Narcissistic abuse and self esteem

Narcissistic abuse is a form of emotional and psychological abuse. It can present as insidious and covert.


The narcissist can present a veneer/polished outward presentation to their immediate circle. But towards the victim, it is a very different story.

Narcissists and narcissistic abuse

A narcissist can be charming and even charismatic at times, which can lead to confusion about how their presentation will be and possibly a longing of them presenting like this more often. This behaviour occurs when they feel in control or are in the limelight and want to portray themselves as a good host or have an audience to impress. So when there is prestige, power or status to gain. Narcissists look down on people with less authority and status or feel envious towards them. And feel they should have what those people have.

Narcissists portray an inflated sense of self to others to create a more grandiose picture of themselves. This could be elaborating their job, their attributes and the things they do for others. The purpose of this is twofold to gain favour with others in particular people that are useful and influential so serving the narcissistic in some way. The other is to hide low self-esteem by seeking external gratification.

Narcissists present as very defensive and will take anything that resembles being questioned as criticism and questioning of their authority and integrity. Narcissists will not take responsibility for their actions and instead deflect questions and place the responsibility at the door of the victim. They struggle to empathise with others and recognise how others feel, quickly turning the attention back to them, their needs and their experiences. It could also be they belittle the victim’s needs, even shame them for feeling the way they do.

Manipulation and gaslighting are often used to maintain power and gain power over the victim. They are also signs of narcissistic abuse. Stonewalling, ignoring and freezing out are also used to control and maintain power. In evolutionary terms, being frozen out and ignored could have meant death, so the victim wants to ease the discomfort of this by pleasing the narcissist or trying to “be better” in the future to stop this from happening again. This behaviour can erode self-worth, and self-esteem and create anxiety and self-doubt in the person on the receiving end of the narcissist’s behaviour.

The anxiety and self-doubt come from being held directly responsible for the narcissist's mood, happiness or lack of, success and unpredictability of their behaviour and the expectation on the victim without their prior knowledge or transparency. Poor emotional regulation and coping skills are other factors of narcissistic personalities, which again can lead to emotional outbursts aimed at others.

Narcissists, when not validated, questioned or not agreed with and appeased may go into a shame rage, which is when their self-worth is called into question which feels too overwhelming. To avoid these feelings they will shout and take other actions such as being critical, rude, dismissive and condescending to shut the victim down and stop these feelings being triggered.

Being on the receiving end of this can be scary and exhausting and may even lead to PTSD or complex PTSD from the trauma. Feelings of confusion, not being good enough, and falling short are due to never being able to please the narcissist surface and even become a core belief if internalised.

The victim tries to second guess the outcome of situations and may become hyper-vigilant to avoid confrontation and blame. Doing this can lead to minimising their own needs, people-pleasing behaviours and neglecting their own needs to prioritise those of the narcissist. A loss of identity can also ensue, not feeling able to have time alone, say what they like to do and pursue their own interests and hobbies again feeling like an erosion of self-worth and value.

All that said, if this has been your experience what can you do to support yourself?

How can I support myself through narcissistic abuse?

Acknowledging your experience and the feelings that arise with this, knowing it was not your fault and being kind and compassionate to yourself. Not talking to yourself in a way that is similar to the way the narcissist spoke to you or about you as this would just perpetuate the abuse.

End the relationship with a narcissistic partner, being mindful of them telling you or inferring you will not be able to manage without them. Seek professional support to talk about and process your experience and feelings, depression and anxiety, PTSD and complex PTSD can also manifest. Reach out to trusted people who will support you, offer care and compassion and validate your feelings and offer company if this is what is needed, particularly if you are on your own.

Rediscover yourself by finding out what you like to do, having a say, speaking out around safe people, undertaking self-care to honour yourself, and validating your feelings and experience. Do things that make you happy, even if they are small and remind yourself it is ok as feelings of guilt may surface for putting yourself first.

Prioritising self-care in all its forms to try to meet your needs- eating healthily, getting enough sleep, accessing medical appointments (when necessary), exercising, spending time with people that do not bring you down and finding things to do that you enjoy to name a few. Set boundaries which support you and exercise patience with yourself in doing this and working through your feelings.

When things feel unfamiliar it may take some time to be able to do this consistently, healing is a process which does take time particularly if the abuse has been going on for a sustained period of time or at crucial developmental milestones. Grieve as you deserved better, to be loved and cherished especially as a child if you had a narcissistic parent.

Listening and paying attention to what you need even though this may be difficult, is really important in getting in tune with your feelings and part of learning to prioritise your needs and learning to trust yourself again. If you can relate to this or has been your experience get in touch as I specialise in working with people who have had a narcissistic parent or been in a narcissistic relationship.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Plymouth, PL1 3RP
Written by Alicia Dawson, Psychotherapeutic Counsellor MBACP, MNCS Accred
Plymouth, PL1 3RP

I am a Psychotherapeutic Counsellor who is a Registered Member of the BACP (British Association of Counselling and Psychotherapy). I am also an Emotional Freedom Technique Practitioner (this can be used to reduce the intensity of emotions). I have an established private practice, I work both face to face and online in Plymouth.

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