I have been asked numerous times by desperate clients why they struggle to let go of an abuser and a narcissist, and I have lost count of how many times this has happened. It appears that they have been injected with a drug that has caused addiction, and it seems that no amount of logic, common sense, or realism can assist them. They are willing to go to great lengths to maintain contact, even if it is dysfunctional for them. Breaking the hold is essential for recovery to occur, even though it may seem unbreakable. The clients I have recently worked with struggle to comprehend the power that abusers hold over them. Unfortunately, they tend to blame themselves for the abusive situations they find themselves in. They truly cannot comprehend how this unfortunate event could have occurred to them. The breakup was likely traumatic and has a significant impact that keeps the victim emotionally attached.
Part of this could be due to what we call ‘Repetition Compulsion’. Sigmund Freud’s concept of repetition compulsion refers to the tendency of individuals to unconsciously repeat certain patterns, behaviors, or experiences from their past, often in a way that may not be beneficial to them. This concept is closely related to Freud’s broader theories about the unconscious mind and the influence of early childhood experiences on adult behavior. Repetition compulsion can manifest in various aspects of life, including relationships and behaviors associated with codependency.
Codependency is a psychological term used to describe a dysfunctional pattern of behavior in which one person’s sense of self-worth and identity becomes overly dependent on another person’s approval, validation, or needs. This often involves a one-sided and unhealthy relationship dynamic, where one person (the codependent) prioritizes the needs and feelings of the other person (the enabler or the one being depended upon) to the detriment of their own well-being. Repetition compulsion can play a role in the development and maintenance of codependent relationships in several ways:
- Unresolved Past Experiences: Codependent behaviors may stem from unresolved emotional issues from one’s past, often related to early caregiving relationships. Freud’s idea of repetition compulsion suggests that individuals might unconsciously seek out relationships that replicate the dynamics they experienced in their early life, even if those dynamics were negative or harmful. This can lead to an unconscious attempt to “fix” or understand the past by recreating similar patterns in the present.
- Unconscious Motivations: Codependent individuals may find themselves repeatedly attracted to partners who display certain behaviors or traits, even if these behaviors are detrimental. For example, someone who grew up with a controlling parent might find themselves drawn to controlling partners. This can be seen as an attempt to master or resolve the unresolved conflicts of the past through present relationships, as per Freud’s ideas.
- Seeking Validation and Belonging: Codependency often involves a strong need for validation and a fear of abandonment. This can be linked to Freud’s notion of repetition compulsion, where individuals unconsciously seek out situations that trigger familiar emotional responses, even if those responses are negative. The need for validation becomes a driving force, and the individual may repeatedly put themselves in situations where they feel needed, even if it’s at their own expense.
- Cycles of Dysfunction: Repetition compulsion can also contribute to perpetuating cycles of dysfunction. In codependent relationships, the pattern of enabling and being enabled can become deeply ingrained, with each party fulfilling their role in the dynamic. These patterns can be difficult to break because they provide a sense of familiarity and consistency, even if they are ultimately harmful.
It’s important to note that Freud’s theories, including repetition compulsion, have been subject to criticism and revision in the field of psychology. While the concept of repetition compulsion can provide insights into certain behavioral patterns, modern psychology also draws from other theories and perspectives to offer a more comprehensive understanding of codependency and related issues. These may include attachment theory, cognitive-behavioral approaches, and more recent research on interpersonal dynamics and trauma.
However, let’s look a bit more at how this might progress. The term “hooked in” is a crucial phrase that helps to explain certain aspects of the process. This occurs during the adulation stage. The initial attraction is often associated with a traumatic event or loss that makes the person more susceptible to seeking help. The influence a narcissist holds over their victim is all-encompassing during the adulation stage. The “hooks” they create can cause even the most intelligent and rational individuals to question their own sanity. This type of brainwashing power is capable of fueling dictatorships, sects, and ideologies such as the Nazi party and Communism when it is expanded onto a larger platform. For the victim, this marks the beginning of a process that will ultimately result in emotional devastation, as the narcissist sets their sights on a new target and inevitably discards them.
Narcissists exhibit a tendency to be highly selective. They carefully select their victims, often considering factors such as status, wealth, influence, or ability. The victims tend to be individuals who are both attractive and popular. The greater the amount of this the victim has, the higher the value of the supply becomes for the narcissist. At this stage, narcissists possess exceptional observation skills. They elevate their victims onto a pedestal, ensuring that they receive all the necessary care, love, and attention they require. They idolise and worship these individuals, making the victims feel as though they have been eagerly awaiting their arrival for their entire lives. The victim may mistakenly believe that the narcissist genuinely loves them, when in reality it is merely infatuation. The relationship progresses rapidly due to the promises made by the narcissist. The victim is completely absorbed in the attention they are receiving and willingly embraces it, feeling incredibly fortunate to have this person in their life. They have been deceived by the narcissist’s illusion, leaving them completely unprepared for what lies ahead.
The stage of adulation holds immense power and allure. It can be likened to a drug and often referred to as the “honeymoon period” multiplied by three or four. There is a relevant old saying that codependents should remember. The quote “You learn more about a person at the end of a relationship than at the beginning” is a thought-provoking statement. This is particularly true when dealing with a narcissist. The adulation stage, which occurs at the beginning, is an illusion that masks the true nature of the person involved. It tricks the victim into believing that they are in a relationship with someone who possesses qualities such as empathy, compassion, understanding, and love. The world for the victim is suddenly running smoothly, and all needs are being adequately met. Perhaps, for the very first time in their life, they are experiencing a profound sense of being fully appreciated. They are experiencing a level of fun, intimacy, and connection that surpasses anything they have ever experienced before. The issue is that, in due time, they will come to realise that it is not genuine, and the harsh reality will have its consequences. Many of my clients are stuck in this phase, hoping desperately that it might return, in vain.
Navigating the end of the honeymoon period can be challenging under normal circumstances. The driving forces behind it typically include hormones, biology, hope, and expectation. Studies tell us that our brain chemistry changes during this time in order to aid attraction, while shutting down areas that process judgment and evaluation. The situation will eventually come to an end, as it should, and then we will have to face reality. It is not necessarily negative if the couple is able to handle the changes and maintain a calm and rational approach. However, when dealing with a narcissist, it can be incredibly challenging to come to terms with the conclusion of what initially seemed like a “perfect” start, where an illusionary world was constructed.
However, there are usually two more phases to negotiate before you can start recovery:
Dévaluation; This is the phase when the narcissist begins to reveal their true nature. Once the narcissist is certain that they have gained the victim’s love and devotion, the facade of their false self, which was displayed in the initial phase, begins to fade away, revealing their true self. At this stage, many victims often find themselves questioning what is happening, as the narcissist begins to emotionally and physically distance themselves from them. The reality is that the narcissist has grown bored, and as a result, the void within them is beginning to resurface. The narcissist begins to question the worthiness of the victims, placing blame on them for the mood swings and agitation that the narcissist exhibits. The narcissist begins to inflict emotional abuse on their victim, causing significant emotional distress and frequently leading to the narcissist eventually departing from the situation. The victim often makes every effort to hold onto the narcissist, giving them the benefit of the doubt and hoping that the illusion will resurface. Unbeknownst to the victim, the narcissist derives satisfaction from both the victim’s misery and admiration, as either emotion serves to keep the victim emotionally attached. The true reflection of the narcissist is revealed when the cruel and uncaring individual emerges from behind the mask. They refuse to accept any responsibility for their actions and demonstrate a complete lack of compassion for their victim. They show a complete lack of concern for the well-being and emotions of their victim. At this stage, victims often struggle to comprehend what has happened. It becomes even more perplexing when the narcissist occasionally resurfaces, presenting their false self, in an attempt to regain their source of supply. They will continue doing this until it is convenient for them to stop. The victim was always treated as nothing more than an object, to be discarded and thrown away whenever it suited the narcissist. At this stage, the narcissist is likely already focusing on their next victim, completely disregarding the previous victim. Alternatively, the victim may have begun establishing healthy boundaries for themselves. Regardless of the approach taken, the outcome remains unchanged.
Discard: Being in a relationship with a narcissist can be likened to experiencing the destructive force of a tornado sweeping through your life. After the situation has calmed, you are left with a chaotic situation. The victim has endured significant emotional, financial, and at times physical suffering. It is truly astonishing how swiftly a narcissist can sever ties with their victim, erasing them from their life entirely, dismantling any connections they once shared, and utterly disregarding the victim. At this stage, victims are questioning whether their abuser truly loved them. No, the answer is no. Victims are viewed as mere sources of narcissistic supply, treated as expendable resources once they are no longer useful. Once this occurs, the victim is swiftly discarded, with suddenness and surgical precision, without any prior warning. This phase can be extremely traumatic for the victim, as it often leads to a significant decrease in their self-esteem. They are typically burdened with all the responsibility for the narcissist’s actions and are forced to witness the same scenario repeating itself with a new victim. It is crucial for victims to understand that they were initially targeted by a con artist and that there was nothing they could have done differently. The narcissist who came into and left your life will repeat this pattern with everyone they encounter. Typically, they have a history filled with previous victims who have experienced similar circumstances, and it is likely that the pattern will continue in the future. It is crucial to close all doors because narcissists often reserve the right to revisit a previous source of supply whenever it benefits them.
The majority of this is related to what we refer to as “cognitive dissonance.” Cognitive dissonance is a psychological term that refers to the phenomenon of holding two or more conflicting beliefs, attitudes, or behaviours simultaneously. Feeling uncomfortable prompts you to modify your behaviour in an attempt to restore equilibrium. However, things are not that easy when you have been involved with a narcissist. They construct their entire existence based on dissonance. They are known for saying one thing and doing another. Therefore, you are unable to restore the balance. You used to love them, but now you despise their actions and how they have treated you. You had trusted them, but now you find it impossible to believe anything they say.
You must understand the truth.
The belief that anyone or anything external to you possesses power over you is an illusion. The only reason they can exert power over you is because there are unresolved aspects within you that enable it.
This statement is true. The intensity of your pain and emotional attachment to the narcissist is heightened because you haven’t yet recognised that your healing process should be primarily focused on you. The reason you were initially attracted to the narcissist is not because of them. The narcissist took advantage of the vulnerable parts of you that required healing, making promises (or at least giving the impression) that they would finally provide the healing you needed.
How can one effectively shut out a narcissist? First and foremost, it is important to recognise that maintaining no contact is crucial, even though it may be difficult. Please ensure that all doors are closed and prevent anyone from leaving behind any belongings that could potentially be used to contact you in the future. To promote healing and personal growth, it can be beneficial to temporarily disconnect from social media. This allows you to focus on addressing and healing the underlying aspects of yourself that may require attention. Recognise that the narcissist is a symptom, not the cause, and that they were never the solution to your dreams, but rather your worst nightmare.