What Is Narcissistic Abuse? (Including the Warning Signs of Narcissistic Abuse in a Relationship)

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What are the warning signs of narcissistic abuse that we should know about?

We asked 15 experts to shed some light upon this question.

Dr. Mark Sukhman

Mark Sukhman

Psychiatrist, Doctor Spring

A type of psychological abuse

Narcissistic abuse is a type of psychological abuse perpetrated repeatedly by a partner who exhibits narcissistic tendencies and who abstains from any accountability for the cause of high-drama conflicts.

Typical narcissistic abuse includes repeated episodes of emotional outbursts, rage, humiliation, belittling, judging, lies, and threats. Such repeated abuse accompanied by manipulation and control often puts the victim into a confusing state where they begin to doubt reality and normality.

Some of the commonly used tactics for this abuse are scaring the victim using of startling rage, intense stares; seeding doubts using lies and deception; punishing by use of silent treatment; manipulating them into accepting all the blame using silent threats of abandonment, by playing the victim, etc.

The signs that one is in such a relationship are often found in the behavior of one’s partner, the cycle of such abuse and the victim’s mental state.

The behavior of the abuser

The abuser often lacks empathy and is obligatorily selfish. They crave for reverence, are arrogant and exaggerate their achievements. They love to assert their dominance even in small matters. Their sense of entitlement, insecurity and envious nature often results in aggressive, vindictive actions and mood swings. In most cases, such abusers accept no accountability and criticism.

The cycle of narcissistic abuse

The initial phase of narcissist’s relationships is characterized by a period of idealization when the abuser presents one’s best self – which includes kindness, empathy, superficial charm. Such behavior often leads the victim to attribute exaggeratedly positive qualities to the abuser. But once the victim is committed to the relationship, the abuser starts projecting one’s true nature, in repeated cycles of abuse where tensions build, physical and/or emotional incidents happen followed by reconciliation and calm.

Many times such cycles of reconciliation, calm, reward and punishments become a new normal and create an emotional bond between the abuser and the abused. The longer a relationship continues, the more difficult it is for people to leave the abusers with whom they have bonded.

Victim’s mental state

The victim of Narcissistic abuse is plagued by self-doubt, anxiety, feeling of detachment because they are forced and humiliated into taking responsibility for everything wrong in their lives.

While the victim might be unable to articulate what’s wrong with their mental being, they exhibit multiple signs of trauma and defense mechanisms like loss of interest, numbness, sleeping and eating difficulty, irritability, startlements, lack of joy, self-harm and PTSD symptoms like memory loss, need for solitude, avoidance of things related to abuse etc.

Sense of change in their behavior (for the friends of the victim)

How they are fundamentally different is also apparent. It is imperative they help the victim in setting the boundaries and minimizing the contact with the abuser. Scripted replies, hiding emotions also help in limiting the power of the abuser. Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) is often successful in dealing with survivors of narcissistic abuse.

Shannon Purtell, LPC-S, NCC, CART

Shannon Purtell

Psychotherapist, Curis Functional Health

An insidious form of emotional abuse

Narcissistic Abuse is an insidious form of emotional abuse perpetrated by individuals with Narcissistic Personality Disorder. People with this disorder can behave in ways that are emotionally abusive, which can result in trauma for those around them. NPD is a spectrum disorder, the more characteristics of the disorder someone has, the more emotionally abusive they can be.

People with Narcissistic Personality traits cannot tolerate feelings of shame, envy, or helplessness, and are hypersensitive to situations which trigger these emotions. When these feelings are triggered, they have a compulsive need to distance themselves from these feelings. They engage in behaviors designed to protect, project, and punish. These behaviors can be devastating to those around them.

Since people with this disorder have a grandiose sense of self as a defense mechanism, they readily take credit for anything positive (even the work of others), but rarely are able to take accountability for any of their negative actions or mistakes. They protect themselves from feelings of shame by denying responsibility, they project their feelings of inadequacy on to others by shaming or blaming them, and they punish by using anger, fear, obligation, and guilt.

People who are in relationships with people with Narcissistic Personality Disorder may experience increased feelings of inadequacy, confusion, anger despair, fear, anxiety, guilt, and shame.

Often “victims” are unaware of the fact that these feelings are the result of the Narcissistic behavior patterns, and many experience a form of Stockholm Syndrome whereby they believe that it is their own failures that are causing the distress experienced by the Narcissist.

Related: How to Recognize and Overcome Victim Mentality

Dr. Marni Feuerman, LCSW, LMFT

Marni Feuerman

Licensed Psychotherapist |
Author, Ghosted and Breadcrumbed: Stop Falling for Unavailable Men and Get Smart about Healthy Relationships

The abuse can be physical, but more frequently it is emotional

Those who are narcissists commonly use strategies to meet their selfish needs and hide their shame which ends up destroying relationships and causing severe pain to those they love.

Given that these coping strategies are often abusive, the term, “narcissistic abuse” has been coined. The abuse can be physical, but more frequently it is emotional.

The following are some examples of hard to identify abuse that narcissists may inflict:

  • Manipulating (hidden aggression, teasing, hostility, gaslighting)
  • Emotionally blackmailing or using other threats that cause you to fear them or feel serious guilt.
  • Unable to accept blame.
  • Constantly one-upping you.
  • Excessively criticizing.
  • Sabotaging your goals or successes.
  • Lying and using other forms of deception.
  • Withholding love, affection, and money.
  • Invading your privacy.
  • Excessively controlling, jealous, or possessive.
  • Isolating you from other loved ones.

Dr. Carla Marie Manly

Carla Marie Manly

Clinical Psychologist

The type of relationship abuse that arises due to toxic narcissistic interactions

In essence, narcissistic abuse is the type of relationship abuse that arises due to toxic narcissistic interactions. In that those with strong narcissistic qualities tend to be highly self-absorbed, these individuals can bring extremely toxic patterns into a relationship. These behavior patterns, particularly in an intimate relationship, can be very destructive to the partner.

For example, narcissistic abuse can involve patterns of sarcasm and criticism that eat away at the partner’s sense of self-esteem. Over time, the partner may experience feelings of low self-worth, anxiety, and depression as a result of toxic communication. The abuser will continue and even amplify the behaviors in that he or she obtains a sense of power by demeaning the partner.

Christine Lawler, MS, LMFT

Christine Lawler

Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist

One partner (almost) always take responsibility for all relationship problems

“We started to make progress once you finally acknowledged that I am better than you.”

This is a direct quote from a couple’s counseling session a few months ago where narcissistic abuse, obviously, was ongoing. I’m actually glad that he said it because I’ve never heard a more clearly articulated viewpoint.

Narcissistic abuse, at its core, is the demand that one partner (almost) always take responsibility and blame for all problems in the relationship. Anything that partner finds fault with is immediately twisted so that they are actually the one at fault. And there is no chance for peace in the relationship until the offended partner takes responsibility.

“I am not wrong, you are wrong.” “You are not hurt, I am hurt.”

Narcissistic abuse also occurs in lighthearted moments: demeaning, belittling, making fun of, and publicly shaming are other aspects of narcissistic abuse. Essentially, any attempts to prove one partner is fundamentally superior to the other and drive it home.

Darlene A. Larson

Darlene Larson

Author | Life Purpose Coach | Founder, Hearts with a Purpose

Narcissists believe in one person: themselves

Married to a narcissist for 27 years, I clocked the hours and became an expert schooled in abuse. I was the lone student for seven years until my children entered our home one by one. Living in captivity centered on one person: the narcissist. I studied the narcissist’s ways to pass the exam for my survival. Then I was able to exit the doorway of abuse so I could live out my life purpose–coaching women stuck in toxicity to freedom to discover their life purpose.

Narcissists believe in one person: themselves. They seek power and control to feed their weak, sick, self-esteem. They think grandiose thoughts of themselves that don’t match reality. They do life from another grid.

Picture a chameleon-like creature that changes their skin color. So do narcissists. They know how to flatter people that they desire to attract; stroke them, suck money, recognition, acceptance, position, and/or power from them. For a narcissist, life is all about using someone to gain a step up in the ladder of life in order to gain something they want to attain. Yet, their ladder leans up against a decaying wall that will eventually collapse.

Weapons that a narcissist often uses include covert methods for an audience of one: intimidate, humiliate, isolate, breed fear, terrorize, coerce, threaten, blame, injure, ignore, negate, abuse emotionally, abuse mentally, abuse sexually, abuse financially, make chaos, withhold empathy, above all, devalue your target while elevating yourself.

30 warning signs that a person is highly toxic

  • They need to be in charge.
  • They love power.
  • They love control.
  • They want to be up front.
  • They will do all they can to elevate their children to positions of influence if they have children.
  • They may say they are sorry, but they never show outward change.
  • Time restraints mean little to them, like showing up on time for meetings. Why? To walk in late puts all attention on them. They love this!
  • They are not accountable to anyone. WATCH for this!
  • They do not like to be held to time frames to get things done.
  • They always have a hidden agenda: What is their motive?
  • They are not trustworthy: Do not trust them.
  • They work hard to appear believable, but you cannot believe them.
  • Change-ups occur often because they say one thing but do another.
  • They turn a situation back on you to make it your issue. They do this by casting doubts on who you are, which causes you to second-guess yourself and your character.
  • They treat you one way in public and another way in private. Don’t talk alone with them, have a witness.
  • They do not celebrate your accomplishments.
  • Because they are toxic, they only trust themselves.
  • They despise wisdom and counsel.
  • They love to talk and not listen.
  • They are quarrelsome, and you can’t tell them a thing.
  • They are arrogant and always know better than anyone else.
  • They can rage or not, but if you rage because of what they did to you, look out, you are caught in their trap. You are pinned as an angry person, yet the narcissist admits no wrong.
  • They flatter others to cultivate trust and power.
  • They are deceptive.
  • They are manipulative.
  • They are often gossipers and twist the truth for their benefit.
  • They cannot be a team player.
  • It is impossible for them to have a deep conversation.
  • They do no wrong and blame others.
  • They show little to no compassion.

Related: 7 Bad Personality Traits 

Khristian Ellison, LCSW

Khristian Ellison

Therapist, Hope Therapy and Wellness

Narcissistic abuse comes in many forms

When people think of the term narcissist, they think of someone who’s really in love with themselves, someone who’s constantly looking in the mirror or thinks they’re better than anyone else. But the truth is, the term narcissist is much darker than that.

A narcissist is someone who is filled with so much self-shame that they create this idealized version of themselves, what they consider a perfect ideal. That’s the person they wish they were, and that’s the person they present to the world.

The challenge for them is that there’s a gap between this version of themselves and who they believe they really are on the inside, and that makes them even more ashamed. To avoid feeling this shame, they use destructive, abusive defense mechanisms which protect their true feelings and end up causing significant pain to the people who love them.

The warning signs to narcissistic abuse are plenty. Narcissistic abuse comes in many forms: emotional, physical, mental, sexual, spiritual, even financial. It can also be verbal – the abuser may bully, belittle, undermine, accuse or criticize.

The narcissistic abuser is also a master manipulator, influencing their victim to behave in such a way that benefits the abuser.

Narcissistic abusers may also commit emotional blackmail, which is another form of manipulation, or may gaslight their victim (making their victim think their perception of reality is somehow wrong). Narcissists are also highly competitive, negative, exploitative, or neglectful. They may lie persistently, take advantage of their victim for personal gain, withhold information for their benefit, or sabotage their loved one’s joy or wellbeing.

Another major hallmark of narcissistic abuse is the invasion of privacy. Many narcissistic abusers have no perception or respect for privacy – they’ll go through their victim’s things, including dresser drawers, phones, or mail. They may even stalk or follow their victim, and then make their victim feel guilty if they end up getting caught.

But what’s probably the most overlooked type of abuse a narcissist inflicts is isolation. The narcissistic abuser isolates their victim from their friends, family, or outside support services. They do this by verbally abusing their victim, assassinating their character, manipulating them and making them feel as if it’s their idea to stay away from their families and friends.

Narcissists do not take responsibility for how they behave, although some are capable of feeling guilt. The more frightening type of narcissist is the malignant narcissist. This type of narcissistic abuser feels no guilt, shame or remorse, and even takes pleasure in causing pain.

Cassandra Pavolic

Cassandra Pavolic

Professional Aerialist | TEDx Speaker | Inspirational Speaker

A master at manipulation

The abuse and it’s warning signs are slowly but surely emotional and psychologically damaging without a doubt. First, they are charming, fun to be around. The love bombing is so great that it’s as if for the first time in your life you feel “loved.” The amazing display of generosity, patience, and listening attentively is like out of a fairy tale book.

Then eventually and slowly the manipulation, the lies, the incredible wordsmith skills displayed, the constant circle of fights about the same thing, usually what he or she isn’t getting from you, yet you constantly are drained and feel like you have never worked so hard in any relationship your entire life. Nothing is ever enough or good enough for them.

The narc is a master at manipulation that it throws the victim way off track. In an argument, the narcissist would never let the victim get a word in. They would lecture you for an hour, turn there back on you when it is your turn to talk and tell you that you don’t deserve to talk to his or her face. They will make you apologize for something that was not your fault. You will be told you are crazy and that you don’t communicate well. They will devalue, demean, and say things you never thought you’d hear this person say to you.

Once the narc gets you to the point of tears, he then would hug you and hold you. They have an ego bigger than the state of Texas and are cruel to people who don’t meet up to there standards. Road rage, short tempers, aggressive and or passive aggressive. They generally don’t believe in God, in fact, they think they are God. They have absolutely no empathy but they pretend as they do.

They are control freaks and enjoy humiliating there partners by cutting them down. They love power, and a narcissist with money the worse they are. They crave attention. They fool your friends and family with there over the top generosity, but behind closed doors, the mask comes off. Yet, you love them because you remember who they were at the very beginning of the relationship (the love bombing).

Related: How to Deal with Controlling People?

The only safety you have is to run far away and cut off all communication with the narcissist. I say “safety” for your sanity. When you finally see clearly, you’ll realize that the person you loved was not real. He or she was not who you thought they were.

You may be dealing with PTSD from the aftermath of narcissistic abuse. It’s the worse form of abuse one can imagine. What makes it horrific is that it’s hard to prove what you’ve been through.

You are left confused, devastated and heartbroken. You feel very alone as he or she has convinced everyone with his or her charm and generosity how crazy and ungrateful you were in the relationship. If children are involved in any way he or she may have turned them against you.

You may have even thought that perhaps you are the crazy one and that maybe you’re the narcissist. Rest assured, if your thinking those thoughts you most likely are not a narcissist. A narcissist would never question his or her character. There are all types of narcissists on different degrees and severity’s but they almost always come as wolves in sheep’s clothing.

Here is something worth remembering;

Be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.

If you are suffering from narcissist abuse the healing must start within. Take courage, You are in for some surprising truths that will set you free from unhealthy bondage. Seek a therapist who specializes in narcissist abuse. They are your lifeline.

Marissa Katrin Maldonado, M.B.A.

Marissa-Katrin-Maldonado

Founder, The Treatment Specialist

Narcissists are all about control

The emotional wounds that a narcissist inflicts can reach to the depths of one’s soul. Whether the narcissist is a spouse, a parent, or a boss, no one can prepare someone for the deep damage these people can do after years of abuse.

Sadly, the perpetrator feels absolutely nothing—no guilt, no shame, no remorse—for leaving his or her prey with shattered self-esteem and spirit. The narcissist’s sense of grandiosity is coupled with a complete absence of conscience.

Narcissistic abuse can be recognized, and the sooner the better. Some signs of how a narcissist abuses their victim include:

  • Emotionally unavailable, withholding love and unable to bond.
  • Arrogant and condescending, harming the victim’s improvement of self-worth.
  • Takes advantage of the victim’s trust for their own gain.
  • Exhibits unpredictable rage or acts of cruelty.
  • Does not admit guilt or blame for the pain inflicted, keeps the victim off-balance.
  • Expects special treatment, regardless of how poorly they treat the victim.
  • Blames the victim for relationship issues.

Narcissists are all about control. They will derive their power in a relationship through intimidation, fear, and emotional cruelty. Surviving narcissistic abuse relies on removing the toxic person from one’s life.

Ahram Arya

Ahram Arya

Intuitive Guide + Coach

Narcissists devalue the reality of others

Narcissists only see their reality as legitimate, therefore they discount or devalue the reality of others. Narcissists only pay attention to relationships that validate and praise their point of view which keeps their reality at the center of attention.

Narcissistic abuse happens when the narcissist attempts to bend the thoughts and actions of others to serve themselves. This can show up as verbal abuse, manipulation, and often as endless rationalizations and justifications for their behavior as correct.

  • They are never wrong.
  • They can’t apologize or accept responsibility.
  • They are disinterested in your emotions.
  • Their emotions are always justified.
  • When they are not getting enough attention, they lash out at you or make things your fault.
  • Instead of trying to listen or help you, they explain away your problems.

Lisa Wilson

Transformational Coach, Aspen Center for Empowerment

Narcissists feed on chaos

The narcissist has a skillful, almost psychic capability for understanding human behavior. They instinctively sense other people’s weak spots, and – because they are unburdened by empathy – have no trouble at all exploiting them.

What makes this even more confusing and therefore difficult to detect is that a narcissist will often trigger one of our deep emotional wounds while simultaneously positioning themselves as someone who can help us out of our pain. For example, a narcissistic mother may say to her young adult daughter who is starting out on a new relationship or business venture, “I’ll always be here for you.”

The overt message is one of assistance and concern, but the underlying communication is, “You’ll never make it on your own,” or “You need me.”

By triggering our underlying self-doubts and insecurities, the narcissist gains access to the deepest, least understood, realms of our psyches. When this breach occurs, we feel off-center, out of control, confused – and, strangely – intensely dependent on the narcissist’s’ continued attention upon us. It is this dependency that gives the narcissist access to what they are really after – power, validation, and control.

Warning signs you are in a relationship with a narcissist

  • There is always a level of chaos surrounding these relationships and if you are used to living in chaos, it is very difficult to detect. Narcissists feed on chaos.
  • You will always have a level of doubt in all areas of the relationship. You will doubt yourself, what was said, how you feel.
  • You will start to question your own judgment.
  • Every area of your life will take on a feeling of lack. Not good enough.
  • Things will start to disappear and reappear in other places and you will question your sanity.
  • Ultimately, you will lose confidence in yourself.
  • There is an underlying level of fear that is present. Fear of losing the relationship, job, friendship. Fear the narcissist will kill themselves. Fear of not being safe.
  • Every compliment and support will be used against you later.

Jessica Yaffa, CPC

Jessica Yaffa

Relationships Expert | Author | Speaker | Coach

One partner exhibiting power and control over another

Narcissistic abuse is an experience of abuse that involves one partner exhibiting power and control over another by utilizing opportunities to belittle, humiliate, discount experiences of or gaslight the partner whom they victimize. The abuse manifests itself in many different forms and is not gender specific.

Men that come from abuse, neglect, and disconnect are likely to be narcissists, while the developmental, biological, biosocial environments that cumulatively lead to narcissism often result in Borderline Personality Disorder in women.

Narcissistic abuse includes but is by no means limited to, grandiosity, inability to self-reflect or be held accountable for behavior, insatiable beliefs of righteousness, lack of empathy and distorted reality. Often times, these abuses are direct indicators that the perpetrator of the harm exhibits traits of clinical narcissism.

Victims in these relationships are often made to feel responsible for all conflict, misunderstandings, and disappointments within the happenings of the relationship. The fault for negative outcomes is always on the victim, while the glory of successes always the perpetrator.

Abusers in this aspect are subsequently unable to take responsibility for the ways in which they influence the relationship dynamics and make their partner feel. Victims often experience gaslighting or being made to believe that their sense of reality is in question.

Victims constantly feel incapability when it comes to feeling good enough or satisfying their partner’s needs. It is this insatiability within narcissists that can lead to victims having long-term inquisitive issues with their sense of experience and reality.

Perpetrators within these relationships are unwilling to give and take, unwilling and wildly resistant to the acknowledgment of shortcomings, while quick to point out the shortcomings of others. This is a dynamic that alarmingly stretches to every relationship they have.

Colleagues, lack of close friends, issues with family members, all with a common denominator. It has much less to do with the victimized partner and much more to do with the perpetuated approach to every interaction with everyone.

Victims ultimately find themselves “walking on eggshells,” feeling as though they are constantly failing as a partner and a person. Long term, this often manifests in isolationist tactics as the trauma impacts stretch to consume employment, friends, sociability, etc. Victims are often embarrassed about what is happening and this leads to defensibility dynamics as well.

Tiffany Toombs

Tiffany Toombs

Relationship Expert | Founder, Blue Lotus Mind Coaching & Training

Narcissists like to control our perceptions of others and the world around us

They will belittle and bad mouth others to change your view of those people (usually those who disagree with them) from positive or neutral to negative. They will subtly put you down to wear down your confidence and then will promise to help you or love you so that you become dependent on them.

Their putdowns will be really subtle and designed to make you feel not good enough. For example, “Don’t you have any manners?!” or if you ask for something, “How dare you to ask me for something after all that I do for you?” 

Related: How to Feel Good Enough

Narcissists will always take more than they give, however they will downplay all that they take and over-exaggerate the things they give. This further allows them to gain control over the person they are in a relationship or partnership with.

April Kirkwood

April Kirkwood

Therapist | Author | Speaker

The narcissist loves to play the blame

Once you’ve become a toy and have almost lost your mind, you may not even see the signs that you are got in the web of ‘conquest and conquer.’ It is more dangerous than any video combat game because it is subtle, cunning, and manipulative affecting your self-esteem and ability to cognitively decipher the lies from the truth.

As someone who has been there myself, barely escaping with my sanity here are some clues describing how they think, act, and enjoy causing you misery:

  • The narcissist causes a fight. He gets you fired up and then falls calmly to sleep like a baby while you are beyond calm trying to figure out why he or she isn’t in the least bit flustered by what she went down.
  • The narcissist flirts and looks at attractive women in public in front of both you, your family, and your friends. He has placed you in a real squirmy dilemma. If you speak up and own your feelings about his disrespect for you, he will blame you for causing a fuss in front of everyone making you look jealous and crazy. If you don’t say a word, he will get away with it and give him the non spoken message that you don’t deserve to be respected.
  • The narcissist loves to play the blame ‘You coo-coo’ game by switching details and creating inconsistencies about what they say. For example, He says that he would like to go and actually see a Pittsburgh Steelers game. A few weeks later you mention that you are trying to get tickets and ask him what weekend would be good for you both to go. He replies, “I’m not really into seeing them but I guess going to visit Pittsburgh would be nice.” Now he has just changed the story leaving you scratching your head wondering, “What did I hear? Am I crazy?” No, you aren’t. You have just been made to think so.

The weaker and more confused you are, the more power they have and power is the ultimate win for the empty hearted narcissist.

Belinda Ginter

Belinda Ginter

Mindset Success Expert | Certified Emotional Kinesiologist

Narcissistic abuse happens over time

Its manipulation where the narcissist gets you to only focus on them and their needs by neglecting your own. It’s based on getting the victims to trust so that is why it is slow moving.

What makes it so powerful is because it is slow-moving, the victim does not see huge changes in their own behaviors so they are no big warning signs to pick up on.

The narcissist’s goal is to alienate you from any other influencers like close friends or close family who may see their behaviors as being negative and warn you. They love and admire you and lift you up, then they slam you down and strip your self-confidence, this is often why narcissistic abuse can go on for years because as quick as they are to be terrible to you in the next breath they make you feel so special and needed like they truly see all that is you.

Its a relationship based on confusion and second-guessing and can often feel like for the victim like they are losing their mind.

This is because anytime they get strong enough to call out the narcissist on their behavior, they are told that they are emotionally weak and are paranoid or just “off”. The abuser wins when you feel totally dependent on them and when you have lost your own power and feel helpless without them.