Narcissistic abuse refers to the emotional, physical, sexual, or financial forms of abuse that a narcissist inflicts on others. This abuse can range from mild putdowns to severe, life-threatening violence.
If you’re in a relationship with a narcissist, you may frequently feel angry, confused, or alone. At times, you might even question your own reality and wonder if you’re the “crazy one.” These feelings and experiences can be indicative of narcissistic abuse.
Videos in this article feature clinical psychologist and MedCircle Certified Educator, Dr. Ramani Durvasula.
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Classic Signs of Narcissistic Abuse
Keep in mind that narcissistic abuse isn’t always easy to detect. As a result, you may not realize if and when it’s happening to you. That’s because true narcissists tend to be experts in manipulation and control- they know how to make themselves look good while putting other people down.
Let’s get into some of the classic signs.
The term gaslighting comes from the film Gaslight, where a narcissistic husband intentionally convinced his wife into believing she was “imagining things” by dimming their lights and telling her that it was all in her head when she questioned what was going on.
Gaslighting is a form of psychological abuse. When a narcissist gaslights you, they intentionally try to make you question your sanity, reality, or memories.
The narcissist may deny that a specific event happened. For example, if they called you a name last week, they might insist that they never actually said that.
Narcissists may belittle or demean your emotions. For example, they may say you’re overreacting or being too sensitive if you tell them they hurt your feelings.
They may use platitudes like, you should just be happy, or nobody else would get angry over something like that!
Many times, narcissists use small, white lies to make you doubt your reality. For example, you might suggest that you go to their favorite restaurant that night for dinner. They counter back, telling you they never said it was their favorite restaurant, even though you’re almost positive they told you so.
Manipulating Your Feelings
When a narcissist feels threatened by something or someone else, they might attempt to distort your reality by changing your perceptions.
For example, if they know you have a close relationship with your best friend, they may try to jeopardize that relationship. They might point out all the things your best friend does wrong. Or, they might try to convince you that you deserve “so much better” than them.
Narcissists are notorious for making dramatic, grandiose promises. However, when it comes time to putting action into place, they may fall short. Or, they may do the very thing they promised they wouldn’t do.
Emotional Blackmail and Smearing
Narcissists depend on power and control to feel important. When those needs feel jeopardized, they may react in extreme ways to restore their homeostasis.
Emotional blackmail may consist of dramatic and angry threats, attempts to punish your behavior, and intimidation. They may use this blackmail on you or on other people you love.
Smearing refers to how a narcissist may attempt to sabotage your reputation by making you look bad. For instance, they might spread rumors about you or share your vulnerable secrets to others. They might run to your friends and family and tell them all the awful things you allegedly did to them.
Additionally, they may take on a victim mentality to gain other people’s sympathy. With this approach, narcissists tend to emphasize all the things you did to hurt them.
Empathy refers to being able to identify how someone else feels. At its core, it’s standing in someone else’s emotions and being with them through this experience. Empathy is an essential component in healthy relationships- it’s what helps people feel connected and understood.
Narcissists understand that empathy is important. However, they don’t tend to naturally relate to other people’s emotions. Instead of viewing people as whole beings with needs and feelings, they usually perceive them as objects.
But to gain closeness, they will engage in cognitive empathy to solicit trust. Cognitive empathy isn’t about trying to share someone else’s emotional experience. It’s about simply trying to take another person’s perspective.
Narcissists tend to exploit empathy. They may appear to hang on your every word and listen to your needs intently- until they don’t. They may seem like they care about your struggles- until they use those very struggles against you.
While not all narcissists are violent, many violent people have narcissistic traits. For example, psychopaths often also meet criteria for narcissistic personality disorder.
Violence can include anything from sexual assault to any incidents of pushing, slapping, or hitting. It can also include hurting other people while having you witness it. Additionally, violence may also entail them threatening to hurt you (even if they don’t actually follow through with it).
Sometimes, the violence is premediated. However, other times, it can be spontaneous and impulsive. When a narcissist engages in violent behavior, it’s often because they feel out of control and want to punish something or someone else. They don’t necessarily have regard for how their actions will affect the other person.
Narcissistic relationships can be challenging to end. Many narcissists continue to “hoover” back into people’s lives for weeks, months, and even years.
Just like the well-known vacuum, hoovering refers to the narcissist trying to suck you back into the relationship. Hoovering tactics vary, but it’s a good idea to know some of the most common ones.
Overwhelming You With Affection
I love you more than anything! You mean the world to me! I would do anything for you!
These sentiments may be exactly what you long to hear after a difficult argument. The narcissist may know that, and they will declare these proclamations of love to reel you back in.
Even if they believe they love you, this kind of love mirrors that of obsession. It’s more about them getting their needs met than anything else.
The “Oops” Reaching Out
Oh, sorry, I didn’t mean to call you! But how have you been?
Sometimes, narcissists will “accidentally” reach out after a breakup. This might look like them “accidentally” friending you on social media, sending you a text meant for “someone else,” or “butt-dialing” you. Whatever their tactic, they intend to get you talking to them.
Having An Emotional Crisis
Narcissists may draw upon different crises to gain your attention. Sometimes, these crises are real. For example, maybe someone they loved died, or they had a medical scare. Other times, they may be more exaggerated or completely falsified. This hoovering technique can be difficult because nobody wants to see someone in pain.
Contrary to popular belief, narcissists can and do apologize for hurting people. That said, these apologies aren’t authentic. If you listen closely, the apologies often include:
- “You” language: You shouldn’t have said that! You shouldn’t have taken it that way!
- “It” language: I’m sorry it had to be that way. I’m sorry it didn’t work out.
- Tit-for-tat apology: I did that, but you did so much worse!
- Confused apology: I’m not even sure what I’m apologizing for right now.
Sometimes, when a narcissist truly feels threatened, they’ll offer to give you that “one special thing” you’ve always wanted them to do. They may show up with an engagement ring. Or, they might agree to finally attend couples counseling.
These promises can feel so encouraging at first. You may feel like you two are finally on the right track. Unfortunately, most of the time, these promises aren’t sustainable. Even if the narcissist has a fleeting desire to work on themselves, they tend to lose interest once they get what they want: your attention.
Coping with Narcissistic Abuse
If you realize that you’ve been struggling with narcissistic abuse, it’s normal to feel angry or scared. You may feel unsure about what to do next. Let’s get into some tips for coping with your situation.
Accept The Narcissism
Narcissistic personality disorder is a chronic condition. It is not something that someone chooses to experience. Most narcissists do not recognize how their behavior affects other people.
That’s why it’s important to accept the narcissist for who they are. Accept that they may not change their behavior. Accept how their actions impact you. Acceptance is the first step toward healing. It’s essential that you recognize that you cannot control or change other people.
Own Your Truth
Your feelings are real. Unfortunately, narcissists can chip away at your self-esteem and make you doubt your feelings and opinions. It’s up to you to stand in your truth.
To own your truth, focus on:
- Identifying your feelings as they arise.
- Allowing yourself to be in the present moment.
- Reminding yourself that you are allowed to have needs.
- Honoring your self-worth.
Focus On Your Self-Esteem
Recovering from narcissistic abuse often entails reexamining your self-esteem and self-worth. How do you feel about yourself? How do you treat yourself when you’re struggling? Do you accept abuse from other people?
It can be hard to work on your self-esteem if you don’t feel like other people value you. That said, the work starts with you. Think about all the good qualities you possess. Consider implementing more self-care in your daily routine. Take time to rest, eat well, and exercise. Even if it’s a slow process, it’s worth the effort.
Identify Your Boundaries
Boundaries are an integral part of a healthy, respectful relationship. Narcissists tend to disregard and even stomp over boundaries. However, many times, loved ones enable this behavior. They don’t want to hurt the narcissist, and they don’t want to create unnecessary drama.
That said, if you don’t set boundaries, you risk feeling resentful, unsafe, and unsupported. You are entitled to these boundaries, and it’s important for you to spend time thinking about them. Some examples of boundaries may include:
- Refusing to tolerate any name-calling.
- Avoiding sharing overly personal information about yourself.
- Leaving the situation if the narcissist becomes hostile.
- Restricting the time you spend together.
- Avoiding giving them money or other financial assistance.
Remember that your boundaries are only as effective as your ability to implement them. You can’t just say you’re going to do something and not follow through. If this happens, the narcissist will know they can continue manipulating you.
Anticipate Angry Reactions
Narcissists don’t usually respond well to change. They like things done their way, and they like to make the rules. If you set boundaries, you should anticipate some pushback. Pushback may look like them:
- Criticizing you for setting boundaries.
- Making fun of your feelings.
- Laughing at you and telling you that your needs are dramatic.
- Hurting you physically.
- Telling you that they aren’t going to listen to your rules.
- Agreeing with you, but then breaking them soon after.
By planning for these reactions ahead of time, you can brace yourself if they happen. Again, it’s important to only set the boundaries you know you can reinforce. Don’t set an ultimatum if you don’t intend to follow through with it.
Reach Out For Support
If you can’t avoid the narcissist, focus on cultivating healthy relationships with other people. You can work on rekindling old friendships or creating new ones. You may benefit from attending a support group or talking to a therapist. Sometimes, narcissists try to isolate people from their loved ones. If this is the case, it’s important to be safe when you reach out to others.
Consider Cutting Contact
It’s okay if you want to end a toxic, abusive, narcissistic relationship. You don’t deserve abuse and suffering. If you don’t see things getting better, it may be wise to walk away. Your self-esteem and personal safety might depend on it.
If you cut contact, it’s important to stick firmly to the plan. Don’t answer texts. Don’t respond to phone calls. Don’t ask your friends about how they’re doing. Choose to ignore any and all efforts they make to communicate with you.