What Happens When an Empath Leaves a Narcissist

Empaths are exceptional people, but they’re often victims of narcissistic abuse. The sad thing is, even when they decide to leave the toxic relationship, they may feel guilt and shame.

Worse, the narcissist might even lure them back.

According to experts, these are the things that could happen when an empath leaves a narcissist.

Heather Kent

Heather Kent

Registered Psychotherapist and Trauma Recovery Specialist | Author, “Heal from Your Narcissist Ex

When I was little, I used to love watching the movie, The Wizard of Oz, starring Judy Garland. The opening scenes showed a quaint country farm in the fields of Kansas; her home seemed like a peaceful, beautiful place – until the storm rolled in. It seemed to come out of nowhere.

Dorothy was caught off guard, far away from the safety of her family, and the terrible storm created a tornado. It swept her up, along with her house, into its swirling winds and carried her far, far away.

The next scene of the movie is no longer in black and white but in full color. Dorothy is inside her house, which seems to have miraculously withstood the crash back down to earth. Everything is quiet at first. Dorothy looks around, disoriented. Everything in the house is in shambles and chaotic disarray.

She opens the door and steps outside into a strange new world that she doesn’t recognize at all.

She is all alone in this foreign land – except for her dog, Toto, who also survived. She has absolutely no idea what has happened to her, what to do next, or where to go. All she can say is, “I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore, Toto.” She looks completely shell-shocked and confused, and I imagine that the only thing she must have been thinking in those first few moments was, “how did I get… here?

In the wake of the tornado, Dorothy must have felt confusion, chaos, and fear, and utterly alone in the world. These emotions are not all that different from how it feels for an empath in the aftermath of ending a narcissistic relationship.

If you have ever seen footage of damage after a tornado, it is devastating. Survivors are left feeling overwhelmed amid the destruction, with no idea of what to do, where to begin, or how to rebuild their lives. This imagery is a close parallel to the severity of the internal damage felt by survivors of emotional abuse.

Related: 10 Best Books on Recovering from Narcissistic Abuse

Those of us who have been in relationships with a narcissist all share key character traits of extreme empathy, as well as high levels of compassion, loyalty, and forgiveness. Although these are arguably wonderful and positive personality traits to have, they also make us more vulnerable to being drawn in and manipulated by narcissistic personalities.

This is because narcissists purposefully seek out people with these specific traits. They rely on our high levels of empathy as an assurance that we will do whatever we can to be supportive and try to help them be happy. No matter how manipulative and abusive they become, we somehow feel bad for their turmoil and discontent and want to do all we can to “fix” it.

Unfortunately, what we are not able to see when we are in these relationships, is that it is impossible for us to “fix” the deep-rooted inner insecurities that narcissists carry and desperately try to hide from the world.

So what is the outcome for us then, when the empathic survivor of narcissistic abuse finally leaves the relationship?

Let’s return to that survivor of the tornado, standing where her house once stood. She is surrounded by wreckage in every direction, and everything is buried in a pile of rubble. Seeing all of this would be too much for a person’s brain to process, much like the aftermath of an abusive relationship.

Once it is all over and the tornado’s winds have dissipated, there is an eerie calm. All you can think is, “How did I get here? What do I do, now?”

The drastic change might be so uncomfortable that you may think about returning to the relationship

Everything in your life has drastically changed, and that realization probably feels quite uncomfortable. Perhaps it is so uncomfortable that you may be thinking about returning to the relationship.

You know you will get hurt, but now you’re all alone, and going back feels much easier than facing the unknown wilderness outside of this relationship.

You may start to doubt your decision to leave your narcissistic partner

You may start to doubt your decision to leave your narcissistic partner and wonder if you overreacted. You may be feeling crippling anxiety and start thinking in that familiar way about how you can “fix” it. Sadly, I must tell you that you cannot fix it.

It can never be fixed, and it is not because of anything you did. It’s because your ex is a narcissist, and without professional help, narcissists are incapable of change.

Related: Can Narcissists Change if They Want To?

You may be worried that your friends and family are judging you

If you have children, you may be fixated on what your decision is going to do to your kids. And, there’s the financial impact to consider. It all feels way too impossible.

Now let me reassure you of truths that I know with 100 percent certainty. Your gut instinct to get out of an abusive relationship was not wrong. Your brain has been traumatized and is responding to that trauma in these anxiety-provoking ways.

You have absolutely made the right decision to remove yourself (and your children, if you have them) from further harm.

The biggest fear of an empath in the aftermath of that tornado is that you will never feel safe again. It has likely been many years since you’ve had any feeling of safety or security or a feeling of control over your life.

You start wondering who you even are anymore

Your mind gets flooded with thoughts about what your abusive ex will do next. Their actions will impact your finances, housing, and custody. Then you start wondering who you even are anymore. You don’t recognize the hollow shell of yourself that you have become.

It feels overwhelming, painful, and impossible standing in the rubble of your trauma. I know this because I’ve been there.

I have good news for you, though. You do not have to do all of that heavy cleanup on your own. Millions of other abuse survivors have stood exactly where you are standing now. They have dug themselves out from under the crushing piles of lies, manipulation, and false beliefs.

Those are the tools used by the narcissist to keep you stuck in an abusive relationship.

Related: Things Narcissists Say to Get You Back

But these survivors have cleared a path to a new life that is uncharted and unknown, just like Dorothy in the Land of Oz. Yes, it feels completely terrifying at first. Parts of healing from your wounds and learning to feel safe and confident on your own can be very stressful and hard.

There are days when you feel like giving up and just crying in a ball on the bathroom floor for hours. But there are also days when you feel more alive than you have for as long as you can remember. You find that you are able to figure out how to do new things, difficult things, all by yourself.

Even the smallest triumphs feel like you’ve won an Olympic gold medal.

“But how did I even get here?” As a fellow empath, this is a question I asked myself so many times in the beginning stages of my recovery. This was quickly followed by self-blaming thoughts such as:

  • “How could I be so stupid?”
  • “How could I not know what was happening?”
  • “Why am I so weak?”
  • “I don’t even recognize myself anymore.”

If any of this sounds familiar, you are not alone, I promise you. These thoughts are completely normal, but they are also dangerous because they reinforce that we are somehow to blame for our partner’s abuse and manipulation tactics.

Related: Warning Signs of a Manipulative Partner

So, let me be very clear; this was not your fault. You are not stupid. You didn’t “let” anything happen. You could have no idea that anything was happening because they planned it that way.

Take a step back and think about it for a minute. If you saw your partner’s behavior from today back on your first date, I am fairly confident that you would not decide to book a second date. In fact, I would bet good money that you would run away and never look back.

So, how did this happen? The answer is simple: very slowly, over time.

In the beginning, everything seems great, comfortable, and even wonderfully loving. As things slowly start to change for the worse, our empathic selves can easily rationalize, minimize, dismiss, and even make excuses for their abusive behavior—this is what the narcissist is counting on.

It’s not surprising, then, that ending a relationship with a narcissist is incredibly challenging. Once your narcissist learns that you are leaving the relationship, they typically will put up any resistance they can to make it as nasty a process as possible.

This is because they cannot accept the idea that they have been rejected by you.

Up to this point, they have always called the shots, and they are completely thrown by the idea that they do not have control over you. As punishment for your noncompliance, the narcissist will try everything within their power to make the break-up as difficult, expensive, and emotionally painful as possible.

They also tend to engage in attention-seeking theatrics right away.

For example, to prove that the narcissist is not unwanted, they usually find themselves in a new relationship within a few weeks or days. They may even have already started another relationship before you announced that you were leaving.

As an empath, this can be very painful to witness, as it leaves you wondering what the value of your relationship ever was to your partner. This is how I felt when I learned that my husband had already started dating other people before I left.

You will likely also experience a great deal of your narcissist ex bad-mouthing and making up blatant lies about you to their family, their friends, and colleagues – anyone who will listen in order to show themselves in a positive light.

Remember, narcissists cannot accept any possibility of wrongdoing, so they have to create a narrative where you are the villain, and they are the innocent victim.

After some time passes and in true contradictory narcissist form, your ex may try to suck you back into the relationship with their “hoovering” tactics. Hoovering has no time limit or boundaries – narcissists have been known to hoover their empathic victims when they are newly married, have children, or re-emerge years later, unexpectedly.

Usually, this occurs when the narcissist loses control of the empath and wants to regain control at the very moment the empath attempts to move forward with his or her life.

Once you have left, they may try to remind you of the “good times” in the first few months of your relationship, use your children to make you feel guilty for breaking up the “family,” all in an attempt to get you to come back. They still need to feed their narcissistic supply, and the function of a family unit serves them well.

After a break-up, narcissists usually put a lot of effort into re-establishing the relationship, even if you both have moved on with other people.

This is because they cannot accept that you rejected them and need to feel like they still have some kind of control or effect on you; you were also a good supplier for their narcissistic supply tank, and the drive to fill that tank is strong – like an addiction.

At the end of it all, you are left with only confusion: confusion about what happened, what was real, and what wasn’t, and it is that confusion that plays into the hands of your narcissist ex.

The unfortunate reality is, even after an empath leaves the relationship, the narcissist ex-partner will always view you as their scapegoat and their mirror for the projection of their own issues, and they do not want to let go or give up their access to narcissistic supply.

They will do whatever they can to maintain their illusion of power and control, and they will try to suck you into their mind games.

How to not lose focus of your end goal:

As an empath, it is crucial to stay on track and not lose focus of your end goal (freedom, safety, peace, and happiness); as such, you must stay committed to using these strategies, no matter what drama your ex tries to stir up to trigger your empathic response:

Practice patience

As you navigate through separation and divorce, it is crucial for you to stay centered and focused on yourself and your needs.

This is likely going to be a lengthy process, so it is important to be patient and anticipate hold-ups, delayed responses, and other time-wasting techniques that your ex will employ to try to frustrate you.

If you expect these things ahead of time, then it will be easier to stay calm, cool, and collected throughout the process, which will play well in your favor.

Create and maintain personal boundaries

Developing new personal boundaries with your narcissist ex is crucial, not only to survive the separation and divorce process but also to create a life of safety and peace afterward – especially if going ‘No Contact’ is not possible.

Maintaining these boundaries is essential to protecting yourself from falling into your ex’s malicious intentions, emotional mind games, or sabotage attempts.

Your boundaries are your protective shield from your narcissist’s manipulation and control tactics, so it is vitally important that you are in control of your boundaries so that no one can take away your power.

Cultivate self-respect

Perhaps the most important element to your survival through this process is finding self-respect. Remember that you are certainly not going to receive any kindness or respect from your narcissist ex. However, you are going to have to remain kind and tolerant during this time.

The expression “kill them with kindness” comes to mind here, and it is a key phrase to remind yourself of – perhaps as a mantra!

Remember that you cannot fight chaos and narcissism with more chaos. Showing kindness and respect, even if in neutral and indifferent civil ways, will allow you to remain sane, clear-headed, and calm. It will also allow you to stay as clear as possible from your partner’s harmful actions.

Be your own best friend

To get through this successfully, you need to be your own best friend; you need to practice self-love and show up for yourself because your narcissistic ex-partner isn’t going to show you anything but spite.

Managing conflict is not just about what you can do for the other person or situation as a whole, but it is about what you can do for yourself. Being your best self for you allows you to show up as your best self for others who may need you during this time (e.g., your children).

Shifting your energy and intentions in a way that states that you are self-loving, self-respecting, and not going to tolerate anything other than peaceful and ethical cooperation means that the situation will likely flow better than if you didn’t commit to these things.

Mindset can be a very powerful tool, and it projects outwards, also influencing your physical reality and the experiences you attract.

Get a support system

The importance of peer, family, and friendship support cannot be overlooked when going through a separation from a narcissist. Your ability to manage conflict is largely influenced by the amount of support that you have in your life.

It can be both a coping mechanism and an essential aspect of your recovery and conflict resolution. Narcissists thrive off the social support and cooperation of others, so it is imperative that you arm yourself with a social support network as well.

Going through the separation and divorce process from anyone can be painful and emotional. It is, in fact, one of the top three most stressful events that a person can experience.

An empath separating from a narcissist adds a whole other layer of trauma that is difficult for people to understand unless they have experienced it themselves. It is vitally important that you allow yourself some space and grace to process your emotions and that you reach out for support when you need it.

There are many resources available to you, whether through family, friends, work, or community services.

Treat yourself with the same compassion and understanding as you would offer to a friend in this situation – remember that this pain is temporary and will one day end. It is okay to not be okay, and you are never, ever alone.

Mary Joye, LMHC

Mary Joye

Licensed Mental Health Counselor, Winter Haven Counseling

If you’re an empath, your greatest strength can be your greatest weakness. Your compassionate nature can easily be manipulated into a compulsion to be sucked back in by a narcissist through their tools of entrapment.

There are two main ways this can play out. If you are not ready to leave or don’t understand the true maladaptive behavior of a narcissist, they can employ your empathy to gain your sympathy.

For example, narcissists never apologize unless they have an agenda. If they apologize and give an excuse such as, “you don’t understand, I feel like a victim in the situation because you didn’t take the time to listen to me,” this could be a device of giving them the benefit of the doubt.

When you give someone the benefit of the doubt, they get all the benefit, and you’re left with self-doubt.

Beware if all of a sudden the narcissist does everything you ever wanted him or her to do before you left them. This proves they knew how to do it all along and chose not to instead of an actual, real change.

If you see a pattern of this (and you can’t break a pattern until you see it), don’t believe any statement they may make to make you think they’ve actually changed.

As an empath, you may mistakenly believe they have learned and transformed. They don’t change, but you can change your response to them.

A narcissist needs an entourage, and if you’re their main source of fuel as an empath, which you usually are, you may have stuck around for too long and put up with too much, overlooking your own needs. It will be very difficult to break ties with them or limit your exposure to them.

When you detach from them, they’ll do anything to anxiously reattach to you

You have to realize you have all the power when they begin to frantically seek your attention again. They may do this by gifts, grand gestures, or magnanimous promises to be better. Again, realize it’s too little too late.

If you are healed as an empath, and you’ve left a narcissist, be prepared for anything and everything they might do to make you look crazy, foolish, or unstable. They are the unstable ones and will project that onto you through triangulation and enlisting other people to make you come back to them.

These are usually people you care about and who care about you, so be very wise.

Resist the urge to triangulate this person in reverse, and the pop psychology term for this is “sending in the flying monkeys.” Realize it is another tactic they use to try to seek you to come back into the fold and do their bidding. Their bidding is always about control and making you feel bad about yourself because they secretly feel bad about themselves.

They project how they feel onto someone who’s a willing receptacle. Empaths are easy targets because they feel others’ feelings. They naturally want to help this person feel better, but taking on their own negativity and depleting yourself in every way is not the answer.

A very strong empath feels wonderful about themselves when they make a decision to finally walk away and quit allowing someone to harm them. Their power is completely restored, and nothing can make them waiver.

That said, be very wary of how you detach and make sure any collateral damage they may try to inflict on you or use to influence others against you will be something you can live with or without, depending on the relationship.

A narcissist wants you to love them more than you love yourself.

When an empath learns to love themselves, the narcissist may attempt everything they can to pull the empath back down, so be prepared. Narcissists are emotionally predatory by nature, but if you are a strong empath and no longer wish to be their target or prey, you are ready to release them back into the wild of their own making.

Education is liberation, and if you are an empath and constantly get sucked in by these people, understanding your responsibility and part of it will help you to release them and release yourself from them.

Jenny Walters, MA, LMFT

Jenny Walters

Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, Choosing Therapy

Empaths will deeply fear that they are a narcissist themselves

One of the first things that happen to an Empath when they leave a relationship with a Narcissist is that they will deeply fear that they are a narcissist themselves. Taking a step toward yourself by acknowledging what you need and letting go of the idea that it’s all your fault will feel selfish and wrong.

It can feel like you are lacking empathy or care for the person you are leaving, and this triggers anxiety that you are the one who is behaving narcissistically.

By attuning to your emotional needs, prioritizing them, and taking steps to take care of yourself, you are cultivating healthy narcissism within yourself (yes, there’s such a thing as healthy narcissism).

But for the empath, healthy narcissism will feel bad and dangerous, like pathological narcissism, because it’s so unlike the empath’s habit of always being attuned to the needs and feelings of others.

Keischa Pruden, LCMHCS, LCAS, CCS

Keischa Pruden

Owner/Therapist, Pruden Counseling Concepts

Feelings of intense sadness, guilt, responsibility for the narcissist’s feelings

Because empaths experience emotions more intensely than others, leaving a narcissist will more than likely result in the following ways:

  • Feelings of intense sadness, guilt, responsibility for the narcissist’s feelings;
  • Wanting to possibly reunite with the narcissist – “hoping against hope” that maybe the narcissist will change their behavior;
  • Withdrawal from others as the empath attempts to figure out what went wrong and possibly blame themselves or “fix it.”
  • The appearance of or increased intensity of: depression, anxiety, transition issues, or a combination of both.
  • The narcissist will view the empath as the villain and attempt to turn other people against the empath;
  • The narcissist may attempt to guilt the empath into getting back with them.

Alexander Burgemeester

Alexander Burgemeester

Neuropsychologist and Owner, The Narcissistic Life

The narcissist will immediately begin to guilt-trip the empath

When an empath leaves a narcissist, this can turn ugly very quickly. Empaths are very emotional and big-hearted people and tend to be naïve and have characteristics of a hopeless romantic. Because of this, they are often seen with those who have narcissistic behavior.

When an empath sees the toxicity of the relationship and they decide to leave, the narcissist will immediately begin to guilt-trip them. They know what it takes to manipulate the empath and will use every tactic in the narcissistic handbook to bring them down by gaslighting, threatening them, and spreading false information about the empath.

The empath will feel terrible and might go back to the narcissist

The empath will then feel terrible and might go back to the narcissist because their tactics worked on them. If they do not go back to them, however, the narcissist will most likely never leave them alone. It is a very difficult situation for someone to be in and can ruin many people’s lives.

Brother Jeremy Golan HBA, BMGT

Jeremy Golan

Guidance Counselor, Inspiration Learning Center and Private School

The narcissist will try to lure the empath back to reinstate their dominion

Both the empath and the narcissist constitute two parts of a symbiotic relationship, both feeding off each other. The empath must leave to protect themselves from being emotional prey, being subject to additional harm or risk. Their counterparts will find it difficult to let go, especially due to the direct hit on their self-esteem.

They will try to lure the empath back, not to make them happy but to instead reinstate their dominion.

The narcissist may try to isolate the empath

This cycle can perpetuate for many iterations, escalating risk with every return. The narcissist may try to isolate the empath, destroying any potential resources that may come between them. This is the most important time for support, whether it be from family or friends.

The nature of the narcissist is parasitic, looking for nurturing “hosts” to put their problems on.

They are hurting, but they will externalize their anxiety, cutting off everyone they love. Eventually, everyone leaves them (gender-inclusive), solidifying their vengeful nature.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can an empath ever have a healthy relationship with a narcissist?

It’s unlikely that an empath can have a healthy relationship with a narcissist because the two personality types are fundamentally incompatible. Narcissists lack empathy and often exploit and manipulate others for their own gain, which is the opposite of what empaths need in a relationship. 

Empaths need to prioritize their own emotional well-being and seek relationships with people who are capable of treating them with kindness and respect.

Can an empath learn to protect themselves from narcissistic abuse?

Yes, empaths can learn to protect themselves from narcissistic abuse by setting boundaries and learning to recognize and respond to manipulative behavior. Here are some strategies to try:

• Learn to recognize the warning signs of a narcissistic relationship.
• Practice saying no and setting boundaries with the narcissist.
• Seek support from friends and family who understand what you’re going through.
• Build your self-esteem and self-confidence through self-care practices such as meditation or therapy.
• Consider working with a therapist or coach who specializes in helping people who have experienced narcissistic abuse.

Can an empath help a narcissist change their behavior?

It’s unlikely that an empath can change a narcissist’s behavior because narcissists often lack insight into their behavior and resist change. It’s important for empaths to prioritize their own well-being and not get caught up in the cycle of trying to change a narcissist. It’s up to the narcissist to take responsibility for their own behavior and seek help if they want to change.

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

Healing from a narcissistic relationship can be a long and challenging process, and the amount of time it takes to complete depends on the individual.

Some factors that may affect the healing process include the length and intensity of the relationship, the amount of trauma and abuse experienced, and the person’s support system and coping skills.

It’s important for empaths to be patient and kind with themselves and to seek out support and resources to help them heal.

How can an empath rebuild their self-esteem after leaving a narcissistic relationship?

Rebuilding self-esteem after leaving a narcissistic relationship can be a difficult process, but there are strategies that can help. Here are some things you can try:

• Focus on self-care practices such as exercise, eating healthy, and getting enough sleep.
• Surround yourself with supportive friends and family members who understand what you’re going through.
• Practice self-compassion and forgiveness and try to let go of self-blame and guilt.
• Challenge negative self-talk and replace it with positive affirmations and self-talk.
• Seek therapy or counseling to help you heal from the trauma of the relationship and strengthen your self-esteem.

How can empaths prevent themselves from falling into another narcissistic relationship?

Preventing oneself from falling into another narcissistic relationship can be a proactive process that involves setting boundaries, recognizing warning signs, and prioritizing self-care. Here are some things to try:

• Practice self-awareness and think about what you need in a relationship and what warning signs to look out for.
• Talk openly with potential partners about your needs and boundaries.
• Trust your gut and listen to your intuition when it comes to new relationships.
• Practice self-care and self-love to boost your self-esteem and self-confidence.
• Seek therapy or counseling to help you work through any remaining trauma or emotional wounds from the previous relationship.

Can empaths and narcissists ever coexist peacefully?

It’s unlikely that empaths and narcissists can peacefully coexist in a romantic relationship because the two personality types are fundamentally incompatible. However, empaths and narcissists can have a functioning relationship in other contexts, such as a work relationship or friendship. 

In these cases, it’s important for empaths to set clear boundaries and communicate openly with the narcissist about their needs and expectations. It’s also important for empaths to prioritize their own well-being and not get caught up in the narcissist’s manipulative behavior.

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