A narcissist is someone who has a very high opinion of themselves and has very little ability to empathize with others. Narcissism is a spectrum and at the most extreme end is Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) [1].

What is narcissistic abuse?

People with NPD commonly manipulate and emotionally abuse the people around them, in order to gain something for themselves. Often, NPD develops in people who have experienced trauma or abuse in their childhood, sometimes narcissistic abuse, thereby creating a narcissistic abuse cycle [2][3].

While this can help professionals understand why NPD occurs, it does not excuse abusive behavior.

Narcissistic abuse can occur in all types of relationships, from a parent to a child, between siblings, in a romantic relationship, within friendships, and within workplace dynamics.

Narcissistic abuse can be very traumatic to experience and often leaves people with feelings of shame, guilt, and low self-worth [4]. Narcissists use manipulative tactics to control and isolate their victim and gain power over them. It can be very challenging to recover from the effects of narcissistic abuse, but with the right support healing is possible.

Signs of narcissistic abuse

Gaslighting

Gaslighting is a form of emotional manipulation that occurs when an abuser is called out for their behaviors and instead of acknowledging their wrongdoings, they turn these accusations back to you. They might accuse you of lying about a situation, pretend something didn’t happen, or say it is not them but you that is to blame for this wrongdoing.

It is a common technique used by narcissists to deflect blame from themselves onto others and confuse or manipulate their victim. You may then feel the need to apologize, start believing you are too sensitive, or start blaming yourself every time something bad happens.

Arrogance

People with NPD often need a lot of affection or admiration from others and believe that they are very important and special. They may lie about their achievements or ignore or diminish others’ achievements.

Withholding

Narcissists will use withholding as an exertion of their power, such as withholding money, physical or emotional affection, or communication. They might refuse to speak with you until you apologize (often for something you haven’t done) or give them what they want, which reinforces their level of control and decreases your own.

Love bombing

People with NPD can be incredibly charming and affectionate at times. This is how they maintain their control, as they shower you with love, forcing you to think they are a good person and that they love and care for you, before restarting their abusive behaviors.

Regularly changing between loving and abusive behaviors can leave you feeling confused and with a low self-worth. This emotional manipulation is done on purpose, so that when they do show loving behaviors you feel special, and preventing you from wanting to leave them, as you are always waiting for these moments of ‘love’.

Insults

To make themselves feel strong and powerful, narcissists often put others down. They will regularly insult their victim, either with blatant insults about their appearance or intelligence, or with sly and underhand insults that can be difficult to pinpoint, but still leave you feeling bad and vulnerable.

Sabotage

Sabotage is a common tactic within narcissistic abuse. They will often damage or destroy your friendships, professional success, or other positive areas in your life, so that you become more and more reliant on them, and they can feel more powerful.

Isolation

Abusers will often try to isolate their victim from their loved ones, so that they have no one to talk with who will confirm their abuse or who will convince them to leave their abuser. They may tell lies about your friends or family, or give you ultimatums and force you to choose, thereby removing your support system.

Financial exploitation

Narcissists often use their power to control their victim’s finances, take money from them, or gamble with their money. They may lie about why they need the money, so you feel guilty if you don’t give it to them.

This can be hugely damaging if they leave you with nothing or in large amounts of debt. They may continue to declare that they will return the money, but this just increases their level of control, as they know their victim will stay with them in the hopes of their finances being restored.

Lying

Lying is a form of emotional manipulation that is often second nature to narcissists, as it can help them shield their abusive behavior, add to their importance, and make others seem worthless.

It can be difficult to spot lies, particularly if the narcissist is very good at it, but they will often become increasingly evident as you step further away from the abusive relationship.

Lack of empathy

People with NPD are typically incapable of feeling empathy for others [9], so even if their partner or loved one is upset or hurt, they will not show any compassion. A lack of empathy is how they are able to emotionally, physically, or financially abuse people while feeling no guilt or need to stop this behavior.

How to break free from narcissistic abuse

Recognize abuse

The first step to breaking free from narcissistic abuse is being able to recognize that you are being abused. This can be very difficult, as the narcissist’s behaviors are intended to convince you otherwise, keeping you under their control.

If you have friends or family that you can speak to, they can help you recognize the signs of abuse you are experiencing and provide you with support in leaving this toxic relationship.

Set boundaries

Do all you can to stay away from the abuser and remove all contact. They will likely try to draw you back in, making promises and showering you with love, or making threats to harm you or themselves. If you are afraid for the wellbeing of yourself or someone else, call the police.

Utilize your support system, who can show you examples of real empathy and love and remind you of the abusive behaviors you experienced should you feel the desire to return to your abuser.

Ask for help

Narcissistic abuse can cause you to feel embarrassed or guilty, preventing you from going to others with your concerns for fear of their judgment. This is how your abuser has intended for you to feel, but in actuality, your loved ones will not judge you and will be glad to support you in leaving an abusive relationship.

Getting support when you have a narcissistic partner

It can be very difficult to seek support when you are in a relationship with a narcissist, as they will try to isolate you from your loved ones and may be very controlling about where you go or who you meet.

If you can, try to maintain some kind of support system from family or friends. You may feel uncomfortable hearing your loved ones speak badly of your partner, but if they are trying to alert you to abusive behaviors, it is important to listen and trust that they are trying to help you.

There are people who can provide therapy sessions online, so you don’t have to leave your home if this is difficult. A therapist can help you with rebuilding your confidence and self-worth, giving you the tools you need to break free from your abuser.

Unfortunately, people with NPD are unlikely to be able to change their behaviors, so as much as you may want to, you won’t be able to help them stop [10]. Any attempt to offer them therapy or other emotional support may be met with aggression [11], so just focus on getting support for yourself and healing from your traumatic experiences.

What happens after a relationship with a narcissist ends?

Following narcissistic abuse, you may experience an emotional, behavioral, or cognitive impact [12].

Many people experience depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), shame, or guilt, and may withdraw from society because of this. Narcissistic abuse is intended to destroy your self-worth, so these negative emotions are common and can be hard to bounce back from.

Similarly, narcissistic abuse can cause people to turn to drugs, alcohol, self-harm, or other negative coping strategies to cope, as a way of numbing or managing their pain.

It is normal to feel these things following trauma and abuse, but there are ways that you can overcome or manage these emotions, with the right support.

What is narcissistic abuse syndrome?

Abuse survivors can experience very similar symptoms to PTSD, also known as narcissistic abuse syndrome, such as flashbacks, nightmares, constant fear, shame, a confused sense of self, questioning things that you think and feel, invasive thoughts, and suicidal ideation [12].

Narcissistic abuse can be incredibly traumatic, and the brain responds to trauma in different ways. It is not unusual to be severely affected by trauma and abuse and you should not feel ashamed to ask for help in managing these symptoms.

If you experience any thoughts of harming yourself or others, or of ending your own life, contact a medical professional immediately.

How can narcissistic abuse affect other relationships?

Following a relationship with a narcissist, it can be very difficult to trust any potential future partners. You may believe that you are not worthy of love, so you push people away, or you may think that you will be abused again, and thus be reluctant to enter a relationship.

It may also be difficult to communicate openly with others, as the abuser has shown you that honesty will be met with aggression or other abusive behaviors [10]. You may feel the need to try and please others, for fear of punishment.

Therapy and support can help you change these expectations of others and teach you how to trust someone again. Your abuser showed you a warped view of what love looks like, but it is important to remind yourself that you are worthy of real love, honesty, and respect.

How to heal after narcissistic abuse

Therapy

  • Psychotherapy: A psychotherapist can help you regain your individual identity, manage your feelings of anxiety, depression, or fear, and help to rebuild your confidence. They can help you process what has happened to you and help you recover and move on.
  • CBT: Cognitive behavioral therapy is a specific therapy, designed to equip you with positive coping strategies and tools to manage harmful behaviors. This can be very useful in changing the patterns of thought and behavior that your abuser enforced in you.
  • Group therapy: Many people experience narcissistic abuse, and it can be helpful to your recovery to know that you are not alone. Discussing your experiences with others can help reduce feelings of shame and guilt, and learn from others how to cope and heal from these experiences. [13]

Build strong relationships

Rebuilding or forming positive relationships with others is important following abuse, as you may have been isolated from your loved ones or convinced that you are not worthy of love. Experiencing the love and support of people who truly care about you can show you that your abuser was wrong, that you are worthy of love, and that you are being supported in moving forward.

Build your confidence

Following narcissistic abuse, it can take time to rebuild your identity and confidence, as these are the things that your abuser has taken away from you. Try to do things that you enjoy, spend time with people that you love, and gain back control of your life.

Healing from trauma can be a very long process, but you don’t have to be defined by your traumatic experiences and can live a fulfilled and happy life.

Resources:

  1. Day, N.J.S., Townsend, M.L., & Grenyer, B.F.S. (2022). Pathological Narcissism: An Analysis of Interpersonal Dysfunction Within Intimate Relationships. Personality and Mental Health, 16(3), 204–216. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1002/pmh.1532
  2. Jabeen, F., Gerritsen, C., & Treur, J. (2021). Healing the Next Generation: An Adaptive Agent Model for the Effects of Parental Narcissism. Brain Informatics, 8(1), 4. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1186/s40708-020-00115-z
  3. Brummelman, E., Thomaes, S., Nelemans, S.A., Orobio de Castro, B., Overbeek, G., & Bushman, B.J. (2015). Origins of Narcissism in Children. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 112(12), 3659–3662. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1420870112
  4. Keohan, E. (2022). Narcissistic Abuse.TalkSpace. Retrieved from https://www.talkspace.com/mental-health/conditions/articles/narcissistic-abuse/
  5. American Psychiatric Association. (March 2022). Personality Disorders. In The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders(5thed., text rev.). APA. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1176/appi.books.9780890425787.x18_Personality_Disorders
  6. Thomas, N. (2022). Narcissistic Abuse: Signs, Effects, and Treatment. Choosing Therapy. Retrieved from https://www.choosingtherapy.com/narcissistic-abuse/
  7. Day, N.J.S., Townsend, M.L., & Grenyer, B.F.S. (2020). Living with Pathological Narcissism: A Qualitative Study. Borderline Personality Disorder and Emotion Dysregulation, 7(1), 19. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1186/s40479-020-00132-8
  8. Mitra, P., & Fluyau, D. (2022). Narcissistic Personality Disorder. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island, FL: StatPearls Publishing. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK556001/
  9. Ritter, K., Dziobek, I., Preissler, S., Rüter, A., Vater, A., Fydrich, T., Lammers, C.H., Heekeren, H.R., & Roepke, S. (2011). Lack of Empathy in Patients with Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Psychiatry Research, 187(1-2), 241–247. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1016/j.psychres.2010.09.013
  10. Määttä, M., Uusiautti, S., & Määttä, K. (2012). An Intimate Relationship in the Shadow of Narcissism: What is it Like to Live With a Narcissistic Spouse? International Journal of Research Studies in Psychology, 1(1), 37-50. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.5861/ijrsp.2012.v1i1.28
  11. Green, A., & Charles, K. (2019). Voicing the Victims of Narcissistic Partners: A Qualitative Analysis of Responses to Narcissistic Injury and Self-Esteem Regulation. SAGE Open, 9(2). Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1177/2158244019846693
  12. van der Kolk B. (2000). Posttraumatic Stress Disorder and the Nature of Trauma. Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience, 2(1), 7–22. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.31887/DCNS.2000.2.1/bvdkolk
  13. Ursano, R.J., Bell, C., Eth, S., Friedman, M., Norwood, A., Pfefferbaum, B., Pynoos, J.D., Zatzick, D.F., Benedek, D.M., McIntyre, J.S., Charles, S.C., Altshuler, K., Cook, I., Cross, C.D., Mellman, L., Moench, L.A., Norquist, G., Twemlow, S.W., Woods, S., Yager, J., …& Steering Committee on Practice Guidelines (2004). Practice Guideline for the Treatment of Patients with Acute Stress Disorder and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder. The American Journal of Psychiatry, 161(11 Suppl), 3–31.