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Surprisingly, studies show that some of the seemingly less dramatic kinds of experiences, such as neglect, in childhood actually do more harm than overt abuse such as physical violence. Neglect isn’t talked about as much as physical, sexual, or even verbal abuse, and depressed adults who experienced neglect in their childhoods often wonder why they’re depressed.

Even when people think about neglect, they picture parents who are too drunk or high to take care of their children, who prioritize adult sexual relationships over their children, or who don’t care about their children and thus don’t bother to feed them or provide clothes and other necessities. They may imagine parents who are irresponsible and who forget or don’t know how to take care of their children’s needs. All of this happens, but it can happen without such extreme dysfunction.

Sometimes neglect can happen even when parents are trying to be responsible, when they simply don’t have the resources to parent fully. For example, when one parent leaves and the other has to work two jobs to provide food and shelter, they may have to leave the kids to fend for themselves or let the older ones to do the best they can to parent the younger ones. I’ve had clients from families in which this happened when the older one was as young as 3, taking care of a baby or two.

But neglect can also happen in families in which one or both parents are depressed, have demanding jobs, or have so many children that there isn’t time to meet all of their needs. It can happen when one of the parents, siblings, or grandparents is chronically or gravely ill or dealing with mental issues. Often this requires the rest of the family to put most of their time, energy, and attention into that person. It can even happen in families that value individuality and independence. Thinking they are teaching these values to their capable children, parents may overlook concrete and emotional needs even capable children have.

Neglect can cause children to miss learning the skills they need to be fully functional adults. When kids have to teach themselves how to handle life, they often don’t learn the best ways. Neglect can cause children to feel profoundly lonely and empty. It can make it more difficult for them to form friendships, causing them to feel even lonelier and preventing opportunities to develop social skills. They may feel like they don’t fit in anywhere, and learn to cope alone. Perhaps most insidiously, neglected children often conclude they aren’t worth parental attention and care, or that their needs aren’t important or just aren’t ever going to get met. These beliefs, carried into adulthood, undermine the ability to develop loving, respectful, equally powerful relationships.

Not through parents’ intention or direct action or message, but through lack of action, children can turn in on themselves—blaming themselves for how bad they feel. They can grow up with these invisible wounds, not even associating them with their parents, who may be loving, well-intentioned people.

Clearly, there is a huge range of severity of neglect, depending on factors such as how young the child is when it begins, how extensive it is, whether there’s a basic foundation of love and respect from parents, whether there are other adults who provide at least some of what the child needs when parents don’t, what other abuse is involved, and whether other resources are available.

How people cope with neglect also varies, just as it does with abuse and trauma. Neglected children may cope by clinging and being dependent; by giving up and lacking motivation or hope; by withdrawing and resisting human contact; or by acting out with crime, dangerous sex, etc. They may experience depression, anxiety, self-attacks, eating issues, or addictions. Any or all of these results of the neglect can follow the child into adulthood. 

If you don’t understand why you’re depressed and think you had good parents and no trauma, consider what you might not have had. Did you struggle with anything your parents didn’t protect you from or help you with—even things like unrealistic standards for yourself? Did you have to take care of yourself more than your friends had to take care of themselves, or that you would expect of your children, nieces, nephews, or godchildren? Did your parents show no interest in things that were important to you? Did you have to work at getting your parents’ attention? Did you get physically or emotionally hurt because your parents weren’t paying attention? Do you feel like your needs aren’t important? Do you not expect to have them met? Check in with yourself, your journal, your therapist, and maybe your siblings to see if you can find ways your parents weren’t there for you that others are for their kids … and look at how it affected you.

By Beverly Amsel, PhD, Individuation Topic Expert Contributor

It is not unusual for people to come to therapy with feelings of confusion about what they want, think, and/or feel. I find that many grew up in families in which one or both parents involved themselves in their children’s lives in ways that interfered with the development of separate, individual thoughts and feelings. Most of these parents were well-intentioned. Their intrusion into their child’s life typically came from a need to protect the child from painful feelings or to assure that the child’s behavior and choices were the “right” ones. As a consequence, these children grew up relying on their parents to define not only what they should feel or how they should behave, but ultimately their identity: who they are as individuals. As adults, these children spend a lot of time in their heads worrying about the choices they make, how they are seen in the world, if they upset their parents by having separate ideas, if they did the right thing, etc. They become confused when the thoughts they have about themselves are different from what they know their parents believe. “What is true and real about me?” becomes the question that these patients bring to therapy.

“Sam” came to see me filled with anxiety. He didn’t know if he should continue in a relationship that was becoming serious. “I think I’m in love with Kara,” he said. “We have a really good time together, and she is very good to me. But then I get confused: Do I really want to spend my life with her? My father thinks she isn’t a good match for me. She’s Italian, and I’m German. I never really thought about things like that, but my father thinks that the cultural differences are too much. He also thinks that Kara’s family is very different than ours and that will be a problem when we have a family.” Sam continued to describe his uncertainty about how he felt and what he should do. I asked him if he thought he would be less unclear about Kara if his father approved. It was striking to me that this question seemed to startle Sam. It hadn’t occurred to him that his father’s opinion about what was good for him had such a profound influence.

Sam agreed to begin therapy, and we began to explore how he thought about himself and how he determined what he wanted and needed. It soon became apparent to both of us that Sam’s father had always played a big role in characterizing who Sam was. Sam recalled that he wanted to take guitar lessons when he was about 10. His parents bought him a guitar, and he liked strumming it and learning to play, but he had trouble with dexterity and was not developing into a very good player. After about six months, his father told him, “You’re not very musical. You should find a different hobby. You should try chess; you would be good at that.” Sam recalled: “Even though I enjoyed playing and fooling around on the guitar, I stopped the lessons. My father started to teach me chess. I did get pretty good at it and joined a chess club in middle school. My father always says with great pride how he knew I would love it because I’m such a rational and logical person, that chess is perfect for me.” Sam paused and thought a minute and said, “It’s funny, I never thought about this before. I think of myself as a logical guy, but then I never know what to make of all the feelings that seem to boil up in me. My parents don’t see me as emotional.” Sam paused again, seemed deep in thought, and then sadly said, “Wow, I guess I hide that part of myself from them. They don’t really like emotions. 

As Sam and I continued to talk, he became increasingly upset as he began to discover that much of what he thought about the kind of person he was mirrored his father’s view of him. He also began to realize that there was a judgmental attitude when his father told him what he thought. For example, his father still believed that Kara was not for him. His father had explained, “You’re not someone who can deal with opinionated people. She is too aggressive for you.” Instead of becoming confused and wondering if his father’s idea was true, Sam began to consider his own experience. He was learning to ask himself what was happening in his internal life and to study what went on externally. He thought about Kara and her opinions and realized that many of her ideas were different from those of his parents. But he also saw that she was flexible and, in fact, he often agreed with her. As he was more able to focus on himself and create some space apart from his father’s influence, he could consider how he felt. He didn’t feel conflict with an opinionated Kara. Rather, he was becoming aware that he disagreed with his father. This was not an awareness that he allowed himself to experience very often. It made him anxious, but now he second-guessed his experience less, and he was beginning to make space for his separate feelings and ideas to emerge.

Sam and I still have work to do. He is working on his relationship with Kara. As he develops the ability to know what he wants and feels, he is more able to express himself to Kara and that relationship is getting stronger. Sam continues to work on individuating from his father. After 30 years of relying on him to define and characterize who Sam is, it takes time to develop confidence in his own thoughts and feelings. There is still anxiety for Sam when he asserts his newly found voice with his father. Sam has recognized that his father’s judgmental tone has made it difficult for him to feel that his own perspectives are valid. His memory of his father telling him, “I’m your father and I know what you like and what is best for you” no longer feels just about his father’s love and concern. Sam is beginning to understand that his father is anxious, too, and that it is his anxiety that drives him to try to control Sam and to believe that he knows what’s right. Hopefully, as Sam’s sense of identity becomes more solid, he will be able to negotiate the relationship with his father so there will be room for multiple thoughts, feelings, and perspectives.

Well-intentioned parents who are critical and controlling may promote their child’s reliance on them to determine and define what is good and acceptable about the child. When a loving parent is so certain that he or she knows what is right for the child and does not consider that the child may have valid, different ideas about what he or she wants, needs, and feels, there is no space and no invitation for the child to develop the ability to express his or her own self with separate ideas, feelings, and needs. Over time, as the child grows to adulthood and is exposed to more ways of thinking about things, there is typically a good deal of confusion about identity, thoughts, and feelings. Unless there is an opportunity to develop a separate sense of self, there will likely be a lot of anxious thinking about what is real but little ability to think for oneself in a self-reflective way.

By Andra Brosh, PhD, Divorce/Divorce Adjustment Topic Expert Contributor

The pain of divorce is often unbearable. The experience can be so awful that you wonder whether it would have been easier to stay married or even to be dealing with some other horrific life event like death. The depth of pain is often surprising, particularly when you know you don’t want to be married anymore. What many people forget is that divorce is just a fancy word masking what is truly a broken attachment between two people. Divorce is more than separating assets and belongings.  It’s the severing of a very strong bond founded on deep feelings of dependency and need. Believe it or not, you developed an attachment to your partner over the course of dating and marriage that connected you on an emotional and physiological level beyond what you realized.

When two people get married they are vowing to be committed and to love one another, but they are also pledging to become “attached.” This attachment is unspoken and unknown to both, but it is the most powerful connection anyone can have to another person in a love relationship. According to author Helen Fischer in her book Why We Love, our “cuddle chemicals,” namely oxytocin and vasopressin, contribute to the sense of closeness and attachment couples feel toward each other in a love relationship. These bonding hormones promote a sense of fusion between lovers that deepens attachment and a sense of oneness. This biological phenomenon explains the depth of devastation felt when the attachment is broken and the physiological symptoms that become activated when attachments are severed. The response is often primal, leading to thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that might never surface in any other context of life.

The end of a marriage is one of the most emotionally painful human experiences. Thinking about the experience of divorce within the context of attachment generates a greater sense of empathy for what you might be feeling. It explains the levels of rage, vindictiveness, grief, and despair that so often accompany this common life transition. We too often think of divorce as a noun or a verb, but it is actually a relational trauma that has a physiological and emotional effect. You may be creating more suffering for yourself by resisting what you are feeling or telling yourself that you are overreacting.

Recognize that the end of your marriage represents much more for you than you may realize. If you were a small child and the person you depended on most was suddenly unavailable to you, there is no doubt you would have a strong reaction. The end of your marriage is no different. Give yourself the time and space to heal and repair. You are not damaged, just temporarily devastated, and the recovery will come with time. Divorce is not just a matter of the heart but an experience that impacts the whole person on a multitude of levels.

In my previous article, I touched on the subject of narcissistic abuse recovery. I decided to write a second article as a follow-up for individuals who wish to explore further how to move forward through this specific healing process.

As mentioned previously, recovery from this form of abuse can take a fair number of months (or even years in some cases), given the insidious and covert nature of the emotional abuse (Sokol and Carter). Individuals who exhibit malignantly narcissistic behaviors are predatory in nature and seek to “conquer” targets to fuel their narcissistic supply (NS), which is the emotional sustenance which drives and fills them. These people thrive on attention (negative or positive) and will do anything in their power to ensure that their primary and secondary sources of NS are working in concert to feed the insecure ego of a broken psyche. Although by no means exhaustive of the complexity describing the individual suffering from narcissism, the DSM-IV states that people with narcissism exhibit the following traits: inflated sense of superiority, grandiosity, attention-seeking, self-absorption, arrogance, entitlement, and limited capacity to empathize and reciprocate in relationships.

Trapping a Target
It would make sense that individuals pulling away from someone like this would experience tremendous loss and trauma (Brown). Initially the person with narcissism presents as a knight in shining armor, completely in sync with the target’s emotions and dreams. The target is unaware that the individual then hones in on the target, studying the desired love object so that he or she can then act as the target’s soulmate, in essence.

This “hunting” can occur on dating websites or in the initial stages of dating (Brown). The target, who generally has the capacity for true, mature intimacy and love, is intelligent, attractive, and successful, then falls head over heels in love with the person with narcissistic tendencies. Subsequently, that individual then feigns love for the target. And the moment the target is hooked, distancing maneuvers ensue, which serve to disorient and confuse the target.

The target then becomes incredibly confused and experiences what is called cognitive dissonance, or a state of confusion. The person with narcissism had expressed love, but is now exhibiting distancing and detaching behaviors, which are not in alignment with the initial honeymoon stage (Carter and Sokol). Eventually, the individual is fully satiated on NS and then becomes bored and tired with it, because the target is merely an object or a vessel to obtain NS.

The target is devalued and discarded when the individual exhibiting narcissism no longer feels the need to court the individual who is a source of NS (Carter and Sokol). Ultimately, the target is left wondering what happened, and how someone who seemed so perfect as a soulmate completely undid everything that the target worked so hard to build. It was the target who fell in love with that individual, not the other way around. The person with narcissism purely was “feeding” on the NS, and as soon as his/her ego was full, the target was no longer considered useful (Payson).

Motivations of Narcissism
At that point, the individual with narcissism will either vanish completely or will say and do certain cruel and emotionally abusive things designed to injure the psyche of the target. He or she actually seeks to cause harm, and straddles the line of sociopathy (Brown). Ultimately, the target has no way of understanding what happened and is left with confusion, shock, disbelief, and betrayal.

Because people who tend toward narcissism always needs newer and fresher sources of supply, they have a habit of devaluing and discarding targets (Hotchkiss). They may be incapable of true love, empathy, reciprocity, kindness, and compassion. In essence, they may have broken psyches, much like a broken appliance (Hotchkiss).

Studies show that there is very limited effectiveness in treating narcissism in psychotherapy, as it can be firmly hardwired to someone’s personality due to largely environmental circumstances that occurred in his or her early childhood (Martinez-Lewi), including parental abandonment and severe abuse. It could be that they had inconsistent sources of love as children, if any at all, and to survive childhood, they had to create an outward mask to the world of the perfect individual. Underneath, these children could be empty and lacking a core sense of self, prone to depression and anxiety without NS to fill a void. Adults who are narcissistic are often referred to as developmentally stuck at age 5, when their emotional maturity ceased (Hotchkiss).

So, what is a person to do if they have been crossed by this kind of toxic personality? First, I would say that though the pain is initially intense, you are blessed that the person with narcissism left. And no contact with this person will result in any form of healthy exchange. 

The No-Contact Rule
Experts on narcissistic abuse recovery all agree that contact with someone like this always results in pain (Payson). Maintaining zero contact is essential for you to be able to heal and cognitively and emotionally process the mental hurricane that hit. Some clients have likened the experience to like coming off a drug; it is so painful to go through the traumatic grief work in being abandoned that these feelings are akin to withdrawals. However, as you heal, you can be empowered, stronger, wiser, and more discerning and reclaiming of your own self-worth.

The target is capable of empathy, reciprocity, true and mature love, and growing in a relationship. People with narcissistic behaviors are generally not. They are only capable of deceptively seducing preselected targets to fill a psychological void. The same cycle may repeat every time. It is so imperative that the target understand the process of grieving the loss of the fantasy of the person who narcissistically manipulated him or her.

Those with narcissistic behaviors are usually hard-pressed to find a healthy connection in any relationship. When the masks are pulled off, they realize they cannot manipulate and seduce as they are accustomed to. Too many people have caught on and discovered who they really are.

Luckily, for those whose lives have been touched (or slightly marred), there is a path to healing. This process takes place through no contact, a compassionate and understanding psychotherapist, and a support forum (whether online or in person). Those who have been targets heal and move on to love others in healthy, mature relationships.


  •  Sandra A. Brown, MA’s website and resources related to abuse recovery from unhealthy relationships
  • Help! I am in Love with a Narcissist by Steven Carter and Julia Sokol
  • Women Who Love Psychopaths: Inside the Relationships of Inevitable Harm with Psychopaths, Sociopaths and Narcissists by Sandra L. Brown
  • Why is it Always About You? The Seven Deadly Sins of Narcissism by Sandy HotchKiss, LCSW
  • The Wizard of Oz and Other Narcissists: Coping with the One-Way Relationship in Work, Love and Family by Eleanor Payson, MSW


We often hear the term narcissist, but what does it mean? From my vantage point as a psychotherapist, I work with a lot of individuals who are leaving and healing from relationships, especially romantic ones, with narcissists. When I first heard the term narcissist as a graduate student, I had a hard time labeling someone with such a name. I pride myself on being a strengths-focused therapist, in direct opposition of any of such disempowering diagnostic nomenclature.

However, as time progressed, I found in my own psychotherapy practice that, indeed, there exist some individuals on this planet with narcissistic challenges. My clients educated me about the aftermath of what it is to heal from narcissistic abuse. I feel I owe it to my clients, and others who may be in similar circumstances, to assist with educating the public about narcissistic abuse, so that people can be informed and aware of how to protect themselves in the event they encounter people with narcissistic traits.

The following is an attempt at a primer on such individuals. For further study, please refer to the resources listed at the end of the article, as the subject is quite vast.

Identifying Individuals with Narcissism
So just what traits does someone with narcissism have, and what does that person look like in the early stages of dating? Studies say that 1% of the population (2-16% of psychiatric population) has narcissistic personality, while an even greater number exhibit typical traits of narcissism (Brown, 2013). In addition, although 75% of people with narcissism are found to be male, women can also be narcissists.

Narcissism is defined as: excessive sense of self-importance over and above the needs of others; grandiosity; arrogance; absence of ability to empathize and experience reciprocity in relationships; intense need for admiration/attention to fill very low self-esteem; impaired relationships resulting in parasitic/predatory behaviors designed to fill one’s self-esteem in the form of narcissistic supply (DSM-IV).

One could wonder, then, how someone would find such an individual, someone who embodies these characteristics, attractive. Well, studies show (Brown, 2013) that people with narcissism market themselves in attractive, deceptive packages. They may present with a swagger, intense eye contact, false bravado/charm, knock-your-socks-off seduction (often learned by neurolinguistic programming (NLP) programs or online seduction programs), swift pacing of rushing the relationship into commitment/cohabitation/marriage/business partnership, promising a future together (which is later discovered to be a lie), intense sexual chemistry, love-bombing (repetitive texting, emailing, phone calls), or romancing the target excessively (flowers, etc.).

People with narcissistic traits are known for targeting intelligent, self-sufficient, empathic individuals as partners. They tend to lack core identity (Brown, 2013), and need narcissistic supply to fill their empty psyches. Narcissistic supply comes mostly in the form of adulation, adoration, and attention, but any sort of feedback allows the individual with narcissistic qualities to feel alive (including negative attention). These individuals feel a sense of challenge in targeting highly successful, attractive individuals who may already be in other relationships and/or who express a sense of vulnerability (i.e. having grief or depression, or recently getting out of a relationship).

Characteristics of the Relationship
The literature on malignant narcissism is extensive, yet many are not informed about the dangers of being involved with someone whose character or actions tend toward narcissism. I find that clients who were entangled in relationships with such individuals have more healing to do from breaks in these relationships than if they had been in relationships with healthy individuals, because often these clients are manifesting symptoms of posttraumatic stress (PTSD). 

Not only are they grieving the loss of the relationship, but they are also processing the unreality of a “fake relationship.” Furthermore, often psychological abuse (and sometimes physical and sexual abuse) has permeated the relationship. In order to heal, psychotherapy must focus on grief work and trauma recovery, in addition to understanding the elements of the toxic relationship, so that patterns are not repeated in the future.

Once the initial honeymoon wears off, partners of people with narcissistic traits go from feeling high on a pedestal (much like being on cocaine) to feeling devalued, discarded, and figuratively knocked off the pedestal. Their partners have successfully seduced and hooked them into relationships.

But suddenly, the individual with narcissism begins to reveal traits of lying, future-faking, and Dr. Jekyl /Mr. Hyde Personality. He or she may vanish for hours or days on end, or gaslight (confuses the reality of) a partner. This person becomes emotionally abusive and detaches from the partner, extracting narcissistic supply in the process.

The partner, then, is dropped/discarded, coming to the sudden and shocking realization that the other, the partner to has narcissistic qualities, is not capable of true intimacy/love, and really exhibits a limited capacity for emotional connectedness/bonding (Brown, 2013). The partner who has exhibited narcissistic personality traits, who was once a knight in shining armor, is now a mere fantasy, because he or she acted through mind control and brainwashing (Brown, 2013).

To Protect Yourself
So how does one avoid encountering someone with narcissism? I would suggest being particularly cautious with the pacing of dating. If you’re using a dating website, exercise extreme caution when meeting up with a dating partner for the first several dates until you feel you know the individual (i.e. meet in a public place).

If the dating partner attempts to rush the relationship, that is a red flag. An individual who respects your boundaries will work with you to slowly progress the relationship at a pace that is mutually agreed upon. Just because initially there is a highly seductive “zing” quality to the attraction does not mean that the dating partner is healthy. To protect yourself from someone who may end up behaving out of narcissism, it is best to allow the connection to unfold slowly and observe to see if actions and words are matching up.

Sexual chemistry is not the same thing as healthy bonding and attachment. A healthy person will want to get to know your personality, dreams, and interests, and slowly evolve the relationship. An individual with narcissistic tendencies may also want to know all about you, but then may fake being your soul mate by rushing you into consenting to a relationship/marriage/cohabitation/business arrangement (Hotchkiss, 2010).

If you have encountered an individual who seems to display these qualities, or are considering leaving a relationship with a similar person, it is in your best interests to get yourself out of the relationship as quickly as possible. People with narcissistic characteristics may be prone to causing harm by invading personal boundaries, lying about future possibilities in relationships, engaging in abuse, and exhibiting no empathy or remorse for emotional harm they have done.

Consult a licensed psychotherapist who is trained in narcissistic abuse recovery in addition to locating a qualified support group to help you through this time. You will recover. You will heal. But, it will take time and the assistance of qualified professionals who understand what you have endured and how to help you to reclaim your self-esteem.


  •  Sandra A. Brown, MA’s website and resources related to abuse recovery from unhealthy relationships
  • The Path Forward online forum and support network for survivors of narcissistic abuse
  • A website dedicated to individuals healing from relationships with emotionally-unavailable people (including narcissists)
  • A website with support and resources for people moving forward from abusive relationships
  • Help! I am in Love with a Narcissist by Steven Carter and Julia Sokol
  • Women Who Love Psychopaths: Inside the Relationships of Inevitable Harm with Psychopaths, Sociopaths and Narcissists by Sandra L. Brown
  • Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of Psychopaths Among Us by Robert D. Hare
  • Emotional Vampires: Dealing with People Who Drain You Dry by Albert J. Bernstein, PhD|
  • Emotional Blackmail: When People in Your Life use Fear, Obligation and Guilt to Manipulate You by Susan Forward
  • Why is it Always About You? The Seven Deadly Sins of Narcissism by Sandy Hotchkiss, LCSW
  • The Wizard of Oz and Other Narcissists: Coping with the One-Way Relationship in Work, Love and Family by Eleanor Payson, MSW
  • Narcissistic Lovers: How to Cope, Recover, and Move On by Cynthia Zayn and Kevin Dibble
  • Splitting: Protecting Yourself While Divorcing Someone with Borderline or Narcissistic Personality Disorder by Bill Eddy, LCSW
  • Stop Walking On Eggshells: Taking Your Life Back When Someone You Love Has Borderline Personality Disorder by Paul Mason, MS
  • Malignant Self-Love: Narcissism Revisited by Sam Vaknin
  • Freeing Yourself from the Narcissist in Your Life: At Home, At Work, With Friends by Linda Martinez-Lewi, PhD

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