Toxic relationships can be severely traumatic to the people caught up in them and leave long lasting effects in the person’s life. It can be difficult not to focus on the other person for a while. How do we go about taking ownership for our part in a toxic relationship?
We argue this process needs to play itself out. Dealing with toxic characters means dealing with psychological disorder and sometimes outright evil. This needs to be acknowledged and put on the table, otherwise the trauma inflicted by some of these people will stay stuck inside the person.
Once the evil has been acknowledged, then the recovering person can start to move more to the process of taking ownership. This will happen in it’s own time and should not be rushed or forced. When you are a victim of evil or severe toxicity it is perfectly normal to want to focus on that for a while once it is over.
This article will use the term psychopath to refer to the toxic person in the relationship. However, the same general advice applies to other destructive and abusive personality types like borderlines and narcissists, since there are commonalities in the abusive behaviors and the relationship dynamics can be very similar, though intentions and motives may differ.
Acknowledgement and Validation
There will be a period for many victims in the immediate aftermath of a psychopathic relationship where they focus only on what the psychopath/narcissist did to them, how evil and toxic the behavior was, all the outrageous wrongs and injustices that were done to them.
There often isn’t much focus on oneself in these early days, and I differ from what many therapists will say in that I believe this is perfectly normal, understandable and acceptable. What happened to you was an act of evil and injustice and that needs acknowledging fairly and squarely.
Therapists will often encourage survivors of toxic relationships to focus more on themselves than the other person, the rationale being that you cannot control what anyone else does, thinks or says. You can only control what you do, say or think, so focusing on the other person is waste of time and mental “bandwidth”.
I believe this is a mistake when dealing with someone recovering from a psychopath/narc, since you cannot leave questions of morality, ethics, and evil at the door with these character types. This is a not a standard relationship between two human beings who each play a part in the difficulties and need to own their own part in the breakdown of a relationship, as the therapeutic cliche goes.
A psychopath or sociopath is much, much different. There is malevolence and intent there in the damage they cause to others. They know full well what they are doing and are doing it on purpose. They plan out and premeditate much of the abuse they inflict on others over a long period of time. The entire process is a game to them, which they view with a cold detachment.
Whatever your flaws and character weaknesses and lack of strong boundaries, you were not, and are not, an evil person like the psychopath. You are a fundamentally good person at the core, which is why the psychopath targeted you, since they could see in you what they can never have themselves.
This process of focusing, even obsessing, on all the things the psychopath did to you, has to be allowed to play itself out. You have to get all the anger and frustration at the psychopath’s increasingly outrageous behavior out of your system. This process can take 12-18 months or longer.
You can take ownership for your part in allowing the process to happen later. But firstly, it is important to acknowledge, and have validated, the evil that was done to you. Therapists who do not allow this to happen and try to encourage the survivor to only focus on themselves before they are ready for this are delaying the process of recovery in my opinion, and you should move on to another therapist if you see this happening.
Taking Ownership For Mistakes Made In The Toxic Relationship
That said, once you have come to terms as best you can with the outrageous-ness of the psychopath or other toxic person’s behavior, then it is important to begin to focus on oneself more. But this shift has to happen in it’s own time.
The psychopath/narcissist did commit evil against you, but you also played a part in that for every person who manipulates there is another who allows themself to be manipulated. You did not have the tools to understand what was happening to you at the time, so you could probably sense on some level that something was wrong but you didn’t know what to do about it.
This is not your fault but it is your responsibility to make sure you do the work on yourself that is necessary to ensure this never happens to you again. This means addressing any weaknesses in your character and boundaries which the psychopath was able to exploit to keep manipulating and undermining you.
This could be any one of a number of different things. Here are some of the more common weaknesses they readily prey on:
- A inherent kindness and generosity.
- A forgiving nature – keep giving them another chance
- A lack of strong boundaries which leads you to tolerate increasingly unacceptable behavior without doing anything about it.
- A denial mechanism at play – see below.
- An overly agreeable nature which leads you to not want to get into arguments or confrontation.
- Certain vanities they preyed on.
- 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.
- A belief in the idea of “perfection” in someone and in relationships, someone who seems to be able to mirror your every word, action and wish. Psychopaths/narcissists are brilliant at projecting this image of fake bliss and perfection at first, but in reality no person and no relationship is ever perfect; everyone and everything has flaws and things which will annoy you. To pretend otherwise is to deceive yourself.
- 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.
The Role Of Denial In Toxic Relationships
This is another fundamental factor that needs acknowledging especially in really bad relationships which you’ve allowed to go on a really long time, and tolerated a lot of unacceptable behavior. There are often boundary issues which cause this (see section below), but Cluster B abuse also often causes victims to develop denial loops in their own mind, where they keep denying what they are seeing in the other person in a way that keeps the toxic dynamics going.
Denial in toxic relationships has several different components:
- Denial of red flags early on the relationship.
- Denial of abusive behavior as it started to happen (and continues to escalate)
- Denial of what has happened to you after the relationship ends – that you were often abused, humiliated, reduced to a person you weren’t before, had your self esteem and dignity eroded.
- Denial of you own role in allowing it to happen (or letting them in), and what you continued to keep overlooking.
- If practiced and ingrained, this habit of denial is then carried forward into new relationships, where you often draw in similar people for the same process to repeat all over again, again denying what other people can clearly see about the new person.
The best material I’ve seen on this is Richard Grannon’s 2018 courses on Breaking the Trauma Bond, but he’s unfortunately retired this now to focus on other work.
However, I’m going to pick out some good quotes that really resonated with me about how denial effectively keeps you psychologically “stuck” to past toxic abuser and relationship, stops you moving on, and can even start to generate some narcissistic traits in the victim themselves, since denial is becoming more and more practiced and ingrained:
“Every victim of huge scale trauma, who can’t deal with the reality of what happened, develops narcissistic traits. Make no mistake about it. It will turn you into them over time.
Why? Because narcissism is just a response to trauma. It’s just a coping mechanism, based on what? (Denial). What does it lack? (Extreme Ownership). What does a narcissist say? “It’s not my fault, it’s you. You did it…. I’m not having that. It was you, it wasn’t me”…. The narcissist is trauma bonded, and they’re trying to pass it on….
If you don’t break the Trauma Bond, you will become highly narcissistic. I know, because I deal with people who are in trauma bonded victim-hood, all day, every day, and they have no idea how far down the road of narcissism they’re already gone. But they’re all claiming to be victims…And I believe they were….But because of this denial, and the looping and doubling down on the denial, they’re actually developing pronounced narcissistic traits.”
What Grannon is pointing out is that by staying stubbornly stuck in denial and not taking ownership for your mistakes, you’re mimicking the exact traits of the narcissist/psychopath, and practicing and ingraining them more and more into your mind over time.
See also our article on narcissists passing their traits on to victims, for more on this topic of denial.
But for now, here’s some action points for overcoming denial:
- Accept the behavior or the toxic abuser fully head on, with no denial, excuses or rationalizations.
- Accept your role in creating and allowing the toxic relationship to continue, when in many cases, you could have walked much sooner.
- Accept that you lost, that the abuser won in whatever they did to you, whatever abuse or smear campaigns they got away with.
- If you are deeply hurt and your personality has undergone some strange adjustments, accept this and seek the help of a therapist to work through issues (see below)
- If toxic relationships seems to be a pattern in your life, then accept that a combination of denial, plus your own unresolved issues, plus the “resonance” of a victim you keep putting out, is what keeps drawing these abusers in, and work on it with a trusted therapist.
Setting Boundaries After a Toxic Relationship
“..what you find is when you have that self respect and self love a relationship with a disordered person won’t even work, because they’ll get so irritated that they’re not able to get under your skin and they’re not able to exploit you”
Jackson Mackenzie – see here
Boundaries are a particularly central theme to recovery from toxic relationships, since almost by definition it is a lack of strong boundaries in a person which leads to them allowing toxic relationships to continue. A person with strong, clear boundaries who knows their own mind simply does not tolerate this nonsense from psychopaths, narcissists, and other personality disordered people.
Similarly, psychopaths/narcs are predatory characters and have an uncanny knack for honing in on people who have weak or diffuse boundaries in some way. They tend not to target people with strong boundaries since they know they won’t get away with it. They go for the easier targets.
Toxic, personality disordered people will keep targeting people who have this weakness in them, so it is up to the potential targets to address this weakness in themselves so these people cannot take advantage of them anymore.
This quote from an excellent site on poisonous, predatory character types also sums up the issue very well:
“When and if you give to a person, how do they reciprocate? Do they rely on words or deeds to placate you? Or don’t you have boundaries? Perhaps you believe in unconditional love? If you do, expect to be victimized time and time again. There’s no saving you. In this life you need three things to survive and succeed: boundaries, boundaries and more boundaries.”
This issue of boundaries has been approached from a number of different angles. See the Boundaries Section of our books page for some excellent resources which cover the topic in a number of different contexts.
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 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.
Healing Your Own Unresolved Wounds
It’s also true that perhaps not in all cases, but in many cases of toxic relationship, the entire dynamic is like a dysfunctional “hand-in-glove” interplay, with the victim often having unresolved issues that the abuser can “see” and deliberately hones in on and exploits.
The most common pattern is of the weak boundaried, co-dependent people pleaser who gets enmeshed with the Cluster B disordered psychopath or narcissist, who can see very quickly the weak boundaries of the person, and sets about eroding them even more.
It’s important to recognize and resolve these issues, since in many cases the abusive partner(s) you were caught up with may have exploited them, but wasn’t originally responsible for them. They may go back much further into the earliest years of your life, and the abuser(s) were opening up and poking at what was already there.
Therefore it’s important to fix these core issues once and for all, otherwise you’ll continue to be vulnerable to toxic abusers/relationships in the future. See the video below for a quick guide on this.
Thankfully there is hope – resolve your own emotional wounds and you take away the psychopath/narcissist’s ability to exploit and poke at those wounds. You leave them nothing to feed off.
Finding A Good Therapist
To properly take many of the action steps covered above, in many cases it’s best to seek the help of a good therapist.
Here’s some good qualities to seek in any therapist you work with in recovering from, and owning your part in, from a toxic relationship:
- Knowledge of Cluster B disorders and common abuse patterns they engage in (gas-lighting, smear campaigns etc).
- Also has knowledge of codependence and boundary issues that will commonly need resolving.
- Good rapport and a warm, down to earth presence
- Healing focused but also fully validating in the abuse/toxicity you suffered. Does not re-gaslight you because of what they don’t know about personality disorders and toxic abuse.
- Able to draw up with you a very clear, focused plan of how to heal going forward. A clear sense of direction and purpose to the process, not just aimlessly wandering without any focus.
- See our detailed post for more points on finding a good therapist (be very picky and try out as many as you need to feel comfortable).