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 (NPD) 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.

Narcissistic abuse is a form of emotional abuse that can occur in personal relationships, but also at the hands of leaders in the workplace. There are specific patterns to the behavior, as well as the effects on those abused by people diagnosed with NPD.

This article can help you to learn about narcissistic abuse, including its signs, examples, and effects of the narcissistic abuse cycle. It identifies how a counselor can help with narcissistic abuse recovery.

Getting Immediate Help

If you need immediate help, contact the National Domestic Abuse Hotline by calling 800-799-7233. They are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. You can also text “START” to 88788, or visit the website to chat with a counselor.

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What Is Narcissistic Abuse?

Narcissistic abuse occurs when someone living with a narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), whether already diagnosed by a mental health professional or not, behaves towards others in abusive patterns of interaction.

These behaviors arise due to traits associated with NPD, including:

  • An inflated sense of self and need for attention
  • Preoccupation with power or success
  • Sense of entitlement and expectation of special treatment
  • The need to control and exploit others

Expressions of envy of others, along with a lack of empathy, are common. However, although studies demonstrate that biological males are more likely to be diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), how the abuses are expressed may differ across genders and individuals.

Examples of Narcissistic Abuse

People living with NPD tend to be abusive in ways that interfere with relationships. These behaviors can range from hurtful and unwarranted criticism from a perfectionist employer, to life-threatening physical attacks from an enraged intimate partner.

Researchers conducting a qualitative study asked 436 people who live with narcissists to describe life with them. They said these spouses, parents, and others were people who:

  • Need to be in charge of everything
  • Are very critical and “superior” towards others
  • Feel entitled to take things like their bank card and use it
  • Neglect children while focused on their own needs
  • Become enraged when they don’t get their way

“It was an endless mine field of eggshells,” said one study participant. “A word, an expression would be taken against me.” Another described a male who flies off the handle and screams insults while throwing a tantrum for hours.

“He has hit me once. Left bruises on upper arms and back,” said another study respondent. “He goes into a rage and has hit walls, hits himself.”

Narcissism, Mental Health, and Abuse

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 having a mental health illness is never an excuse for abuse.

Signs of Narcissistic Abuse

Narcissistic abuse is only one type of abuse, and not everyone labeled as a narcissist is necessarily an abuser. NPD is a medical condition that only a healthcare provider can diagnose.

But narcissistic abuse does share similar warning signs with other abusive behaviors, including physical and emotional 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.

In some cases, these control patterns can result in stalking behaviors and violence. Researchers have noted a pattern in which some types of narcissism involving grandiosity, or a claim of special powers, can lead to serious violence when coupled with a heightened sense of anger.

Gaslighting and Censorship

Gaslighting is a form of emotional abuse and manipulation that causes you to question your reality.

When gaslighting, an abuser might twist the facts, or use your own words against you to make you question your understanding of the situation. They may try to control what you say or even what you think. They may threaten or punish you for speaking out against their wishes.

They deny things you know to be true, or dictate your own feelings to you in order to dismiss your sense of agency and what you’ve said about your experiences. In some cases, as with child abuse, a victim may become more attuned to feelings and perceptions of an abuser than their own.

Social Isolation

Isolation is a common tactic of abusers, who use it to ensure their sense of control isn’t threatened or disrupted by outside influences. It’s not uncommon for abusers to become violent if you break the “rules” of isolation they’ve imposed.

People who are narcissistic abusers pull their victims away from friends, hobbies, and other sources of well-being in their life to make the victim more dependent on the abuser.

At the same time, isolation keeps victims trapped. If they can’t go to work, don’t see family, or can’t leave the home or access a phone, they are kept vulnerable to the abuser and the abuser’s version of reality.

It’s important to remember that, even in the absence of narcissistic abuse, social isolation can contribute to depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues.

Lack of Boundaries and Invasions of Privacy

An early sign of abuse can be a lack of boundaries. Someone who inserts themselves into your life very quickly, exuding charm and showering you with attention and gifts, may eventually become controlling or abusive.

In fact, many professionals identify these quick-moving relationships as a classic sign of potential narcissistic abuse. As the relationship moves forward, the abuser may track your whereabouts, look at your social media, or otherwise violate your sense of privacy.

These behaviors can give the narcissistic abuser a sense of control and a way to intimidate you.

Threats and Verbal Abuse

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

This “silent treatment” can be a type of withholding, a manipulative behavior in which a person withdraws their attention, affection, or communication as a way of punishing you and making you feel ostracized.

Verbal attacks can escalate into threats. 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.

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.

It also can help you to know what narcissists do to their victims in order to help others. Here’s what a cycle of abuse may look like.

Idealization

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.

Devaluation

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.

Rejection

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

Even after a relationship ends, being a victim of emotional abuse can make it difficult to trust partners in future relationships. Or, it may lead people to stay in unhealthy relationships.

Getting Help

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

A professional with expertise in narcissistic abuse counseling can help you to cope with an unhealthy relationship and assist with narcissistic abuse recovery. 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. 

Summary

Narcissistic abuse is emotional abuse perpetrated by someone who is a narcissist. People who have narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) lack empathy and have a need for constant admiration.

These abusers often behave within specific patterns that cause harm to others, including life partners and work colleagues. Knowing these patterns can help you to avoid or heal from an abusive relationship.

Remember that mental health illness, including NPD, 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.

14 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.
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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.