Narcissism

How to Get Your Stuff Back After a Narcissist Steals It

These are the steps to recover what really matters going forward.

Posted Jan 26, 2018

Photograph by Toa Heftiba. Copyright free. Unsplash.
Source: Photograph by Toa Heftiba. Copyright free. Unsplash.

If you are unlucky enough to find yourself divorcing a narcissist, there’s bad news I have to break to you: The money is never coming back. Ditto that one-of-a-kind piece of blown glass he said he bought, and you finally gave up, because it was just too expensive to have lawyers exchange emails over that wonderful piece of the Aegean you purchased on the honeymoon with your own hard-earned cash. These are the property losses, some sentimental and others merely about dollars and cents — and it’s time you took a deep, cleansing breath and simply forgot about them.

Ditto the time you spent in the relationship — gone, gone, gone, unless you can get your hands on a flux capacitor and a used DeLorean. Maddening, to be sure, but the spilled milk adage applies here, and a sponge is what’s called for, not self-blame or even tears.

So what about the other stuff that got stolen? That’s the part I want to focus on, because I’ve yet to meet anyone recovering from a narcissist who doesn’t feel like the rifled and empty shelves of a robbed boutique.

     [Note: This post has been written from a woman’s point of view, because all of my interview subjects were women; that said, women are narcissists too, and men also bleed. Feel free to switch up the pronouns.]

Post Mortem on the Robbery

It’s what you didn’t see about the guy in question and your misunderstanding of his motives that allowed you to hand him the keys to the store. I’m not blaming, but to move on, you have to see how the robbery happened; we’re playing detective here. Mind you, these individuals are very good at what they do, which, primarily, is manipulating others and writing a script for the relationship, neither of which is immediately clear. That script, by the way, has its ups and downs, so you’re much more inclined to attribute the rhythm to passion than to orchestration; he’s a master of the snow job, the doer of good deeds and sweet gestures when he needs to get you back on track. Dream vacation? Check! Extravagant flowers "just because"? Check!

And the narcissist’s fluency in the language of lies, especially when it is alternated with rapier-sharp observations about your behavior — “You cry at the drop of a hat. It’s no wonder I have to walk on eggshells"; “If you didn’t constantly interrogate me, I might open up"; “I didn’t lie; you just didn’t ask me the right question” — keeps a partner in a constant state of emotional turmoil, which makes it even harder to spot who he really is.

It’s only at the end — in conflict — that the narcissist reveals himself fully, and that your appreciation of what’s been stolen becomes clear. It’s with shock and horror that you begin to see him for what he is. For one thing, if you’ve been married or long-connected, he will not stop until he wins, and he sees his truth triumph. He cares not a whit for emotional consequences, burned bridges, or scorched earth, and doesn’t mind hurting anyone who stands in his way. He is happy to mount and orchestrate smear campaigns, because his own version of the story — no matter how fabricated or cobbled together — is the one he’s sticking to.

The Inventory

It’s the emotional looting that it takes time to recover from. This isn’t to minimize or write-off the financial straits many find themselves in after leaving a narcissist; all of that is real enough. Not to mention those who are stuck co-parenting and are looking forward to possibly years of endless legal squabbles and financial expense. But the hardest part of recovery entails what was stolen from you personally. Following is an inventory and what you must do to retrieve what’s been taken.

Loss: Your trust in others.

The narcissist’s willingness to use every avenue available to hurt you in whatever way he can is enough to throw even the most stable planet off its axis, and it’s no wonder that so many women come out of the experience feeling that the risks involved in trusting someone are simply too great. This is a huge loss that must be dealt with immediately. Otherwise, even in his absence, the narcissist will continue to rob you blind of future opportunities.

Retrieval: Drop the paintbrush, and don’t generalize.

In our efforts to wrest some kind of life knowledge from the truly painful, we risk beginning to see people in broad strokes; ultimately, that vision will not serve us or you. Your ex isn’t all men, but one man. Yes, it’s good to read up on narcissism — try Craig Malkin’s Rethinking Narcissism, which is excellent at explaining the spectrum and both healthy and unhealthy varieties, or Joseph Burgo’s The Narcissist You Know, which covers the various types — but it’s also important that you not end up seeing a narcissist on every corner. The truth is that people should be trusted more often than not.

Loss: Your trust in your perceptions and choices.

The words I’ve heard come out of my own mouth and those of others who’ve encountered those high in narcissistic traits include played for a fool, hoodwinked, utterly clueless, stupid, and more. It’s hard not to blame yourself, especially with the clarity of 20/20 hindsight: How did you not see that he was playing on your neediness? Why did you make excuses for his lies and manipulations? How did you let him get away with stonewalling every time you tried to talk? Why didn’t you push back when he put you down? Why did you keep falling for his charm?

Retrieval: Understand without self-blame.

Realizing what you unwittingly brought to the party and understanding why you choose this man are key to making sure you don’t repeat history. The truth is that the narcissist looks for a partner he can woo and wow, as well as someone he can manage and intimidate. Doing a self-inventory — seeing how your own proclivities and insecurities contributed, understanding why you cut him slack when you shouldn’t have — can only stand you in good stead. These may not even be flaws, strictly speaking; for example, your own desire to make the marriage work may have blinded you to the fact that you couldn’t, or your own impulse to keep peace in the household may have facilitated your avoiding the talks you needed to have and the stands you needed to take. Strengthening what needs building up in you is a move forward.

LOSS: Your belief in human decency.

It’s hard to keep your faith in humanity when someone who professed to love you turns out to have been a robber, but you must. This is especially true if you’ve had a nightmare divorce or were the victim of a smear campaign, which are typically parts of a narcissist’s arsenal when it comes to defending his brand of truth. You have to remember that for every person like this, there are dozens who have a code of personal ethics, who don’t need to win at any cost, and who care how their behavior affect others. The narcissists are outliers.

Retrieval: Focus on your own kindness and empathy.

It’s important to keep bitterness at bay and stay open to how much kindness there really is in the world; that may sound Pollyanna-ish, but again, the narcissist’s impaired or utter lack of empathy makes him the odd man out, not the norm. Begin with yourself, and reassure yourself about kindness and empathy as being real and existent. Pay attention to the number of people in your life capable of both kindness and empathy, and it will become clearer, over time, that the narcissist isn’t a stand-in for humanity at large.

Loss: Your hopefulness.

The real problem with a narcissist is that there’s no “We’ll always have Paris” moment. You know that scene in Casablanca when, once again, love has been thwarted, and the two lovers will not be reunited, and Ingrid Bergman asks, “What about us?” Humphrey Bogart turns to her and says, “We’ll always have Paris.” There’s almost always pain and loss at the end of a relationship, even a marriage, but usually — after a period of time — you’re able to remember those moments of pleasure and emotional sparking that the relationship once offered. Thanks to the narcissist’s scorched-earth policy and the lies that poison every memory, there’s no Paris to retrieve, just a smoldering landscape. Even a photograph of the two of you is apt to bring the bitter disappointment back in a rush. One woman ripped every photograph of their years together to shreds, saying, “I just couldn’t bear the literal portrayal of how I was had by him. I hated how happy I looked, not knowing who he was all along.”

Retrieval: Set relationship goals for yourself.

Rather than seeing yourself as a victim or someone who doesn’t have agency, you will heal and recover more quickly if you take a proactive stance and set relationship goals for yourself. The work of Charles Carver and Michael Scheier has shown that setting abstract goals rather than highly specific ones, especially after the end of a relationship, will yield more productive results and allow you to explore possibilities that you might not otherwise. Rather than think, “I want to meet someone who’s not a narcissist," you think, “I want to meet someone who displays his sense of caring,” or “I want to meet someone who is looking beyond his own needs.” This not only refines your own sense of what you want in a relationship, but also opens up where you might meet such a person — in a volunteer group, in a community mentorship program, etc. Alternatively, think about what you want from an intimate relationship in broader, abstract terms, such as “close companionship based on open give-and-take,” “a partnership based on equal standing and mutual respect,” or “a commitment to a shared life with each person’s needs addressed.”

You will note that had these been your relationship goals at the time, the chances are good that the narcissist wouldn’t have made it into your life, or, if he had, you would have taken your leave sooner, provided you didn’t make excuses for him (which, truth be known, is what I did).

Recovery is hard, but possible. And, yes, you can get your important stuff back.

Facebook image: KatsiarynaKa2/Shutterstock

Copyright © Peg Streep 2018

References

Malkin, Craig. Rethinking Narcissism: The Secret to Recognizing and Coping with Narcissists. New York: Harper Perennial, 2016.

Burgo, Joseph. The Narcissist You Know: Defending Yourself Against Extreme Narcissists in an All-About-Me Age. New York: Touchstone, 2016.

Carver, Charles S. and Michael F. Scheier. On the Self-Regulation of Behavior.  New York and Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.