A huge number of us every year go through relationships which leave us completely dazed, bewildered, drained and exhausted. We have no idea what just happened to us, but we do know that something is seriously off, and we are not the same person as before we entered the relationship.
This article is designed for those people, and seeks to pull together as many resources as possible to help a person answer the question “What the hell just happened to me?”. Here are some of the more common symptoms, or things people who are just out of toxic relationships will be asking themselves:
- Dazed, confused, wondering what in the world just happened to them.
- “What the hell just happened?”
- “I can’t put my finger on it, but something feels very wrong with what I just experienced”.
- “I’m not myself at all after this relationship. I feel numb, flat, depressed, angry, anxious, isolated.”
- “I’ve been reduced to someone I never thought I could be. I’m a fraction of the person I used to be.”
- “I can’t get interested or excited about the things I used to. My hobbies have fallen away. I don’t like socializing anymore”.
- “It’s like I’ve lost my old identity and can’t get it back. There’s just a flatness there instead.”
- “My self esteem and self image are rock bottom.”
- “I have developed horrible OCD habits, constantly double and triple checking everything, that I never had before”
- “I keep going back over bad parts of the relationship in my mind, ruminating over things which were done or said. Constant internal dialogue.”
- “I have no trust in other people or in myself anymore. I’m constantly doubting myself.”
- “I’m caught up in distractions like overthinking, addictions, compulsions, revenge fantasies, workaholism etc. that I never used to be.”
- More suggestions welcome in the comments below – everyone’s experience is slightly different.
If you have experienced any of the above, then the chances are you have just gone through a relationship with a personality disordered person, which is fundamentally worse and more damaging that a normal breakup between two “healthy enough” human beings, however flawed and mismatched. Personality disorders are of a different league and cause damage to people on another level.
We have tried to put together as many authoritative resources, books and concepts to help move the bar quickly for a person in the early stages of recovery in understanding what happened to them and how set about recovering their old self back. Let’s look at concepts first – personality types and disorders – before moving onto solutions later.
Understanding Cluster B Personality Types and Antisocial Personality Disorder
One of the first steps in recovery is to understand the different toxic personalities, which have by now been well defined and categorized. If you have just exited a relationship where you feel one or more of the above things, chances are you were tangled up with someone who has a personality disorder.
Toxic personality types are commonly grouped into what is known as the Cluster B Personalities, or else defined under the general term of Antisocial Personality Disorder (ASPD). There is a lot of overlap here, but to keep things simple we will just list the most common personality disorders which people will be affected by in relationships.
Here are some of the more common ones, who often cause damage to others which leaves people dazed, confused, hurt and feeling the way we described above:
Psychopath – More a loose term and does not come under the ASPD umbrella. Still aruguably the most damaging type of personality. Diagnosed more to men. Characterized by glib charm, relentlessly manipulative and deceitful behavior, emotional abuse of others, lack of empathy, remorse, guilt or conscience. Unable to form lasting relationships. Manipulation of others is deliberate, conscious and predetermined. Some good videos on the topic:
Sociopath – Similar to a psychopath, and often used interchangeably, though comes under the ASPD definition. Displays similar traits to the psychopath, though argued to be more a product of their environment than born or genetic. May have some ability to form relationships, though still lacks empathy and conscience.
Borderline Personality – Another severely destructive personality type. BPD often caused by childhood abandonment and diagnosed more to women. Behavior leads to similar damage that the psychopath causes, but is driven instead by intense fear of abandonment rather than wilfull intent. Very difficult to treat. Avoid and escape at all costs.
Narcissistic Personality – Characterised by extreme grandiosity and self absorption, covering up an inner feeling of defectiveness and inadequacy. Will demand that you constantly feed their ego and the inflated image of themselves they have created. If you burst their bubble of narcissistic supply, will respond with rage, denigration and other forms of abuse. Again lacks empathy and is only interested in themselves.
Experts on Personality Disorders and Psychopathy
Here is a list of mostly qualified, credentialed experts on the various personality disorders, who have (or had) clinical training and are authoritative voices on the subject:
Jackson MacKenzie – Not a qualified clinician or doctor, but his work on cluster B personality types is so well written, definitive and life changing for so many people that he has to be included here. His two books Psychopath Free and Whole Again are essential reading for anyone coming out of toxic relationships, regardless of the personality disorder of the abuser.
Dr Ramani Durvasula – An expert on psychopathy and narcissism in particular, though does also have expertise in borderline personality disorder. A superb, down to earth and validating voice for victims of toxic personalities. See her various MedCircle video series for more.
Robert Hare – The world’s foremost expert on psychopathy, having spent decades profiling, studying and interviewing them in prison and other clinical settings. Founder of the world famous Psychopathy Checklist (PCL). His books Without Conscience and Snakes in Suits and two essential resources for understanding psychopathy.
Hervey Cleckley – Renowned psychiatrist of the twentieth century who studied psychopaths in clinical settings and wrote a book called the Mask of Sanity, which superbly exposes the mask that all psychopaths put up to deceive others into thinking they are a normal person.
James F Masterson – World expert on the borderline and narcissistic personalities, having spent decades studying and treating them in the twentieth century. His book The Search For The Real Self is a superb primer on these personality disorders, written in layman’s terms.
Elan Golomb – Psychotherapist whose book Trapped in the Mirror is a superb resource on recovering from narcissistic parents and partners, written in a very humanistic, engaging style.
In one sense, defining the personality type doesn’t even matter so much, since all toxic personality types are people to be avoided, they all engage in broadly similar abusive patterns in relationships, and they leave the same kind of long lasting effects on their victims that can be resolved through the same methods.
However, in the early stages of recovery, it can be very useful to be able to put a name to what happened to you, as well as the personality type you were dealing with. The damage they cause, and the process of recovering, is largely the same though, once you have a good understanding of what happened.
There are plenty of free resources online to help you understand and identify what you just went through, many of which we have already linked to above. However, if you are looking for some top end resources, which tackle the issue from a really thorough clinical angle, or from a perspective you won’t often find in other accounts, then we have two main Premium resources to recommend – the MedCircle Podcast and the Unslaved Podcast.
The MedCircle podcast does require a monthly subsciption charge but has an already impressive (and growing) library of content on all the major personality disorders – psychopathic, narcissistic, borderline, plus others like histrionic, avoidant, paranoid etc – all covered by credible, trained clinicians who are experts on the topic.
The service is advertising and interest free and Dr Ramani Durvasula features prominently in the podcasts on personality disorders, so you are getting an excellent, top notch, credible source of information for the subscription you pay.
The Unslaved Podcast on psychopathy is another superb resource on the topic, which again does require a small monthly subscription to get access to the full show, but again covers the entire issue of psychopathy from a depth psychology perspective that you will not find elsewhere.
As well as describing the most common features of the psychopath, it also provides a comparative juxtaposition of how to contrast truly authentic people with the psychopath, which is just as important in moving forward from these types of people and relationships.
Their psychopath traits checklist is also very individualized and intelligent, containing some cues to look for that you will not find mentioned in other resources on the topic.
Seeking the help of a qualified psychotherapist can also be a very useful step to take in recovering from toxic relationships, particularly from the more severe psychopaths who will keep battering away at someone emotionally without restraint, and can leave the victim with a whole host of long lasting symptoms which are best treated with the help of a professional.
Getting the help of a therapist can help you pick through some of the more difficult immediate aftermath of a toxic relationship. Some people for instance are left with severe anxiety and depression after these relationships, which are best worked through with the help of a qualified professional.
Similarly, a therapist can also help connect back any trauma experienced to any unresolved issues from further back in the person’s life which may still be lingering in the person’s mind and in a roundabout way contributed to them being drawn into the toxic relationship in the first place.
A good therapist will also be good at getting the person to take ownership for what part the person themself played in getting drawn into the relationship, as well as not getting out sooner. Here are some of the more common things that need to be worked through.
- Poor, weak or diffuse boundaries – too easy to be manipulated by others.
- Too easily taken in by the glib, superficial charm and charisma that psychopaths especially are known for.
- Not taking longer to vet a person’s character and treatment of others before jumping into an intimate relationship.
- Not spotting obvious red flags in character which started to show up, or spotting them but choosing to ignore or rationalize them away. Looking back, the writing was often on the wall very early on with these people, we just ignored the signs.
- Not setting clear, firm boundaries in response to unacceptable behavior, and instead allowing it to escalate and get ever more outrageous.
- How some or all of these issues may link back to childhood and family of origin issues which haven’t been resolved.
However, it is also a good idea to vet your therapist and make sure they are well trained in personality disorders and preferably dealing with trauma and PTSD, since relationships with personality disordered people most often leave their victims traumatized and needing very specific help to effectively recover.
However, if your therapist does not know about cluster B or antisocial personality disorders, then they may fail to validate the person in their accounts of what happened to them, and this can make the whole recovery process take so much longer. See the therapist course page from the Lovefraud blog on this issue; I can confirm I have run into the exact same problem myself with a therapist.
It is therefore perfectly fine to ask a potential therapist whether they are knowledgeable in personality disorders, especially psychopathy, since this is something which so often slips under the radar of therapists as well as the general population.
If they aren’t, then consider working with a therapist that does, since the process can move so much quicker if they can label, identify, and validate what happened to you because they already know the pattern.
See our Find a Therapist page for a concise guide on finding a suitable therapist to help with recovery in the aftermath of toxic relationships with personality disordered people.
Mindfulness meditation is another crucial tool to use in recovering from toxic relationships, since it has a number of crucial benefits, including:
- It is a completely free and portable practice that anyone can easily start.
- There are loads of resources online now to help you get started.
- It can deliver very quick benefits in terms of increased calmness, better sleep, lowered anxiety and it can also help clear depression.
- Longer term, it allows the person to develop a greater ability to let go of unpleasant things from the past.
- It may seem like a chore to do at first, but in time, people come to value the benefits it gives and want to meditate more out of choice.
Mindfulness meditation involves simply focusing on a central focal point, often the breath to begin with, and simply noticing when the mind wanders away from this focus, and bring it back. More broadly it is about developing a moment to moment, non judgemental awareness of reality, including the five senses, plus thoughts, feelings and emotions.
It involves simply paying attention to one or more of these things, and noticing what is going on internally in terms of where the mind tends to wander, bringing it back to a central focus point. Paying attention to body sensations – known as the body scan – is an especially important form of meditation for recovering from toxic relationships. See further below for more on this.
The purpose of mindfulness meditation in helping people to let go after toxic relationships can be summed up as follows:
“Use meditation to bring yourself out of your head and the “story” your mind creates of the toxic relationship, even if the “story” is true, and back into your body. Getting back in touch with your body breaks the cycle of rumination and overthinking, and allows you to let go of the past”
In other words, it allows you to know your story and recite it, but you are not so wrapped up in it or attached to it anymore. Before, the constant rumination was like playing over a court case or legal battle in your head, with every new thing you learn about toxic personalities or manipulative tactics like a point scored for your side against the toxic person.
After letting go, it is more of a simple, factual knowing, where you can say “Yeah, they were bad to me, they did treat me appallingly, but now I don’t need to keep going over it in my own mind anymore. I can know it, acknowledge it, but also drop it and move on.”
There is a gentler and less obsessive relationship with the trauma and abuse we suffered at their hands. We forgive ourselves and don’t care anymore what is going on inside them.
This does take time with meditation and requires patience and regular practice, but by focusing on body scans especially (there are other types of meditations), we can firstly reduce the rumination that is going on and then slowly dissolve the numbing that often occurs after toxic relationships.
It will deliver results but be prepared to be in it for the long haul, since meditation by it’s very nature is a gradual process that requires time and constant practice.
See our article on healing numbness after toxic relationships for more on this process of using mindfulness to heal numbing and overthinking, as well as some simple body scan meditations to get started with.