Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) is a complex mental health condition that typically involves a grandiose or inflated sense of self and an extreme need for admiration and attention, among other symptoms. People with NPD or narcissistic tendencies sometimes show a pattern of manipulative, controlling behaviour that involves both verbal abuse and emotional manipulation.
Narcissistic victim syndrome is a term that collectively describes the specific and often severe effects of narcissistic manipulation. While this isn’t a recognized mental health condition, many experts acknowledge narcissistic abuse can have a serious long lasting impact on mental health. Here are 12 signs that might suggest you’ve experienced narcissistic abuse.
They seem perfect
Narcissistic abuse tends to follow a clear pattern, though this pattern might look a little different depending on the type of relationship.
Research suggests that in a romantic relationship, this abuse typically begins slowly after you’ve fallen hard and fast. This early stage might have felt so intense and overwhelming you never stopped to consider whether they might be too fantastic. Then slowly manipulative tactics began to replace the gifts and declarations of love.
Others doubt the abuse
Narcissistic manipulation and abuse are often subtle. In public, these behaviours might be so well disguised that others hear or see the same behaviours and fail to recognize them as abuse. You might not even fully understand what’s happening. You only know you feel confused, upset, or even guilty for your “mistakes.”
People with narcissistic traits often need to maintain their image of perfection in order to keep earning admiration from others. To do this, they may try making you look bad. Once you begin pointing out problems or questioning their behaviour, they might lash out by:
- openly directing their rage toward you with insults and threats
- involving others in criticizing you
By telling stories to your loved ones that twist the facts about your “harmful” or “unstable” behaviour the narcissist tries to discredit you. Even worse, when you react angrily, they can use your response to back up their lies.
People with narcissism often have a knack for charming others. That persona they showed you in the beginning. Everyone else still sees that. They can often win support from your loved ones (who haven’t seen through the facade) by insisting they only have your best interests at heart. Then, when you try explaining the abuse, your loved ones might side with them.
If your loved ones don’t understand, you’ll likely feel pretty alone — which only increases your vulnerability to further narcissistic manipulation. The person abusing you may pull you back in with kindness, even apologies, or by pretending the abuse never happened. “Hoovering,” as it’s often called, tends to work better when you lack support. You’re more likely to doubt your perceptions of the abuse when you can’t talk with anyone about it. If your loved ones reach out to say you’ve made a mistake and encourage you to give the abusive partner another chance, you might end up doing so simply to regain your closeness with family and friends.
You freeze up
People respond to abuse and other trauma in different ways. You might attempt to confront the abusive person (fight) or escape the situation (flight). If these methods don’t work or you feel unable to use them, you might respond by freezing. Freezing can have some benefits in certain situations, but it doesn’t help much when you can escape from danger. Yet if you believe there’s no way out of the relationship, you might remain in it — and perhaps even respond by working to keep your partner happy.
Trouble making decisions
A pattern of devaluation and criticism can leave you with very little self-esteem and confidence. Narcissistic manipulation often involves frequent implications that you make bad decisions and can’t do anything right. An abusive partner may call you stupid or ignorant outright, often with a falsely affectionate tone: “Honey, you’re so dumb. How would you manage without my help?” Over time, you might start absorbing these insults and attaching them to your self-perception, constantly second-guessing yourself as a result. Gaslighting tactics can also make you doubt your decision-making abilities. If someone manipulates you into believing you imagined things that actually took place, you might continue doubting your perception of events. This uncertainty can affect your ability to make decisions well into the future.
Feel like you have done something wrong
A key characteristic of narcissism is difficulty taking responsibility for any negative actions or harmful behaviour. Abusive partners typically find some way to cast blame on you instead. They might accomplish this through deceit, often by:
- insisting they said something you have no recollection of
- getting so angry you end up soothing them by apologizing and agreeing you were wrong.
A partner using narcissistic manipulation might respond with extreme anger. They may respond with accusations of their own and redirect blame, saying things that are intended to hurt and belittle you. These barrages of rage can leave you feeling helpless and dependent, grateful they’re willing to remain with someone who makes so many mistakes. Even after leaving the relationship, you might carry forward the belief you can’t do anything right. When things go wrong in other areas of life, you might start to blame yourself for causing those problems.
Abuse can trigger anxious and nervous feelings that sometimes lead to physical symptoms.
You might notice:
- appetite changes
- stomach pain and other gastrointestinal distress
- muscle aches and pains
Restless and unsettled
Narcissistic abuse can sometimes be unpredictable. You may not know whether they’re going to criticize you or surprise you with a gift. If you don’t know what someone will do or say at any given moment, you might develop a lot of tension from needing to regularly prepare yourself to face conflict. Worries about the constant stream of criticism and how to best handle the abusive behaviours you’re beginning to recognize can also leave you constantly on edge. You may not know how to relax anymore since you may not feel safe letting your guard down.
Dont recognize yourself
When facing abuse, many people eventually adjust their self-identity to accommodate an abusive partner. Say your partner insists, “When you go out with your friends, you’re telling me you don’t love me. You’d rather see them instead.” Of course, you love them, so you stop going out with your friends. Next, you give up your hobbies, skip after-work happy hour with co-workers, and eventually cancel your weekly visit with your sister. You spend time doing what your partner wants to do, so they know you really do care. These changes often lead to a loss of your sense of self, which can leave you feeling lost and empty. You might have a hard time enjoying life and lose sight of your sense of purpose.
Trouble setting boundaries
Someone engaging in narcissistic abuse often has little respect for boundaries. When you try to set or enforce limits, they might challenge them, completely ignore them, or give you the silent treatment until you do what they want. Eventually, you might give up on your boundaries entirely. Once you end the relationship or get distance from a narcissistic parent, you promise yourself you won’t answer their calls and texts or see them at all. If they know they can eventually wear you down, though, they might not let you go easily. Instead, they’ll keep calling and texting in the hopes of getting you to set aside your boundaries again. If you’ve experienced narcissistic abuse, you might also have trouble setting healthy boundaries in your relationships with others.
Anxiety and depression
Anxiety and depression commonly develop as a result of narcissistic abuse. The significant stress you face can trigger persistent feelings of worry, nervousness, and fear, especially when you never know what to expect from their behaviour. You might feel hopeless or worthless, lose interest in things that used to bring you joy, and have a hard time seeing hopeful outcomes for the future. It’s also common to have a lot of confusion over what caused them to change so abruptly, especially if you don’t know much about narcissistic manipulation. You might shoulder the blame for the abuse, perhaps believing their accusations that you must not care about them enough or blaming yourself for falling for their deception in the first place. Either can add to feelings of worthlessness and further diminish self-esteem.
- learning coping strategies to manage mental health symptoms
- practicing setting healthy boundaries
- exploring ways to rebuild your sense of self