Narcissistic abuse refers to the emotional, psychological, 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, whether it’s a partner, a parent, sibling, or a boss, 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.
Keep in mind that narcissistic abuse isn’t always easy to detect. As a result, you may not realise 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.
Below are some of the signs of narcissistic abuse:
Gaslighting, denial, and white lies.
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. They may also deny that a specific event happened.
Narcissists may belittle or demean your emotions. E.g., 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!”.
Manipulating your feelings and perceptions
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 jeopardise 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 depend on power and control to feel important. When those needs feel jeopardised, they may react in extreme ways to restore their control. Emotional blackmail may consist of dramatic and angry threats, intimidation, or attempts to punish your behaviour. 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. By telling your loved ones stories that twist the facts about your “harmful” or “unstable” behaviour, the narcissist tries to discredit you. Even worse, when you react angrily, they can use your response to back up their lies. Narcissistic people often have a knack for charming others.
They can often win support from your loved ones (who haven’t seen through the facade) by insisting they only have your best interests at heart. Then, when you try explaining the abuse, your loved ones might side with them. Additionally, they may take on a victim mentality to gain other people’s sympathy.
With this approach, narcissists tend to emphasise all the things you did to hurt them.
You always feel like you’ve done something wrong
A key characteristic of narcissism is difficulty taking responsibility for any negative actions or harmful behaviour. They typically find some way to cast blame on you instead. They might accomplish this through deceit, often by insisting they said something you have no recollection, or getting so angry you end up soothing them by apologising and agreeing you were wrong.
These barrages of rage can leave you feeling helpless and dependent, grateful they’re willing to remain with someone who makes so many mistakes.
Even after leaving the relationship, you might carry forward the belief you can’t do anything right. When things go wrong in other areas of life, you might struggle to accept that you didn’t cause those problems.
You don’t recognise yourself
When facing abuse, many people eventually adjust their self-identity to accommodate an abusive partner. Say your partner insists, “When you go out with your friends, you’re telling me you don’t love me. You’d rather see them instead.” So you stop going out with your friends.
Next, you give up your hobbies, skip after-work drinks with co-workers, and eventually cancel your weekly visit with your family. These changes often lead to a loss of your sense of self, which can leave you feeling lost and empty. You might have a hard time enjoying life and lose sight of your sense of purpose.
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 follow through with it). Sometimes, the violence is premeditated. However, other times, it can be spontaneous and impulsive.
When your loved ones won’t listen to you, you probably feel pretty alone. This leaves you vulnerable to further manipulation. The narcissist may pull you back in with kindness, even apologies, or by pretending the abuse never happened.
This tactic, known as hoovering, often works better when you lack support. You’re more likely to doubt your perceptions of the abuse when you can’t talk to anyone about it. Many narcissists continue to “hoover” back into people’s lives for weeks, months, and even years, trying to suck you back into the relationship.
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 “pocket-dialling” you. Whatever their tactic, they intend to get you talking to them.
This is about grandiose gestures making you feel special and loved (but only while it serves them). “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. It’s more about them getting their needs met than anything else. This creates confusion as you constantly feel pulled and pushed.
Narcissists may draw upon different crises to gain your attention. Sometimes, these crises are real, but other times, they may be more exaggerated or completely fabricated. This hoovering tactic can be difficult because you’re likely to feel sympathy.
False Apologies and fake promises
Contrary to popular belief, narcissists can and do apologise for hurting people. However, these apologies aren’t authentic. If you listen closely, the apologies often include:
- You shouldn’t have said that! You shouldn’t have taken it that way!
- 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 apologising for right now.
Narcissists are also notorious for making dramatic, grandiose promises, whether it’s showing up with an engagement ring, or finally agreeing to attend couple counselling. These promises can feel so encouraging at first but 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 their narcissistic supply.