This is a very common problem with people who’ve recently broken up with a toxic disordered person such as a psychopath/sociopath or narcissist. They often feel this horrible emptiness that they didn’t feel before they met this person, or at least nowhere near as bad before. Where does this come from and what can we do about it?
The main reason victims often tend to feel empty after a breakup with a narcissist or psychopath is that their entire process of interaction is designed to mesh and weld your identities together over time, to the point where when they leave, it often feels as though they’ve taken much of your own identity and sense of self with them.
In other words, these people are skilled manipulators and know how to get a person hooked, dependent and enmeshed with them psychologically, to the point where when they leave (often abruptly and without explanation), it leaves behind a trail of damage in the other person that can’t be easily brushed off and recovered from. It feels like a big part of yourself has gone with them.
Whilst this isn’t unusual in terms of breakups in general (don’t lots of people feel sad or empty after breakups?), the way that disordered people like narcissists and sociopaths cleverly ensconce themselves in the lives and mind of people they get involved with, plus the often pre-existing codependent tendencies of the victims, means this dynamic really gets turned up to 11, leaving the person involved in a lot of pain once the toxic person has gone.
But thankfully, there are ways of dealing with this, and people do recover after relationships with them. Let’s look at some of the reasons for this dynamic in more detail.
Interpersonal Interactions & Identity Explained
To understand this issue better we need to lay a bit of groundwork in terms of psychological theory as to how our identity forms. In short, it’s not really something that’s just “there”; it’s something we actively form through our interactions with other people.
Mindfulness lecturer Mark Williams puts it well here:
“Our experience comes from our body in interaction with the world, our selves in interaction with other selves. And our whole sense of self, unlike what Descartes said (Cogito ergo sum – I think therefore I am) – the self is the bit that he can be certain about – (actually), as philosophers have said since then, the only reason he’s got a sense of “I” at all, is because of his interactions with other people.
So it’s the interaction with other people, other bodies, other minds, other objects in the world, that explains our full nature of self.
Mark Williams – see here.
Therefore it’s who we interact with, and how we interact with them, that determines which path our “self” and identity takes, and indeed what gives us our sense of self to begin with.
Why The Narcissist/Psychopath Leaves You Feeling Miserable & Empty
Now we’ve covered that simple piece of theory, I guess some readers have already clicked why we so often feel empty after a relationship with a narcissist/psychopath.
It so often happens that the disordered person deliberately makes themselves the center of your life, to the point where you are reliant on them for most or all of your interactions and therefore sense of self in the world. Therefore, once this goes away when the relationship ends, your sense of self seems to go with them.
To an extent, this might happen with a lot of relationships, even non-narcissistic ones. However, the narcissist/sociopath dials this “addiction” to them up many more notches than a normal relationship, to the point where the effect once they’re gone can be much more negative on the other person.
Here are some ways they do this:
- Relationships with disordered people often start off with an intense back-and-forth, mutual attention dynamic, which often gets you hooked on them.
- Constant love-bombing in the early stages, playing the perfect match, being and delivering everything you want, intense mirroring, etc.
- A good way of summarizing this is that narcissists/sociopaths always seek to give you “that little bit extra” in terms of attention, attunement, mirroring etc. that you can’t get from other relationships.
- They are also extremely chameleonic in terms of how they “latch onto” the latest person they are involved with, copying your traits, hobbies, likes, dislikes etc. They often make themselves a clone or you, and/or vice/versa.
- Narcissists/psychopaths will also often try to drive wedges and separate you from other friends and family, further isolating you so a higher proportion of your interactions are with them.
“When you first meet a psychopath, things move extremely fast. They tell you how much they have in common with you—how perfect you are for them. Like a chameleon, they mirror your hopes, dreams, and insecurities to form an immediate bond of trust and excitement. They constantly initiate communication and seem to be fascinated with you on every level. If you have a Facebook page, they might plaster it with songs, compliments, poems, and inside jokes.”
Jackson Mackenzie – see here
In short, narcissists/psychopaths will do all they can to make sure that as much as possible, your sense of identity and self (and self esteem) is determined and controlled by them.
The logical conclusion to draw from this is that the more this process has played out, the more your sense of self will be tied to the narcissist. Therefore, once they leave, it will feel like a huge chunk of your identity has gone with them.
This will be more pronounced the longer the relationship has lasted, and the more the toxic person has “sunk their hooks” into you, in terms of tying your identities together, as well as isolating you from others who could have ameliorated this effect.
There’s loads of ways of putting this, but here’s a great quote that’s the best way I’ve seen of describing this:
“(Narcissists and psychopaths) will just chew through person after person after person, always trying to fill themselves with other people’s happiness and other people’s lives. And it’s a bottomless pit – they can never fill themselves.
And ultimately when you move on, the devastation that they can give you in your life is horrible. It will make you doubt dating, people, your own sanity sometimes……
When you’re a lonely (person), a (relationship with a narc/psychopath) can be very exciting, because you think you’ve finally found someone that can become a part of your life and fill the void that you think you may have been missing.
The problem is they will fill it, but when they pull themselves out of it, they’ll take three quarters of you with them, and it becomes a very unhealthy chase to try to scoop it all back together and stuff it all back in and make yourself feel whole again, and you can’t, they’re already gone.
And these people come in, they revel in the attention, and this is the dangerous part – they also revel in the destruction. They love knowing they have done this to you, and that they’ve screwed up your world. And many times, they find it a challenge, or they find it amusing that they can do this to other people”
Better Bachelor – see here
I love this quote, because firstly it’s a great way of demonstrating how dangerous and poisonous narcissists and psychopaths are to normal people, because not only do they NEVER fill the void inside themselves with all their nonsense, but they also leave other people empty and devastated in the process of trying.
It’s like their emptiness is infectious; they pass it on through their long term contact with other people, which is why these people need to be avoided at all costs. When writers on this topic say these people leave a trail of wreckage and destruction in their wake, it’s not an exaggeration. Avoid serious entanglements with these people like the plague.
And the quote also encapsulates how and why the process of symbiosis these disordered people engage in, where they enmesh your identities together and get you hooked on them is so toxic, because it sets you up to feel the same emptiness they do once they leave, because your identities have been so welded together. And it’s unfortunately not something that can be fixed easily with the click of a finger, because they’ve usually gone to great lengths to enmesh your personalities as much as possible over time.
Therefore, when they’re gone, it feels like a large part of you has gone too.
For more on the psycho-analytic theory of symbiosis and regression that narcissists effectively engender in people they get tangled up with, see the interview below with Sam Vaknin.
Sam Vaknin – How the Narcissist/Psychopath Colonizes Your Mind (Cutting Edge Theory)
New E-Book Coming – A-Z Glossary Guide on Cluster B abuse, designed for newcomers to the topic. Click here join the list to be notified on release.
The Mutual Narcissistic Supply Dynamic
Another piece of this puzzle which clicked into place for me recently was the fact that narcissistic supply actually runs both ways in these relationships. Yes, you’re feeding them “supply“, but they’re also feeding you supply (it’s very important to realize this).
With a narcissist, it’s a back and forth arrangement – they’re feeding you the attention/adoration/entertainment/agreement/validation as long as you’re feeding it to them.
Therefore a prolonged relationship with a narcissist will, even if it doesn’t turn you into a full blown narcissist, still inflame and aggravate your own narcissistic tendencies, making you in a way dependent on the “supply” they’re feeding you. And the sudden withdrawal of this when the relationship ends can contribute to this emptiness – you almost feel like you are going through a “withdrawal” process.
I found a good recent quote from Richard Grannon which sums this dynamic up well:
“Narcissists are addicted on narcissistic supply. What did (they) give you in the relationship to keep you addicted to (them). Not just game, not just fantasy, but within that drip that was in your arm, they also laced it with narcissistic supply.
So you were not just psychotic. For a period of time, you were a micro-narcissist. And when you left them, and finished the relationship, you went into withdrawal. It can create depression. It can create crises of self. It can create this sense of ‘life is dull now, it’s boring, it’s horrible, there’s no joy, there’s no color to it’.
Because you’re literally ‘jonesing’, you’re in withdrawal for the fix of a drug (the “supply” they provided to you).”
Other Ways Of Explaining This Emptiness
I believe the above explanations are the main primary reasons why we so often feel empty after relationships with disordered people, but there are some other ways of describing and explaining this phenomenon. I think most of these are really off-shoots from the above points, but here are some other ways of understanding the emptiness:
- A realization that the last X number of months/years with this person was a complete fraud, mirage and waste of time, that they never really loved you and were just play-acting for their own amusement. A sense that you’ve wasted your life and energy on this person.
- A sense of “what the hell am I meant to do with my life now this person has gone”. Your identities were so enmeshed that you’ve forgotten who you were or what you even did before they came along. You might mope around, not knowing what to do with your time.
- A realization that you were essentially dating a “ghost” the entire time, someone who doesn’t even really exist, who doesn’t have a real identity or sense of self (chameleonic personality type)
- A realization that the person never actually valued you for yourself, but only for the feelings they got being around you, the “supply” they got from you. A sense of being objectified and used rather than being valued as a human being.
- A sense of confusion and scrambling for a reason as to why they left, if they did so suddenly and without explanation (psychopaths/narcs often do this). You will turn your life upside down and ruminate endlessly trying to find the reason why they did this.
- The vicious abuse these people often engage in can reopen and amplify old wounds from the past, leaving you feeling numb and empty (must seek the help of a therapist to work through this)
Tips For Resolving Emptiness After Toxic Relationships
This list isn’t exhaustive and lots of people find lots of different ways to recover and re-ground themselves, but here’s some suggestions of things to try if you feel this emptiness after a toxic relationship:
- Where possible, reconnect with any friends and family the narcissist/psychopath may have isolated you from, depleting your sense of self.
- If you’re struggling with emptiness, numbness, depression or other issues after a toxic relationship, seek the help of a good therapist to work through these problems. Codependence and boundaries are also crucial issues to work through after Cluster B abuse.
- If rumination and over-thinking have become a particular problem, work on mindfulness as a way of slowing down and detaching from the intellectual/analytical mind and reconnecting with your body/feelings.
- Take an honest inventory of yourself, and address and tone down any inflamed narcissistic traits you developed over the course of the relationship. You may need to learn to like again what your supply addicted self would consider “boring” people/interactions/relationships.
- Learn to spot red flags of narcissism and other personality disorders, and detach more quickly from these people, especially if you see them playing the same games of trying to isolate you from others. See our Resources page for some good books on understanding personality disorders to better understand what happened.
- Richard Grannon also has some excellent courses on recovery from narcissistic relationships. See his Overcome Narcissistic Abuse course (plus his “Remove The Malware” and “Break The Trauma Bond” courses are also recommended).
- He also has a more expensive and more detailed Unplug From The Matrix of Narcissism course, which has detailed journaling exercises specifically designed to help you identify and dissolve the Shared Fantasy, which is often the stubborn factor that keeps you “stuck” to the narcissist.
- Rebuild your identity through interactions with healthy, safe, boundary respecting people. Use this transitional period in your life as an opportunity to get rid of all toxic people from your life, not just that one person.
- See our new hobbies, interests, pursuits, projects – ones that weren’t even on your radar during the toxic relationship. Aim to rebuild your identity anew in terms of what you do with your time.
- Going forward, never put all your eggs in one basket in terms of socializing and interactions. Aim to have a mixed and varied social life, never just relying on one person anymore to provide the bulk of your interactions and socializing. And never let anyone isolate you from support systems again.
- Accept that the process of restoring your own identity is likely going to take a long time, with progress measured in months and years, not weeks. However, eventually, with the right steps, your original self will slowly begin re-asserting itself.
- In psychological terms, you need to go through the process of individuation all over again after a toxic relationship with a narcissist/psychopath. See the embedded video above for more on the theory of this.
- Complete honesty and ownership is also important in recovery. In many cases (perhaps not all), if the person is being honest, they already had some kind of emptiness or lack in their life before the relationship, and this is precisely what led them to be drawn to the narcissist/psychopath, because they seemed to be offering something they lacked. This needs acknowledging and addressing if true – what was missing in your life that led you to let this person in to “fill” it?