Breaking free from a narcissist is so difficult . . . and in some cases, almost impossible.
But there is a way out, and in this week’s video, I provide you with a preliminary blueprint to freedom. I’ve carefully designed these 7 steps to address the stages you’ll go through—in the exact order they’re likely to arrive.
Even if you’re not in this situation, learning these principles in advance may save you a lot of time and grief down the road. And if you are going through this right now? Please know you’re not alone. I’m right here with you.
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What happens when the most painful relationship you’ve ever had is the one you’re still in? And yet you cannot seem to leave. If you are that person, you know how it feels to be with someone who consistently doesn’t meet your needs. And doesn’t just fall short of them, disregards them, gaslights you, and makes you feel insane for wanting or needing those things.
Someone who lies to you consistently, and yet something inside you continues to hold on, continues to hold on to the hope that one day this person may change. Holds onto the idea that you can weather the storm, or that enough therapy will help you get strong enough to deal with it, or help them to change these patterns that have always been there. Holds onto the idea that if you could just fix this one thing about this person, you would finally have the life you want with them.
I want to give you seven things that are not only designed to help you in a situation like this. But if you listen to all seven in order, do not skip ahead in this video, watch it in order, and do not cut this video off halfway. Because I have thought about this a great deal in my life. And the seven steps that I’m about to give you model the different stages and the thoughts that you go through in the order that they arise.
Number one is assume this person will never change. Now, why do that? I come from a line of work where I have to believe that people change. Otherwise, why would I do what I do? My whole speaking career, writing career, YouTube career is all predicated on the idea that people can change. And yet, being in a situation with someone who has shown us the same patterns over and over again over a long timeline, and thinking that they are so suddenly going to behave out of character, is one of the most dangerous things we can do.
My dear friend, Dr. Ramani would say that when it comes to narcissists, they will never change. And you have to accept that about them. Now, this video isn’t designed to be a video about narcissists. But no doubt, so many of you will relate to what I’m saying here through the lens of having dealt with a narcissist. What I want us to do is act more empirically.
Empiricism is acting on experience. What is my experience of this person? When I look at all of their behaviors over time, have they really ever deviated from these behaviors? Maybe after certain arguments, or after certain threats, they deviated for a moment. But if that was just a momentary spike on the graph and then they returned to their baseline and that baseline is what they’ve been over time, then whether or not you ever see them as a narcissist, you can empirically say, what makes me think that they are going to be any different just because a new year comes around? Or just because I argue with them a slightly different way.
You’ve probably done all the things that you could do to try to motivate this person to change. You’ve probably shown them tears, anger, depression, sadness, fear, every different range of emotion that could show them what their behavior does to you. And they haven’t changed. What new emotion do you have up your sleeve that is going to make them change this time?
Narcissist or not, with enough empirical evidence, you have to assume they will not change.
Number two, in a romantic relationship, empathy can become extraordinarily dangerous and it can be weaponized against you. Dr. Ramani told me personally, she said, “Matthew, people who are narcissists are attracted to people with extraordinary empathy.”
And I know that in my own life, empathy has been something that if I’m not careful means that in a relationship, there’s no limit to how far I can fall. Because if every time someone comes back to you and they do something wrong, you are able to process that by saying, well, yes, that was awful. But I understand why they did that, I understand where that’s coming from. I know all about their terrible childhood and what they’ve been through. I know about that awful, cataclysmic event in their life that precipitated this behavior.
We can do that with every possible thing a person does. Even if you decide someone is a narcissist, they are absolutely a diagnosable, narcissist, empathy doesn’t stop there. You can still look at a narcissist and go, they can’t help it. This is something that they were either born with, or that they developed at an age where they were still developing. And it’s made them into this person who does these awful things, who acts so selfishly, who’s always about themselves, who disregards my needs, who cannot see me and my pain. But they can’t help it. They are doing their best. Quite literally, this is the best they can do. And I still care about them, and I don’t want to abandon them.
So your empathy can produce that mutated kindness and that guilt with absolutely anybody at the most extreme possible levels of bad behavior. And by the way, people with the most insidious behavior know how to mobilize your empathy. If they know this is someone who lets me get away with murder, so they know that you’re going to congratulate yourself on the fact that I know him or her better than anybody else. I know why they are this way, I know why they’re doing this. I know it sounds terrible to all of you out there judging my relationship and judging me for staying in it. But you don’t understand. It’s more complicated than you realize.
You, in a sense, score points by being the expert historian on this person. I uniquely understand them and you don’t, and that’s why I’m enduring all of this. But that person also knows how to weaponize it in the other direction. So if you, all of a sudden are calling them out on their shit, if you are calling them out on their bad behavior, they know how to say, see, I knew you wouldn’t understand.
They know how to weaponize it to make you guilty for not having enough empathy. At a certain point, the empathy has to hit a floor. That floor isn’t you becoming a less kind or less compassionate person, it’s recognizing that, oh, I can’t be empathetic with you in close proximity. I’m going to have to trade my empathy for a distant compassion.
You can leave someone and say enough is enough, I can never let you into my life. You can have a distant compassion that says, I understand this person. Or even at the very least, I can pity the fact that their brain is wired for this kind of behavior, which means that they’re always self-sabotaging for themselves, not just hurting me or somebody else. But I can’t have them in my life.
That’s the difference. Having empathy for someone doesn’t mean keeping them in the kind of proximity where they can do so much damage. And it has to be said, life is complex. There are different kinds of people in our life. You might have a son or a daughter, you might have a best friend, a brother, a sister, a parent who shows these kinds of narcissistic tendencies. In those cases, it might be easier to have them at arms length in your life, where you can still have a kind of relationship with them, but not one that relies on them for anything meaningful. And not one that lets them close enough that they can do all of that damage.
Romantic relationships are much more binary. You can’t have an arms length romantic relationship, not a truly happy and connected one. When it comes to a romantic partner, you are in or you’re out. And if you can’t trust that person with your time, your energy, your future, your heart, then it has to be out. Regardless of your level of empathy. Trade your empathy for a distant compassion.
Number three, and here’s where it gets really interesting. Do not allow your empathy to become the cover for your fear. You have empathy. And that’s part of the reason that you stay. However, we also do a very subtle slight of hand where we use our empathy, one of our best qualities, to justify our existence in the relationship. When really so much of our staying is about our own fears. I’m terrified of losing this person. I’m terrified of being alone. I’m terrified I’ll never have this connection again. I’m terrified to admit that I’ve wasted all of these years with this person. In a sense, our empathy becomes the righteous excuse for avoiding our fears.
It’s more noble to say, “I uniquely understand this person, and must stay out of loyalty and care for them.” Than it is to say, “I’m terrified of being on my own. And that’s why I’m staying.”
Number four, we have to be willing to light the fuse that blows up our own life. Now in order to do this, it requires a genuine acceptance of where you actually are. I am alone. I am alone, and I’m going to have to meet someone again because I don’t have the relationship that I’ve been telling myself I have for all of these years. Even though I’ve been in this situation for 10 years, and I’ve been pretending I’m in a working marriage, or I’ve been pretending that I’m in a functional relationship, I’ve been pretending I have a future with this person, I am now accepting that I’m 50 and that I’m starting again in this area of my life.
I am accepting that I have to let go of the image that all of my friends have of me, as someone who’s got it together in this area. As someone who’s in a happy relationship, I’m going to have to give that up, and reset my image with the people that know me and where they think I am in my life. I am going to have to accept that the years I invested in this relationship were not in service of the relationship, and it’s continuing into my future. It was in service of my own confidence, of getting to a point of realization where I now understand it was never going to work. I was never going to be happy here.
This is acceptance. And I believe that one of the most important gifts of acceptance is that when we accept where we really are, progress actually feels like progress.
How do I put this? If you tell everyone that you have a hundred grand in the bank, but really you have 20 grand of debt, no matter what you do right now to earn more money, you are not going to feel any progress. Because as far as you are concerned, the image of you is that you have a hundred grand in the bank. So even if you wiped that debt out, which would be an amazing thing, you don’t feel like you’ve made any progress compared to that image. If you accept and own where you are, I’m 20 grand in debt, but I’m working on it. Then if you halve that debt, you suddenly feel good. You feel excited because you’re like progress.
And as Tony Robins says, “Happiness comes from progress,” right? It doesn’t come from getting everything we want. It comes from feeling like we moved forward. In order to actually feel the gift of progress, we have to start accepting where we really are instead of pretending we’re somewhere we are not.
Number five. When you begin to freak out about making this tough choice in your life, your mind will trick you into thinking the status quo isn’t so bad. You’ll start thinking about everything that’s coming. All of the pain that’s coming, the grieving, the sleepless nights, the dark nights of the soul, the looking for somebody else, the disappointing dates, the feeling alone, the feeling like you’ve been set back in your life. All of it will become so overwhelming, and scary, and dark to you that you will start to convince yourself that where you are isn’t so bad, and that maybe all of this is just really dramatic.
Maybe you just need to have a conversation with the person. Maybe you just need to reiterate your needs. Maybe you just need to go to therapy to learn how to deal with it, how to cope with it. Because you don’t need to lose this person over this. That would be crazy. You’ve spent so much of your life with them. They’re one of your closest friends, maybe your best friend, your closest companions, your confidant, someone you’ve been through so much with. Are you really going to give up all of that history, all of that life, all of that investment for the complete unknown? And that is what returns you to the status quo.
Which brings us onto number six. You have to connect with the idea that if you remain where you are, you will never be happy and you will never be at peace. I’ve had private clients my whole life where, anytime we reach this point in the process, thinking about they’ve got to blow up their own life, they will start coming back to me and saying, it’s just, we are really great together. And I hear them start to resell themselves on the status quo to avoid doing that thing.
And then I remind them, I didn’t bring this to you. You brought it to me. You didn’t come to a session with me, and I started poking my nose into your relationship and telling you, you were unhappy, and telling you that this is what we’re going to talk about today. You brought it to me. Fighting back the tears, fighting back the unhappiness, fighting back the disappointment, the depression, the anxiety that you feel on a daily basis. But no matter what you do it is spilling out of every part of you because you just cannot contain what this is doing to you, emotionally. Remind yourself you will never be free, you will never be happy, you will never be at peace so long as you stay in this situation.
Which brings us onto number seven, realize that both paths will be terribly difficult. But only one of them leaves a possibility of your future happiness.
If you stay, it’s going to be incredibly difficult. If you leave, it’s going to be incredibly difficult. But one of those two paths has guaranteed misery. And one of them opens up a world of possibility in terms of your happiness. Either way, it’s going to be brutally difficult. Which difficult do you want to choose?
Until you face yourself, you will never be out of a situation like this. As we have come to realize in this video, the initial empathy, and the martyrdom, and the endless capacity for generosity and suffering is all a righteous mask for our own demons. The things that, if we do not fix those, will always prevent us from leaving. Will keep us a prisoner in this relationship. The healing has to be done in ourselves.
If you want to do that with me, in November, I’m going to be spending three days with people on my Virtual Retreat where we are going to do this kind of work together. The kind of work that makes you so strong that you would never allow this to happen to yourself again. That you will finally get the courage and the confidence to move into a new chapter of your life without being paralyzed where you stand by fear.
Go to MHVirtualRetreat.com to learn more. And look, whether you do this with me or with somebody else, know that it has to be done. I know of what I speak in this area. I have seen the wasted lives and the regret that comes with that, at knowing you could have had so much more happiness and so much more peace in your life. But you kept yourself a prisoner all of that time. If you are in this situation, there is nothing more important than coming to the realizations that we’re talking about in this video. I hope to see you on the Retreat. But if nothing else, I look forward to seeing you in the next video.