One very common side effect of relationships with psychopaths or other toxic people is the sense of numbness victims continue to feel for months or years after the relationship ends. They feel a pervasive sense of flatness and cannot seem to get their old sense of self back.
They feel chronically detached from others, but also even themselves, struggling to get enjoyment out of things they used to, look forward to the future, or even just to see things in a positive light. They feel dull and bleak inside, ironically much like the psychopath or other toxic person who abused them.
In this article we will pin down some of the different ways this numbness can manifest, since knowing there are other people in the same position can be an enormous first step to validation with people struggling to get over toxic relationships and wondering if there is something wrong with them.
The reality is there is nothing wrong with them and there are some ways to deal with this numbness. We also use the wider term “toxic relationships” rather than just psychopaths in this article, since this numbness can also appear in victims of other toxic personality types such as narcissists, and not just psychopaths or sociopaths.
Understanding this numbness and the nature of trauma can help us see options to move past it and get our sense of self back. Let’s look at how this numbness can show up in people’s lives and some options to deal with it.
Common Manifestations of Psychological Numbness
Of course every person’s experience with a psychopath or narcissist is different and the resulting numbness and emptiness can be described in an almost infinite number of ways. Here are some ways I can describe it from my own experience:
- A pervading sense of flatness, numbness and emptiness.
- Can’t get enjoyment out of the things I used to.
- Can’t look forward to things.
- Can’t get pleasure out of little things anymore.
- A pervasive negative mindset – glass is half empty not half full.
- eg. Cannot get pleasure out of the fact I am out of toxic environments and away from toxic people, can only ruminate on the fact I experienced them and what happened.
- eg. Cant be happy that I’m away from it, can only be unhappy that I experienced it. Can’t get pleasure out of relief I’m away from these people.
- Mental bandwidth constantly clogged up every day with ruminating on what happened, how I was treated. Going over intellectual memories, going over how I wish I’d responded.
- I had an old sense of self and everyday enjoyment in little things that I miss and can’t seem to get back. A sense of internal disconnection
- Can’t get excited or pleased with myself about achievements, even if they are good achievements. Sense of flatness about everything, even stuff I would used to be really pleased about.
- This numbness can also manifest through some kind of tightness or squeezing sensation in a certain part of the body. Body scan meditations can uncover this if it isn’t apparent right away – see further below for more on this.
There are of course different ways to interpret this numbness. Some people argue it is actually a self protective part of oneself that has sprung up in the face of the toxic person’s abuse to protect against any further hurt.
Rather than allow the self to experience any more hurt, it is as though the self closes up altogether in the wake of the psychopathic or narcissistic abuse, with the unfortunate consequence that nothing good as well as bad can get in. There is a just a flatness there, which is where the numbness and emptiness may come from.
The Nature of Trauma
Another way to look at this is simply that the psychopath especially will seek to deliberately and relentlessly target and chip away at a person psychologically, gradually eroding their self esteem and boundaries with ever more outrageous behavior until the victim is completely undermined psychologically.
As this behavior escalates, the psychopath will fill up your “distress cup” faster then you can process all the things they are doing to you. The effect of this sustained and deliberate abuse can no doubt be traumatic and leave the victim with long standing PTSD style symptoms, of which the numbness is a key part.
A lot of people may still hold to the stereotype that trauma is only experienced by those in combat, car crashes or near death experiences – the so called “Big T” traumas. The reality is that an accumulation of unpleasant life events or “Small T” traumas can have the same effect on a person as a more obvious major trauma and leave them with the same symptoms.
A psychopath knows full that they are inflicting trauma on a person and is doing it on purpose. Over a long time the accumulative effect of this trauma can leave a person numb and empty if their mind is unable to process it.
Jackson Mackenzie on Numbness
One of the best authors to have dealt with this issue of numbness after toxic relationships is Jackson Mackenzie, author of Psychopath Free and Whole Again – see our Books Section of links to these. The latter of these books addresses specifically this issue of dealing with numbness in the body.
We have embedded two fantastic videos by Jackson on the topic, which are a great introduction to the topic for anyone who has been stuck with this sense of numbness, or something else not feeling right in the body, after a toxic relationship and is getting tired of being stuck in this place and can’t seem to get it to shift.
The first part covers the issue of the core wound which many people suffer from some traumatic event in their life; the second part covers the protective psychological mechanism by which this numbing happens, in order to cover up core wounding and the feelings of shame and inadequacy which can result from it. Click on the thumbnails to load up each video.
Part 1 – Core Wound
Part 2 – The Protector
One brilliant quote from the second part that we want to use here sums up how and why the mind protects against trauma inflicted in toxic relationships by simply shutting everything off, since all the feelings, trauma and internal chaos a person feels is simply too much for the mind to handle all at once, so it numbs it all out to protect the person temporarily:
“If you think about a crash on a highway, what the body is doing is closing off the highway and it’s saying ‘there’s a really bad crash here, there’s like a 50 car pileup’, but instead of cleaning up the pileup, the body is saying ‘Well, I don’t know what this is, so we’re just going to re-route everyone off of the highway for the next however many years’
And every time you try to check in on the highway, it’s like ‘No, we’re not going there, we’re just going to keep going elsewhere’. So different parts of you begin to activate and over-compensate for that core wounding”
He also mentions this aspect of layers in the mind, where different layers are built on top of the core wound, which shut it off and make it very difficult to access or even remember. We get distracted by all the layers the mind puts on top to cover up the core wounding:
- Layer 1 – Core Wound, along with associated feelings like shame, inadequacy, unworthiness etc.
- Layer 2 – Numbing – covers up core wounding so we can’t feel all this stuff.
- Layer 3 – Protector or Distractor – pulls the mind away from the first two layers and gets us caught up in rumination, anger, resentment, addictions and a whole host of other distractions – constantly on external rather than internal focus.
- Layer 4 – Mindfulness – adding moment to moment mindful awareness to all this through meditation helps us to start seeing these patterns and observing the individual distractions we have put up in the face of our trauma, so we can start to pick them apart and see what’s underneath. We can stop getting caught up in distractions and start unpicking these different layers.
- “You have to get that extra layer around the Protector, so it stops being in charge”. Jackson Mackenzie.
Meditation is definitely a great way to address this issue of numbing, but there are loads of different kinds of meditations, so which specific one is the best to delve into these different layers of the mind? Let’s look at this in more detail now.
Dealing With Numbness With The Body Scan Meditation
The body scan is an especially useful form of meditation for dealing with this problem, since it is very effective at bringing you out of your head, away from the endless rumination of the mind going round and round in circles, and into your body instead.
Body scan meditations generally involve paying moment to moment attention to sensations in the body, with the meditations generally moving over different areas of the body in turn to see what is present there (numbness, tingling, itching, feeling of air flowing over, tightness and so on). The goal is to simply pay attention to whatever is there, even if it’s nothing for some parts of the body.
By focusing solely on a moment to moment awareness of bodily sensations, however slight or subtle, it breaks the cycle of overthinking and rumination that often accompanies the aftermath of toxic relationships.
It brings you back in touch with your body, which then feeds back into a more peaceful mindset as the fixation on overthinking is broken.
Another crucial benefit of the body scan meditations is that they also in my experience help to develop other forms of mindfulness more sharply, such as awareness of the other senses (sights, sounds, smells etc) and also of internal thought patterns and processes.
I found that practicing body scans only for a few days increased my overall mindful awareness better than other forms of meditations. It’s like it trains the mindfulness muscle quite well.
We have embedded below some great body scan meditations from a few different teachers which are a good way to get started. Click on the thumbnails to pop up the full videos; MP3 recordings of the meditations can also be found on the teacher’s website or by extracting them using a Youtube to MP3 converter such as this one.
Mindfulness Course – Week 1 – Breathing Anchor
- Week 2 & 3 – Body Scan
- Week 4 – Breath and Body
- Week 5 – Sounds and Thoughts
- Week 6 – Exploring Difficulties
- Week 7 – Befriending
- Week 8 – 3 Minute Breathing Space
EMDR as a Therapeutic Option
Thankfully there are also therapeutic options to deal with this backed up trauma which can accumulate in people who get caught in toxic relationships with narcissists and psychopaths. One thing victims struggling from numbness should look into is Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing or EMDR.
This is a form of therapy specifically designed to deal with trauma and PTSD, which uses eye movements or other forms of bilateral stimulation to process traumatic memories to resolution. It has been superbly effective in treating trauma to the extent it is an officially recommended treatment by the World Health Organization.
See also this excellent account of how a former victim of a psychopath used EMDR to help recover from her experiences and the sense of numbness and emptiness it left her with.
EMDR is especially worth considering if you have tried more conventional forms of therapy, like talk therapy or CBT and have struggled to really shift this numbness using these methods. EMDR works in a different way and is aimed at processing the trauma directly on it’s own terms rather than talking about it.
In very general terms the process involves tapping into unresolved traumatic memories, and then using eye movements to stimulate the mind/brain to process these memories to resolution in a way they couldn’t at the time they initially happened.
This method of treatment has proven remarkably effective in treating trauma and is therefore worth looking into for anyone looking to recover from the traumatic effects of toxic relationships with psychopaths and narcissists.
We have embedded an excellent introductory video on the subject by experienced EMDR practitioner Dr James Alexander below.
Jackson Mackenzie’s new book Whole Again, deals with precisely this issue of recovering from psychopathic abuse, and more specifically the numbness it can leave in people, along with other problems like depression, substance abuse, isolation and more.
His first book Psychopath Free, focused more on identifying the psychopath and toxic dynamics of abuse they engage in, as well as dealing with the initial aftermath of these relationships. His second book looks at strategies for longer term healing, including addressing the PTSD style numbness symptoms victims can be left with.
Mackenzie notes that this is often expressed in the form of a person “missing my old self”. His books goes into some different ways of dealing with this numbness, with a specific focus on mindfulness meditation as a way of probing into this emptiness to see what is beneath it.
He personally found this numbness to actually be a self protective part of himself which had sprung up in the wake of psychopathic abuse. Through mindfulness and other exercises, we can gradually probe into this numbness and see other issues which may be lying beneath, which he refers to with terms like core wounding, dependency and toxic shame.
So whilst this numbness following toxic relationships can be debilitating and persist for a long time, there are some options we have for dealing with it and gradually reconnecting with our old self and getting our love for life back.