweet. Can you tell us about the hardest realization/stage in recovery for you personally to embrace?
Self Care Haven: I think one of the hardest things to embrace on the healing journey for me was to realize that there were people who were never going to ‘get it’ and it wasn’t my job to convince them.
To finally seek my own validation meant I had to cut out toxic people from my life and no longer tolerate the naysayers who did not understand or did not want to understand. I had to accept that they would learn at their own pace, and that was their journey to take. So I detached from those people.
I had to do this on a professional level as well. Many advocates for survivors face backlash over this idea that they are somehow not compassionate or empathic towards narcissists, when in fact, holding people accountable is the most compassionate thing you can do for the world, to ensure no one else has to go through the same trauma.
SYJ: CYBER BULLYING – what is it?
Self Care Haven: Cyber bullying is an online form of malicious harassment, bullying, stalking and degrading. It usually takes place on forums and popular social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram.
Cyber bullying has been one of the biggest barriers to spreading awareness among the survivor community. Since so many survivors learn about narcissistic abuse for the first time online, trolling and cyber bullying can is a re-triggering, potentially re-traumatizing nuisance on the road to recovery.
Research has shown that trolls and cyber bullies tend to be malignant narcissists and psychopaths with a sadistic need to provoke, hurt and demean others. It is no surprise then, that YouTube channels, blogs or Facebook groups centered on narcissistic abuse seem to attract trolls of every variety.
SYJ: Can you tell us the worst cyber bullying instance you have experienced, and what you did to deal with it?
Self Care Haven: My worst cyber bully was someone who continually trolled me for weeks on one of my viral articles, attacked other survivors, and then followed me onto my Facebook platform to engage in more name-calling and abuse.
Through some investigation, I discovered it was a man who had a criminal record of assault who was likely using his mother’s Facebook page to stalk and harass me. Reporting him and documenting the experience gave me back my sense of power and control.
Communicating with other advocates who had also been cyber bullied was one of the most powerful ways I kept my energy high during times of severe cyber bullying. I am so grateful to the advocates and readers who comforted me and sent me words of support during difficult times.
SYJ: How can we identify it, and how can we stop it in its tracks? What can you say to those who are being cyber bullied or harassed online?
Self Care Haven: To counter the impact of being bullied online, I find it helpful to ban repeat offenders whenever possible, document the harassment, report the culprits and seek support. You need to remind yourself that there are decent people in the world, especially if you are being attacked. If you can’t find support online, consult a therapist, call a hotline, seek out community centers or therapy groups – find a way to gain some validation. It can be truly life saving.
Cyber bullies, much like narcissists in real life relationships, are also ‘energy vampires.’ You can learn a lot about narcissistic abuse from observing cyber bullies – they engage in similar toxic behaviors and diversionary tactics. Their vile words and actions can drain you, especially if you’re being chronically bullied or have already experienced a lifetime of trauma.
If you are being cyber bullied or harassed, focus on limiting the energy you might be giving to your bully inadvertently by engaging in a discussion with them. Remember, these people are not interested in productive discussion. They are interested in provoking and hurting others.
Document their harassment, report them whenever possible, do what you can to hold the cyber bully accountable, and then use your energy for self-care and interactions with those who are willing to understand your perspective.
If the cyber bully is someone you know, such as an abusive ex-partner, I suggest investigating cyber-bullying laws in your state to see if you can open up an investigation and get an order of protection. No one deserves to be stalked, harassed or abused – physically or online.
SYJ: Cyber bullying is often dismissed because it is “virtual” and non-physical. But why is it still so important to address?
Self Care Haven: Cyber bullying has serious consequences, especially for survivors, because it can be re-traumatizing. It has even caused suicides among teenagers and those suffering from complex trauma. Being name-called, stalked, and harassed often reminds survivors of their abusers and is a traumatic event that can cause the victim to regress.
Victims can gain a lot of their power back when they speak out against all forms of abuse, including cyber bullying. It’s important to hold all cyber bullies accountable so they are legally punished for their actions.
However, I will say this: My worst cyber bullies (as well as my real-life abusers) have motivated me to write some of my best pieces and accomplish my dreams. I’ve channeled all of the hatred they’ve given me into the greater good, and it’s definitely pushed me to continue fighting the good fight.
SYJ: Especially since the “free love” movement of the 60s, there seems to be a trend of boundaries being antagonized in our spiritual communities. What can you say about that?
Self Care Haven: I think boundaries are incredibly important, even more so than this idea of indiscriminate love and compassion for all.
As much it would be nice to sing kumbaya with everyone, there are some people who will exploit your compassion with a malicious agenda. That’s why it’s important to practice compassion with discernment. We must keep toxicity, disrespect, mistreatment and exploitation out of our lives.
Advocates and survivors are often told to have more ‘compassion’ for their abusers. I have experienced this accusation time and time again as an advocate, and my boundary is to end all contact with anyone who attempts to guilt or shame me for speaking out on behalf of survivors.
The survivors I know are overly compassionate – almost to a deadly extent. They forgive their abusers time and time again, only to be devalued in an even more horrific fashion. That’s why our definition of compassion needs to change; seeing another person’s perspective does not necessarily mean that you have to continue to have them in your life.
SYJ: What advice can you give for anyone who feels conflicted about boundaries, or needs help setting healthy boundaries?
Self Care Haven: You can have empathy and compassion for toxic people from a distance. Or, if you were severely traumatized, it is perfectly okay not to force yourself into feeling anything for your abuser. Honor your authentic emotions and you’ll honor yourself.
Don’t sweep everything under the rug and deny what you truly feel. This is your journey, and no one should be able to police it. There are survivors of such heinous crimes that I would never judge them for not forgiving or showing compassion for their abuser. It is not our right to decide how a survivor should feel about their abuser.
Children of narcissistic parents especially need strong boundaries in their lives, and faith in themselves. They need to know that they deserve to be respected, and realize that they may have been desensitized to accept abusive behavior or disrespect as the norm.
You cannot actually have authentic compassion for others without starting within. The most compassionate thing you can do for yourself and others is to protect your sacred emotional, psychological and physical spaces, by having strong boundaries and enforcing them.
SYJ: Please give us your favorite inspirational quote that helps you remember your work here in the world.
Self Care Haven: “I have heard the stories you tell. You are the one who transforms, who creates. You can go out into the world and show others. They will feel less alone because of you, they will feel understood, unburdened by you, awakened by you, freed of guilt and shame and sorrow. But to share with them you must wear shoes, you must go out, you must not hide, you must dance… The shoes are for dancing, not for running away.” – Francesca Lia Block
SYJ: What would you like to share with those who have not personally experienced narcissistic abuse, but would like to be an ally to the survivor community?
Self Care Haven: My understanding of narcissistic abuse has shifted everything I know about people and the world. I no longer believe that every person has the ability to empathize or that they even a conscience. I appreciate authentic, loving people that much more.
I also place a higher value on my ability to set boundaries, identify toxic people and go No Contact whenever possible. In many ways, we have to go to the extreme end of the spectrum before finding a good balance between boundaries and compassion. I have had to completely detach from people who invalidated, belittled or refused to acknowledge the traumatic impact of this form of abuse.
Those who try to silence the truth are either perpetrators of these crimes themselves or have never had these types of experiences before. Over time, I’ve learned that these people are not interested in productive conversation. This is why I no longer subject myself to these pointless discussions that lead nowhere. As survivors, we are not obligated to coddle, comfort or educate our abusers. We are responsible for our own self-care.
Abuse by someone with Narcissistic Personality Disorder is insidious, damaging, and can have a long-lasting impact. This effect of being traumatized needs to be addressed with professional support as well as what I call “reverse discourse” – methods that help to rewrite the self-defeating narratives that exist due to trauma and abuse.
SYJ: Can you say some words of encouragement for those who may just be waking up to this reality, or already feel abused and overwhelmed? Where do they start?
Self Care Haven: There is no doubt there are far more toxic people in the world than we would expect, but it is far better to be awake than to be asleep. Your awakening is also the portal to your power.
You have the power to discern who is toxic and who deserves your time and energy. You have the power to walk away and limit contact with anyone or anything that no longer serves you. You have the power to rise again from the worst experiences of your life.
You have that power because you have survived before and you will again.
Even when you feel most alone and everyone around you seems toxic, know that there are millions of survivors out there in the world just like you – and many of them will be the kindest, strongest, most empathic people you will ever meet. Trust that there are angels in human form who are here to guide you. There are people out there who will help you hold on, hang on, and empower yourself when you most need it.
At the end of the day, you can only rely on yourself, but you can remain open to finding others who understand, who resonate, and who validate you on your journey to surviving and thriving. You can conquer new dreams, new goals and channel your worst experiences into your biggest transformation yet.
The icing on the cake is that the best “revenge” will always be success and self-care. So, don’t be afraid to use any and all of your negative experiences to your advantage. What you experienced wasn’t fair, but that doesn’t mean you can’t use it to propel you into victory.
Never give up. Never give in.
There are miracles waiting on the other side; you just have to be willing to let them in.
Shahida Arabi, Self Care Haven
Find Self-Care Haven online:
Bestselling Books: www.selfcarehaven.org/bestselling-books
Huffington Post: www.huffingtonpost.com/author/shahida-arabi
Thought Catalog Articles: www.thoughtcatalog.com/shahida-arabi