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21 Stages of a Narcissist Relationship (+ FREE Narcissistic Abuse Recovery Worksheets PDF)

Recovering From A Narcissistic Relationship: 21 Practical Steps to Heal After Narcissistic Abuse

If you’ve survived a narcissistic relationship, this post contains 21 stages of a narcissist relationship that will make you feel seen along with narcissitic abuse recovery worksheets PDF.

Narcissism as a Coping Mechanism versus Narcissism as a Personality Disorder

Today, the words narcissism and narcissistic are widely used in everyday conversation to refer to someone who is extremely self-absorbed.

This informal adaptation of a clinical term could be compared to the use of the word depressed. Many people use that word to describe their feelings of sadness. This is very different from clinical depression, which is a serious disorder.

Narcissism as a Coping Mechanism

Self-protection strategies or coping mechanisms represent unconscious psychological strategies that aim to shield us from our wounded child’s negative feelings and thoughts.

These coping mechanisms may include:

  • Overspending
  • Addictions
  • Binge eating
  • Overreacting when you feel even slightly rejected, dismissed, or abandoned.
  • Playing the victim
  • Playing the martyr
  • Holding onto resentments
  • Blaming others
  • Procrastination and using distractions
  • denial,
  • perfectionism,
  • people-pleasing,
  • control,
  • avoidance and withdrawal,
  • etc.

Narcissism can also be a coping mechanism. It’s not healthy, yet it’s extremely common.

In this sense, narcissism is not a personality disorder but an outcome of being raised by less-than-perfect parents.

Related: 8 Stages Of Healing After Narcissistic Abuse (+FREE Breakup Recovery Worksheets)

Narcissism as a Personality Disorder

Outwardly, someone with NPD appears to be a self-obsessed individual who thinks they’re the most important person in the room. But this demonstration of grandeur and flawlessness is nothing more than a self-protection strategy to suppress the wounded child’s struggle with feelings of worthlessness, deep insecurity, and inferiority.

According to the DSM-5 Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, narcissistic personality disorder erepresents “A pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration, and lack of empathy, beginning by early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts, as indicated by five (or more) of the following:

1. Has a grandiose sense of self-importance (e.g., exaggerates achievements and talents, expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements).

2. Is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love.

3. Believes that he or she is “special” and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people (or institutions).

4. Requires excessive admiration.

5. Has a sense of entitlement (i.e., unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her expectations).

6. Is interpersonally exploitative (i.e., takes advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends).

7. Lacks empathy: is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others.

8. Is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of him or her.

9. Shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes.”

In this sense, someone with NPD doesn’t just cause problems in other people’s lives, the person who has the disorder experiences distress and upset as well.

Related: Top 5 Reasons Why Narcissists Target Empaths – & How to Starve The Narcissist of Supply

21 Stages of a Narcissist Relationship

Stage 1: Attraction

The narcissist attracts their victim by making them believe they have everything they’ve always been seeking – love and acceptance.

During this stage, the narcissist love bombs their victim by showering them with flattering comments, romantic messages, and gifts.

Related: Am I Being Love Bombed Quiz

Stage 2: Illusion

The narcissist is closely studying their victim, trying to figure out what they need and desire.

They would make their victim believe that they like the same things, that they can give them everything they’re seeking – essentially painting themselves as their soul mate.

Truth is, the narcissist is incapable of love. They don’t see other people for who they are. They either idealize them (and feel special by proxy) or devalue them.

Whatever the narcissist is giving at this stage is not genuine and is temporary. 

Related: Yellow Flags In A Relationship

Stage 3: Devaluation

Once the narcissist hooks their victim into their toxic web, they won’t feel the need to fake their love anymore.

They, then, begin devaluing their victim in order to crush their self-esteem and control them.

What makes their abuse so subtle is the way the narcissist would also give validation alongside their putdowns.

It leaves the victim feeling confused and it further strengthens the toxic attachment that forms between an abused and their victim.

Related: Relationship Red Flags Quiz

Stage 4: Trauma Bonding

Trauma bond is a highly addictive attachment to the people who have hurt you.

Although the narcissist is hurting their victim, they’re also offering fake validation and approval.

Through this cycle, the victim learns that the narcissist is the one who relieves their pain, failing to recognize that the narcissist is the very person who caused their pain in the first place. 

Related: 7 Stages Of Trauma Bonding (+FREE Worksheets)

Stage 5: Control

By now, the victim has become “addicted” to the narcissist’s approval.

The narcissist would use this attachment to control the victim to do whatever they want.

They may monopolize their victim’s time and energy and isolate them from other people in their life.

The victim becomes the caretaker of the narcissist, in exchange for pseudo-love.

Related: Best 6 Ways to Let Go of Wanting to Control Everything

Stage 6: Never Satisfied

No matter how much the victim does and gives, they never seem to be able to help the narcissist.

Although the narcissist would claim they need their victim’s support and love, deep inside, they don’t see anything wrong with them.

Thus there is nothing the narcissist needs to change or fix. If anything it’s always the world’s fault.

Instead, the narcissist is happy with the attention and the sense of power they have over their victim. 

Related: Feeling Invisible? 3 Steps To Stop Feeling Invisible and Be Seen

Stage 7: Defeat and Denial

The victim begins to lose hope that they can help or fix the narcissist.

They feel defeated, but not enough to walk away.

The victim would hold onto any fake promises they’re given. They choose to believe what they hear and not what they see.

They’re in denial because acknowledging the reality of things is painful.

Related: How To Step Out Of Denial? Top 10 Steps To Overcome Denial When The Truth Is Heartbreaking

Stage 8: Trapped

At some point, the victim begins to feel trapped.

Nothing they do is enough to get the narcissist’s approval.

They begin to feel afraid to voice any concerns, needs or desires they have. They’ve learned that doing any of that is just not safe.

By now, the narcissist has been implementing every emotionally abusive tactic (guilt-tripping, shaming, criticizing, invalidating, etc.) to crush their sense of self-worth.

The victim is living a state of anxiety, yet because of how attached they became, the idea of leaving sounds even more painful than the abuse they’re experiencing.

Related: When A Narcissist Sees You Cry: Top 13 Reactions You May Be Familiar With

Stage 9: Resistance

The victim starts speaking up, which threatens the narcissist’s control.

As the narcissist is being confronted with the hurtful things they did or said, they refuse to accept responsibility or validate the victim’s experience.

Stage 10: Gaslighting

As the victim tried to speak up, the narcissist will try to project all their flaws into their victim and gaslight them to believe that “it’s all in their heads”.

They will minimize the victim’s experience and invalidate it.

The narcissist genuinely believes that everything is as it’s supposed to be and that the victim is the one who has changed.

Related: Am I Being Gaslighted Quiz (& How To Recover From Gaslighting In 10 Steps)

Gaslighting Recovery Worksheets

Stage 11: Blame-shifting

Along with invalidating the victim’s experience and gaslighting them, the narcissist will shift the blame onto their victim.

The narcissist will never take responsibility for their role in what happens to them. It’s always less painful to focus instead on other people’s faults.

It’s not difficult for a narcissist to find something to blame you for.

Related: 5 Weird Things Covert Narcissists Do To Manipulate Their Victims

Stage 12: Self-Blame

As a result of all the emotionally abusive tactics being employed, eventually, the victim starts to blame themselves.

The logic goes like this: If it’s not the narcissist’s fault, then it must be theirs.

Stage 13: Confusion

At this stage, the victim is feeling lost and confused.

They’ve been working so hard to make things work, give the narcissist what they need, improve themselves, etc. but nothing is working.

The victim doesn’t want to rock the boat and so they’re not ready yet to come out of denial and face the fact that they’ve been abused.

Instead, they try to rationalize what’s going on in the relationship as normal, simply, because they don’t understand it.

Related: How To Turn The Tables On A Gaslighter?

Stage 14: Survival Mode

Although the victim is feeling sad and anxious all the time, they’re still trying to cope.

They are in survival mode, walking on eggshells

They’re trying not to do anything that will upset the narcissist.

They don’t feel they can cope with any more rage, belittling, silent treatment, or any other tactic the narcissist uses to punish them.

Stage 15: Coming Out of Denial

At some point, the victim will realize that they’re in a relationship with a narcissist.

This may take hitting a rock bottom which gives them no choice but to come out of their denial.

Without the shield of denial, it can be devastating for the victim to realize that the relationship has been fake and one-sided.

Related: The Narcissist’s Prayer Explained

Stage 16: Acknowledgement of Abuse

This is when the victim begins to reflect on every incident from the past and begins to acknowledge the ways they’ve been abused by the narcissist.

They’re feeling less confused, yet devastated at the realization that what they thought of as expressions of love and affection, were in fact abuse.

Related: 7 Stages Of Betrayal Trauma (+7 Tips On How To Find Peace After Betrayal)

Stage 17: Taking the Power Back

The victim is filled now with righteous anger.

That anger inspires them to stand up to the narcissist and protect themselves. 

Stage 18: Discard

Either the narcissist or the victim will discard the other.

The victim may feel enough courage to walk away.

Or the narcissist may feel threatened and choose to leave before the victim leaves them.

Related: Betrayal Blindness – What Is It & How To Overcome It?

Stage 19: Healing

This is when the victim starts their healing journey.

They learn to listen to and validate their own emotions.

They start prioritizing their needs and desires.

Related: Top 21 Healing Journal Prompts To Support Your Healing Journey

Stage 20: Hoovering

The term hoovering is used in relationships to represent the vacuuming up of any happiness or positivity the other person may be experiencing.

The narcissist would reach out suddenly and without warning, claim they recognize their toxic behavior and will change, and may even threaten to commit suicide or harm themselves.

The goal here is to keep their victim from moving on and reclaim their control over them.

It’s important for the victim to set firm boundaries and follow no contact rule.

Stage 21: Moving On

This is when the victim realizes that they’re no longer a victim.

They get back in touch with themselves, having learned the hard way how important it is to put yourself first.

They realize that the only true source of love and validation comes from within.

Related: Lack Of Self Awareness: 5 Signs & 5 Tips On How To Increase Self-Awareness

Why Do I Attract Narcissists?

Several factors may make you attract narcissists:

  • lack of self-esteem or self-worth,
  • co-dependency,
  • being overly accommodating or pleasing, or
  • having a history of being in relationships with narcissistic individuals.

Narcissists are often attracted to people whom they perceive as vulnerable, and may seek control and validation from those individuals. It’s important to recognize the signs of narcissistic behavior and to set healthy boundaries in relationships to avoid attracting or being abused by these types of people.

Building self-esteem and self-worth can also help attract healthier relationships. Therapy or counseling can be helpful in addressing these patterns and learning how to develop healthier relationship dynamics.

Can A Marriage To A Narcissist Be Saved?

It is possible for a marriage to a narcissist to be saved, but it can be a difficult and complex process.

Narcissism can make it challenging for the narcissist to recognize their behavior and make changes.

It may require therapy or counseling for both partners to address the underlying issues and communication problems in the relationship.

However, it ultimately depends on the willingness of both partners to work on the relationship together.

It’s important to remember that everyone deserves to be in a healthy and loving relationship, so if the narcissistic behavior continues despite efforts to save the marriage, it may be necessary to consider other options for your own well-being.

How to Heal from a Narcissist Relationship?

Healing from a narcissistic relationship can be a challenging and complex process, but with time and support, it is possible to regain your sense of self and move forward towards a healthier future.

Here are some important steps to consider in your healing journey:

1. Recognize the abuse

The first step in healing from a narcissistic relationship is to acknowledge the abuse you have experienced.

Understand that the behavior of a narcissist is not your fault, and that their actions were manipulative and harmful.

2. Educate yourself

Learn about narcissism and how it can impact relationships.

Understanding the dynamics of narcissistic abuse can help you make sense of what happened and provide validation for your experiences.

Related: Best 10 Books On Narcissistic Abuse

3. Seek support

Surround yourself with a strong support system.

 This can include trusted friends, family members, or support groups.

Consider reaching out to a therapist who specializes in trauma or narcissistic abuse.

They can provide you with a safe space to process your emotions and guide you through the healing process.

4. Practice self-care

Prioritize self-care as you heal from a narcissistic relationship.

This can involve engaging in activities that bring you joy, practicing mindfulness and relaxation techniques, setting healthy boundaries, and taking care of your physical well-being.

Related: Best 22 Self Care Products On Amazon

5. Process your emotions

Allow yourself to feel the range of emotions that come with healing from a narcissistic relationship.

It’s normal to experience anger, sadness, and confusion.

Journaling, talking with a therapist, or joining support groups can provide outlets for expressing and processing these emotions.

6. Set boundaries

Establish clear boundaries with the narcissistic individual, or cut off contact if necessary.

Setting boundaries helps protect your emotional well-being and prevents further manipulation or abuse.

Related: How To Set Boundaries With A Narcissist?

7. Challenge negative beliefs

Narcissistic abuse often leads to feelings of worthlessness and self-blame.

Challenge these negative beliefs by focusing on your strengths, acknowledging your worth, and practicing self-compassion.

Affirmations and positive self-talk can be helpful in rebuilding your self-esteem.

8. Heal childhood wounds

Narcissistic relationships can often trigger unresolved childhood wounds.

Consider exploring inner child work or therapy to address any underlying emotional wounds and help you develop healthier patterns of relating to others.

Related: Inner Child Wounds Test (+4 Attachment Imagery Exercises To Heal Inner Child Wounds)

9. Reclaim your identity

Narcissists often try to diminish your sense of self and individuality.

Take the time to reconnect with your values, passions, and interests.

Explore activities that bring you joy and allow yourself to rebuild your identity outside of the toxic relationship.

10. Focus on personal growth

Use this experience as an opportunity for personal growth and self-discovery.

Engage in activities that promote personal development, such as therapy, self-help books, or workshops.

By investing in yourself, you can create a stronger foundation for future relationships.

11. Forgive yourself

It’s essential to let go of any self-blame or guilt you may be carrying.

Understand that you did what you could in a challenging situation, and forgive yourself for any perceived shortcomings.

Remember, healing takes time, and it’s okay to be patient with yourself.

Related: Best 10 Self Compassion Books

12. Practice healthy communication

As you heal, learn healthy communication skills that empower you to express your needs and emotions effectively.

This will help you establish healthier relationships moving forward.


Healing from a narcissistic relationship is a process that requires patience, self-compassion, and support.

Be gentle with yourself, and celebrate each step of progress as you work towards reclaiming your emotional well-being and building a healthier future.


How do I know if I am in a narcissistic relationship?

Some signs of being in a narcissistic relationship include feeling constantly criticized, manipulated, controlled, or belittled by your partner.

You may also notice that your needs and emotions are consistently dismissed or ignored, while your partner demands constant attention and admiration.

Can a narcissist change?

While personality disorders like narcissism are considered challenging to treat, change is not impossible, especially with professional intervention.

However, it is important to note that genuine change requires the narcissist’s willingness to acknowledge their behavior and commit to long-term therapy.

Related: Can Abusers Change? Top 17 Myths About Abusive Men That Make Women Stay With Abusers

Is it possible to co-parent with a narcissistic ex-partner?

Co-parenting with a narcissistic ex-partner can be highly challenging.

It is essential to establish clear boundaries, communicate assertively, and seek legal and professional advice to ensure the well-being of yourself and your children.

Parallel parenting (maintaining minimal contact) might be necessary in some cases.

How long does it take to heal from a narcissistic relationship?

The healing process varies from person to person and depends on various factors, such as the duration and intensity of the relationship, personal resilience, and available support systems.

Healing can take months to years, but with time, self-care, therapy, and support, it is possible to recover and rebuild your life.

Related: Why A Narcissist Won’t Divorce You?

Why do people stay in narcissistic relationships?

There are several reasons why individuals stay in narcissistic relationships, including fear of abandonment, low self-esteem, financial dependence, manipulation, and a distorted perception of love.

Breaking free from a narcissistic relationship often requires support, understanding, and careful planning.

Is it normal to experience trauma-like symptoms after ending a narcissistic relationship?

Yes, it is common to experience a range of emotional responses after leaving a narcissistic relationship, including anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress symptoms, and low self-esteem.

Consider engaging in self-care practices that promote relaxation, stress reduction, and emotional healing, such as meditation, journaling, or engaging in creative outlets.

Related: How Do Narcissists Treat Their Wives? Top 7 Behavior Patterns

Can a person become a narcissist themselves after being in a narcissistic relationship?

While it is possible to develop certain narcissistic traits as a survival mechanism during and after a narcissistic relationship, it does not necessarily mean one will become a full-blown narcissist.

By being aware of these potential tendencies and focusing on personal growth, it is possible to avoid falling into these patterns and cultivate healthier relationship dynamics.

FREE Narcissistic Abuse Recovery Worksheets PDF


By Hadiah

Hadiah is a counselor who is passionate about supporting individuals on their journey towards mental well-being. Hadiah not only writes insightful articles on various mental health topics but also creates engaging and practical mental health worksheets.

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