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What is Narcissistic Abuse?

Updated: Jul 12, 2023

Narcissism is essentially a deep psychological defence against feelings of guilt and shame. Whilst guilt and shame are unpleasant feelings, usually they help steer us to behave in ways that align with our moral compass. Feeling bad about something we have sad or done will usually nudge us to behave differently the next time. Guilt lets us know we did something wrong. Shame tells us we are fundamentally a bad person. Shame is an awful feeling. People with a narcissistic personality rarely experience feelings of genuine guilt or remorse. For a narcissist, it is simply too psychologically unbearable to connect with the experience of genuine guilt, shame and deep inner pain. The psychology and actions therefore seek to defend them from this. Actions and behaviours that serve to keep somebody away from feeling guilt, remorseful or shame (and therefore taking some responsibility for their own actions) are also known as ‘narcissistic defences’.

In an ongoing bid to keep well away from this deep pain, narcissists rely on a variety of mental and psychological defence mechanisms and destructive behaviours. Much of these actions, when it is focused on those around them, are abusive. Abuse can be emotional, psychological, physical, sexual, financial or spiritual.

Abuse of any kind is abuse. It is never acceptable.

Narcissistic abuse is also often referred to as ‘invisible abuse’. Unlike physical abuse where the results are clear and undebatable in the form of bruises or cuts, narcissistic abuse and bullying is often seemingly very subtle, especially in the beginning. It is usually progressive and at times very difficult for people to spot. Narcissistic abuse is often executed in a way where nobody else, aside from the victim, sees or suspects it. In fact, often narcissistic abuse is so manipulative and abusive that often sufferers are left unsure if what they are experiencing is abuse at all. Instead, many people end up feeling - because they are told such by the narcissist - that they are simply being too sensitive, that they’re overreacting, imagining things, or that it’s them and their fault. A symptom of narcissistic abuse in itself is being left with a sense of self-doubt, questioning or second-guessing yourself - losing trust in yourself and your judgements and perceptions. This is one of the reasons why narcissistic abuse is so psychologically abusive and damaging.

Other indicators and characteristics of narcissistic abuse include:

Boundary violation: Narcissists have no boundaries. They also have very little, if any, respect for anybody else’s space or personal belongings or desires. Boundaries can be physical, sexual, mental or emotional and healthy boundaries are vital for healthy relationships. For a narcissist, their wants or needs are always the priority. Even if they may pretend otherwise, it is usually with the aim of ultimately getting what they want.

Denial: A point blank inability to accept or acknowledge any truth, responsibility or error. The level of denial and absolute assurance that often accompanies it in a narcissist can be quite alarming. (I have met narcissists who would quite adamantly deny the sky is blue on a bright summers day!)

Devaluation: in opposed to idealisation, devaluation relates to highlighting or pointing out other peoples faults or flaws to put them down, belittle or shame them, in order to feel better about themselves.

Divide & Conquer: Often abusive individuals will try to split people apart in groups, in family or at work. This gives them a sense of control and power. Divide & conquer describes the split and alienation the narcissist with create in a chosen individual who will then be set apart from the others - either in a positive ‘chosen’ capacity or through alienation and bullying. This serves to weaken and isolate group members. It often leads to fall outs within the group, as well as paranoia, mistrust, resentments and competition, essentially leaving it easier for the narcissist to maintain control in the dynamic.

Emotional Blackmail: This includes anything that is communicated to you that is experienced as threatening or intimidating. This can be punishment, silent treatment, use of anger, aggression or threats. Emotional blackmail is intended to elicit feelings of fear, guilt and compliance.

Exploitation: Taking advantage and using people to serve their own gains and ambitions, whether that requires lies or manipulation. A narcissist will not think twice about doing this.

Finger pointing: Individuals with narcissistic personality disorder struggle to genuinely take responsibility for themselves. They never or rarely apologise - they will not feel the need to. They will instead attempt to keep any accusations, blame or responsibility away from them by pointing out what anybody and everybody else is doing or not doing. In any argument or dispute, a narcissist will be highly skilled at turning the focus onto somebody else and making others feel like they are the ones at fault. They keep the heat off themselves by constantly pointing fingers at other peoples actions, words or behaviours. In their view, it is everybody elses fault and responsibility.

Fishing: This is when the narcissist, just like a fisherman, will throw out ‘hooks’ in order to catch their supper. They will be attuned into using the exact bait necessary to catch and reel their target in. It can be very helpful to identify for yourself what kinds of bait leaves you vulnerable. What have been the hooks that have pulled you back in before? For example, is it your feelings of guilt, their use of fear or anxiety-inducing comments or behaviours? A need to rescue or fix within you? It can be helpful to work to identify your vulnerable bait or pulls. Awareness is a first step to change. (see blog post on recognises type of bait here)

Gas-lighting: Gaslighting is a term used to describe how a narcissist will say and do things that will leave you second guessing yourself, doubting your own reality, your own judgements or perceptions. It is highly psychologically abusive and dangerous. Through gaslighting, you begin to doubt yourself, lose trust in yourself and as a result, at times feel like you are losing your mind. In extreme cases, it can lead to having a complete nervous breakdown.

Ghosting: Narcissists do not manage endings. Ghosting is when a relationship is suddenly and abruptly ended, ties and communication are immediately cut without any warning, discussion or explanation. The shock of being subjected to this this can often be traumatising.

Idealisation: the worshipping or an individual or organisation. Narcissists and many people with personality issues tend to view things in extremes - either good or bad, black and white. With idealisation a person or thing is viewed as incredible, the best thing since sliced bread, perfection. Is it also this kind of validation they seek from others. Parents of narcissists also either tend to completely worship their child in this way, as if the child can walk on water, or relate in the other extreme, where they are devalued and not good enough.

Inconsistencies: The one thing you can rely on with many narcissists is that they are consistent in their inconsistencies. Be it with words and/or behaviours. Saying one thing and doing something else that is completely at odds with that. eg. declaring they want to be with you, but not acting like it, or being unable to commit, despite promises of commitment.

Isolation: An abuser of any kind will ultimately be aiming to isolate their victim away from friends, family or colleagues. People are more vulnerable and easier to manipulate, control and abuse when isolated. Abusive partners aim to achieve this in a variety of ways including trying to be seen to have your best interests at heart, For example, ‘those friends are no good for you, you are better than that’ or perhaps insisting you give up work so that they can take care of things for you financially (financial control). Through negative judgements, gas-lighting and manipulation, slowly but surely, they will aim to isolate you away from loved ones and create an unhealthy over-reliance/dependence on them.

Judging: A defence mechanism commonly seen in narcissists where they will comment negatively and harshly on other peoples actions, choices, speech, looks, abilities and so on. Passing judgement on others serves to make them feel better about themselves and also helps them to maintain a position of superiority.

Love-bombing: Overwhelming others with affection and attention, compliments, praise and gifts in order to gain their interest and 'love'. The aim of love-bombing is ultimately to manipulate and control. Warning signs of this at the beginning of a relationship is usually when it feels too much too soon, with intense displays of affection or attention.

Lying: Standard for any narcissist. This can be anything from slight exaggerations of the truth to out and out complete and utter fabrications, creation of false identities and point blank denial.

Projecting: The suggestion or accusation that you are the one with their issues. They will accuse you of the very behaviours or feeling states they are exhibiting or experiencing. ‘You’re being paranoid/over-sensitive’. ‘You are so selfish!’, ‘You are acting like you’ve got something to hide…’ even ‘You’re a narcissist!’.

Responsibility: Not taking any. For a narcissist, it is very typical they will have zero ability to take personal responsibility. It is invariably always yours and everybody else’s fault/issue/responsibility. They will want to convince both themselves and others that they are the victim. ‘I cheated because you weren’t there… if you were there for me then I wouldn't have had to sleep with anybody else!’

People cheat because they want to. It is their choice and their responsibility.

Slander: Spreading lies and rumours to cause harm and damage as well as to illicit a sense of power and control.

Toddler Tantrums - Underneath the arrogant exterior lies an emotionally stunted child (usually within the first 4 or 5 years of life). They have little ability to operate as a grown up emotionally and so will react in very childish ways, effectively throwing their toys out of the pram; shouting, screaming, storming off, giving you the silent treatment and other forms of immature emotional manipulation. In a bid to feel better about themselves they will often judge or belittle others, be scathing or otherwise cruel and hostile. They will want to devalue others to feel better about themselves or to ease the deep inner turmoil they experience and have no emotional skills to deal with.

Topping: Most narcissists have a habit of ‘topping’ or ‘upping’ above anything anybody else has achieved, obtained or owns. This serves to quickly return the focus of attention and admiration to them. Narcissists find it difficult to tolerate enjoying the success or achievements of others. Topping can also include negative bragging about such things as illness. For example, if you have a health concern, such as a headache, they already have a brain tumour. Topping fuels competitiveness and cheating.

Verbal Abuse: This can be done through a range from subtle (snidey, ambiguous, indirect comments) to blatant direct abuse (shouting/screaming). Other types of verbal abuse include: name calling, belittling, shaming, blaming, demanding, manipulating, sarcasm, criticising, judging, undermining, interrupting / not letting the other person speak, not listening, laughing. Silent treatment is also a form of abuse.

Withholding: Narcissists need to feel power and control. Withholding offers them this sense. They gain a sense of control and power by holding back and controlling money, communication, affections, etc.

Violence: Physical abuse, hitting, pushing, shoving, pulling hair, slapping, restraining, throwing or damaging you or your belongings. Narcissists can be violent, however in my experience I consider it to be more common that narcissistic abuse is done in a more sophisticated, discreet and hidden manner than that. They are more likely to not want to leave any physical evidence or marks that can clearly identify their actions, preferring instead more subtle forms that they can more easily deny.

Identifying Narcissistic Abuse

Narcissistic abuse can be tricky to identify at first, especially when you are in the midst of it. Being in a relationship with a narcissist and experiencing any one of the above specific forms of abuse is often highly confusing and destabilising. It is highly psychologically and emotionally abusive. That is the aim from a narcissists perspective. When we are caught off guard, when we are shocked or confused we are more vulnerable to being manipulated. It is very difficult to think with clarity or to see the situation with any clear perspective. Another reason why it can be so hard to identify narcissistic abuse is because of how good things appear in the early days. The early stages of meeting and dating a narcissist are often like a dream… before it turns into a nightmare. Some times it can even feel too good to be true. If things feel too good to be true, it’s usually because they are. That in itself is a warning sign all too often we do not recognise or want to accept at the time.

A narcissist will be looking to partner with somebody who can meet their narcissistic supply needs. In other words, somebody who has an appealing status or are able to offer them enough consistent admiration, adoration and attention, financial or status gains. This is often achieved by the narcissists ‘love-bombing’ in the early stages of meeting or dating. Love-bombing creates an intensity that can be absolutely blinding, mesmerising and paralysing. When the beginnings of this abuse begins, usually within the first few months, many people are, by that stage, so high on the intensity of the ‘love’ that they fail to recognise the warning signs. Or perhaps, in part, do not see the reality because of their own fantasies around relationships. Many people do not want to accept or consider the reality of the situation. They will deny the warning signs in the hope and fantasy that things are or will be fine. Either way, it’s easy to miss warning signs at the time due to the stark contrast in perceived behaviours. It is important to remember though, intensity is not the same as intimacy. Don’t get the two confused.

When the beginnings of the noticeable abuse appears we simply cannot fathom how somebody can be so wonderful and kind one moment, and then so awful and vitriolic the next. The shock of this transition can leave us doubting that this is even happening… “perhaps I am imagining things, or getting it wrong?” On some level, we can also become stuck at that initial love-bombing phase. It can be so overwhelming and intense that we are left unable to register any deviation from that and then the weeks, months and years go by. In some sense, it can pull the partner into an obsessive addiction, where they are desperate to hold onto or recreate that initial or occasional high. I see clients who are still holding onto the hope that their narcissistic partner will change decades into abuse. People become addicted to the fantasy of how they might imagine things to be, or a fantasy of what they would like. These things obscure the view of reality. A distorted view of reality in itself indicates an unhealthy and potentially damaging relationship. The path out of this and to the road of recovery involves a number of key fundamentals. The first is becoming more grounded and realistic, moving away from fantasy or idealistic thinking to a perspective that is more grounded in reality, objective, present and helpful. Other key factors for recovery include working on your own stuff; your self-esteem, self-worth, self-care, compassion and forgiveness, communication and boundaries. All of these and more are covered in the following chapters.

Reflection point:

What specific forms of narcissistic abuse do you recognise in the person/people you have in mind?

Do any specific memories or examples of this come to mind?

How did you feel at the time? How did you react? What happened?

What do you think and how do you feel about this now?

What do you need in order to take good care of myself right now? What would you like? What can you do to attend to your own self-care needs today?

This post is taken and adapted from the self-help book: 'How to Leave a Narcissist... For Good - moving on from abusive & other toxic relationships' written by Dr. Sarah Davies. Available to download or to buy in paperback.

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