How to Recognize the Signs of Narcissistic Abuse

Narcissistic abuse is a type of emotional abuse carried out by a person who is a narcissist. People with narcissistic personality disorder have a need for admiration and a lack of empathy. People also use the term “narcissist” casually to mean someone who is obsessed with themselves, often at the expense of their relationships with others.

The signs of narcissistic abuse are the same as the signs of other forms of emotional abuse. Labeling someone a narcissist can be problematic since narcissism is a medical condition that only a doctor can diagnose. What’s more helpful is learning about narcissistic abuse and the effects of abuse, and recognizing that any form of abuse is unacceptable. 

Read on to learn more about narcissistic abuse, including signs, examples, and effects, as well as information on the narcissistic abuse cycle. 

Woman comforting female friend

martin-dm/Getty Images

Warning Signs

Narcissistic abuse shares warning signs with other abusive behaviors, including physical and emotional abuse. Any of the following can be a sign of abuse:

Controlling Behavior

Abusers often try to control their victims. Your abuser might try to restrict what you wear, with whom you spend time, or how you spend money.


Gaslighting is a form of emotional abuse and manipulation that causes you to question your reality. When gaslighting, an abuser might deny things you know to be true, twist the facts, or use your own words against you to make you question your understanding of the situation.

Social Isolation

Abusers often isolate their victims, pulling them away from other important relationships in their life to make the victim more dependent on the abuser.

Invasions of Privacy

An abuser may track your whereabouts, look at your social media, or otherwise violate your sense of privacy. This can give them a sense of control and a way to intimidate you.

Verbal Abuse

Name-calling, belittling, yelling, and giving the silent treatment are all forms of verbal abuse.

Lack of Boundaries

An early sign of abuse can be a lack of boundaries. Someone who inserts themselves into your life very quickly may eventually become controlling or abusive.


An abuser might threaten you or the people and things you love, including your pets. Sometimes an abuser will threaten self-harm as a way to control you.


As part of a pattern, an abuser may try to control what you say or even what you think. They may threaten or punish you for speaking out.


Withholding is a manipulative behavior in which a person withdraws their attention, affection, or communication as a way of punishing you and making you feel ostracized.

Being abusive and having a mental health illness like narcissistic personality disorder are two entirely separate things. There is no proof that people with mental health illnesses are more likely to be abusive than anyone else, and haivng a mental health illness is never an excuse for abuse.

Narcissistic Abuse Cycle

Some psychologists talk about a narcissistic abuse cycle or a cycle of abuse more broadly. This is helpful to some people, who can recognize a pattern in their own experience with an abuser. Here’s what a cycle of abuse may look like.


At the beginning of the relationship, an abuser can seem like an ideal partner. They’re often personable and even seductive. The abuser may be infatuated with the victim, and the soon-to-be victim feels that they’ve found their ideal partner.


At this stage, warning signs and abusive behavior begin. This often starts slowly, with controlling or jealous behavior, like getting mad when you see friends. It can escalate to gaslighting, verbal abuse, and possible violence.


Ultimately, the abuser may reject their partner. Oftentimes this can happen because the partner asked for compromise or understanding that the narcissist was not willing to provide.

The National Domestic Violence Hotline rejects the idea of an abuse cycle. When people talk about a cycle it can make others feel as if they know what can happen next, and it can also make people blame a victim for the abuse, the organization says.

Effects on the Abused

Being a victim of emotional abuse, including narcissistic abuse, can have short-term and long-term effects on your health. People who have experienced manipulation and abuse often feel confused and may blame themselves for their partner’s behavior. Even after a relationship ends, being a victim of emotional abuse can make it difficult to trust partners in future relationships. 

Common effects of emotional abuse include:

  • Shame
  • Anxiety
  • Guilt
  • Feeling powerless
  • Confusion
  • Loss of self-esteem
  • Being overly compliant
  • Taking the blame for other’s behavior
  • Staying in an unhealthy relationship

Getting Help

No one deserves to be abused. Even if your partner has been diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder, this is not an excuse for abusive behavior. 

Working with a professional counselor can help you cope with an unhealthy relationship. In some cases, a counselor can help you and your partner develop healthier communication patterns. A counselor will also help you set healthy boundaries and understand what behavior is unacceptable. Remember, emotional abuse is abuse, and should never be tolerated. 

Reach the National Domestic Abuse Hotline 24/7 by calling 800-799-7233, texting “START” to 88788, or visiting the website to chat


Narcissistic abuse is emotional abuse perpetrated by someone who is a narcissist. People who have narcissistic personality disorder lack empathy and have a need for constant admiration. However, mental health illness, including narcissistic personality disorder, is not an excuse for abuse, and many abusers do not have a mental illness. 

A Word From Verywell

Living with emotional abuse can be overwhelming. Abusers often manipulate and gaslight their victims. This makes a person question whether the abuse is even happening. If you feel you are being abused, seeking professional help from a crisis line or counselor can open a door to the help you need. 

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What are the common traits of a narcissist?

    People with narcissistic personality disorder have an inflated sense of self. They believe themselves to be special and are often preoccupied with fantasies of success in relationships and at work. They have a need for admiration and have difficulty empathizing with others.

  • What are the long-term effects of narcissistic abuse?

    Narcissistic abuse is emotional abuse. It can leave you feeling confused, ashamed, or guilty. You may question if abuse is really happening. Victims of emotional abuse often need to rebuild their self-esteem and regain the confidence that their abuser eroded. 

  • How can you escape narcissistic abuse?

    Remember that mental illness is never an excuse for abuse. Reach out to a professional counselor or the National Domestic Violence Hotline for guidance.

7 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Mitra P, Fluyau D. Narcissistic personality disorder. In: StatPearls. StatPearls Publishing.

  2. National Domestic Violence Hotline. Narcissism and abuse.

  3. National Domestic Violence Hotline. Warning signs of abuse.

  4. National Domestic Violence Hotline. Types of abuse.

  5. Idealize, devalue, discard: the dizzying cycle of narcissism.

  6. National Domestic Violence Hotline. Is abuse really a cycle?

  7. Women’s Law. Emotional and psychological abuse.

By Kelly Burch
Kelly Burch is has written about health topics for more than a decade. Her writing has appeared in The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, and more.