What Is Narcissistic Abuse?

Content Note: Mention of abuse; manipulation; grooming

Ok – strap in – there is no easy answer to this one.  Those who have been abused in this way will recognise patterns of psychological control but we need to do a bit of groundwork here.

The term “narcissist” peppers many everyday conversations as an indication of someone self-serving, vain or self-important.  It is trivial in this context.  

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-5) takes us to the dark side.  It defines a narcissistic person (with NPD) as someone who has a grandiose sense of self, believes they are special or unique in an ultimate way, lacks empathy, is emotionally exploitative, is deeply envious of others, is entitled and is preoccupied with fantasies of brilliance and unlimited power.  

This is a summary – there is more – but how this is experienced in relationship is a whole other matter and what The Grace Project is focussed on.  

The likelihood is that the narcissist will not be diagnosed because it takes skilled professionals to do so and the narcissist is unlikely to present themselves for assessment or will reject the findings if they do.  This is not the place to discuss the abuser.  There are risks associated with self-diagnosis and labelling so it may be more helpful to identify patterns of behaviour that meet the criteria for narcissistic abuse (NA). 

Narcissistic abusers are charming, plausible and engaging.  They chronically manipulate the abused and leave them feeling unworthy, mentally sick and often suicidal.  

The abuse is not just between partners.  It may be a narcissistic parent, colleague, child, friend or community.  The Grace Project will take time to explore these permutations but. for now, let’s look at partners.

The Pattern of Narcissistic Abuse

Initially, abusers make noises as if they idealise their partners.  They will tell them how handsome/beautiful/special/loved/perfect, they are.  The abused will feel an intense loyalty and commitment to her or him.  They are being groomed from the outset.  As are those around them.  

Often, the abused will disclose intimacies and aspects of themselves to the narcissist as acts of love and trust.  Later, these precious shares will be weaponised and used against the abused.  

No fact can get in the way of the screenplay. They are consummate propogandists and their narrative, driven by self-promotion and the pathological need to preserve their image, bears little resemblance to the truth. Lying is an act of survival.  

And so, it begins.  The cracks begin to show.  The gorgeous partner may need to lose a few pounds or get that promotion.  Then it will be along the lines of “I don’t want you to be upset but I think you should know; your sister doesn’t like you”; “I’m concerned about you – you seem to be imagining things”. What is so perverse is that it sounds as if they care.  It is textbook narcissistic language.

And slowly, ever so subtlety, the abused feels less than.  Unworthiness becomes their state.  They may hear about how they compare to previous partners or colleagues or friends. All of this eats away at their very being.  And this may be the pattern  for years, decades, even.  

There are times the abused may feel like leaving but at the very hint of doing so the narcissist will love bomb and promise to change and assure that it will be like it was and that they are stressed/overworked/unwell/sorry.  But this is a smokescreen.  It is likely that they have a secret life and that the abused was getting too close, asking too many questions or noticing unusual behaviours in the narcissist.   

The abused may behave in ways that support the abuser’s view of them – they may scream and shout, rage in response and use language that they could never have imagined.  They are in a constant state of fear and anxiety and tread on eggshells around the abuser lest they enrage her/him. They may mirror the abusive behaviour and loathe themselves even more.  

Life After Narcissistic Abuse

Eventually, the narcissist will discard the partner.  They have served their purpose.  The narcissist has found new supply.  This leaves the abused heartbroken, confused, often poorer and mentally very unwell.  

They are left in a fog and are constantly triggered by people, places, memories, sounds, smells that result in debilitating grief.  All the more so if they have children together.

They grieve not just the time spent with the abuser but shattered hopes and dreams and revisit almost every aspect of their lives trying to work out what was real and what wasn’t. This mourning takes its toll.

Narcissists do not tolerate separation.  They hoover, bait, plead and intimidate.  They continue to scratch the wounds and defy the healing process. If they can’t do so directly they will let others do the work (more of this when we explore “Flying Monkeys”).  Nor do they change.  Or rarely. Or think they need to.

So, if you’re reading this you may be planning to leave the narcissist or have left them.   You have given yourself the greatest gift.  Freedom.  The chance of a happy life where you will feel valued, worthy and where you will rebuild and thrive.  

There are very specific consequences from this type of abuse – rumination, periods of abject despair, intrusive thoughts, shock and a putrid mix of daily realizations and nightly terrors that you’ve been violated and demeaned so much so that you no longer recognize yourself.  

You have suffered trauma.  Please understand this and know that you can get better. By understanding what you have experienced, how it happened and how to heal, you will emerge.  You have survived.  You will thrive.  You are stronger than you think.

The Narcissistic Cycle of Abuse, by Tanya Gaum, M.ED, MA, & Barbara Herring, MA, LMFT

Margaret Ward-Martin
Margaret Ward-Martin

BA (Hons), MA, PGCE, Post Graduate Cert. in Coaching Psychology, MBACP, Int. Aff. APA

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