To be sure, people can exhibit narcissistic tendencies and even show signs of narcissistic abuse without having narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), which is much more severe, says clinical psychologist Blair Steel, PsyD. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), NPD is defined as having a pervasive pattern of grandiosity, a constant need for admiration, and a lack of empathy, as indicated by at least five traits along the narcissistic spectrum (including things like being entitled, exploiting others, and being arrogant). But again, anyone can have just a few of those narcissistic qualities without a full-blown diagnosis.
Since the kind of abusive behaviors associated with narcissism can arise with seemingly no warning, it’s crucial that you know what to look for in order to protect your wellbeing.
What is narcissistic abuse?
Narcissistic abuse is a type of emotional abuse that’s carried out by someone with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) or narcissistic tendencies, says abuse recovery coach Annie Kaszina, PhD, author of The Woman You Want To Be. “Narcissistic abuse is basically a systematic approach to humiliate, reject, blame, and actually destroy the other person in a relationship,” she says. “It is not love—a narcissist feeds on their victim.”
“Narcissistic abuse is basically a systematic approach to humiliate, reject, blame, and actually destroy the other person in a relationship.” —Annie Kaszina, PhD, abuse recovery coach
Despite the fact that narcissistic abuse typically results in a toxic relationship, it can be tough to identify in the moment because of the emotional manipulation at play. “Someone who has narcissistic tendencies tends to be in a relationship with someone who has co-dependent tendencies,” says therapist David Klow, LMFT, author of You Are Not Crazy: Letters from Your Therapist. “The narcissist often needs the co-dependent to feel better about themselves, and the co-dependent feels more worthy when they are with someone who is larger than life.”
As a result, the co-dependent person may brush off abusive behaviors from their narcissistic partner as part and parcel of dating someone who otherwise makes them feel special or powerful. But this just makes room for more abuse.
What are the four stages of narcissistic abuse?
According to Dr. Steel, narcissistic abuse starts with idealization, which is when the narcissistic person puts you on a pedestal, making you feel as if you're the most important person in the world. This is to ensure that you agree to date them and eventually, are more likely to succumb to their abusive behaviors.
This is the stage when the narcissist knocks you off the pedestal, changing the narrative and making you think that you are no longer worthy of their interest, care, or love—unless you do exactly as they ask, says Dr. Steel.
At this point, the narcissist may abruptly break up with, cheat on, or ghost you, says Dr. Steel. Their goal is to make you feel as if you made them take this action, and you need to change in some way to bring them back to you.
Hoovering occurs when the narcissist attempts to "suck" you back into the relationship (like a vacuum, hence the name), sometimes even while acknowledging their abusive behaviors. "I need you," "I will change," and "Just give me one more chance" are some examples of what the narcissist may say to get you back.
9 signs of narcissistic abuse in a relationship
1. Your relationship was intense from the beginning
A narcissist will “appear as this person who really gets you,” Dr. Kaszina says. “It feels like a great love, and they will make it seem like they will love you more than anybody has ever loved you in your life,” she says, often through love-bombing, or over-the-top affection, flattery, and praise. Basically, things may feel really intense, really early on in your courtship, and there's never any sense of calm or ease.
2. But that feeling doesn’t last
While a narcissist will make you feel like you’re their soulmate early on, things will soon change. “They will make you feel like you don’t deserve them,” Dr. Kaszina says. “They can make you feel worthless.” The knock to your self-esteem could also make you feel like you're doing something to ruin a relationship that once seemed perfect.
3. It feels like they’re no longer listening to you
Early on, it’s likely you felt like your partner was hanging on every word you said. But over time, a narcissist will block you out, making you feel unheard, Dr. Kaszina says. They might even use the silent treatment on you to quite literally disregard your concerns, try to exempt themselves from conflict, or punish you for saying or doing something that threatens their power or control.
4. They say things to deliberately be mean
All types of narcissists will go out of their way to undermine others and to make them feel less-than, Dr. Kaszina says. That may mean a range of things, including telling you that an outfit looks bad on you, that you’re not smart, or that you’re not worthy of certain things in life.
5. They try to gaslight you
Gaslighting occurs when someone intentionally manipulates a situation or conversation to make you doubt your own reality. Dr. Kaszina says “reality can shift dramatically” when you’re the victim of narcissistic abuse, with the narcissist saying something to you, “and if you repeat it back, and they don’t like it, they’ll say they never said that.”
As a result of such textbook gaslighting, you may become less confident in your ability to tell what’s actually going on in your life.
6. They blame you for anything and everything
People who are victims of narcissistic abuse often walk on eggshells around their partner because “you don’t know what will be offensive to them,” Dr. Kaszina says. “They will blame you for things…[and then] you accept that you mess everything up because you’re always blamed.” This is another manipulation tactic that a narcissist will use to break you down over time.
7. You don’t feel as confident about your decision-making skills
Narcissists are big on undermining people, Dr. Kaszina says. As a result, “you may become increasingly less confident or sure of yourself,” she says, adding that victims of narcissistic abuse often “stop having any belief in their abilities whatsoever.”
This works in the narcissist's favor, given that you may feel the need to defer to their perspective or rely on them for key decisions—almost as if they're your narcissistic mother instead of your partner.
8. They triangulate you in arguments
A narcissist may be motivated to loop another person you care about—like a friend or family member of yours—into a conflict and essentially use them to gang up on you, which is an abusive tactic called triangulation. They work to gain this third person's sympathy as a means to make you look like you're in the wrong and then pressure you to agree with their side.
9. You feel depressed and anxious
Being the victim of narcissistic abuse can make you feel “increasingly depressed,” Dr. Kaszina says. At the same time, you can struggle with anxiety. “You’re hyper-vigilant, because you’re trying to check where the next attack will come from,” Dr. Kaszina says. “You’re frantically people-pleasing and sacrificing yourself for someone who doesn’t appreciate it.”
What to do after you've identified signs of narcissistic abuse
Listening to your gut on how you want to proceed after identifying signs of narcissistic abuse is important in order to protect yourself and take steps toward emotional healing. “If you’re feeling badly and you suspect [abuse] is what’s going on, it’s time to start to prepare to get out,” says Dr. Kaszina. “You’ve got to get a plan in place and leave the toxic relationship.”
It's also important to devote some time to introspection in the wake of abuse, adds Dr. Steel. Though the narcissist is always to blame for narcissistic abuse, it may be useful to consider how or why you may have attracted someone to you that wound up hurting you, she says. (Talk therapy can be super helpful in this arena, as well as for emotional healing and recovery.) This way, you can reduce your odds of entering a similar relationship dynamic in the future, she adds.
Frequently Asked Questions About the Signs of Narcissistic Abuse
What does narcissistic abuse do to a person?
According to Dr. Steel, there are serious emotional consequences for the recipient of narcissistic abuse. She says this type of abuse "locks a person in, uses them, then spits them out when the narcissist no longer has use for them." This includes idealizing the person, devaluing them, repeating the cycle, and then eventually discarding them.
The kind of abuse can also work to keep someone in a relationship with a narcissist, particularly if they're insecure or rely on the approval of the narcissist to feel good about themselves. "For example, if someone is codependent, people-pleasing, and/or avoidant of his or her emotional experience, coupling up with a narcissistic personality type may fit like a lock and key," says Dr. Steel.
Over time, narcissistic abuse can cause a person to feel extreme self-doubt, says Dr. Steel, "to the point of feeling distant from one's own identity." Other common effects include anxiety, hyper-vigilance, insomnia, and feeling isolated, angry, or confused, she adds, all of which can make building new healthy relationships more difficult, too.
Do narcissists know they are abusive?
While a narcissistic individual may be able to understand intellectually that their actions may cause harm to another person, Dr. Steel says that they typically lack the emotional empathy to truly care or to develop the willingness to alter their behavior if it is serving them.
What words can destroy a narcissist?
"An effective action to take to disarm a narcissist is to not engage and stay calm and collected," says Dr. Steel, conceding that this can be particularly difficult if the person plays a key role in your life. She adds that you can also stand firm on your criticism of their behavior with phrases such as, "I see what you're doing," "I'm not the one for your games," or, "We can agree to disagree."
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