The Little Shaman is a spiritual coach & specialist in cluster B personality disorders, with a popular YouTube show and clients worldwide.
Relationships with narcissistic people are very difficult. It isn't just the abuse, or the trauma or the drama. It isn't just the fact that you are treated like you don't matter. It isn't even that you are constantly manipulated and promised things that will never happen. The worst thing is that even when you realize these things, sometimes you still can't get away.
The truth is, the relationship with a narcissist - any narcissist, even a parent - is like an addiction. Sometimes people don't understand the similarities, because unlike a heroin addiction or alcoholism, there is no substance to be addicted to. However, there are no substances involved with gambling or sex addiction either, yet they are every bit as powerful and damaging as any other kind of addiction. The chemicals created by the body are the substance here, such as dopamine, and just like other addictions, the chemical is not the true goal.
Addiction usually has both chemical and psychological components. In the type of addiction we are talking about here, the chemical part of the addiction would be things like adrenaline, dopamine, cortisol and endorphins. The psychological components can vary individually but usually, like any other addiction, the addiction to the drama cycle with a narcissist is centered around unresolved issues within the self. It is very similar to sex addiction and gambling addiction in this way, and to every other type of addiction.
For example, a person becomes addicted to heroin. They are addicted to it because they've become physically dependent on it over time, but also because they are addicted to using heroin to feel better. There is often some kind of pain that they are numbing with it, and they are just as addicted to avoiding the pain as they are to the chemicals in heroin. This is why it's so hard to get off of it. Not only is the withdrawal very uncomfortable, but the pain they've been avoiding is no longer being held at bay. After a while, they are using heroin not to get high - although that is of course a welcome bonus - but to avoid the pain of withdrawal. The physical symptoms of withdrawal doesn't last very long, but the emotional pain that has been being avoided all this time only gets worse. This coupled with the discomfort of withdrawal makes it very difficult for people to stop, and often even years after they've quit using heroin physically, the urge to use heroin when they are stressed or upset will still hit them.
This happens because addiction creates pathways in your brain, and once these addiction pathways have been created, they are always there. They may be unused, but they don't go away. A person who has been addicted to heroin will always be susceptible to it, for the rest of their life. It is the same with the addiction to what we can call the drama cycle. Usually, a person who is in a relationship with a narcissistic person already has a drama cycle pathway in their brain, probably from childhood. That's why they were susceptible to the relationship in the first place. This is very important: you are not addicted to the narcissist. You are addicted to the drama cycle. To put it simply, drama activates the same responses and mechanisms in the brain as heroin does. It also addresses the same type of issues or is used as a similar coping mechanism. People use heroin to feel better and get high. People use drama to feel better and get high. They don't look the same but they work the same way in the brain. And both are extremely destructive.
Perhaps a person uses heroin to get high because they have a lot of pain related to their abusive childhood. The heroin is destroying their life and they do know that. But in the immediate moment, it makes them feel better. It has become a coping mechanism for their pain. Now let's look at the person in a relationship with a pathologically narcissistic person. At first glance, you might say that person is not getting high. Aren't they? Why do people become ensnared in relationships with narcissists? Usually, it's because they have been love-bombed. Love-bombing is effective on certain people because often, these people are in need of love and validation. They become intoxicated by the intensity and emotion, by the idea that someone is focused so intensely on them. They believe it is the love they've been waiting for. All the pain and insecurity and self-worth issues that have plagued them are far away and forgotten.
But just like heroin addiction, this high time is brief, followed by a crushing letdown that is made even worse by the fleeting time when these internal problems were alleviated. So the person chases those high moments, grabbing them when they can and rationalizing all the bad things that happen because in the moment, they feel better. Bam! An addiction is born. The entire focus becomes about stopping the pain, regardless of how fleeting the relief may be. Most people who are focused on helping the narcissistic person in their lives are actually just trying to fix the narcissist's behavior so that they can live in that high time forever. This is why hoovering is so effective. It's like offering free heroin to a heroin addict.
Even in relationships that aren't romantic, this dynamic is present. Remember that love-bombing and hoovering are not just things that happen in romantic relationships. In fact, the addiction in these relationships may be even more powerful in some situations because these are usually the people that the original pain revolves around. A person may chase validation and affirmation of their self-worth from a narcissistic parent for decades. They are just as addicted to the cycle as a person in a romantic relationship. There are different implications for different types of relationships, too. For example, there is usually a sexual component in romantic relationships that is not present in family relationships. This creates different types of bonds.
When you attempt to end the relationship with a narcissistic person, you might find that it is not that easy. Even though you may not even like this person, you may find that you still want to be around them. You might feel a lot of anxiety or experience other problems if you don't have contact with them. You know they are abusive. You know they are toxic. You know they don't care about you in any real way. So what gives?
It's the same as any other addiction. People know that heroin is toxic and bad for them, too. It doesn't stop them from wanting it. It's that addiction pathway. Your brain has gotten used to coping with things a certain way and it's trying to still do that. If the way you cope with the uncomfortable feelings is to seek out the narcissistic person, for example if after a period of abuse you apologize to them just to make it stop so you can get back to the good feelings, that is what you are still going to want to do. The problem is, that is not a healthy coping mechanism. It's damaging you and your life. First you have to prevent yourself from doing that and then you have to come up with new coping mechanisms.
Just like any other addiction, the decision to sever the relationship with a pathologically narcissistic person is not a choice you make once. It's an ongoing thing you must face over and over again. Every day, you must make the choice multiple times a day not to indulge this addiction. This means that you are probably going to be uncomfortable and that you may feel feelings that you have been avoiding or denying. It's tempting to distract yourself from the situation, but doing that is how this situation was created. You have to face these feelings and process them. You can write them down, you can meditate, you can cry, you can scream, listen to music... whatever healthy expression of these feelings that you want to use, and do it as many times as you need to. They key is not to give in to the urge to indulge the addiction.
This is why it's so important to ho no contact or as low contact as is humanly possible. You cannot break an addiction if you are still using. When people go to rehab, they are going "NO CONTACT" with heroin. It's the same thing here. They get away from the thing they are addicted to, they learn new coping mechanisms to take the place of using and they address the underlying issues that caused the addiction. The underlying problem with addiction-related coping mechanisms is that they don't work. They are a way of avoiding pain and emotion by numbing it, covering it up or ignoring it instead of addressing it.
The key is to choose healthy coping mechanisms to take the place of the toxic ones you've been using. When you feel the urge to talk to the narcissist or check on their life somehow, face these feelings and remind yourself of why you are not going to do that anymore. You can write down all of the things the narcissist has done to you and read over it, if you think that will help really make it concrete for you. Acknowledge your feelings and why you feel them. Then deliberately and purposely choose to do something else to make yourself feel better. You can take a walk and feed the ducks, write a poem, build a model, compose a song, play with your dog or whatever it is you like to do. Make it something that you feel good doing.
Don't distract yourself and don't avoid or deny your feelings. When you deny something, you make it more powerful. Face the situation for what it is. And remember that this takes time. It's not just going to be a situation where you decide you're done with the relationship and it automatically changes. You're going to have to deliberately and consciously choose to do something different every time until it becomes a habit. The more you do this, the less that old addiction pathway gets used. In time, the lights lining it will go out and it will not be attractive to you anymore. You just have to make it through the hard part. The idea that you cannot feel better unless you are validated by a toxic person is a lie. Don't buy into it.