Are you in a relationship with someone manipulative and/or controlling?
Do you feel like you are walking on eggshells and that YOU have the problem that needs to be fixed?
Do you feel like you are crazy and have difficulty describing why you feel this way?
If so, then you might be a victim of narcissistic abuse.
I have been working as a therapist for over 20 years. I have written and presented articles and seminars on the topic of emotional manipulation and narcissistic abuse for years. I have also seen and worked with hundreds of people who are victims of narcissistic abuse, also known as emotional abuse, emotional manipulation, emotional blackmail, or psychological abuse.
The problem is so common it has become an epidemic!
When working with clients in recovery from narcissistic abuse, I frequently recommend outside reading to help move the recovery process along. I want to share with you some of the books that I have found to be most helpful in the healing process.
Be warned though, not all the books are specifically about narcissistic abuse. Not to worry, they all contribute to the recovery process.
Cloud and Townsend’s iconic book about emotional boundaries was one of the first books I started referring to my clients. I know, I know, it doesn’t look like it has anything to do with narcissistic abuse but bear with me.
I have encouraged clients to use it as a reference in determining, not only the lack of boundaries in their lives but how to begin to identify, build and communicate healthy boundaries in their relationships.
Since many victims of narcissistic abuse have come from unhealthy families of origin, they are likely lacking in the basics of healthy boundaries. Cloud and Townsend identify the “Ten Laws of Boundaries” which helps clients recognize that boundaries are NOT about doing something to someone else, but rather about learning to protect oneself from the boundary violations of other people (particularly the narcissist).
The authors also discuss some common boundary myths like, choosing to protect oneself makes one selfish (since the narcissist is self-centered and self-absorbed, he believes setting boundaries is a selfish act); saying “No” is a four-letter word (a common misconception used by narcissists) and setting boundaries means someone will take their love away (a threat often used by the narcissist since his “love” is conditional.)
Takeaway: Most recovery from narcissistic abuse doesn’t have to do with understanding narcissism, but with learning the tools and skills to emotionally protect ourselves.
Another book that does not appear to have anything to do with narcissist abuse recovery is Facing Codependence, by Pia Mellody.
One of my favorite books, Mellody looks at codependency through the lens of addiction. Mellody sees codependency resulting from childhood trauma which makes an individual vulnerable to the pitfalls of dysfunctional adult relationships.
Mellody discusses the impact that childhood trauma has on our emotional wellbeing and our ability to have meaningful and fulfilling relationships with ourselves and with other people. Mellody does not discuss narcissism directly but does address how to set functional boundaries to have healthy and satisfying relationships after narcissistic abuse.
As a firm believer in the belief that codependency is an addiction, I regularly recommend Mellody’s Facing Codependence for clients who are seeking help for recovery from narcissistic abuse.
Takeaway: Victims of narcissistic abuse are always codependent!
An oldy but a goody! Now in its 3rd edition, The Verbally Abusive Relationship was first published in 1992. Patricia Evans does not specifically address narcissism or personality disorders, but she makes clear that verbal abuse is frequently a tool of the narcissist.
This book was the first I read that referred to the communication by the verbal abuser as “crazymaking.” (A common description from narcissistic abuse victims to describe the dialogue between a victim and the narcissist) Crazymaking communication leaves the victim questioning her perception of what is happening.
It can be overt and direct, such as “You are too sensitive” or covert and indirect as in “I don’t know what you are talking about.”
Evans does a stellar job of identifying the subtle verbiage used by the verbal abuser. Verbiage that by itself would not be considered abusive, but because of the sinister nature of its intent, leaves the victim questioning the abuser’s meaning and her own perceptions.
Takeaway: Narcissists are always verbally abusive!
Hemfelt, Minirth, and Meier offer a slightly different take on codependency than some of the more popular books on the market. Love is a Choice identifies the causes of codependency from a perspective of unmet emotional needs and lost childhood.
The authors believe codependency results from children not having had their love tanks filled by one or both parents. They believe that if one parent has an addiction or compulsions that take attention away from the family, then the other parent is unable to fill the love tank of the child. The child then grows up looking for others to fill his/her love tank. This leaves the victim poised and ready for the narcissist to pounce.
Love is a Choice identifies 10 stages of relationship recovery which includes a relationship inventory, breaking the cycle of addiction (yes, they see the destructive relationship patterns as addiction as well) grieving, reparenting and maintenance. Want to know more? You will have to read the book to find out!
Takeaway: Codependency is a chronic, progressive disease!
Wendy Behary is a notable therapist who takes on narcissism from the lens of Schema Therapy, a type of therapy in which clients determine the causes of unmet emotional needs. Behary helps clients identify their “schemas” or how they interpret life events.
Disarming the Narcissist assists readers in recognizing schemas that are triggered by the narcissist, including shame, abandonment, and mistrust. Behary encourages the reader to identify these narcissist traps and reinforces the importance of mindfulness when dealing with the narcissist.
Behary offers more than the typical no contact rule when dealing with the narcissist. She also discusses ways to integrate our own empathy and compassion to more effectively communicate with a narcissist if continued contact can’t be avoided
Takeaway: It is possible to have compassion for a narcissist.
Many times, my clients will come in having done their own research on their relationship, their partner, or the crazymaking behaviors they have experienced. One of the best books on narcissistic abuse recommended to me by clients is Healing from Hidden Abuse, by Shannon Thomas.
Rooted in research on the Effects of Psychological Abuse, Shannon Thomas walks us through the basics of psychological abuse. She then discusses in depth 6 stages of recovery. From the “aha” moments to the realization that victims are not alone in the exasperating experiences, Thomas walks us through the importance and the difficulty of building boundaries, restoring and rebuilding our life and benefiting from the hard work of recovery.
Takeaway: Victims of narcissistic abuse have been taught to reject their gut instincts!
Will I Ever Be Good Enough tackles the emotional baggage that comes from being raised by a narcissistic mother. Narcissistic mothers leave an almost insurmountable burden on their children. Questioning whether one is lovable, worthwhile, important or valuable is not the legacy that most adults desire to live with.
McBride addresses how the longstanding consequences of narcissistic mothering affect one’s entire life, leading to dysfunctional roles such as overachievement, self-sabotage, and difficulty in romantic relationships.
McBride does offer specific steps toward the recovery of maternal narcissistic abuse including acceptance, detachment, and self-esteem. She is careful though to include a step toward insight into one’s own narcissistic characteristics and addressing them before they are passed on to the next generation.
Takeaway: Victims of narcissist mothers struggle with their relationships for a lifetime!
One of the first books I began recommending from an author who is not a licensed therapist was Becoming the Narcissist’s Nightmare by Shahida Arabi.
Arabi’s personal experiences with narcissists and her research contribute valuably to her analysis of narcissism and how our brains react when we are in an abusive relationship.
Much like the pattern of addiction, Arabi equates the narcissistic relationship to an addict’s relationship with his/her drug. Her discussion on the biochemical bonds that work against the victim when trying to break free from the relationship explains the highs and lows that create the feeling of intoxication in these relationships and explains why it is so difficult to break free from them.
She also offers 11 steps for healing from narcissistic abuse and discusses ways to break the biochemical and trauma bonds that develop when we are abused. Finally, Arabi dedicates an entire chapter to the instruction of no contact with the narcissist, including 111 alternatives to breaking the no contact rule.
Takeaway: Narcissistic relationships are addictive relationships.
Some years ago, as I was researching a presentation on manipulative relationships, I came across Childhood Emotional Neglect, or CEN for short. Although the symptoms of CEN are very similar to codependency, the cause of CEN is somewhat unusual.
Raised in a family where parents are physically, but not emotionally present, the CEN adult experiences symptoms including feelings of emptiness, feeling hopelessly flawed, and difficulty identifying, feeling or expressing emotions.
How does this relate to narcissistic abuse? Jonice Webb outlines how narcissistic parents can be a cause of CEN. Additionally, we know that people who struggle with feelings of emptiness, low self-esteem, and problems with emotional intimacy are more likely to be targeted by emotional manipulators.
Dr. Webb discusses multiple ways to recover from CEN. From understanding how to identify emotions and feelings to learning how to nurture ourselves, she creates a recovery process that results in empowerment and interdependence.
Takeaway: Narcissists target emotionally vulnerable people.
Although not specifically a narcissistic recovery book, Cloud and Townsend hit a home run again with Safe People. Because victims of abuse of any kind are unlikely to recognize someone who is emotionally abusive, the reader learns to identify the subtle traits that an unsafe person might have.
For example, common red flags of unsafe people include the appearance of being “in control” of their lives, being arrogant instead of confident and apologizing instead of changing their behavior.
Safe People not only discusses how to identify unsafe people but also offers guidelines on what to look for in safe people. Cloud and Townsend also reveal why it is important to have safe people in our lives as well as learn how to be safe in our own lives.
Takeaway: Arrogance is not confidence!
Arabi, S. (2016). Becoming the Narcissists Nightmare How to Devalue and Discard the Narcissist While Supplying Yourself. New York, NY: SCW Archer.
Behary, W. (2013). Disarming the Narcissist: Surviving and Thriving with the Self-Absorbed. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.
Cloud, H., & Townsend, J. S. (2004). Boundaries. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
Cloud, H., & Townsend, J. S. (2016). Safe people: how to find relationships that are good for you and avoid those that aren’t. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
Evans, P. (2010). The verbally abusive relationship: how to recognize it and how to respond. Avon, MA: Adams Media.
Hemfelt, R., Minirth, F. B., & Meier, P. D. (2003). Love is a choice. Nashville, TN: T. Nelson.
McBride, K. (2013). Will I ever be good enough?: healing the daughters of narcissistic mothers. New York: Atria Paperback.
Mellody, P., Miller, A. W., & Miller, K. (2003). Facing codependence: what it is, where it comes from, how it sabotages our lives. New York: HarperSanFrancisco.
Thomas, S., & Choi, C. (2016). Healing from hidden abuse: a journey through the stages of recovery from psychological abuse. MAST Publishing House.
Webb, J. (2012). Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect. New York, NY: Morgan James Publish.