Narcissistic abuse is everywhere – we hear a lot about physical and emotional abuse, but what about narcissistic abuse? This type of manipulation and control can be slow and insidious, creeping into your relationships and destroying your sense of self before you even know what is happening. When you become a victim of narcissistic abuse, you completely lose sight of your value and the value of your needs. You drop your boundaries and surrender control to another person, and with that you surrender pieces of your personality and your happiness.
Narcissistic abuse often happens through threats, fear, and terror. Psychological mind games, gaslighting, covert and overt put-downs, verbal abuse, emotional abuse, projection, triangulation – these are some of the manipulative tactics survivors of malignant narcissists are all too familiar with.
A narcissist does not value anyone else, because they are only able to see their own needs, desires, and perspectives. Breaking free of a narcissist is only the first step in healing – in order to fully thrive in the wake of narcissistic abuse, you have to understand how this abuse impacts you and then work to correct it through understanding and self-love. Healing the wounds from growing up with a narcissist can be a long and complex process.
What exactly is a narcissist?
Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) is described by a sense of grandiosity, a lack of empathy for others and a need for admiration and superiority – problematic, immature, and selfish behaviour can also be a sign of narcissism. Narcissists often look charming on the outside but cause great pain and trauma for their victims. You come to realise that their behaviour is more than just ‘difficult’ – it is unhealthy behaviour. You might prefer a solution that is mutually agreeable but that is not how a narcissistic mind works – a narcissist thrives on the sense of control.
What is Narcissistic Victim Syndrome?
If someone is in, or has been in, a relationship with someone who is a narcissist, they may be experiencing something called Narcissistic Victim Syndrome because of psychological / physical abuse in their relationship.
Most people are lucky enough not to have experienced a narcissist in their life and therefore do not understand what it is like to be in such a coercively controlling, abusive relationship. It is important that you do not worry about being judged for distancing yourself from your narcissist and do not feel guilty for it either.
The narcissistic parent may value their ability to manipulate you above having a functional family relationship and they are not willing to compromise or concede on issues. Growing up with a parent who fits this profile can take a severe toll on one’s mental wellbeing and can lead to many issues throughout your life.
To heal, you might find yourself expressing and externalising feelings, whilst pulling others into the drama surrounding the bad memories. Unprocessed problems fester and grow and it helps to figure out the root cause of these problems. It is important to recognise that you suffered a lot of mental pain and confusion in such an abusive relationship. If you do not understand the situation, it can cause a lot of problems in your present relationships. With the help of a skilled therapist, you can begin understanding these feelings – you can work it out, regain control, and start to feel better again.
Signs of narcissistic abuse
We do not have to accept the behaviour of the narcissists in the world. You can find freedom from such abuse but you have to know how to spot the signs that you’re being mistreated and there are a number of red flags that alert you to narcissistic behaviour.
Gaslighting is a complex and multi-faceted means of manipulation, and one which bases itself around 5 primary techniques: withholding, countering, blocking, trivialising and denial. When you speak up about an issue, the narcissist will deny it, minimise it and then react with anger and indignation of their own. It causes the victim to question their own emotions and even their sanity and, over time, the victim becomes insecure and completely unsure of themselves.
2. Walking on eggshells
When you engage in a relationship with a narcissist, you are building a life on shifting sands. If you question a narcissist, or call them out on their unacceptable behaviour, they will react with rage, sorrow, and even terror in order to put you back in your place and get what they want. Living with a narcissist means constantly gauging what you say and your own behaviour to avoid upsetting them.
3. Sense of Trust
To ensure that you are too confused or upset to question them, the narcissist must constantly undermine you before reeling you back in with kindness. By destabilising your sense of reality, they cause you to question yourself (rather than them) and this erodes the trust that a relationship requires; there is no trust or stability when it comes to narcissistic abuse because destabilisation is one of the core tactics narcissists use to get their way.
4. Meeting your own needs
In the narcissists world everything is about them and only their needs are important. The abuser dismisses and diminishes your needs to the point that you begin to do the same. Any time you’re given a choice between yourself and the narcissist, you’re coached to choose them and, little by little, you learn to put your needs in a box and pack them away out of sight and out of mind.
To get away with their reign of terror and manipulation, the narcissist will seek to isolate their victim and drive a wedge between you and your family and friends. Narcissists need to shrink your world for them to maintain control over their victims.
6. The blame games
In the narcissist’s world they can do no wrong. The narcissist will always force the victim to take the blame when things go wrong or when the abuser makes a mistake. Whether they make a genuine mistake or are just faced with the natural challenges of life, they shift the blame to the other. The victim is then forced to shoulder this blame to keep their abuser happy or keep their relationship ‘alive’. It becomes a pattern and one that can follow the victim even after the abuse has ended.
7. Stability and Security
If you feel as though you are constantly on the back foot with a narcissist, that is no mistake. Narcissistic abusers use this back-and-forth to make you feel insecure. The more insecure you are, the more you will look to them and come to rely on them as the only means to be happy. Instability and insecurity are key to the narcissistic abuser’s game.
Our personalities change with narcissistic abuse
Whether you are the victim of narcissistic abuse for a few weeks or a few years, the consequences can be far-reaching and long-lasting. Narcissistic abuse destroys your sense of self, and it can destroy your personalities as well – we change who we are to survive the experience of it all. Perhaps the biggest effect of narcissistic abuse is the erosion of confidence it inevitably leads to – narcissists have to destroy your confidence in order to maintain control over you (but when you know your worth, this becomes very hard for the narcissist to do). A once strong personality is now heavy with an almost indescribable sense of worthlessness, and this is it because of narcissistic abuse.
The longer you undergo this type of abuse, the more distorted and fearful your world view can become. Because narcissistic abuse is so destabilising, it impacts the way we connect and attach to others – it can have a serious effect on who we are and how we approach our lives and connections. Insecure attachment occurs when we learn that it isn’t safe to love someone, or to open up to them, and we begin to either avoid attachment or become anxious about it, which can makes our relationships difficult.
Narcissistic abuse is slow, subtle, and insidious, destroying any sense of self and stability that we try to establish in our relationships. Breaking free of it is a difficult process but accepting the impact it has on us is often an even harder journey.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
PTSD is not limited only to soldiers or those with extreme physical trauma – it can occur any time we are involved in an experience or event that dramatically and fundamentally destabilises who we are or what we believe. Narcissistic abuse does just that and can leave us feeling lost and exhausted.
The best ways to rebuild your life after a narcissistic abusive relationship
1. Knowledge is power
An awareness and understanding of the problem of narcissistic abuse goes a long way in combating the abuse and the long-lasting effects it has on us. Learn everything you can about narcissist behaviour. The more you know, the more you will come to understand yourself and how you’ve reacted to the abuse – but more importantly, the more you will learn that the narcissist is the problem not you. Once you understand what is happening, you can get proactive about dealing with it.
2. Know your worth
Knowing your worth makes you less willing to compromise on that things that matter. When you know your worth, you will stop accepting poor behaviour from people in general, but you will also limit people who use you as their ‘supply’. We have the right to be happy and when you genuinely believe you have a right to be happy, you will be.
When you rely on your boundaries to make clear the lines of who you truly are and what you want, you make it easier from those around you to understand what’s expected of them – this also makes it easier to express your needs. Boundaries are a necessary defence against narcissists. The most important part of boundaries though, is not simply setting them, but following through on them; a narcissist will often cross your boundaries simply to prove that they can.
4. Support networks
To get back the person you once were, you need a support network. Family and friends often see us in the best light when all we can see is the bad stuff and they see strengths that we are unable to accept in the midst of all our trauma; look at your strengths and revel in them.
Bringing it all together
Celebrate who you are and stop allowing your self-confidence and belief to be eroded by the narcissist who only cares about their own selfish needs. Tap into your support networks – just because you have been changed by the abuse does not mean you cannot come out of it stronger than you were before. Commit to thriving in the wake of narcissistic abuse and do it by learning to love yourself.
Arabi, S. (2017) – Power: Surviving and Thriving After Narcissistic Abuse: A Collection of Essays on Malignant Narcissism and Recovery from Emotional Abuse – Thought Catalogue