What is narcissistic abuse?

Learn how you can identify, protect yourself from, and defend against narcissistic abuse in your relationship.

To understand the definition of narcissistic abuse, you first need to understand what narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) is, as well as what we mean when we say “narcissist.”

What is narcissistic personality disorder (NPD)?

NPD is classified as a personality disorder by the mental health community; however, having this disorder does not necessarily mean that the diagnosed person will demonstrate abusive behavior toward other people. Officially, NPD is defined briefly as a personality disorder that manifests in an inflated sense of importance, a deep need for excessive attention and admiration, troubled relationships, and a lack of empathy for others.

The full diagnostic criteria for narcissistic personality disorder can be found here. NPD must be diagnosed by a qualified professional psychologist or psychiatrist.  You cannot self-diagnose. 

What is a narcissist?

A narcissist is a person who demonstrates extreme self-focus, grandiosity, and a distorted self-image. They might also be called a malignant narcissist or a pathological narcissist. In other words, someone who has NPD along with antisocial features, paranoid traits, and ego-driven aggression. They may also exhibit an absence of conscience, a psychological need for power, and an inflated sense of self-importance and entitlement. They usually take advantage of other people by using, manipulating, and taking resources from them without remorse. Narcissistic abuse refers to the behavior of a person who has been diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder or who demonstrates narcissistic traits but does not have a diagnosis.

What is narcissistic abuse?

Narcissistic abuse is a pattern of manipulation, gaslighting, and emotional abuse designed to modify a target’s sense of self-worth to meet the needs of the abuser. The term “narcissistic abuse” is used by many, including mental health professionals, but it’s not an official diagnosis.  Narcissistic abuse usually occurs in relationships where one partner is toxic, often someone who would be considered a malignant narcissist, and their partner is typically a codependent. The main goal of narcissistic abuse, like any other type of “abuse,” is to maintain power and control over the victim or “target.” Inside the mind and heart of a narcissistic abuser lies a myriad of manipulation tactics and psychological games.

In other words, narcissistic abuse happens when someone with a narcissistic personality uses other people for their own personal benefit. This type of abuse usually takes place over an extended period of time and is done in a way that the victim doesn’t even realize what is happening at first. It can be very confusing and difficult to identify and heal from because unlike other types of abuse, it happens very gradually and subtly – you may not even realize what’s happening until it’s too late.

 

Narcissistic abuse can take many forms, including:

(Scroll down for narcissist abuse FAQ)

What are the stages of narcissistic abuse?

If you want to know how narcissistic abuse affects the victim, keep reading and so you can understand the different stages of narcissistic abuse.

Love Bombing

Also known as the “idealization” phase, love bombing usually happens during the initial stages of a relationship with a narcissist. It’s where the narcissist is essentially infatuated with you and as a result, their perception attributes exaggeratedly positive qualities to the self and to the other person in the relationship. This can be related to a romantic partner or to any other kind of relationship.  Take the Love Bombing Self-Assessment here.

Devaluation

Devaluation happens when a narcissist tears you down emotionally, insults you (outright or covertly) and makes you doubt yourself and your self-worth. When effective, it can cause you to believe you don’t have a chance of finding someone better, or that you’re not worthy of love or consideration. The narcissist will often use devaluation to keep you from leaving by implanting such ideas in your head. Alternatively, some narcissists don’t recognize they’re doing it since it’s part of the standard cycle of abuse.

Discard 

Either literally or figuratively, the discard phase happens when the narcissist “throws you away,” or pushes you out of their life. This can happen as part of a rotating cycle of abuse, or it can be a final “break-up” or end of a toxic relationship. It might be done by silent treatment or ghosting. In many toxic relationships, victims are discarded over and over again, only to be hoovered back in for another round of narcissistic abuse. 

 

Hoovering

Often the fourth phase of the narcissistic abuse cycle, many narcissists will attempt to hoover you (or pull you back into the relationship) following the discard phase. This happens more often than you might expect, but it doesn’t always happen as quickly as you’d think. Hoovering is a term that was named after the famous vacuum cleaner company, Hoovering is what we call it when the narcissist tries to “suck you back in” after the discard. This can be drama-related or it can be an attempt to reconcile the relationship or to get you to break no contact

No Contact

No Contact is a healing and coping technique that is practically required to heal after narcissistic abuse. It involves removing yourself from the narcissist’s life. You stop seeing, speaking to, and interacting with the narcissist. This allows you to clear your life of the negative energy they bring into every room. It is not an easy choice and it’s not always easy to implement and stick with, but it’s literally the best way you can heal. 

What does a narcissist get out of narcissistic abuse?

When they are actively engaging in narcissistic abuse, narcissistic abusers behave in despicable ways. They may not realize this, but the truth is that they’re just doing what they’ve always done to get the attention and narcissistic supply they’ve always needed. They haven’t been taught the proper way to get their needs met because often, not only did their parents emotionally abuse and/or neglect them, but no one has dared to cross them throughout the years due to their volatile nature. And, worse, those who have seen through their “false self” are usually those closest to them, and those who bear the brunt of this abuse are most likely to try to call them out at least once, which inevitably leads to the intensity of their abuse being bumped up significantly.

Narcissistic Abuse FAQ

 

Identifying a Toxic Relationship

Narcissistic Abuse - What do narcissists do to their victims?

  • Narcissistic abuse refers to the way in which a narcissist deliberately constructs a false narrative in order to control and manipulate their victims.
  • Narcissistic abuse can take many forms: it can be verbal, emotional, psychological, sexual, financial, spiritual, and/or physical.
  • When you’re involved in a toxic relationship with an abusive narcissist, you may find yourself stuck in a state of mind called “hypervigilance” in which they are so closely monitored and so thoroughly invalidated that they are unable to separate their actual experience from the false reality created by the abuser.
  • The narcissist will also engage in “crazy-making” tactics designed to destabilize their victims. This includes the use of gaslighting, projecting, lying, disinformation, triangulation, corrupting/seducing the victim’s support system, and other forms of emotional and psychological abuse.
  • The types and manifestations of narcissistic abuse are endless; so too are its effects on its victims.

 

How can you identify narcissistic abuse?

“Narcissism falls along the axis of what psychologists call personality disorders, one of a group that includes antisocial, dependent, histrionic, avoidant and borderline personalities. But by most measures, narcissism is one of the worst, if only because the narcissists themselves are so clueless.” ~Jeffrey Kluger

If you’ve ever had a friend, family member or co-worker who is a narcissist or who suffers from narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), chances are you have been the victim of gaslighting, which is a manipulation technique they often employ to get what they want.

“Those who engage in gaslighting create a reaction — whether it’s anger, frustration, sadness — in the person they are dealing with,” writes Yashar Ali in a Huffington Post article. “Then, when that person reacts, the gaslighter makes them feel uncomfortable and insecure by behaving as if their feelings aren’t rational or normal.”

What is narcissist abuse?

According to PsychCentral:

Narcissistic abuse is the intentional construction of a false perception of someone else’s reality by an abuser for the purposes of controlling them. It has the following features:

  • The false reality is constructed through elaborate, covert deception and psychological manipulation over a long period of time.
  • The false perceptions created are of the abuser as someone who has the survivor’s best interests at heart and of the relationship as a beneficial one for the survivor.
  • The goal of the abuse is to allow the narcissist to extract whatever he or she perceives is of value from the partner, including attention, admiration, status, love, sex, money, a place to stay or other resources.
  • The abuser takes advantage of societal norms that assume everyone participates in social relationships with a basic level of empathy, which makes it easy for the abuser to convince the survivor (and everyone else) that no abuse is taking place.  
  • Because the abuse is “hidden” using deception, it is difficult for survivors to recognize, understand, and escape it.

What are codependency and enmeshment?

Enmeshment and co-dependency are two unfortunate byproducts of toxic family relationships. In a co-dependent relationship, one or both family members involved are psychologically influenced or controlled by the other–or they may need that other person to help fulfill their own needs or even to feel whole.

Related: What You Need to Know if You Love a Narcissist

While the term “co-dependent” was originally coined by the Alcoholics Anonymous recovery group, it has since been adopted by psychologists and other mental health professionals.

“A co-dependent person is one who has let another person’s behavior affect him or her, and who is obsessed with controlling that person’s behavior,” says author Melody Beattie, in her book, Codependent No More.

Enmeshment goes hand-in-hand with co-dependence. When you are enmeshed with another person, it means that you depend on that person to define your identity, your sense of being good enough or worthy of having good things in your life, your overall sense of well-being and even your own safety and security. Or, to put it more clearly–you are enmeshed when you can’t feel like a whole or satisfied person without the approval or presence of another person.

Being enmeshed with a toxic family member is unhealthy for all involved–it isn’t compatible with being an individual. Enmeshment takes away your personal power and the ability to manifest your true desires.

If you think you’re in a relationship with a narcissist, check out this resource page – and don’t forget to join my new online support group, SPAN, right here. 

How do we become trauma bonded with a narcissist?

You develop what appears to be extreme loyalty to the narcissist. But what you might really be dealing with is a whole other ball of wax.

See, because of the excessive pressure you’re under inside of the relationship, you might find yourself being almost rude to people on the outside.

Related: Narcissism Exposed – An Example of Gaslighting in Relationships 

This might be due to your desire to keep your narcissist happy and avoid another raging episode, or it might just be because you’re so mentally exhausted from dealing with him that you literally can’t deal with anyone else’s issues.

In any case, the narcissist gets what he wants yet again – you, isolated and under control.

How do you deal with a narcissist in a toxic relationship?

As with any other toxic family situation, it may be best to distance yourself from a person with NPD. This is especially true because they don’t generally realize that anything is wrong. Plus, there is currently no known “cure” for NPD–though if a person affected with it seeks therapy, change is possible. However, it’s very unusual for a person with NPD to seek therapy since they don’t see a problem with their behavior.

“Why would someone who thinks they’re special and great come for therapy?” Bloxham says.

What is love bombing?

Also known as the idealization phase, love bombing is how a narcissist gets you to commit to them and it’s what they use to intermittently reinforce the relationship throughout. In short, it’s how they keep you feeling tiny bits of hope as the relationship goes on, and in the beginning, it’s that the “honeymoon” phase that never fails to dazzle. In other words, people with NPD are good at making those around them, especially people who don’t know them intimately, believe that they are something special. Family members of people dealing with NPD will typically find themselves trying to please him or her, and feeling guilty if they fail. They may even be afraid of how the person with NPD will react if their desires can’t be met or if they are defied in some way.

Understanding Narcissistic Abuse

Is every abuser also a narcissist?

Not all abuse involves narcissists, but in a large percentage of abuse cases, a narcissist is involved. Pathological narcissists, also known as toxic narcissists and malignant narcissists, are those who have little to no empathy for the people around them and who act from that perspective. That is: they don’t care how you or anyone else feels, and you can tell because of the way they treat the people around them. They may be overtly narcissistic, or they may be more of a covert narcissist. In either case, anyone in a close relationship with one of these toxic people will be used as a form of narcissistic supply and not treated like an actual person. Sadly, even the most intelligent and educated people can be manipulated and abused by a narcissist.

Narcissistic Abuse and the False Narrative

  • Narcissistic abuse involves a sort of constructed reality that the narcissist weaves around you to both isolate and control you. In order to maintain the false reality, the narcissist will employ a number of tactics to manipulate you as their target.Let’s use the term “narrative” to refer to this false story created by the narcissist, whether it is a false perception of what happened in the past, what is happening now, or what will happen in the future. The narrative often revolves around a victim-perpetrator script that is repeated in cycles throughout a relationship that can span decades.

    The false reality created by the narcissist justifies serves three purposes their abuse in their minds.

    • It creates a false explanation for why you should be punished and how you should be mistreated by the narcissist and/or others (victim-blaming)
    • It provides an explanation for why you should accept control and abuse from the narcissist (victim-blaming).
    • It provides an explanation for why your needs and wants do not matter (again, victim-blaming).

     

What are some signs of a toxic relationship?

  • Overstepping Boundaries–Psychological boundaries are defined as perceptions or beliefs that people hold in relation to their social group memberships, including but not limited to families, as well as their own identities and overall self-concepts. In part, boundaries help us to distinguish ourselves from other people–you know, that thing which separates “I” from “We.” Boundaries also help us define how we are linked together within our families and extended families. Toxic family members often have trouble with boundaries. That is, they will often feel entitled to involve themselves in your life on an unhealthy level. They may try to make you feel responsible for their emotions or their circumstances, blame you for things that you have no control over or try to control you and your choices.
  • Unfair or Unrealistic Requirements–Toxic family members generally have different beliefs or perspectives than you when it comes to things like trust, responsibilities, money, time and attention. They may become angry if you don’t do as they wish, even if it doesn’t directly affect them–but especially if it does. For example, if you are unable to attend a family gathering, a toxic person might try to make you feel guilty or simply stop speaking to you.
  • Double Standards–Many toxic family members hold tightly to their own double standards. For example, they may expect you to keep their secrets or “have their backs” when other people gossip negatively about them, but they can’t or won’t offer you the same courtesy.
  • Manipulation–Toxic family members are master manipulators–and they will deny it if you call them on it. They will use every manipulation technique at their disposal in order to control you. They may cry, scream, argue, beg–anything they can think of to get you to do what they want, even if what they want isn’t what’s best for you. And, if the first technique doesn’t work, they’ll often move down the list.

Why is it so hard to live with a narcissist?

Why do narcissists feel the need to create such difficulties for the people in their lives? It has a lot to do with their need to be in control of every person, situation and thing they come into contact with – at least on some level.

For a narcissist, this is just par for the course – it’s how they manage relationships and how they keep themselves artificially elevated within their own fragile egos- they start by messing with your head.

Seriously. It’s all part of a complicated and convoluted manipulation technique called gaslighting.

Learn more about gaslighting and narcissism.

You become addicted to a narcissist’s approval. As his source of narcissistic supply, you seek it out, changing yourself entirely if necessary to get that coveted “atta girl/boy.”

Related: Inside a narcissistic attack

What is trauma bonding?

If you are experiencing trauma bonds you may notice how difficult it is to put any attention on yourself except to feel the pain of the trauma bonds. One effect of trauma bonding to a narcissist has on you is that it creates an overwhelming impulse to be thinking about the narcissist or trying to rationalize what happened in the relationship.

The gripping emotional pain and the way your mind wants only to think about the narcissist or the pain they caused you can make it feel impossible to even try when a suggestion of self-care is given. There are ways to help you through this and ideas for self-care which can be done simply throughout your day.

How can you tell if you're dealing with narcissistic abuse?

Ask yourself:

  1. Do you feel like you’re not good enough?
  2. Always feel like someone else’s needs are more important than your own?
  3. Does it sometimes feel like you’re not really a “REAL” person?
  4. Does someone in your life make you feel crazy?
  5. Do you sometimes doubt your own abilities?
  6. How about your own sanity – do you question it?
  7. Ever (sort of) joke that you’re “dead inside” and that nothing bothers you?

If you answered yes to any of the questions listed here, you might be dealing with narcissistic abuse.

How do you know if you're dealing with a narcissist in a toxic family relationship?

In general, if you feel like you’re being emotionally, physically, spiritually or otherwise abused, manipulated or mistreated by any family member on a regular basis, there is an element of toxicity.

Related: 44 Warning Signs You’re Being Emotionally Abused

These family members can include your spouse and other nuclear family members, but also extended family such as parents and in-laws, siblings, aunts and uncles, grandparents and other relations.

Your toxic family member may over-criticize you or openly judge you for your personal choices, or they may be a little sneakier about it by gossiping or telling lies about you (or your choices) behind your back.

Related: Top 10 Warning Signs You’re Being Gaslighted by a Toxic Narcissist

Some family members may take it to a whole other level and actually attempt to wreak havoc in your life or even to control, destroy or alter your nuclear family, domestic situation or other outside relationships.

How do you start healing when you realize you're dealing with a narcissist?

You might think you’re not good enough.

You might think that your feelings and thoughts aren’t genuine or relevant to the world, and you might even feel like a big fake when you do try to follow your dreams, simply because you’ve heard for so long that you’re not worthy, whether directly or indirectly.

If you’re struggling with a toxic relationship, especially a family-based one, you may have had so much conditioning that you aren’t even sure which way is up.

The first step to healing is to start within your own head. You have to change those thoughts and limiting beliefs that are holding you back.

Let us help you heal.

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One-on-One and Group Narcissistic Abuse Recovery Coaching with our certified life coaches, each a survivor herself. 

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