After years of thinking she was dysfunctional, Sam finally embraced the reality of her mother’s narcissism. Her whole life had been filled with feelings of inadequacy, inferiority, self-doubt, shame, and guilt over every little thing she did wrong or was told by her mother was wrong. Now, several therapists later, Sam opened her eyes to the idea that her mother’s perspective was the primary dysfunction, not something inherently within herself.
This revelation resulted in a massive outpouring of emotions. She struggled to accept the new reality, was angry at her mother’s lies, wondered why it took so long for her to realize this, felt relieved that she had an answer to so many questions, and was deeply saddened by the heaviness. While the missing link of narcissism brought light to her experiences, Sam felt overwhelmed by this sudden flood of conflicting emotions. She cried, yelled, screamed, and wept as her whole body and being seemed to spin out of control.
“What was happening?” she asked herself. What she really wanted to know was, why now, after years of wondering what was wrong, was her emotional experience so intense? To help herself process all of this, Sam began the narcissistic awareness grieving process. Similar to the grieving process a person experiences after the death of someone they love, Narcissism Awareness Grief (NAG) happens when a person becomes aware of narcissism, sees how and where it has impacted their life and begins to rewrite their story now looking through a new perspective. Below are the six stages of Narcissism Awareness Grief, which are not necessarily experienced in a particular order, but must all be faced before entering into acceptance. Note that not everyone enters into the acceptance stage, some can stay stuck in one or more of the stages for the rest of their lives.
- Denial. Sam began therapy by talking about how perfect her mother was and how much she relied on her for opinions, decisions, and direction. It wasn’t until several sessions later, that the idea of narcissism was introduced. At first, Sam denied it. Then, after thinking about it, reading about it, and talking about it, she began to realize the truth of this suggestion. However, she greatly minimized the impact until one day her mother aggressively went off on her. This type of situation was not unusual, but what she usually let blow over seemed to pop a bubble of sorts within Sam and she could no longer ignore the severity of her mother’s narcissism.
- Anger. The anger that followed was intense. Sam was mad at other therapists who failed to bring this to light, pissed at herself for believing her mother without hesitation, frustrated with her dad for encouraging her to listen to her mom, and annoyed with friends and family who believed the lie that her mother was superior. Compared to everything else she had gone through, it felt like she had never experienced true anger before. Sam’s therapist suggested she make a list with a bullet point, specific itemizations of all the things, occurrences, and experiences she was angry about regarding her mother. Just putting it down on paper, sharing it with her therapist, and feeling validated helped Sam to release it safely and healthily.
- Bargaining. As Sam engaged in the bargaining stage, she began to question her reality, wish her life was different, and even shame herself for not seeing the narcissism. Thoughts like: “Why was I born into this family?,” “If only I had a mother who cared more for me than her own image.,” and “I should have realized this sooner, I’m so stupid.,” obsessively occupied her mind. All of these sentiments are essential pieces in forming new patterns of thinking, processing, and reorganizing information. Without these seemingly discouraging notions, the stage of rewriting cannot occur. Unfortunately, most of the questions Sam had could not be answered. But she was able to stop insulting herself in a manner similar to what her mother had been doing to her for all of her life.
- Depression. The heaviness of the diagnosis of narcissism generated sadness as Sam came to understand that her mom is not likely to ever change. Sam would have to live with this new reality, change how she related to her mother, and difficulty work through her own missed opportunities for past and future attachments with others. The expectation that if she just did enough or was enough then somehow her mother would love her more needed to be eliminated. Instead, Sam needed to accept that her mom will continue to point out her flaws, belittle her in front of others, never apologize, remain controlling and manipulative, and relentlessly demand constant attention. Sam’s depression only deepened. Now she found herself feeling like she had to do all the work to heal and her mother would have to accept no accountability for her behavior.
- Rewriting. This stage is in addition to the normal stages of grief and is unique to NAG. As a child, Sam believed that her mom did amazing things. Now as an adult, she was being forced to come to terms with how her mom’s narcissism created great exaggerations about her accomplishments that were not close to true. To see her mother for who she really was, Sam had to rewrite her own with this new perspective. Sam had also carried away from childhood this idea that she was so flawed that she didn’t deserve to be loved. Now looking back over her past failed relationships, she began to realize the brevity and widespread effect of her mom’s narcissism. These old negative feelings started rewriting themselves as well to state: “It was my mother who could not love or properly attach, not some defect in me.” With her history updating to match the truth, Sam immediately transformed her opinion of herself. For instance, instead of being ashamed of her sensitivity, Sam learned to value it. She began to see her kindness and optimism, not as a weakness but a strength. More importantly, she viewed her attachment onto her new boyfriend as healthy rather than some weird dependency that her mom had insisted it was.
- Acceptance. Once Sam had worked through the previous stages, this final stage of accepting the narcissism came very naturally. No longer haunted by the diagnosis, Sam saw it as a revelation – new and exciting freedom, of sorts, from the trappings of her dysfunctional childhood. She could see the narcissism as a permanent disability from which her mother would never recover without having the desire to try and help her mother be better. Instead of being upset about this, Sam embraced it. Since narcissists don’t change, they are very predictable. This made engaging with her mother easier because Sam was now able to anticipate her mother’s rages, attempts at humiliating her, and her mom’s need to be the center of attention. Sam’s expectations of her mother changed significantly and gave her a comforting new-found peace.
The amount of time it takes for a person to complete these stages varies from one case to another. Some can do this in a few months while others can take a year or longer. Unfortunately, a few people even get stuck in the middle of the process and never reach acceptance at all. Whatever the situation may be, in order to fully achieve peace within yourself it is necessary for those who have been victims of narcissistic personalities to complete all the stages of acceptance and learn to grow beyond their previously fabricated reality.