At its core, narcissism is selfishness and entitlement taken too far. Narcissists stretch the boundaries of self-confidence to embody a superiority complex and exhibit a lack of empathy toward others. Living with or loving a person who has narcissistic traits is no easy feat. In fact, due to narcissists' manipulative behaviors, it may be months or even years before a partner realizes that something is truly wrong. By then, they may have normalized narcissistic abuse and have no clue how to recover.
Here, licensed psychotherapists Carrie Mead, LCPC, and Kimberly Perlin, LCSW-C, explain the telltale signs of narcissistic abuse, how narcissistic abuse syndrome is diagnosed, and offer tips to heal from a toxic relationship with a narcissist.
What is narcissistic abuse?
Narcissistic abuse is a specific form of abuse perpetrated by narcissists. According to Mead, it typically looks like one partner manipulating the other for personal gain.
"It is a form of relating with another where one demeans and controls the other," Perlin explains. She says whether the control is explicit, (e.g., I don't want you going over to your mother's house) or more subtle (e.g., I wish you wouldn't go out because I really need you tonight), the narcissist's goal is to keep their partner dependent on praise and preoccupied with the narcissist's needs.
Narcissistic abuse also tends to involve copious amounts of gaslighting, Mead adds. "This means they deny any wrongdoing when confronted by their partner, and they flip the situation in such a way that the victim is now to blame for whatever felt abusive."
When this happens repeatedly, the victim begins to question their own self-worth, intuition, and reality. In Mead's experience, abusers also alienate victims from friends and family so the victim feels isolated, alone, and afraid.
"There can be physical abuse, controlling one's money, free time, friendships, and opinions. The non-abusive partner is often called names, their motives are questioned, and they are told how to feel," Perlin adds. The abusive partner may justify these actions by claiming to be well intentioned.
Where narcissism comes from.
While narcissists display various patterns, the psychology behind narcissism shows that this kind of self-aggrandizement typically comes from a deep-seated sense of shame. Perhaps a person has developed a maladapted way of covering up a personality or physical flaw, or they are hoping to distance themselves from some element of their past that makes them feel small or powerless.
Perlin says that narcissism often stems from childhood experiences. "A parent may have either trained you to care for their needs or neglected you by catering to all whims, thus setting up the expectation that others would as well," she offers. Another explanation is that people who were abused and demeaned as children may have normalized such behaviors and carried them into adult relationships.
Some say that narcissism can be easiest to identify in people with the power and money to self-isolate, meaning that they can control their environment enough to minimize contact with people who give them negative or critical feedback. Yet, an extreme need to be the center of attention or disregard others' feelings can also take the form of feigning victimhood or unhealthy codependency.
The fact is that narcissism is hard to diagnose. There are no medical tests that identify it, so psychologists consider an amalgam of signs and symptoms that alone might be perfectly healthy traits. Therapists use a chart of the most common behaviors associated with narcissistic personality disorder to see if a person is displaying an abnormal sense of grandiosity, perfectionism, or self-loathing associated with the condition.
Narcissistic abuse syndrome.
"Narcissistic abuse syndrome occurs when one is abused and demeaned so much by another that they believe they deserve the abuse," says Perlin. "They can no longer distinguish their thoughts from the abuser's. At times they cannot recognize when their abuser is lying to them, even when they have evidence of the lie. Victims learn to auto-agree with the abuser without questioning or considering their own thoughts."
Mead says that after being in a relationship with a narcissist, it is common to feel mentally, emotionally, physically, and spiritually drained. Some people suffer physical symptoms of prolonged stress, like difficulty sleeping, digestive problems, and anxiety-induced attacks or triggered reactions.
"Recovering from toxic or narcissistic relationships takes time," she says. "You feel fragile, unsure of yourself, and unable to trust. These are all signs that you are in recovery from an abusive relationship." With time and help from a professional psychotherapist, you can heal.
Warning signs to look out for.
Below are some specific tactics narcissists might use to control their victim. The order and magnitude of these behaviors can vary based on how far the abuser is willing to go to get what they want. Unlike sociopaths, who seem to enjoy witnessing others in pain, narcissists just enjoy getting what they want. They don't necessarily revel in the situations they produce and may not even notice that they are hurtful. When their immediate goal has been met, abusive behaviors may recede—only to return when there is something new at stake.
Keep an eye out for these early warning signs:
People who exhibit the traits of narcissistic personality disorder are prone to display controlling behaviors. At first, it may seem like they just want to control their partner's time and attention, but they will increasingly demand more. They may insist that their likes are adhered to, and they may even try to get their significant other to exclusively take part in activities that are pleasing to or benefit the narcissist. While some controlling behaviors are subtle, all are persistent. Expect that a narcissistic person will lie, cheat, or withhold information to get their way repeatedly. For narcissists, control is equivalent to power.
Narcissistic abusers are self-aggrandizing and self-centered. They manipulate others into giving them an excessive amount of attention by displaying a variety of antics that range from entertaining to violent. Sometimes, displays of violence make others awe-struck. Other times, they intimidate. Either way, narcissists want to be held up on a pedestal, and they don't care who they have to step on to get there. They are also known to have unpredictable mood swings that ensure that their victim is hyper-attuned to the narcissist's feelings and expends a great deal of energy trying to anticipate their whims and wants.
Psychologists say that gaslighting is manipulation meant to disorient. This technique is employed to make another person question their reality. A person may feign to have forgotten an incident or deny knowing about a situation to which they were integral, or they'll cast doubts on others' perceptions and memories. The entire point of this technique is to remain in a powerful position in relation to others.
Narcissists will try to make other people feel like their own judgment or memory is unreliable, which helps the narcissist's narrative of the truth prevail. Once in control of the narrative, they believe they can control outcomes to their own benefit.
Narcissistic abusers may try to isolate their partner, often as a precursor to harsher forms of abuse. By removing a person's support system, including relatives, friends, and social networks, the narcissist makes themselves the primary source of affection, validation, and support. Also, keeping a person away from the gaze of loved ones who know them best can buy an abuser time to secure control.
The narcissist will try to keep their victim from spending time with loved ones and friends, particularly ones who ask questions about how much the victim has changed since being with the narcissistic partner or those who display disapproval toward this partner. The narcissist may also try to break bonds of trust by lying or speaking poorly of their partner's loved ones, or they may create confrontation or emergencies to ensure that the partner is too distracted to make or keep plans with others.
Victims report feeling disoriented about social norms after having been disconnected for so long. After becoming accustomed to controlling behaviors, a victim may not know how to behave "appropriately" around others. This might look like being standoffish in social settings or avoiding those who the narcissist may deem threatening. A lack of grounding relationships outside of the abuser results in the victim's social isolation.
Creating mistrust for those outside the relationship
Mistrust of others is a natural progression from social isolation. Narcissists often lie or manipulate fragile situations to ensure that they are their victim's most trusted source of information. Therefore, victims often rely upon their abusers to confirm the "truth" or to verify when conditions are "safe." Narcissists may actively sow seeds of distrust in the victim's mind around previously trusted loved ones, as well as authority figures or professional experts whose advice contradicts the thoughts or ideas of the narcissist.
Digital invasions of privacy
While sometimes isolation is imposed physically, such as by moving away from a person's home city or state, many victims also report technological restrictions, like GPS trackers, social media blocking, or stealing passcodes. These invasions of digital privacy can be just as intrusive and damaging as physical isolation. Abusers may go so far as to create a fake profile to interact with their victim online to test their victim's loyalty. They may even threaten to share intimate images or secrets on social media networks. Invasions of digital privacy are among the many controlling behaviors meant to ensure the victim's full dependence and compliance.
Narcissists use put-downs and insults to ensure that their victims never trust their own judgment. Verbal abuse is used to belittle or degrade the other person, though it can often be subtle. Hurtful comments about a person's decisions or physical appearance may be said in jest or posed as positive encouragement (see negging).
In its most egregious form, verbal snipes become emotional abuse. Name-calling, blaming, and judging can give way to threats, yelling, and the silent treatment. And while verbal abuse may not involve physically touching a person, these interactions can still be violent. Narcissists' superiority complex also helps them justify bullying and harassment.
Threats of physical violence
While narcissistic abuse tends to focus on emotional manipulation, these abusers may still break things, hurt others (or threaten to do so), or inflict self-harm to punish or instill fear in a partner. Remember, narcissists want attention. When manipulation is no longer working, they may grow more aggressive and coercive. Their delusions of grandeur commingle with arrogance, and their inability to self-regulate can lead to violent outbursts, threats, and scary episodes.
Hoovering is a form of emotional blackmail that's common among narcissistic abusers. This technique is coined after the vacuum company because it sucks a person back into another cycle of abuse. When an abuser feels that they are starting to lose control, they may go through a cycle of trying to make things better. This could look like finally validating the victim's feelings or easing prior restrictions on social behaviors and interactions. But this refractory period tends to be rather brief. As soon as the abuser regains the victim's trust, they recommence the cycle of social isolation and control.
Victims of narcissistic abuse report the inability to make independent choices or decisions, particularly anything that involves physical separation. Codependency and physical togetherness are part and parcel of the abovementioned control techniques. Narcissists thrive on tipping the scales in their favor, so they may overstep normal boundaries to ensure that they are always one step ahead. Victims report that abusers read their journals, diaries, or private emails. Other basic boundaries like being able to use the restroom alone or making decisions about one's own body (i.e., diet, exercise, clothing, etc.) are commonly violated.
Instilling fear of negative reactions
Narcissistic abusers enjoy when others display fear and anxiety that could be used to get what they want. Victims may be visibly afraid of the abuser but also psychologically anxious about how to predict or improve the abuser's reactions. This can look like indecision on the part of the abused, who may be paralyzed by fear of making the wrong move or anxious about overstepping boundaries set by the narcissist. Or it could turn the victim into their partner's gofer, who always tries to meet the abuser's needs before an outburst begins. Abuse may be most visible when the victim does menial and degrading tasks either to minimize their partner's negative reactions or to try to avoid them altogether.
Researchers say that some narcissism comes from guilt or shame from childhood experiences. Even in adulthood, those nuggets of self-doubt might be buried but not forgotten. Thus, to get that validation, many adult abusers people-please or strategically over-accommodate people they think will help them get ahead. Abusers may volunteer for activities or situations simply to impress others, even when these situations are difficult or counterproductive.
Narcissists have a way of making their victims feel like they're walking on eggshells. Victims of narcissistic abuse may find themselves suffering from hypervigilance or racing thoughts. In an attempt to satisfy or appease the abusive partner, they may constantly run scenarios through their head to imagine how their partner will react. Implicitly, narcissists have ingrained a code of conduct. Therefore, censorship becomes the norm.
Partners of narcissists may say things, like "I don't want to say the wrong thing. You should really ask him/her what is best. I'm afraid I'll say or do something that s/he won't like. It is best that I stay out of this." All of these statements show a power dynamic tipped toward the side of the abuser.
Excuses for bad behavior
Narcissists don't take criticism lightly, and they often train their victims to do their blocking. This means a victim may try to intervene before criticism gets to the narcissist. They may improve a situation quietly and let the abuser take credit. Or they will make excuses to soften the blow.
A person who has been subject to abuse for a prolonged period may make comments like, "Don't say that about them. You don't know them like I do. They're dealing with a lot and don't normally act this way."
These are common cover-ups. Victims may be saying this because they truly do believe that their partner is good, but often it is a self-preservation mechanism. To save face, a narcissist may appear to take bad news well publicly, but privately they can take out their anger and insecurities on the victim.
A history of abuse in past relationships
It is common for both victims and abusers to have a history of abuse, whether physical, mental, emotional, or a combination. This shared empathy toward one another's pain might have been one of the things that attracted such partners in the first place. But old patterns die hard, and both parties may find themselves replicating those old situations. A victim in one relationship can be an abuser in another; this is particularly true in cases of abused parents, who might take out their stress on children or teach them behaviors to cope with a dysfunctional or abusive household. Anyone who normalizes manipulation, lying, and controlling others has likely been exposed to abuse before—whether as the victim or the perpetrator.
How to deal with it & seek help.
Although it is possible for a narcissist to seek treatment, it is rare. They are unlikely to see anything wrong with their behavior and may only get treatment when required to do so. Mead says that in cases of divorce, custody battles, or legal disputes, mandatory counseling may be revelatory for these individuals. But for those coping with the effects of a narcissist's wrath, treatment is much easier to obtain and more likely to result in meaningful change.
Recovering from toxic relationships takes time because, after such a relationship, everyone seems threatening. The manipulation of such a partnership has likely isolated victims from a social system that could help in recovery, so it is essential to revisit the past to understand better how to start fresh.
"In therapy, we also explore why and how you got into this relationship. Often this involves exploring unhealed childhood wounds and lifelong people-pleasing behavior," Mead explains. "When trust in self and trust in others returns, healing begins to take place."
The bottom line.
Falling in love with a narcissist is easy to do, but staying in love is not. Admitting that your partner is a narcissist is an excellent place to start turning the tide on the power dynamic that narcissists prey upon. While your natural inclination might be to push them to get help, it is much more realistic for you to do so first.
Healing from narcissistic abuse begins with rebuilding your self-identity, restoring a self-care routine, and establishing personal boundaries that protect your mental and physical well-being. Regular healthy communication with a professional can offer new insights to improve the relationship or prepare the necessary groundwork for a safe breakup.
Talking through what happened in one toxic relationship tends to uncover many more lurking in the shadows. Some might be familial, making them much harder to walk away from permanently, and deep-seated in trauma or abuse. In those cases, holistic mental health therapy can help you heal from those traumas and set healthy new boundaries for the future. Seeking professional help is imperative to breaking patterns of physical and psychological abuse.
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Nafeesah Allen, Ph.D., is an American writer and independent researcher with a particular interest in migration, literature, gender identity, and diaspora studies within the global South. She completed her Ph.D. in Forced Migration from the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa. She completed a postgraduate diploma in Folklore & Cultural Studies at Indira Gandhi National Open University in New Delhi, India. She completed a Masters of International Affairs at Columbia University in 2009 and graduated cum laude from Barnard College at Columbia University in 2006.
Originally from New Jersey, she has lived in Spain, India, Mozambique, Angola, and South Africa. She speaks four languages (reads in three), but primarily publishes in English. Her writing placements range from popular trade magazines like Better Home & Gardens, Real Simple, and Whetstone to academic journals like Harvard’s Transition Magazine, the Centre for Feminist Foreign Policy, and the Oxford Monitor.