Narcissistic Abuse

Typically, narcissistic abuse is perpetrated by people with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD). Narcissistic abuse can take many forms and can be perpetrated against most people. Read on for signs of narcissistic abuse and what to do if you have been a victim.

What is narcissistic abuse?

Narcissistic abuse is characterized by emotional, psychological, physical, sexual, or financial forms of exploitation. It is perpetrated by an abuser who is solely motivated by their own wants or needs.

The goal of a narcissistic abuser is to exert control over their victim’s behavior. They can deploy a range of tactics from critical remarks and accusations to outright violent threats.

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Narcissistic personality disorder

Typically, narcissistic abuse is perpetrated by people with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD). The American Psychiatric Association state that NPD is a mental health condition characterized by a prevailing sense of grandiosity, a lack of empathy, and a need for admiration.[1] 

For an individual to be diagnosed with NPD, at least 5 of the following traits ought to be evident by early adulthood:[1]

  • Grandiose sense of self-importance e.g. exaggerates talent and achievements and demands unwarranted acclaim.
  • Requires constant admiration
  • Believes they are special and ought to only be socializing with other special people
  • Fantasies of unlimited power, sex, and beauty.
  • A pattern of exploiting others to achieve their own ends
  • Jealous of others or believes others are jealous of them
  • Sense of entitlement and unreasonably belief they deserve special treatment
  • Inability to empathize with the wants and needs of others
  • A chronic pattern of arrogant behavior

Examples of narcissistic abuse

Narcissistic abuse comes in many different shapes and sizes and it’s not always clear to someone that they are being abused. Here are some common examples of narcissistic abuse:[2]

  • Gaslighting – When an abuser manipulates their victim to question their memories, perception of reality and sanity to exert control over them. Overcome by self-doubt and confusion, the victim becomes dependent on their abuser.
  • Accusations – A narcissistic abuser can constantly accuse their victim of lying or stealing. This puts the victim on the defensive and deflects from the abuser’s ulterior motives.
  • Lying – An abuser may spread lies about their victim to isolate them from their friends, family, colleagues, and wider community. This makes the victim easier to control.
  • Sabotage – When an abuser seeks to derail their victim’s career, goals, or other relationships to exert dominion over them. 
  • Withholding – After endearing themselves to you and snaring you into the relationship, narcissistic abusers may withhold money, resources, affection, praise or anything they deem their victim desires. The abuser’s intention is to diminish the self-confidence of their victim, thus exerting further control over them. 
  • Insults and criticism – A narcissist may deploy verbal abuse to eat away at their victim’s self-worth. They may claim they are joking or that the victim needs to ‘toughen up’. 

Related: Covert narcissism.

Narcissistic abuse in relationships

A relationship with a narcissistic abuser can leave a victim feeling isolated, bewildered, and that they are constantly at fault. Narcissists are skillful manipulators, and you may not realize you are being narcissistically abused by your partner for a long time.[3] Here are ways in which an individual can narcissistically abuse their partner in a relationship: 

Love Bombing

Whilst the start of a relationship can be a special time for couples to look back on, it can also be a period where narcissistic abusers seek to gain control of their partner. 

They may shower you with gifts and affection, constantly check up on you, and declare their love for you very quickly. This grandiosity can feel intoxicating and alluring, and you may not realize that this could be a narcissistic abuser ‘love bombing’ you to quickly gain your trust, affection, and ultimately your dependence.[4] 

When you are in a relationship, their behavior may quickly change from idealizing you to diminishing you, attempting to chip away at your self-worth and exert power over your behavior.[4]

Gaslighting

A common form of narcissistic abuse, gaslighting can occur at any stage of a romantic relationship. An abuser seeks to warp their partner’s sense of reality, manipulating them into recognizing the abuser’s version of events as truth. 

Examples of narcissistic abusers gaslighting their partner in romantic relationships include:

  • Blaming their partner for things that weren’t their fault e.g., the microwave breaking.[5] This may be to deflect criticism from themselves and preserve their low self-esteem and sense of grandiosity
  • Refusing to help with housework or child-rearing duties and claiming it is their partner’s fault for being disorganized, insane, and an irresponsible parent.[5]
  • Dismissing their goals or accomplishments external to the relationship as unimportant, as these all threaten the victim’s dependence on their abusive partner.[5]

The common thread in these scenarios is the narcissistic abuser’s intention to warp their partner’s perception of reality, lower their sense of self-worth and ultimately, exert control over their behavior.[5]

Narcissistic abuse in families

Narcissistic abuse in families occurs when the needs of the caregiver, usually a parent, outweigh those of the children and/or the spouse. Rather than provide a nurturing environment in which the child can learn and grow, the narcissist will use the child to reinforce their own sense of self-importance. 

This creates a hierarchal system, with the narcissist at the top of the pyramid. They dictate, indirectly or directly, how the other family members ought to act. They reign supreme over the family and influence the roles each other member of the family takes on.[6]

Preserving a pristine, happy family image to the outside world is a key objective of a narcissistic parent. They see the family as a reflection of themselves to the wider public and as such, do not tolerate any behavior that makes them look bad to others.[6]

Other roles in a narcissistic family include:

The Enabler

This family member, generally a spouse, panders to the narcissistic abuser reinforcing their dominion over the rest of the family. They partake in the manipulation of other family members, support the narcissist’s attempts at gaslighting, and make excuses for the narcissist’s behavior.

They crave the narcissist’s approval and recognize that their best shot at getting it is by helping them achieve their ends.[6] 

Surrogate Parent

As narcissistic parents lack the empathy to tend to the needs of their children, the responsibility will be delegated to a child. This child will be expected to look after their siblings and be held accountable for their behavior. This can negatively affect their emotional growth.[6]

The narcissistic may lean on this child for emotional support, treating them as a “surrogate spouse”. This can stunt the child’s emotional development as they are not mature enough to process adult emotions. 

Golden Child

The narcissistic mother or father generally picks one child to dote upon due to some perceived aesthetic or intellectual superiority.[6] The narcissist may use this child’s behavior as an example to the outside world of how functional and impressive the family is. 

This child can grow up believing that they are special, and the narcissist may use this to pit them against their siblings with the prize being the narcissist’s approval.

Scapegoat

This is the person the narcissistic mother or father will take their anger out on. When anything contravenes the narcissist’s notion of a “perfect family”, the scapegoat will be blamed. They will be treated as an emotional punchbag, insulted regularly, and implicitly depicted as a failure to other family members.[6]

Other family members may join the narcissist, knowingly or unwittingly, in taking their rage out on this individual. The narcissist unites the family by pinning all of the dysfunction onto this one person.

Effects of narcissistic abuse

Below are some of the most widely reported symptoms for those who have been on the receiving end of narcissistic abuse.

Depression

Victims of narcissistic abuse often experience depressive symptoms. Being subjected to repeated bouts of criticism and dishonesty can heavily impact your mental health. You may experience profound feelings of worthlessness and self-loathing. These can cause you to isolate yourself from friends and family and shy away from previously enjoyed activities.

After years of being gaslit, you may find it hard to trust your own perceptions of reality. This can be dispiriting and worsen depressive symptoms. If you are experiencing depressive symptoms, talk to a medical professional and they can aid with a potential diagnosis and treatment plan

Anxiety

After ending your association with a narcissistic abuser, you may experience intense dread and anxiety at the prospect of relationships with other people. 

Victims may also experience anxiety at being separated from their abuser because they have been in their power for so long.

Narcissistic abuse can be incredibly traumatic, and the body internalizes trauma in many different ways. If you are experiencing panic attacks or any other physical pains related to your anxious thoughts, these can be worked through with a mental health professional and will ease over time.[7]

Cognitive difficulties 

Survivors of narcissistic abuse may find it hard to complete their everyday tasks, like their job, housework, or watching tv. Struggling with painful memories of abuse can interfere with your ability to focus on what is happening in the moment.

In some instances, you may endure short-term memory loss due to post-traumatic stress brought on by prolonged abuse.[8] 

After spending so much time with your guard up in your abusive relationship, you may feel on edge at all times regardless of whether there is any threat to you. This hypervigilance always keeps you in a state of high alert and can be exhausting. 

Substance abuse and behavioral addictions

To cope with trauma brought out by narcissistic abuse, sufferers may turn to substances to numb the pain. They may develop issues with alcohol abuse, smoking, substance abuse, developing an eating disorder, and other behavioral addictions

You may believe you deserved the abuse and want to punish yourself or you may simply want to numb your pain.

What to do if suffering from narcissistic abuse

Acknowledgment and acceptance

Acknowledging and accepting you are a victim of narcissistic abuse is key to your recovery. 

It may not be easy to face up to the reality that someone you care for can treat you so badly. You may have the urge to defend their behavior or believe you deserved the abuse. No one deserves abuse and this person had no right to narcissistically abuse you.

You may go through a range of emotions whether they be grief, or anger on your road to acceptance. Any way you feel is fine.

Repressing emotion is not conducive to your recovery, and learning that it is ok to express yourself without judgment will hold you in good stead for the future.

Setting boundaries

Ensure you set clear and concise boundaries with someone who has narcissistically abused you.

Unfortunately, narcissists may not respond to requests you make of them. They lack empathy and if your request does not align with their motives, they will disregard it. 

Whilst difficult, especially if the abuser is an ex-partner or family member, it is a necessary measure for your recovery. 

When you distance yourself from your narcissistically abusive partner, they may adopt drastic measures to get back into your life, such as suggesting they’ll self-harm if you don’t agree to see them.

Whilst you can encourage them to get professional help and wish them well, their behavior is unacceptable. They are well-versed in manipulating people’s emotional states. Maintaining distance whilst restricting communication will keep you safe and give you the space and time you require to heal.

If they continue to flaunt the boundaries you’ve set, cutting off contact completely is an option to consider. Block their number, email, and any other channel through which they may try and contact you. This can feel like an affirming step towards recovering from your abuse.

Seek professional help

Consulting a therapist or other mental health professional can help improve your emotional state.

The therapist can listen to your experience, provide helpful insight, and together you can form a plan to help you overcome the abuse you were subjected to. They can provide a safe space and offer expertise as you journey down the road to recovery.

If you are experiencing depressive symptoms, self-harming, or experiencing suicidal thoughts – get in touch with a medical professional immediately. 

Support group

Reaching out to abuse survivor communities and support groups on the internet or in real life can prove helpful. It may be therapeutic to share your story with others who’ve had similar experiences. 

Self-care

Narcissistic abuse can damage your self-worth and you may feel drained, careworn, and undeserving of anything positive. This is false and you did not deserve the abuse you were subjected to.

Ensuring you’re sleep patterns are regular, you’re eating nutritiously, exercising regularly, and partaking in activities you find enjoyable are all positive steps you can take toward recovery.