During or at the end of a narcissistic relationship, you can turn to look at yourself and see nothing but an empty shell. You can find yourself in a situation where you no longer know what you want in life, what you like, what you think or even what you feel. You look at the unrecognizable face in the mirror and ask: “Who am I?”
And this not like some temporary identity crisis. Perhaps you can’t even remember what kind of a person you were before the narcissistic relationship. Perhaps, if you grew up in a narcissistic family, you never truly knew what kind of a person you were in the first place. Or you could only describe yourself with surface-level titles: A good spouse, parent, student, worker, woman/man etc. And everything related to your soul and personality could be consisted of other people’s opinions on you.
If you started to give too much control to the narcissist even when it comes to important matters in your life, if you’re more concerned about how the narcissist might feel about it when you’re about to make a certain decision, if you’re having trouble recognizing and describing yourself and your own feelings, if you’re not sure what your desires and aspirations are, if you constantly feel like you’re wearing a mask in an attempt to please others; you’re likely to be suffering from narcissistic identity loss.
Alright, but how does loss of identity work? How can narcissistic abuse cause that? What traits we possess leave us vulnerable to this threat and what should we do in order to regain our identities?
Why Does the Narcissistic Abuse Victim Suffer from Identity Loss?
Just like how they believe themselves to be superior; narcissists tend to think people they surround themselves with are also superior and flawless. After all, they’re special people so their friends, lovers, families should be special too. Thus they create a certain ‘special’ version of you, and they expect you to be more like that idealized version. By rewarding you when you act the way they want you to, and criticizing or humiliating you when you don’t; they slowly and systematically bend you to their will. The unsuspecting person who’s with a narcissist falls to this trap most of the time and both to have the narcissist’s affection and also to avoid the narcissist’s abuse and neglect; they act the way it is expected of them.
Besides, the narcissist may have entered your life as a savior. By entering your life when you were at your lowest, and promising you a bright future and manipulating you with fairytales; the narcissist can cause you to try harder to please them by compromising yourself just so you can keep living in that fairytale.
But the more their victim tries to please them (even if it costs them their own identity), the higher the narcissist’s expectations get. No matter how hard you try, you can never reach that ideal version of yourself which is created by the narcissist’s imagination. You can feel like you’re in some endless marathon where the finish line gets further and further away no matter how fast you run towards it. Your ideal version in the narcissist’s head is not realistic at all.
This ideal version you try to reach can be either about your personality or physical appearance. No matter how attractive you are, the narcissist can cause you to end up hating your own body and make you feel like nobody other than them could ever find you appealing. Or make you feel like no one else could put up with certain attitudes of yours. In this way, while destroying your self-confidence bit by bit; they also cause you to develop an intense fear of abandonment. If you feel like nobody else could like you or stand being in a relationship with you, you end up trying harder to keep what you currently have.
Also, narcissists crave constant praise, attention and appreciation. Their material and spiritual needs are always the main priority. Although everyone has limited time, energy and resources; narcissists don’t care much about that and expect you to dedicate all your time, energy and resources to them instead of taking care of yourself too. The more you try to keep the narcissist satisfied, the more you neglect your own needs and desires.
Perhaps you’ve always been someone who put others’ needs first, even before you met the narcissist. Sometimes, the possibility of turning into someone else can sound appealing to people who lack self-love.
People who have a relationship with a narcissist can give up their own identities also because they want to avoid angering the narcissist. Narcissists are prone to anger, and they tend to overreact. While trying to avoid chaos and keep up with the narcissist’s constant mood swings, people end up focusing on the narcissist instead of themselves. They can start denying themselves in order to feel safe.
Manipulation methods practiced by the narcissist (especially gaslighting) can naturally cause you not to trust your own perception let alone recognizing yourself. After a while, you can start embracing the narcissist’s opinions on you.
As a result, the severe identity crisis the victim suffers from is either ignored by the narcissist or the narcissist is genuinely amused by it. Narcissists cannot view other people as separate individuals, they feel like other people are simply their extensions. Therefore, a narcissist does not value your feelings, thoughts of ideals. Your individuality and different opinions are nothing but a threat to them. They must be in control at all times, even if what they’re controlling is your entire existence. So, being a part of your life is not enough for a narcissist; their goal is to become your whole life.
What steps should you take to regain your identity?
In order to win your identity back and recognize yourself better, the first thing you need to do is to cut the narcissist out of your life and start setting your boundaries. For that, you need to learn how to say “no”. If your self-value depends on external factors, if you put other people’s feelings, thoughts and needs before your own; you’re likely to find it very hard to say “no”. Therefore, you should accept the fact other people’s opinions on you do not define who you are, they do not determine your value.
Try to take responsibilities for your own life. If you’re having trouble making decisions because you don’t know yourself well enough, you can easily give the control of your life to someone else and let them decide on your behalf even when it comes to the most critical subjects. A situation like that serves a controlling emotional manipulator well.
Also, you can ask yourself what you want, what you feel and what you need each day. You can try to see which thoughts belong to you and which ones were influenced by other people. Try not to criticize yourself for your feelings and thoughts. Perhaps you’re angry in this very moment, perhaps you’re ashamed and upset with yourself. No matter what, acknowledge your feelings and embrace them. You’ve been through severe emotional abuse and it wasn’t your fault. You have no reason to be angry at yourself. Remember that whenever you find yourself criticizing your own actions.
Moreover, try to remember what kind of a person you were before the narcissistic relationship. Perhaps you used to have hobbies you really enjoyed, but because you wasted your time on trying to please the narcissist, you neglected them all. Or maybe you had friends you liked spending time with but the narcissist caused you to stop seeing them. Then, you can try to get back to the things you’ve been neglecting and start seeing your old friends again.
If you’re having trouble remembering what kind of a person you were before the narcissistic relationship, or if you can’t really define what kind of things you enjoyed, imagine the things you’d like to do if you had no responsibilities. You can start with the things you liked when you were a child, or the things you’ve never tried before. Try to do something for the child inside of you at least for 10 minutes each day. Sometimes just letting yourself rest, sleeping a bit more or watching something funny can be enough. You can do something about your self-care as well. Like eating a healthy meal or taking a walk. Try to make some time for yourself alone without putting too much pressure on yourself. Don’t be ashamed of taking small steps. During this process, avoiding a new relationship or some other radical decision would be wise.
Know that you deserve to have your own feelings and thoughts. Not everyone will accept these feelings and thoughts. But don’t try to make others accept them, everyone has their own perspective. Everyone has different beliefs when it comes to what’s right or wrong, and you don’t have to prove your own to others. You should know that you have a purpose in life, that you need as much space as other people do and that having your own boundaries does not make you a selfish person. Identity crisis caused by a narcissistic relationship is natural and common, you can overcome it by taking slow steps and eventually feel even more complete and adequate than you’ve ever felt before.
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You can also find the articles on https://medium.com/@narsistsiz:
Healthy Place. “Loss of Identity in a Verbally Abusive Relationship”. Access 3 April, 2018. https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/verbalabuseinrelationships/2018/04/loss-of-identity-in-a-verbally-abusive-relationship.
Kim Saeed. “Healing from Identity Loss After Narcissistic Abuse”. Access 8 July, 2018. https://kimsaeed.com/2018/07/08/healing-from-identity-loss/.
You can also check out my other articles on the subject: