Getting over toxic relationships with psychopaths, narcissists and other toxic personality disordered people is often a long process, and there are advice guides everywhere on the best ways to do this, as well as “stages” of the process to be aware of.
In this article we want to pull back a little bit and give a very broad overview of the stages of recovery you can expect to go through.
Some recovery resources on this split the process into 4 or more stages (shock, disbelief, denial, anger, grief, learning, acceptance etc), but I’m going to keep it more simple and just use 2 broader stages – external focus and internal focus – to characterize the process of recovery from toxic relationships with psychopaths, narcissists and other toxic personalities.
The first stage of recovery is often externally focused and is characterized by an obsessive gathering of information about toxic personalities and their manipulative behavior patterns. The second stage of recovery is characterized by a shift to internal focus and often involves the person achieving more detachment regarding past abusers and relationships, and instead focusing solely on their own growth and development.
There is often significant overlap between these two stages, and most often the transition isn’t day to night, but for me the end goal of moving on from toxic relationships with Cluster B disordered individuals is a simple case of gradually shifting from external focus (on abusers, what they do/did, past events), to internal focus (processing trauma/grief, detachment, self care, moving on, living well).
Set your intention to achieve this, and move towards it in steps, however small and gradual, and you’ll recover. If you stay stuck in Stage 1 (external focus/distraction mode), then you’ll struggle to recover, so this guide is all about making the transition.
Let’s go in more detail about what you’ll often encounter in each stage, plus resources, examples and principles that can help you better make this transition without becoming stuck.
Stage 1 – Learning and Outer Focus
There are some positive and even essential parts of this process; this is where you learn everything you can about psychopaths/narcissists/Cluster B’s in general. It’s almost like you’re retroactively reworking it so you know everything you wish you had known before you met this person.
This is totally natural and understandable, and is necessary and essential to recovery, but it’s also not the end goal either.
Here are some common aspects of Stage 1 Recovery:
- A general obsession with learning about the Cluster B disorders. We’ll often devour books, videos and courses on everything about psychopaths/sociopaths/narcissists/borderlines, becoming a mini-expert on the topic.
- Will subscribe to YouTube channels on the topic, like Dr Ramani Durvasula and Richard Grannon.
- A strong focus on understanding toxic relationship/abuse patterns, like gas-lighting, identity erosion, idealize-devalue-discard, hoovering, and so on.
- May join recovery communities on social media or websites, of other people in the same position.
I do not pass judgement on any of this. I’ve been there myself; in fact I still am there on some days. All of this gathering of knowledge is absolutely necessary in Stage 1 for you to properly learn from the experience. But it can often border on the obsessive, especially if it goes on for years, and it is this excessive attachment to gathering information and focusing externally on the abuser and toxic personalities that can become unhealthy if it goes on for too long.
At some point, the focus has to gradually move more to internal focus to fully heal, and this is what we’ll cover in the next section.
Moreover, this stage is often characterized by some negative emotions and life patterns, which are characteristic of the inevitable fallout from a prolonged relationship with a toxic personality. No matter how much we’d like to tell ourselves we are alright, the reality is in most cases, we aren’t.
Here are some negative things you’ll often experience in Stage 1:
- Revenge fantasies – a huge one. Understandable, but ultimately, needs to be let go of – the best revenge is living well.
- Still often excessively focused on the Abuser(s), ruminating about who they are, what they did to you and what they’re up to now. May keep checking them up on social media (a really bad idea – you need to go no contact whenever possible).
- Panic attacks.
- Lowered cognitive function – you may struggle to function in jobs when you were fine before the toxic relationship.
- Relentless self doubt and self questioning. This may or may not have been there before, but in any event it is often much worse after the relationship.
- Numbness/joylessness. A loss of interest in former hobbies. Can be difficult to enjoy yourself.
- PTSD/C-PTSD symptoms – where we are often triggered and suffer flashbacks in daily life when we encounter things/people/words/concepts that remind us of the trauma.
- Paranoia/suspicion/mistrust of other people.
- Strongly avoidant traits.
- An internalized sense of shame and “diminshed-ness”; a sense that you can’t and don’t deserve to be happy, successful or confident moving forward because of what’s happened to you. It continues to hang over you and stops you moving forward. Your self image stays low.
- If you are in any recovery communities, you may often either witness, or be involved in, spats and arguments. Unfortunately, this is common in people still stuck in stage 1.
There’s usually a lot of negative emotions involved in Stage 1 as we rage and ruminate over what was done to us
Useful Resources For Stage 1
Despite the fact that we shouldn’t stay in this stage forever, there are some useful resources that can help move you along this path quicker, to get to the point where you think “Ah, OK, I get it now. I’ve learned everything I need to about Cluster B’s and their toxic behavior. I understand what I was dealing with, why they behaved like they did. I don’t need to obsess about them anymore”
Here are some suggestions for this:
- Books – see our Resources section for links to all these:
- Psychopath Free
- Without Conscience
- The Empathy Trap
- Snakes in Suits (For workplace psychopaths/narcs)
- The Sociopath Next Door
- Should I Stay or Should I Go
“Custer B is the .. definition of reaction seeking or dramatic personality disorders. This is not ‘I want to go away and sit on my own in my room’, this is ‘I need to annoy you to live. I need to hurt you to feel OK. I need to cause chaos and drama wherever I go just to feel basically alright’”.
Stage 2 – Detachment and Inner Focus
Whilst gathering information and insight about Cluster B’s and their behavior patterns is important, we can’t stay here forever if we want to fully recover. At some point, we have to start thinking about letting go of the toxic relationships and people from our past, thinking about it all less and less, and getting to the point where it’s no longer on our mind.
We need to stop obsessing and focusing externally on abuse, abusers and injustices (however unjust they were), and focus instead more on clearing out negative emotions from inside ourselves, like shame, grief and anger, before moving on further still to focus purely on personal growth, moving forward and life purpose/vocation.
Here are some common characteristics that signify you are starting to move more into this stage or recovery (it isn’t usually an on-off/binary switch, but more often occurs gradually over time – there’s more of these things and less of the Stage 1 stuff):
- Mindfulness is often a crucial part of this process – an increase in moment to moment awareness to help you see patterns you are falling into and achieve more detachment from negative thought processes.
- You are also using mindfulness and meditation to actually “go inside” yourself more to see what is actually going on – exploring ugly emotions and staying with them for a while to see what messages they are bringing. There is less focus on looking outwards towards abusers.
- After a certain amount of internal focus and deconstructing the protective self (see Whole Again), there may be some core shame to work through, a ball of negative core emotion that external focus was distracting you from, that may actually go back much further into your past than the toxic relationship. Finding a good therapist can help with this.
- You will start to look at and address core issues like Co-dependence that may have been there before the toxic relationship, and in fact made you an easy target.
- Much more focus on self care, self improvement and moving on – meditation, exercise, psychotherapy, diet etc.
- Self discipline may improve noticeably – a more Spartan, ordered approach to life where there may have been a lack of discipline before.
- Less obsessive focus on Cluster B’s, abuse dynamics and the past – you’ve learnt everything you need to now. Much more focus on the future and moving forward.
- Less negative emotions regarding past relational traumas and abusers. A complete dis-interest in who they are, who they’re with or what they’re up to now. They’re completely uninteresting to you. More detachment and indifference.
- Much more focus on what is best for you long term, not on what may make your protective self feel good right now (obsession, rumination, hating, revenge fantasies etc).
- You may back away from communities and unsubscribe from certain channels once you feel you’ve learnt what you need to.
- As this process starts to culminate, you’ll feel a strong sense of boundaries and self respect forming, that may not have been there before if you were co-dependent. Toxic people are now rejected and resisted much more easily and calmly, without any drama, irritation or frustration. You don’t get drawn into toxic relationships anymore.
- Moving towards life purposes and vocations.
- Some people may want to “make their wounds their work” and set up websites and channels to help others recover, putting their experiences to good use. This blog has been an attempt to do just that.
- Alternatively, others may launch exciting new ventures and business projects that have nothing to do with abusive relationships, that they may never have even thought of before. There’s much less focus on the past and much more on the future and moving forwards.
- Other may take other bold leaps like starting new jobs in totally new professions, going back to school or moving to a new country.
As a cautionary note, also be very wary of psychopaths and narcissists suddenly re-appearing back in your life right at the exact moment when you make a major breakthrough in recovery in moving on.
Toxic people from your past can have an uncanny sense of timing and can almost seem to sense when you’ve made a major leap forward in detaching from them. See our article on handling this; it’s surprisingly common. Do not let them back in; brush them off and continue moving forward.
Stage 2 is more characterized by mindfulness and working on oneself rather than focusing so much on the abuser
Some Useful Resources For Stage 2
Let’s quickly run offer some useful resources that can better Resources help you understand, and shift to this stage of recovery more willingly and smoothly:
- Books – links are in our Resources section:
- Whole Again – Jackson Mackenzie’s definitive guide to shifting away from external focus. A must read
- The Empathy Trap – good for stage 1 and 2. See our review of it.
- Gas-lighting Recovery Workbook – get your self confidence back.
- All the books in our Co-dependence/Boundaries section will help heal issues with weak boundaries which psychopaths/narcissists will almost always have exploited in you.
- Richard Grannon Video – the best way to torture and narcissist/psychopath is to heal.
- Richard Grannon 2 – Cluster B’s exploit our pre-existing wounds from childhood. Healing them makes us a less easy target.
- See Jackson Mackenzie video embedded further below for a good interview on shifting to internal focus.
- A great intro meditation playlist to get started with mindfulness practice.
Successfully Moving From Stage 1 to Stage 2
It’s all very well identifying different stages of recovery from toxic relationships with Cluster B’s but we also want to offer some advice on successfully transitioning to more detached and contented stages, where we are no longer obsessing and ruminating and feel we have properly moved on.
We’ve picked out 4 major factors that can help with this:
1. Awareness – Just being aware that there are stages to recovery, and of the difference between external and internal focus, is a huge first step. A lot of us never thought about it this way, and just thought that obsessing about Cluster B’s is just who we are now; the way it’s going to be for us from now on!
Be gentle and kind to yourself during this process. You don’t need to set a time-frame on this shift; just be aware that there are stages to this, and that staying too long in external focus can prevent full recovery. Set your intention to gradually move towards internal focus and detachment, rather than focusing on abusers and toxic personality types.
In my experience there usually isn’t a one-day-to- the-next transition here. You don’t suddenly wake up and think “Ah, I’m in stage 2 now, I’m recovered”. Rather, you gradually shift more away from external focus and more towards internal focus and taking proper care of yourself, so you spend more time feeling like a Stage 2 person and less time feeling like a Stage 1 person. I don’t profess to being fully a Stage 2 person right now, but I’m slowly moving towards it.
In general move towards detachment and indifference towards abusers from the past, rather than negative emotions like hatred and resentment, and obsession about their behavior patterns.
2. Mindfulness – A crucial component in recovery for many people is developing more mindfulness (moment to moment awareness of your internal experience). Cultivating this is the best way of seeing more clearly traps and ruts you may have fallen into, like over-obsessing and external focus, and seeing these things is the first step to moving on from them. While we’re caught up in it and not mindfully aware, it’s very difficult to pull out of it.
Mindfulness adds an extra layer of awareness around your moment to moment experience, like an inner observer that can see yourself and your emotions with more of a detachment than just living 100% in any moment or mood without any detachment. Meditation is usually the best way to achieve this, and is definitely something to look into if you haven’t already.
3. The People Around You – Another important component in helping recovery. If you’re still around toxic people, who are poking at you and provoking reactions and flashbacks, you’re not going to be able to recover. This is more obvious. But also be wary of being around friends, onlookers, co-workers and others, who inadvertently add to the gas-lighting of the abuser by defending them, claiming “they’re not like that”, or something similar.
Even if it it’s unintentional, being around these kind of people can be damaging, and stop you moving on. Distance yourself from the abuser, but also from people who defend the abuser, while you’re going through the recovery process. Also see our article on the sociopath-empath-apath triad for a good framework of how toxic personalities can co-opt apathetic bystanders into their mind games and smear campaigns.
Psychopaths and narcissists are master manipulators who are very good at getting people to believe their side and to only see the good side of them, and an unfortunate byproduct of this is that you may have to also distance yourself from some people who are not able to see the toxic person for what they are.
In general, look to surround yourself with positive, validating and non manipulative people who have strong integrity; it’ll make your recovery go much faster. Avoid, negative, toxic, manipulative, apathetic and easily influenced people.
4. Have a Good Therapist – This is a huge one. I’ve spent thousands seeing a therapist who was never going to get me where I needed to go, because he didn’t know what he didn’t know about Cluster B abuse, co-dependence and how to help me recover.
It is vital to use not just any therapist, but the right kind of therapist, to help properly recover from toxic relationships, and move on from Stage 1 to Stage 2.
Put differently, if you have spent a lot of time (and money) with one therapist, and you are still struggling to move from Stage 1 to Stage 2, then it’s probably time to consider whether this therapist is suitable for you. Do they have the correct knowledge base and skills set to really allow you to move on? Are they properly validating what happened to you? (without putting this foundation in place, it’s very difficult to move on to Stage 2). Do they understand about Cluster B’s, toxic abuse patterns, co-dependence, and the other things they really need to know about to help you properly recover?
If the answer to these questions is no, then seriously consider finding another therapist. See our page on this, where we break down all the qualities that are essential in a therapist to successfully help you recover from Cluster B abuse.
If your therapist doesn’t have these qualities, then be pro-active and move on to another one; from personal experience is is vital to be very picky about this. The damage that Cluster B’s can cause to vulnerable people is too great to be going to see “just any” therapist; the first one you find in the phone book or online.
There are unfortunately a lot of average and mediocre therapists around, and this will not work for this kind of delicate healing work. They need to be good, with a broad and deep knowledge base and skills set, so do not at all feel ashamed or self conscious about being very selective and demanding of the therapist you work with – it’s your time and your money!
Combining these last two points above, we can bring in the concepts of secondary gas-lighting, where friends, family members and onlookers inadvertently invalidate you by claiming the abuser “isn’t like that”, plus tertiary gas-lighting, where a therapist does the same thing by suggesting or implying the abuse didn’t happen or that it may have been your “interpretation”.
See the excellent short video below from Richard Grannon on this process of secondary and tertiary gas-lighting, plus our article on the topic (sorry about some of the strong language, but it’s because he’s passionate about the topic, as he should be. Avoid being around people and therapists who contribute to this process, even unintentionally, because it will slow up your recovery).
This is a fine line, since it is true that we can’t stay in external focus the whole time, but it’s also very true that a therapist still needs to properly validate you in the abuse you suffered, and if they don’t it can keep you stuck in stage 1 because you do not feel validated and understood in terms of what was done to you. Having a good therapist can be a crucial component in successfully moving out of Stage 1.
Bottom line – be picky with your therapist, only stay with one if they’re a fully validating , supportive and knowledgeable presence. It’s a good idea to take the same approach with other people in your life.
Jackson Mackenzie as a Recovery Template
Jackson Mackenzie is a giant and pioneer in the recovery space, because he’s shown the path for others to follow so well in charting the progress of his own recovery from external to internal focus.
You can even see this transition play about between his two books. Psychopath Free is a Stage 1 book, and it is brilliant, but it’s all focused on abusers. How to spot them, what they do, the different disorders. It’s all about naming, categorizing, identifying, and this is an essential part of the process.
But the crucial thing is that he didn’t stop at this stage permanently.
Skip to his second book, Whole Again, and this is firmly a Stage 2 book. There is some talk about Cluster B’s and their abuse patterns, but it is far, far less prevalent, and only when it is necessary to inform the reader. There isn’t an obsession about it. This book is much more internally focused – on personal healing through mindfulness and daily practice, rather than on how toxic Cluster B’s are.
At one point in Whole Again, he mentions how he hopes he never has to go back to his old Stage 1 resources, like his psychopathfree website, such is the level of detachment he has reached. He isn’t bothered about toxic abusers or their behavior patterns anymore; he’s only interested in living harmoniously and helping others to help themselves.
The two books track his own shift from external to internal focus, which is why they are BOTH essential reading.
Jackson Mackenzie discusses moving from external to internal focus
“That’s what you find when you have that self respect and self love, that 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.
Related Recovery Articles
Let’s link off to some other articles which cover this issue of recovery from toxic relationships, from both a stage 1 and stage 2 perspective.
- Recovery From Toxic Relationships Resources Guide – Stage 1 resources for gathering info and learning.
- Recovery From Psychopaths & Narcissists – Detailed tips guide covering stage 1 and stage 2 processes.
- Mindfulness in Recovery – Covers the usefulness of meditation/mindfulness, but also the necessary foundational work of reducing emotional flashbacks using Richard Grannon’s excellent work.
- Narcissists 1 – Can They Ever Change? – our detailed guide that removes any confusion around whether they’ll ever change, so you can drop them cold and move on.
- Narcissists 2 – Handling Contact – How to deal with attempts to re-contact you after a long time. This happens a lot and can halt recovery so be aware of this.