If you hang around online groups or read YouTube comments by survivors of narcissistic abuse, I’m sure you’ve heard stories from people who found therapy to be a traumatizing experience. Maybe this is your situation, and the “help” you received has left you feeling misunderstood, anxious, and filled with self-doubt.
It’s heartbreaking when I hear yet another story of a survivor who found the courage to reach out for support only to be traumatized by what should have been a safe, healing space.
Here are four reasons why so many victims of narcissistic abuse get hurt getting help.
Many therapists give recommendations designed to treat troubled relationships.
“Try couples therapy” is often the first recommendation from therapists who encounter a client wanting to resolve relational difficulties. However, if their client is a victim of narcissistic abuse, couples therapy will likely be traumatizing.
While many narcissists (especially covert ones) are incredibly skilled at appearing to be charming, teachable, competent, the victim, and willing to work on their part of the relationship, they aren’t. Their goal is not to build a mutually beneficial relationship. Instead, they will do, say, or appear to be whatever they have to be to maintain control of the victim and the relationship.
The therapy office isn’t magically immune to these manipulative behaviors. Not only will the therapy session itself be re-traumatizing, but the information the narcissist gleans during the session can be used later to punish, manipulate, and control their partner. What should be a safe space for the victim ends up being anything but that. When victims try to stand up for themselves, fall silent, or become incredibly anxious and reactive, they may be falsely viewed as resistant to treatment or unstable.
The therapist’s training and experience are often inadequate.
Survivors of narcissistic abuse have unique needs that are frequently misunderstood, discounted, or ignored by uninformed therapists. A psychotherapist and narcissistic abuse specialist said that she was in shock how few therapists understand narcissism.
During mental health training, schools devote very few classroom hours to narcissism. Classes typically focus on teaching students how to diagnose Narcissistic Personality Disorder in its more overt form. Learning how to identify covert abuse and victims of narcissistic abuse may not even be covered at all.
Emotional abuse by a covert narcissist is often invisible to everyone but the victim. Symptoms of covert abuse such as a victim’s silence in session (terror), defense of the perpetrator (trauma bonding), or failure to bring up essential issues (dissociation) can easily be missed or misunderstood. Not only can this expose the victim to further abuse, but it will likely leave them feeling invalidated, powerless, and full of shame and self-doubt.
Victims come for help, often feeling crazy, and the treatment affirms this false belief.
A professor and narcissistic trauma specialist explained how she sees clients who were traumatized by other therapists. Some of her clients reported feeling crazy because their therapists thought they were overreacting and misunderstanding the relationship dynamics.
These therapists didn’t recognize the narcissistic behavior patterns their clients were describing. Not being believed is re-traumatizing. It reinforces the narcissist’s false messages that the victim is crazy and can’t trust their own interpretations and perceptions. Victims need helping professionals who believe that their responses are normal reactions to abnormal situations.
When treatment fails, victims are blamed.
Survivors are also re-traumatized when a helping professional reaches a point where they believe their client should be further along in their recovery than they are. Instead of realizing they haven’t adequately understood and addressed their client’s needs, they falsely conclude it’s their client’s fault.
I had a client who was told that she must subconsciously enjoy playing the victim role because she kept finding herself in toxic relationships. Another client was informed that her reactions were so intense because she was excessively sensitive. In each situation, the victim was blamed. Yet, it was the professional’s lack of understanding of the impacts of narcissistic abuse that was to blame.
Thankfully, some professionals are not only survivors of narcissistic abuse themselves but have completed their own recovery work and gone on to learn how to help others heal. Healing from narcissistic abuse is hard work. The professional who is supporting and guiding a victim’s recovery shouldn’t be contributing to their distress. Help should be, well, helpful!