Recovering from psychopathic relationships can be difficult if the victim does not have certain questions answered about their experience. They have a sense something was seriously wrong with the toxic person they had to deal with, but beyond that they are still seeking for answers.
Having the personality traits of psychopathy and sociopathy defined can be a crucial first step in allowing a survivor of this type of abuse to fully understand and start to move on from the process.
Realizing there are established terms for the predictable patterns of abuse they suffered, such as gas-lighting and identity erosion, can also be very helpful and cathartic.
Once this understanding is in place, it then becomes much easier to focus inwardly and look at how they can make themselves a stronger person, less easily taken in by manipulative, toxic characters. But ideally this should happen after the person has been fully validated in the evil they encoutered in the psychopath.
Some people are more fortunate than others in this regard, stumbling across the Resources which give them the main answers they are seeking. Others struggle, knowing that something was seriously wrong with what they just experienced but not having the terms or the diagnosis to fully grasp what was going on. They remain invalidated despite the psychopath being gone from their lives.
This article is written with those people in mind, since many of these people may even do the right thing in seeking out therapy, but if the therapist is not properly trained in severe personality disorders and toxic relationships, they may not provide the validation the person needs to really start moving on.
Given how expensive therapy can be, this is a tragic situation and can serve to undermine the victim’s recovery process. This is never something which should be allowed to happen and survivors of psychopathic relationships need to be matched up with the right resources and the right therapist who can help them move forward from their experience more effectively.
Dr Ramani Durvasula on Psychopaths
See our Find a Therapist page for some pointers for finding the right kind of therapist to help you overcome toxic relationships with psychopaths.
Acknowledging The Evil That Was Encountered
The crucial first step is for the victim to be acknowledged and understood in the evil they faced in the psychopath’s wilfully toxic behavior towards them. There is a crucial sense of empathy and validation in this which moves helps to move the person along in recovery so much quicker than if it doesn’t take place.
The great psychologist Alice Miller touched on this subject in a slightly different context, when she addressed the tendency of so many therapists to defend, or at least not lay the blame on, abusive parents. Miller was disparaging of this approach, with her philosophy being that you lay blame where it is due, and then do the work you need to on yourself.
The exact same principle applies to any toxic relationships experienced in life, not just parent-child ones. Recovering from a psychopath is no different. Acknowledging what they did to you is an important part of healing.
Toxic parents should not be defended or have excuses made for them and neither should psychopaths.
Standard therapeutic cliches like “focus on yourself” and “you can’t control what another person does or thinks, you can only control what you do or think” are all very true but are by themselves not enough for people recovering from psychopathic abuse. The therapist will often try and steer the person away from focusing on the psychopath and get them to focus on themselves.
Whilst this is definitely true and necessary later on in the process, in the initial stages it as absolutely necessary to focus on and diagnose the psychopath’s behavior and in simple terms acknowledge and have fully validated the evil that was done to the victim.
To repeat the philosophy of Miller, because it is so important in this context – you lay the blame where it’s due and then you do the work. The therapist should not skip this process of validation because it is crucial to the entire process of recovery from psychopathic abuse. The validation lays the foundation for the rest of the recovery work.
Not allowing this process to play out in this way can drastically slow down the entire process. Working on oneself becomes a whole lot easier once the person feels they have been truly understood and empathized with regarding their abuse.
In order to effectively do this the therapist needs to be trained in personality disorders, most ideally in all the various strands of Antisocial Personality Disorder in the form of psychopathy, sociopathy and narcissism.
They have to be able to put labels and terms on the personality types and patterns of abuse the victim encountered, as having a name for this kind of stuff is in itself immensely cathartic to many survivors.
They need to be able to identify and name emotional abuse tactics commonly used by psychopaths such as gas-lighting, invalidation, identity erosion, projection of blame and so on. This does require focusing on the behavior of the toxic person for a while. It is an essential part of the process.
Validation from the therapist acts as a powerful form of empathy which can move recovery from psychopathic abuse forward a long way.
Validation Reverses The Effects of Gas-lighting
Another reason why this kind of naming and validating is so important for recovering victims is that it allows them to regain confidence in their perception of reality and reverse some of the identity erosion and gas-lighting the psychopath inflicted on them. It reassures them they weren’t going mad or “losing it”, despsite the psychopath’s best efforts to convince them otherwise.
Gas-lighting refers to the process by which the psychopath will chip away at the victim’s sense of reality and perception by claiming certain things were done or said when they weren’t, or vice versa.
In more general terms the psychopath will invalidate their target at every opportunity, dismissing any legitimate concerns or opinons they have and eroding the legitimacy of their perception of reality.
See our article on gas-lighting for a more complete breakdown of this process and the damage it can cause.
The gas-lighting process is a horrible thing to suffer and if carried on for long enough can completely undermine a person’s confidence in their own perceptions. They cannot trust themselves anymore and constantly seek approval from the outside world before making any decisions or expressing any opinion. Again the underlying motif is one of invalidation and lack of trust in oneself.
Excessive compusive habits can also form, where the victim develops unhealthy habits to compensate for the complete internal chaos the psychopath has created in them. They cannot be sure of themselves psychologically any more so they may often try to control the outside world to compensate for this.
The psychopathic abuse often leaves the victim with many of the same control issues the psychopath has themselves.
Many victims don’t even initially know there is a name for this process until they are actually introduced to the gaslighting term. Just knowing there is a name and a label for what they experienced is immediately a relief to so many victims and finding out about this term in itself can move the bar a long way in recovery.
However, something which can slow down and hamper a person’s recovery is if the therapist themself doesn’t call out the gas-lighting for what it is, and perhaps even undermines the person even more by suggesting this may all have been something in the person’s head.
This can be extremely damaging for people trying to recover from relationships with psychopaths and is poor practice for psychotherapists. See the excellent video below by Richard Grannon where he covers this issue, labelling it tertiary gas-lighting.
Secondary & Tertiary Gas-lighting Explained.
See our full article on secondary and tertiary gas-lighting for more on this.
Validating Resources For Recovery From Psychopaths
There are plenty of resources available now which will help with this validation process, accurately describing and identifying psychopathic personalities and the patterns of abuse they regularly employ. Our Resources page has a full selection of books and videos for this process; we will list a few of the standout ones here.
Dr Ramani Durvalusa is a fantastically validating member of the recovery movement, and her series of videos on the subject of Antisocial personality disorder on the MedCircle website are highly essential viewing for victims of psychopathic abuse.
As a therapist specifically trained in personality disorders and toxic relationships, she is extremely articulate and to the point and covers a lot of ground in her videos that can help people recovering from toxic relationship move the bar forward a lot in their understanding.
We have embedded her introductory video on the subject below; the full series of videos on the subject is a brilliant resource and well worth the Premium membership required for full access.
See also her excellent video on workplace psychopathy.
Here are some of the other standout resources which will help greatly in the initial process of fully defining and understanding what happened to them:
- Jackson Mackenzie’s book Psychopath Free, available online.
- Tim and Jane McGregor’s book The Empathy Trap, also available online. See also our review of the book.
- Stefan Verstappen’s Defense Against The Psychopath interview.
- The Unslaved Podcast on psychopaths.
- The Fishhead Documentary on psychopaths.
- See our full overview post on this – Recovery From Toxic Relationships – The Definitive Resource Guide.
- See our Find a Therapist page for tips on finding a good therapist with the proper skills who will properly validate you through the process.
- If you don’t feel your current therapist is properly validating you, then consider moving to another professional with knowledge of personality disorders. Using a therapist who doesn’t have the proper knowledge base or skills set can hamper your recovery and waste your time and money.
- In terms of therapy, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing or EMDR is a very effective form of therapy which can help people move on from the trauma that psychopathic relationships can inflict. See our article on EMDR for recovery from psychopathic abuse and also this account of someone using EMDR to recover from a psychopathic relationship.
Balancing The Picture (Validation vs Ownership/Learning)
To balance the picture somewhat, we are not saying that looking at oneself is not important in this process. It is very important, but only at the right time, when the survivor is fully aware and has been validated with an understanding of the psychopathic personality they were dealing with.
It is indeed important to ask the question “What did I do to contribute towards getting into this psychopathic relationship?”. We merely want to get the order right though. Before you do any of that it is important to acknowledge the evil you encountered and the lay the blame for that evil where it is due – the psychopath.
Well intentioned, decent people may be gullible and naive in relationships but they are not evil like the psychopath. This is not a level playing field between two human beings, however dysfunctional, like a normal relationship.
There is a more toxic dynamic going on here where the psychopath knows exactly what they are doing and is doing it on purpose. This wilfull malevolence is not the victims fault.
This issue of intent on the the part of the psychopath is often missed by the therapist and they will try to treat the relationship like just any other relationship they deal with in therapy, believing the same rules apply.
Once this toxic aspect of the relationship, as well as the abuse patterns, are properly acknowledged and defined, then it is indeed important to move onto looking at onself and how the victim allowed themself to be drawn into a relationship which wasn’t good for them, perhaps overlooking red flags that were apparent from very early on.
Often the issue revolves fundamentally around the issue of boundaries, with the victim being a high quality, empathic person but in some way having diffuse boundaries psychologically, being kind natured to a fault and too often allowing themselves to be mistreated.
The predatory character such as the psychopath will of course take advanatage of this and use the person’s kind nature against them, slowly turning the heat up on them with ever more outrageous behavior, until the victim routinely accepts completely substandard treatment as just normal behavior and “the way it is”.
Here are some other contributing factors it is important to take responsibility for if relevant to that particular toxic relationship:
- Letting the psychopath manipulate them – for every person that manipulates there is another one who allows themself to be manipulated.
- Being taken in by the psychopath’s glib, superficial charm. Not stopping to think whether this could be an act or facade.
- Also understanding the psychopathic bond – the clever way in which psychopaths use intermittent (unpredictable) rewards to toxically bond victims to them and leave them ever more dependent on whatever breadcrumbs of approval are thrown their way.
- A sense of buying into the “easyness” and “perfectness” the psychopath often sells the victim at the start of the relationship. Everything seems to flow perfectly without them needing to do any work but if something seems too good to be true, it probably is.
- Not being observant of longer term character traits which will always become apparent if one is looking. Still getting caught up in the superficial charm of the psychopath.
- Not slowing down when things seemed to be moving so fast without any seeming downsides or them needing to do any work. Again authentic relationships are rarely this perfect and require work.
- In short, falling for all the psychopaths tricks which they know will work time and time again on so many people. It is important to learn from this and not be so easily taken in in the future.
- It is also important for the survivor to take responsibility for self care in recovery and recognize the role it has in the broader need to treat oneself better after the abuse. See our full article on recovery from psychopathic abuse for more on this.
It is very important to acknowledge and take responsibility for all of these possibilities and do the necessary work to make oneself a stronger and less easily manipulated person, but only after the initial validation and not before. Without the validation and vindication it can be very tough for victims to jump straight to this.
They rightly sense an injustice has been done to them and want it acknowledged and explained. They want to know what was motivating the psychopath to do what they did and there is a growing pool of resources in the form of books and videos that will give them these answers.
Indeed the progression of recovery from psychopathic abuse can be well charted through the books of one of the leading figures in this recovery movement, Jackson Mackenzie.
The first book Psychopath Free does indeed focus more on naming, labelling and validating victims of psychopathic personalities and toxic abuse patterns. The book contains a comprehensive overview of the psychopathic personality, with abuse patterns such as gas-lighting, identity erosion, idealize-devalue-discard all clearly defined so people can understand what happened to them.
His second book, Whole Again, brings the focus more away from the psychopath and instead to himself. He looks at the use of mindfulness and other techniques to increase self awareness and identify patterns of the mind as well as a separate identity within the self, a “protective self”, which needs to be listened to and acknowledged before full healing can occur.
Mindfulness meditation is an excellent way to access these deeper parts of oneself, which can often be seen as protective parts of the psyche which have sprung up in defense against the psychopath’s abuse. Identifying and validating these parts of his mind was a crucial part of Mackenzie’s own recovery and he details how this process played out for him both in his book and in this radio interview from 2018.