Are you anxious about making decisions? Do you feel wary or walk on eggshells when you’re with your partner? Do you feel you need to justify their behaviour? Are you often criticised? Or that whatever you do and say is never quite good enough? It could be a sign of narcissistic abuse
Perhaps you’re worried about one of your relationships or are concerned about a friend. If you’re wondering about the signs of narcissistic abuse and how to get the right support, here’s how to recognise the warning signals and where to go to get help.
What is narcissistic abuse?
It is a type of abuse, known as narcissistic abuse syndrome, that someone experiences from being in a relationship with a narcissist. Narcissism is when a person feels they are superior, needing constant adoration from others. It is a spectrum ranging from narcissistic tendencies to narcissistic personality disorder.
Narcissistic people often show manipulative behaviours and a lack of empathy to control their relationships, attempting to take ownership and advantage of those closest to them. If you’re in a relationship with someone like this, your self-esteem and mental health may have been significantly impacted.
What are the signs of narcissistic abuse?
Your relationship (this could be with a partner, parent, or even a close friend) might carry a few or nearly all of these red flags. Being in an abusive relationship can feel deeply disorientating and confusing, so if you’ve lost trust in yourself or are finding it difficult to piece it all together, think about how that person makes you feel as the first step. There are various signs of narcissistic abuse, but here are six to make it a bit easier for you.
As with any trauma bond, the relationship usually starts with a heavy dose of love bombing (or idealisation). This can feel super flattering and can look like overblown gestures, lots of attention, exaggerated displays of affection on social media, and chasing you down for an early commitment.
Counselling Directory member and clinical supervisor, Nicki Cawley, talks about love bombing techniques in her article, Narcissists and relationships.
This may seem quite ‘normal’ but, in actual fact, what they are doing is gathering information! They are looking for the vulnerability in you and often seek a lot of commitment early on, which will appear as too much too soon.
She goes on to explain that when “the love object” has been won over, the narcissist will begin the devaluation stage of narcissistic abuse. This is where they start to spotlight the victim's flaws through manipulation and negative reinforcement. “The place they found for you during the love-bombing phase is slowly ripped down and you lose your place.”
Narcissistic people often need to feel they are a cut above (you and pretty much everyone else) so they might ‘nitpick’, compare you to others, or try to compete with you to put you in the shade. This might not feel so noticeable in the beginning but over time it can really weigh down on your self-worth - feeling like you’re never quite good enough for them.
This form of control may grow into sabotage, where the abuser tries to deliberately damage your other relationships and career. Critical remarks, excessive sarcasm, and even blackmail are often successful tricks to isolate you from others and make sure they are always number one.
This is when the narcissist may hook you into thinking that all the problems in the relationship are down to you... and all in your head. Counselling Directory member Valerie Ann Adams talks about covert emotional abuse in her article, Gaslighting. “You will be the person who must do everything and then they can find fault with your actions and choices,” she says.
She highlights how this can make you feel and respond, such as finding it easier to give in to their demands (even if it goes against your needs), saying very little in fear of not being heard, and shielding your feelings “because you find you will be judged as being too sensitive or too serious.”
Another sign of narcissistic abuse is when you're being lied to regularly. The narcissist may attempt to dupe you to avoid responsibility. It can also be a clever way to get them where they need to be, even if this means total deception.
As with the other manipulative behaviours, if you try to come up against them, the narcissist may either twist the matter or deny it completely. This may feel disorienting and perhaps like you're often in the wrong. Counselling Directory member Alicia Dawson says in her article, Narcissistic abuse and self esteem, “Narcissists will not take responsibility for their actions and instead deflect questions and place the responsibility at the door of the victim.”
Withholding can be a way to make the narcissist feel more powerful in the relationship. This can look like knowingly holding back an emotional reaction, withholding finances, or restricting intimacy as a way of control.
It can also look like stonewalling, which is a complete refusal to communicate. Sometimes, taking some time out in heated conversations is healthy, but stonewalling is a complete dismissal of your feelings as a negative reinforcement tactic. This can make the victim feel shame for having needs and wants. Sometimes this shame runs so deep, it can feel like you’re somehow defective.
Shame can be at the root of narcissism, which is often why the narcissist may attempt to make you feel this way as well, continuing the cycle of abuse.
Lack of boundaries
Narcissists often think that their victim has very little or no right to privacy. This can manifest in a lack of respect for personal boundaries, such as looking through your things, tracking your location, and gossiping about you. If you try to set some boundaries, this may mean more blame-shifting, stonewalling, or gaslighting. Or they may just ignore your requests entirely.
Narcissistic abuse can leave its mark and may result in mental health conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, and depression. Sometimes people who have been in an abusive relationship with someone on the narcissistic spectrum can feel like they’re ‘losing their mind’ or suffer from a loss of identity, so it is important to reach out for help.
How do I get help with narcissistic abuse?
If you recognise some of these warning signs, it’s essential to seek help as soon as possible. Depending on where you are in the cycle of narcissistic abuse, it may feel really difficult to make the first move to finally speak out. There are anonymous helplines such as Refuge and Maggie’s Resource Centre which can offer free, non-judgemental advice on how best to deal with the situation.
Leaving an abusive relationship can be incredibly painful. Often the narcissist will try to ‘hoover’ their victim back up to avoid being rejected first. Counsellor Emma Davey talks about how gruelling it can be in her article, Counselling for narcissistic abuse. She says they will try to make empty promises, leading you to believe things will be different this time. In her article, she highlights how crucial it is to get help - both if you’re attempting to leave the relationship or if you have trauma attached to a previous relationship.
Working with a qualified counsellor can help you validate your feelings and help you reclaim a sense of self-worth. It may feel like a hard mountain to climb but, with the right kind of support, it is possible to work through the layers of trauma and come back home to yourself once more.