Learning From Toxic Relationships (Narcissistic Abuse)


Anyone who has been through narcissistic or sociopathic abuse will confirm what a horrible experience it can be. These people do not have any remorse or conscience regarding the damage they cause in the lives of others and victims are often left with problems which take a long time to resolve.

We have already covered the issue of recovering from toxic relationships and abuse in our lengthy article on the subject. More specifically we want to cover here the issue of important lessons to take out of the experience for people to make sure it doesn’t happen again. It is important to extract whatever good we can out of what is usually a horrible and traumatic experience. How can we do this?

Learning from toxic relationships basically involves spotting what you missed before in terms of character traits and being more observant and selective in general about who you allow into your life. It also means learning to respond to toxic people and situations in a way that better serves you in the long run, and also building a life where you cannot be under the control of toxic, controlling people ever again.

To generalize even more, recovering from toxic relationships and abuse ideally teaches a person to be more aware and observant; aware of their own moment to moment experience, aware of emotional signs and clues from inside themselves, aware of behaviors of people around them. It also teaches us to trust our gut feel and intuition more and follow these cues when they are telling us something is off.

Mindfulness is often a practice that can further help with this and is always a useful skill for anyone to develop in life. Let’s look at some crucial general lessons to take out of the experience below.

Observe Character Traits in People More Closely

One thing a toxic relationship will instill in you is the need to more carefully screen and vet people you are working or living with to spot for character traits, both positive and negative. We also learn to do this over a prolonged period of time and not be taken in a by a superficial initial charm or “funny guy” act.

Narcissists and psychopaths are brilliant at taking people in with this initial charm or charisma. Initially they will just seem like the funniest or wittiest guy who says all the right things and has everything going for them. This is just an act to get people to lower their guard and we learn not to be fooled by first impressions. Incidentally, the opposite can also happen where someone we dislike initially turns out to be someone we later grow to respect and admire.

Toxic people may lure people in with this initial marzipan topping but will also reveal their true nature over a period of time. Certain unpleasant character traits will become apparent over time and will “leak out” despite the disordered person’s best efforts to keep them concealed. We need to watch out for these giveaways and know what the red flags are.

Our Checklist page has some good general pointers to look out for which suggest narcissistic/psychopathic traits. The more common characteristics to look out for include:

  • Superficial charm and charisma which takes people in easily.
  • Shallowness and superficial character incapable of really connecting with people.
  • Lack of ability to empathize.
  • No compassion or care for the problems of others or the world. No vocational traits.
  • Purely on the level of ego, power, and control over others. Egocentric and grandiose
  • With the narcissist – haughty-ness, arrogance, entitlement and an excessive sense of specialness and uniqueness
  • Manipulative, deceitful and dishonest behavior.
  • Lack of integrity, constant scheming and bitching against others.
  • Chronically suspicious of others.
  • Never accepts blame or responsibility for anything. Constantly projects and blame shifts.
  • Constant boundary pushing/testing behavior in the early stages, which then progresses to boundary eroding/disrespecting behavior as the abuse starts to ramp up. Always watch closely how someone is respecting your boundaries or not.

This list is not exhaustive but is a good starter pointer for some key negative character traits to watch out for. Of course we may already know this in some sense after dealing with a toxic person like a narcissist or sociopath, in which case it is more about trusting your judgement and acting accordingly once you spot these traits in someone. It also still helps to have some kind of checklist.

Conversely, observing a lack of these traits is also a useful thing, since it is usually an indication of the sort of person you do want to be allowing into your life and trusting. Let’s look in more detail at the kind of people survivors of psychopathic abuse should be seeking out and aligning themselves with.

Psychopaths Negative Emotions Division

Psychopaths thrive on division and negativity and this will show up if you observe them over time

Own Your Role In The Toxic Relationship

As horrible as toxic relationships are, they’re usually not a one way street, and the person who took most of the abuse also made mistakes they should own and not make in the future.

Here are some common mistakes people make that either draws them into relationships with toxic, disordered people, or keeps them stuck in them when they could leave:

  • Being easily taken in by someone who is “saying all the right things” and telling you what you want to hear.
  • An overly materialistic worldview, where you’re hyper-focused on things like looks, money, status, “smoothness”, “coolness”. Narcissists especially will really exploit this.
  • Overlooking glaring red flags, often because they’re “hot” or “good fun” etc. Making excuses for them. It’s also very common for men caught up with female borderlines, or women caught up with male narcissists, to keep overlooking toxic behavior because they’re “great in bed”. If this was your mistake, own it.
  • Letting things go way too fast in terms of relationships eg. moving in together within days or weeks, without taking time to properly observe and vet the person.
  • Poor boundaries that lead to you tolerating increasingly unacceptable behavior (more on this below)
  • A desire to “save” or “rescue” someone, or assuming the responsibility to “fix” or “change” them. Other people’s healing work is theirs alone to do, not yours.
  • Falling into the trap of Malignant Optimism – clinging stubbornly to believe that there really is some good in everyone, including in the toxic person somewhere, deep down, that we can just bring out if we try hard. A naivety about human nature.
  • Not living authentically to a vocation or purpose, which leads you to stay stuck in relationships or jobs where you aren’t growing as a person.
  • Staying stuck in denial loops, either about the behavior of the toxic person, or your own mistakes after the relationship as ended.

See our full article on owning mistakes in a toxic relationships for more points on this, plus a detailed look at how denial is a key factor that keeps toxic relationships going, and also prevents proper recovery once they’re over.

Only Allow High Quality People Into Your Life

The corollary to the issue of the types of traits and people to avoid is the types of people to seek out. We maintain that people recovering from psychopathic abuse be uncompromising about this and only allow high quality people into their trust and confidence. Average and lower quality people will not do, even if they are not narcissistic or psychopathic.

The reason we argue this is because average and lower quality people often collude in the psychopathic abuse process by not standing up for the high quality, empathic person. The so called apaths or “in between” people who are not psychopaths but not strong or moral either allow the psychopath to get away with abusing good people because they do not come to the empath’s defense and sometimes even side with the psychopath against them.

This process has been well illustrated in the book The Empathy Trap, where they go into detail about the Sociopath-Empath-Apath Traid, where the sociopath actively enlists the help of the apath in shifting blame and negative attention into the empath for something the sociopath themself has done. See also our article on the topic.

It is for this reason that we argue that these “in the middle” people are not reliable as they too lack strong empathy and integrity and are too easily manipulated by psychopaths and other toxic characters. Too often these people are taken in by the narcissist/psychopath and let down the empath when they try to confront the toxic person on their behavior.

Rather it is far better to be demanding on this and only surround yourself with strong, moral, supportive, empathic people; people who would have stood up for you had they been there when the narcissist/psychopath was targeting you. Anyone who is easily influenced and “goes along to get along” is no good to you, even if they are not fully disordered themselves.

Here is a quick checklist of positive traits to actively seek out in people when recovering from psychopathic abuse:

  • Empathic
  • Loyal
  • Stands up for others
  • “Bright Triad” traits – Clarity, Maturity, Stability.
  • Has a clear sense of right and wrong.
  • Values people for themselves and will say what traits they value in someone.
  • Non manipulative.
  • Non political and uncomplicated.
  • Straightforward.
  • Honest.
  • Integrity.
  • Vocational aspects to their life and identity.
  • People who plainly say they like you and enjoy your company

A useful way to look at this issue is that there are 7 billion people in this world, so why waste any time associating with toxic people, or even any sort of person who leaves you guessing as to their motives, intentions and character? It is much better to be uncompromising and only seek out high quality, empathic people who with whom you know clearly where you stand.

Of course we understand all this advice is somewhat simplified and perhaps geared towards one’s personal life where you have a choice as to who you surround yourself with. Work is of course more complex since we don’t have such control over who we are around. We will cover this in a later section.

Develop Better Boundaries

This is a crucial thing most people who’ve been in a toxic relationship, and suffered a lot of abuse, will need to work on, since it’s most often the reason why any of it happened in the first place.

It’s crucial to work on building better boundaries psychologically after toxic relationships (including narcissistic/sociopathic abuse), to better define and understand within yourself what’s acceptable and what’s not, what you’ll tolerate and what you won’t going forward.

Boundaries are simply psychological markers that distinguish you from others, that define where you begin and others end. And in toxic relationships, especially with Cluster B disordered people like narcissists and sociopaths, you’ll find your boundaries are often systematically eroded and chipped away at, to the point they are unrecognizable versus when you entered the relationship.

Here are a couple of the ways strong boundaries can be important in avoiding, and handling, toxic relationship dynamics:

  • Knowing your own mind and being self aware.
  • Being confident in your own perception of reality and being able to stand up for it.
  • Being able to disagree or say no when the situation warrants it.
  • Being able to say no and not feel guilty about serving your own needs, at least some of the time.
  • Understand that saying no to others can be the same as saying yes to yourself, and your own needs and integrity.
  • Being able to ward off and confront the intrusive or controlling behavior patterns toxic characters will sooner or later start to engage in.
  • Giving trust and respect only when it is earned over a long period of time and not just trusting people and over-sharing straight away.
  • Being aware of the glib superficial charm toxic characters are capable of giving off at first and not being taken in by it, instead carefully observing their character and behavior over a longer period of time.
  • Being able to immediately recognize toxic people’s nonsense for what it is, and not be sent into self-doubt or denial loops.
  • Being able to confront unacceptable or disrespectful behavior when it occurs. Not “bottling it up” or “holding it in”.
  • Finding an appropriate balance between your own needs and the needs of others.
  • Not being overly forgiving to the point where you keep forgiving behavior from people only for them to keep doing it over and over again.
  • Recognizing when you are in an irretrievably toxic relationship or environment and getting away as soon as possible instead of staying stuck and hoping for improvement.
  • See the Books on boundaries and relationships for more on this subject.

These issues are often best worked through with a good therapist. See our guide on finding a good one to work with after a toxic relationship (be picky and take your time – not all therapists are suitable for this sort of work).

Do Not Stay Around Toxic People Going Forward

Another absolutely crucial lesson to take out of the psychopathic experience is to respond correctly if you find yourself in the same position again. In most cases this simply means realizing what is happening sooner and getting away from the toxic person (narcissist, psychopath etc) as quickly as possible. Escape and evade is the best tactic in most cases.

It can be a trap that someone falls into where they stubbornly stay and try to fight and resist the toxic person, especially in work scenarios. They rightly think that they shouldn’t be forced to change their job or where they live because of one toxic person. This response is totally understandable but often counterproductive. If this is what you did the first time it is almost certainly not the way to respond if it happens again.

The reason for this is simply that they often don’t understand what they are going up against the first time it happens. They do not fully comprehend that really toxic, disordered people have no conscience or empathy and so will go to any lengths to undermine and destroy a target psychologically. They will just keep going until they get the result they want.

It is very difficult to win with these people because they are so ruthless and do not follow the rules of morality and decency like the rest of us do, who feel and empathize and grasp the emotional consequences of our actions on others. Narcissists and psychopaths don’t have these fail-safe mechanisms and are relentless in their targeting of someone.

Therefore the best approach in almost all cases is to back out of any situation where you are involved with a toxic boss or partner and seek another environment. If that means finding another job then it is best to accept it and move on. It shouldn’t have to be this way in an ideal world but it simply isn’t worth it for the damage these people can cause, especially if you have been through the experience before and know what it is like.

Picking your fights and knowing when to back away from toxic people is a crucial lesson to take away from dealing with toxic characters, particularly in the workplace. Being fully aware of just how mentally twisted and toxic these people are will help you make a choice that better serves you in the long run. Save yourself the time and energy and stress and move on, especially if the company culture itself is also toxic and tolerates bad people.

Build An Independent Lifestyle

This relates to the work issue, since having to deal with toxic person in a work environment does tend to complicate the issue a lot. You do not have the same control over when and how you interact with them as you might if they were in your personal life.

When the narcissist/psychopath is your direct line manager the situation is even worse. It is not always possible to walk straight away into another job and so there can be this horrible feeling of being trapped under a toxic person’s control, having to put up with their toxic behavior and not able to immediately get away since you do not have an alternative.

If you have been unfortunate enough to experience this then it is important to create a lifestyle and support systems which mean you can never end up in this position again. This means creating options for yourself and possibly a self employed lifestyle where you are in full control of who you deal with and don’t have to answer to anyone you don’t like or trust.

Freelancing, web development or blogging are some ways of working online which can offer an independent lifestyle if one is prepared to train in those areas. There are many different ways of making money online now and this is an excellent option to look into for someone who is tired of working for toxic bosses and not having control over their own life (it does seem to be getting worse unfortunately, with toxic workplaces more and more common).

More simply it may involve building up savings so that the option to leave toxic work environments is there when it wasn’t before. The main thing is that it is important to have options and never be stuck around toxic people in a job with that horrible trapped feeling of not being able to escape.

If self employment is not something which seems attractive or possible, then at least seek to only work in jobs and environments which contain a decent amount of high quality people. This often involves look carefully at the line of work involved and seeking out more vocational careers where there is some higher purpose there and not just soulless corporate or retail jobs which can often attract soulless people with apathetic or psychopathic traits.

This is easier said than done but will likely be necessary going forward, simply because it appears that the prevalence of psychopathic traits seems to be increasing in the population and not decreasing. So unfortunately it is likely that empathic people will be encountering this problem of toxic people more and more in the workplace.

See our articles on psychopathic managers and psychopathic companies for types of people and organizations to watch out for. We list specific traits and red flags that can be a useful guide for what to avoid in the world of work. Robert Hare and Paul Babiak’s Snakes in Suits is also an excellent resources on psychopathy in the workplace.

See also our Resources Page for more books and videos.

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