phases of trauma recovery

Working The 5 Phases of Trauma Recovery After Narcissistic Abuse

When people think of trauma, they tend to imagine isolated events like natural disasters or car accidents.

But trauma can take many forms.

Narcissistic abuse is a soul-crushing form of trauma because it slowly builds up like an avalanche. In many cases, it affects your identity on a very deep level for several years.

That’s why healing from narcissistic abuse is an ongoing process – not an instantaneous event.

Healing from complex trauma and PTSD from narcissistic abuse requires a much different approach than recovering from isolated traumatic events.

Just like someone working through drug or alcohol recovery, it’s crucial to work through the phases of trauma recovery.

It’s not fast or easy, but you’ll come out the other end more dignified, stronger, and kinder than you ever were before the abuse.

Why Healing from Narcissistic Abuse Is Different

In reality, complex trauma from narcissistic abuse is similar to living under siege from war (fighting and psychological torture) and a blockade (emotional, spiritual, and even physical isolation) for many years.

This is not to say narcissistic abuse is on par with living in a war zone but that the same psychological implications are at play.

Like someone living under the threat of war for several years, you start to wonder why this abuse happens to you while others get to live in peace. It feels like you’re being tortured by a blockade restricting your access to the rest of the world.

Surely, something must be wrong with you or this abuse wouldn’t continue.

This outlook generally doesn’t apply in cases of trauma from car accidents and other isolated events.

Sure, some folks might suffer a car accident and wonder why God would allow such a thing to happen to them. But in general, people tend to recognize that car accidents and natural disasters are random events over which they have no control.

People don’t usually blame themselves for fires and earthquakes but we blame ourselves for narcissistic abuse. Healing from narcissistic abuse is different because it attacks your very sense of self, your psyche, and your spirit.

How Narcissistic Abuse Affects You on a Deeper Level

At first, you might suffer through a heated fight every now and then. Things calm down and you write it off as a one-time event.

You ignore the red flags. They’re just a tortured soul, right?

But then the fighting increases its pace. You start to notice that in every scenario, you’re wrong – even when you started the conversation by asking for an apology or basic respect.

How many times have you tried to confront the narcissist – even politely – about something they’ve done that hurt you only to have them turn the conversation around? How many times have you found yourself apologizing to the narcissist at the end of these conversations?

The narcissist must always be the victim – even when they’ve treated you horribly.

If the narcissist always has to be the victim, that means someone else must always be the perpetrator. Yep, that’s your role: You’re the antagonist and they’re the protagonist in the hypothetical movie playing inside the narcissist’s head.

The problem is that after weeks, months, or years of this very subtle manipulation, you start to actually believe it on a deep level – usually without even realizing it.

It impacts how you view yourself and everyone around you. You start to believe that you’re worthless, can’t do anything right, and no one could ever enjoy your company.

Healing from Complex Trauma and PTSD Is a Marathon, Not a Sprint

Complex trauma from narcissistic abuse takes a long time to develop – sometimes years or even decades. It’s imprudent, then, to believe that healing from narcissistic abuse can be instantaneous (and you shouldn’t trust anyone who tells you otherwise).

The narcissist spent years slowly chipping away at your sense of self and spirit. As a result, healing from complex trauma and PTSD should be an ongoing process.

To be honest, complete freedom from the past isn’t really an attainable (or even an ideal) goal.

This is what people realize as they work through the phases of trauma recovery.

The abuse doesn’t have to (and shouldn’t) be your whole story, but it is a major chapter in your book. It’s unwise, and quite frankly unhealthy, to think that you can simply “snap out” of this mentality while healing from narcissistic abuse.

Healing from complex trauma and PTSD simply doesn’t work that way. And if it did, it would be a dreadful form of spiritual bypassing. 

It’s crucial to work through the phases of trauma recovery.

The effects of complex trauma from narcissistic abuse will follow you everywhere you go: as you seek new jobs, look for new friends, rebuild lost relationships, and try to develop an identity again.Click To Tweet

And that new identity? It will never be the same. It will be stronger, more assertive, and even more compassionate than it was before the narcissistic abuse happened.

Healing from narcissistic abuse is a difficult and continual process but it does get better.

The Phases of Trauma Recovery

You’re probably already familiar with the five stages of grief. But what is grief? It is a traumatic event that affects you on a spiritual level.

The phases of trauma recovery are very similar. Believe it or not, the five stages of grief are more than just a plot concept for comedy shows. It’s very important to work through each of these stages with an open heart and support system.

No one ever expects people suffering from substance abuse to recover overnight, right? No, they work through the 12 steps (or other concrete recovery programs). Ask anyone in drug, alcohol, or gambling recovery and they’ll tell you it’s an ongoing process that continues every day, sometimes indefinitely.

This may sound daunting, but have you ever met someone with years of solid recovery? They’re resilient, in control of their emotions, and living their best life.

It gets better. And the five phases of trauma recovery can help.

1.     Emergency Stabilization Phase

You finally go No Contact from the narcissist and aren’t sure if you’ve made the right decision. (Maybe the police even made the decision for you.)

You’re still overstimulated from the narcissistic abuse which might still be flowing in the form of texts from strange numbers or relayed messages from mutual friends.

What you need right now is support and reassurance. The trauma has felt “normal” for so long that experiencing safety and calmness feels foreign and very wrong. You’re still vulnerable and afraid of how the narcissist will respond to everything you think or do.

2.     Punching Upwards Phase

This is when you start to pick yourself back up off the floor. Your energy starts to return after the narcissist drained it for so long. (Being the target of narcissistic abuse requires a lot of your time and attention.)

You might experience surges of anger towards the narcissist and even at yourself for allowing the abuse to go on for so long. Without proper support and recovery, you might slip back into phase one.  It’s important to note that while support groups on social media might help in the beginning, they are not a source of proper support and can ultimately set you back in your recovery.  

3.     One Foot in the Door Phase

You start to rebuild your identity, but your past tends to get in the way. You might start to give the narcissist too much credit and think “we both treated each other poorly” or “they’ve experienced abuse, too.”

Although it’s less common than during phase two, you can revert to the earlier phases of trauma recovery at any time without much warning. That’s why support and guidance from experienced professionals are so important during the entire process.

Now that you’re starting to feel confident in yourself and your decisions, you might feel compelled to reach out to the narcissist on casual terms. Maybe they’ve changed? (They haven’t.) You’ll find yourself seeking closure or an explanation.  But take heed, reaching out to the narcissist will set you back in your recovery, or worse, land you straight back into the cycle of abuse.

4.     Objective Analysis Phase

At this point in healing from narcissistic abuse, you can look back at your past objectively without feeling overwhelmed with emotions like anger or too much regret.

You’ve spent a great deal of time looking inwards and identifying emotional triggers left over from the narcissistic abuse. Now, you’re ready to start helping others who are in the early phases of trauma recovery.

Although you’ve put a lot of work into rebuilding your identity, you might find yourself slipping back into feelings of worthlessness or doubting your ability. You might not realize this is a hold-over from the abuse, but it is.

5.     Acceptance and Reintegration Phase

You can see things clearly and as they are. You know your abilities and limitations – not the ones the narcissist railed into you.

At this point, you understand how to develop healthy relationships and you have the courage to take action if someone tries to treat you poorly.

Don’t ever let your guard down too much though – narcissists are everywhere. But you’ve learned how to stand up to their abuse before it gets too far.

Healing from Complex Trauma and PTSD from Narcissistic Abuse

It’s absolutely crucial to move through the five phases of trauma recovery as you’re healing from narcissistic abuse. You need to analyze how the trauma developed in order to unravel it for good.

But with the right support, you can – and you’ll be shocked how amazing it feels when you can flourish on the other side.

Do you have any helpful, healing tips for overcoming the trauma of narcissistic abuse?

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  1. Diane Murillo

    Yes every thing you say about the narcissist is so very true. He’s the victim not you he changes everything around I never experience anyone like this in my life sad to say

  2. Sheryl

    Thank you so much, Kim! Your articles opened my eyes and put a name to what I was dealing with…evil and a medically recognized disorder.

    I was in a 17 year relationship with my narcissist-married for 14 of those years. I ignored countless red flags from the very beginning of our relationship but his charm and love bombing were addictive. He caused me to lose two professional careers, refused to move close to my family (we live on an island in the Pacific), after he retired he left me alone for 6 months a year to work in another state and refused to compromise. When he was angry with me, and that was most of the time, he shouted at me, pushed me, called me names, slammed doors, and would leave the house for hours to punish me (“you hate to be alone, this is why you are alone”, he would say while exiting).

    I filed a TRO after asking him to leave for 48 hours the last time he pushed me-4 weeks post op on my surgical site and 3 weeks after his open-heart surgery. Imagine a narcissist anger at this. I dissolved the TRO when he did not appear because he was in the hospital with pneumonia. Needless to say, he says he did nothing and his account of the event changes every time he tells it.

    He filed for divorce a month after. I am 70 years old and going through much anxiety about starting over as my income is not what it should be because of his lies about my security. We have been displaced from our home for 1 year because of a fire in our condo building-which he did not come home from his summer job for 5 months to help me. I now am dealing with the divorce, the remediation on our home with plans to rent and sell it, and trying to figure out where I will live when all this is over. I was weak several times and asked him not to go through with the divorce. I suggested we live separately so that I could keep my health insurance. Of course, it just fed his already inflated ego and he said, NO each time always placing all of our marital problems on me.

    I have to admit that I feel so guilty about some of the thing I told him in anger, for bringing up the horrible things he did to me, and most of all, for not leaving sooner. All of the things you say about Narcissists taught me about what I was dealing with and confirmed that I am not crazy, to blame, or imagining and misjudging my narcissist. I was right on but too hooked into the toxic affects of a narcissistic relationship to leave. My energy, vitality, and zest for living no longer existed. I spent my days lonely and always looking over my shoulder to confirm my suspicions of his behavior. Basically, I was married-he was not.

    PLEASE, listen to Kim, run, don’t walk away from this kind of relationship no matter what! It will only get worse-they will only get worse. They do not mellow with age. They get much worse because they are losing their looks, their health, their vitality, and the ability to attract prey. Even worse, if you are healthier and have aged better than them they resent you for that and their jealousy of this makes thing worst.

    Kim, I can’t thank you enough.

    With much gratitude, Sheryl

    1. Kim Saeed

      Thank you for your kind praise, Sheryl! I am so glad to know you are out of that situation. Thank you for stopping by and sharing. Wishing you all life’s best as you heal and move forward.

      Kim XoXo

  3. Sally

    Yes, it’s important to know that what’s required is for you to have total and complete control of your own, life body and thoughts. Retrain Yourself to only accept decency and respect.

  4. Laura

    Firstly, thank you so much for writing your blog. I would never have been able to end my abusive marriage without the support of my incredible therapist and such useful and eye-opening blogs like yours to help me see the truth of what has been going on.

    My husband and I have been separated for six weeks now and all I feel is numbness or guilt. In my last counselling session I broke down and said “I just feel like I’ve messed up his life.” I was prepared to feel all sorts of emotions but I didn’t think I would slip back into guilt and self blame so easily. It is a comfortable place for me to be in, I guess. I realise I still have a lot of work to do. It’s hard to learn to love yourself and step out of deeply entrenched feelings of guilt and shame when that’s all you’ve ever known. But I believe it’s possible!

    At some point in this process I also hope to be able to access my anger and express it in some way. I tried to do it in couples counselling but found it very hard as it was so badly received by my husband. I had to tread so carefully. I’m grateful that our couples counsellor was able to identify that he was abusive as that really helped me to believe that I am not crazy, making things up, etc. I have not gone no contact and I’m realising it’s because he still has power over me. I want to keep him happy out of fear that he’ll be angry with me. I want to be truly free from that one day. He still contacts me regularly and when we communicate I instantly feel stressed, anxious, trapped, confused…I still hope friendship is an option in the future as he is seeing a therapist too and working hard on himself and deep down I have a lot of love for him. I’m just not sure if he has the capacity or ability to really understand the problem. I can’t imagine him ever being able to truly empathise and put others first. But I have hope for him. I want him to be happy. It’s messed up! I think that a year from now I’ll look back on these days differently and see things more clearly. I would love it if my self worth did not depend on him anymore.

    The journey continues 🙂

  5. I was in a narcissistic relationship for 6 years. I was first told this by a counselor who said I needed to go no contact in order to even think about healing from his abuse. It took another three years and the support of to really ‘get it’. I went thru the ‘we could at least be friends’ phase. After understanding why no contact is soooo important, I finally became dedicated to healing ME and have now been no contact for over a year. It hasn’t been easy, but the rewards are tremendous. I’m beginning to get ME back and continue on the healing journey. Truly, No Contact IS Essential!!!

  6. Pingback: PTSD in the Aftermath of Narcissistic Abuse - Let Me Reach with Kim Saeed

  7. Kendra


    You are not alone in this cycle and feeling: “When I am not irrationally missing him I can totally see with clarity exactly what he was and what he did.” In fact, I am quoting you because you articulated the feeling so clearly, for which I am grateful. Kim has inspired me to try other coping techniques beyond congnitive work (which is exhausting and leaves me feeling like I need to “fix” myself”), including breathing, aromas, mindfulness. Recently I tried with a counsellor RRT (rapid resolution therapy) that deals with the emotional brain. When I miss him painfully, I try one of the dialogues that makes me smile in spite of my seemingly pathetic self and numbs the missing enough to take that one step at a time.

    Thank you for being open with us.

    More hugs.

  8. I am in the Third Phase. It is exactly how you describe it. It really hurts. I have deleted him and blocked him, and mercifully he is too busy with his new supply to respond, but to be honest I have still struggled in keeping “perfect” No Contact. I totally fall into these times when I wonder if I made it all up or I will say to myself that he wasn’t that bad. When I get into those weird spaces I begin to miss him irrationally and deeply. I weep. I want him back. I try to break No Contact sometimes, but like I said, both he and I have made that nearly impossible, mercifully. It’s so painful, and to make matters worse, when I snap out of it I feel like such an idiot for thinking those crazy things! I feel angry and frustrated with myself. I wish I was firmly in Objective Analysis. When I am not irrationally missing him I can totally see with clarity exactly what he was and what he did. I consider myself pretty well versed on the truth about Narcissists. I just feel really stuck in this weird phase where I periodically lose touch with reality. 🙁

    1. Kim Saeed

      Hi Lisa,

      Please do not beat yourself up over this. What you’ve described is completely normal and nothing to be ashamed of or angry about. Try to let yourself feel those emotions without judging yourself. What you’re going through is the dissolution of the trauma bond and it is a difficult process, but if you keep putting one foot in front of the other, you will eventually stop feeling this way.


      Kim XoXo

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