Narcissistic abuse

Reviewed by Sulette Snyman
Last updated 11th May 2023 | Next update due 10th May 2026

Living with a narcissistic partner or family member can result in narcissistic abuse, also known as narcissistic abuse syndrome. This can weigh heavily on a person's mental health in several ways. We take a look at the signs and effects of narcissistic abuse, how to leave an abusive relationship and the ways counselling can help.

What is narcissistic abuse?

It's a form of emotional abuse that comes from an individual who is either narcissistic or has narcissistic personality disorder. Narcissistic personality disorder is an extreme or consistent expression of narcissism. It’s when someone feels they are more important than other people, displaying manipulative behaviours to control or take advantage of others, a distinct lack of empathy, and a need for constant admiration. 

To be in a relationship with them can often mean being subjected to harmful behaviours. This harm can be easy to spot such as privacy invasion, insults, and lying, but it's sometimes far more undercover such as gaslighting, nitpicking, and the ‘cold shoulder’. The abuser will generally use words to manipulate the other person’s emotional state, but narcissistic abuse can also be physical, financial, and sexual.

If you would like to know more about the difference between narcissism and narcissistic personality disorder or understand how covert narcissism and overt narcissism stand apart, Cheshunt Counselling explains more in their article, What is narcissism?

Where does narcissistic abuse stem from?

Counsellor Ian Stockbridge (BSc, PGCert, MBACP) talks about the origins of narcissism in his article, Breaking the cycle of narcissistic abuse. He says it often comes from childhood neglect, which can lead to low self-worth, “The cycle of abuse is a well-known phenomenon, where a person who has been abused may go on to become an abuser themselves.”

This low-self worth increases the narcissist's vulnerability to experiencing shame. A sense of shame often unknowingly consumes people with narcissism. They feel the difference between their exterior-based self and their shame-based self, working hard to avoid this gap. Someone with narcissistic personality disorder uses a series of defence mechanisms and abusive behaviours to manipulate and harm their partner's self-esteem and mental health, continuing the cycle.

A diagnosis or an understanding of the roots of narcissistic personality disorder does not excuse abuse nor diminish the effect it has on someone’s well-being.


What are the signs of narcissistic abuse (and how do they feel)?

The abuser will have an armoury of tactics to suppress your self-worth as a way of keeping control of the relationship. If you're in a relationship with a narcissistic person or someone with narcissistic personality disorder, the emotional rollercoaster of abuse can feel incredibly disorienting. This relationship can take any form, including a parental or romantic one. Here are some signs of narcissistic abuse:

Lack of empathy

A narcissist will generally be incapable of truly caring for their partner due to an absence of empathy. They believe their needs are always of more importance. This can make you feel ‘less than’, ignored, or lonely.

Comparisons

This nitpicking behaviour can involve making comparisons to portray you in a negative light. Or competing with you to make sure they always come out on top. This can make you feel ashamed for not being 'good enough'.

Deception

A narcissist may attempt to dupe or deceive you to maintain control, avoid personal responsibility, and get where they need to get to no matter the cost. They may even spread lies about you. If you attempt to confront them about their lying, they may twist the matter and shift the blame onto you. This deception can make you feel like you are always in the wrong.

Love bombing

It may feel flattering to be showered with compliments but love bombing is another form of emotional manipulation to maintain control and gain your trust. This is the first stage of a trauma bond and can look like grand gestures, excessive attention, over-the-top social media posts, and a drive to commit too early to the relationship.

Gaslighting

This is another form of emotional manipulation used to convince you that all the relationship problems are in your head. Instead of acknowledging responsibility, they will deny their behaviour. The narcissist is successful when you then start to question yourself. This projection breeds self-doubt, making you even more vulnerable to abuse.

Withholding

They may withhold (or even drain) your finances, as well as affection and communication. This is a way to punish you and can make you feel ignored, fearful, and confused.

Sabotage

You being successful in your own right is often the last thing a narcissist will want so they may try to undermine or destroy your other relationships, pastimes, and career. Abusive behaviours to sabotage you can include insults, accusations, blackmail, excessive sarcasm, and criticism. This may make you feel inferior and isolated from your friends and family.

Privacy invasion

Narcissists tend to believe you have no right to privacy so have little respect for personal boundaries. This can involve looking through your phone, following you, and gossiping about your private life. 

Narcissistic abuse can be violent. If you are in immediate danger, please contact 999. Please exit this website and visit from a device only you have access to if you’re worried someone might be monitoring your devices. If you are concerned your relationship is showing signs of narcissistic abuse, please contact your GP or Refuge as soon as possible.


What are the stages of narcissistic abuse?

The above signs of narcissistic abuse can be broken up into three separate stages: idealisation (or love bombing), devaluation, and rejection.

Counsellor and clinical supervisor, Nicki Cawley highlights the stages of a relationship with a narcissist in her article Narcissists and relationships.

Nicki talks us through the initial gathering of information and trust-building tactics of idealisation to the emotionally abusive tactics of devaluation. We end up at rejection where the person being abused is no longer useful so is discarded. The abuser will never want to be left first. They may disappear entirely, partially, or even attempt to ‘hoover’ their victims back into the abuse cycle.


How does a narcissistic parent act?

As with anyone who displays ongoing signs of narcissistic traits, a narcissistic parent will likely exhibit a sense of grandiosity and entitlement resulting in toxic behaviours such as gaslighting, neglect, and sabotage. They are often engrossed in their own wants and needs. A narcissistic parent tends to think they should come first, ranking higher than their child in importance. This can mean they play off sibling relationships, make critical remarks, and create ‘drama’ as ways of maintaining superiority. If they do put their child’s needs first, there may be a self-serving end game. 

Clinical and cognitive hypnotherapist, Louise Levy talks about how narcissists view children as extensions of themselves in her article, Co-parenting / counter-parenting with a narcissist. "They will often state how proud they are of their child to other people to show them off like a 'trophy', but not tell the child themselves how proud they are of them."

If you have or had a narcissistic parent you may experience low self-esteem in the form of people-pleasing, lack of boundaries, sabotaging thoughts, and a need for validation. This is because your emotional needs were rarely met as a child, having instead to adapt your personality to “keep the narcissist ‘happy’” says Louise. This can feel like walking on eggshells or even terrifying at times. 

What is narcissistic parental rage?

If you suffered from narcissistic abuse as a child, you may have been exposed to narcissistic rage. This is a mist that takes over the parent where they experience a sense of hate towards their child. Often the only way out is to ‘freeze’ and be submissive until the rage fizzles out. This and other narcissistic abusive behaviours can have a hugely detrimental effect on mental health.


What does narcissistic abuse do to a person? 

There are various mental health conditions or issues that can result from narcissistic abuse disorder. Some of these can have long-term effects even after the relationship has ended.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

Psychotherapeutic counsellor, Alicia Dawson (MBACP, MNCS Accred) talks about post-traumatic stress disorder being an effect of narcissistic abuse in her article, Narcissistic abuse and self-esteem, “Being on the receiving end of this can be scary and exhausting and may even lead to PTSD or complex PTSD from the trauma”.

If you have been in a relationship like this, you may have experienced PTSD due to an anxiety response, continually feeling like you had and still have to be on high alert. You may have flashbacks resulting in feelings of shame or anxiety.

Loss of identity

It can be difficult to separate yourself from the tangle of abuse and the power of their manipulative ways. You may find yourself isolated from other people, talking to yourself in the same way as the abuser did/does, or sabotaging your efforts due to a lack of self-esteem. This can make you feel inferior, consumed with self-doubt, ashamed, or lonely.

Not being able to say what you like or pursue your own endeavours can feel like a downpour on your authentic self. You may no longer know who you really are. This can result in an inability to focus on your goals and affect the way you build trust in future relationships.

Depression

If you have suffered from narcissistic abuse, you may experience a sense of emptiness or hopelessness. You may have been told overtly or covertly that you are not good enough through gaslighting, insults, nitpicking, and comparisons. This struggle with worthlessness can mean victims and survivors are more likely to develop depression


How can I leave a narcissistic relationship?

Leaving a relationship like this can be difficult. Typically the abuser will do anything to avoid being rejected. Counsellor Emma Davey (MBACP) talks about how unrelenting it can feel when attempting to leave someone with narcissism in her article, Counselling for narcissistic abuse.

Emma explains that the abuser will use manipulative techniques to coerce others to believe “the victim is actually the abuser”, making sure they aren’t abandoned first. Emma also highlights the importance of seeing a counsellor to help you end the relationship. They will help you process the trauma associated with the abuse, build strong boundaries, and give you the space to rediscover and sense self-worth.

It takes on average seven attempts of leaving a narcissist as the partner uses clever tactics to hoover their victim back in by making empty promises and pleading for forgiveness.

How does counselling help me recover from narcissistic abuse?

Some people who seek counselling for this think they need to improve themselves due to shame and insecurity. Much of counselling will instead focus on processing the trauma associated with the abuse and looking at ways to rediscover a sense of self-love. Your counsellor will support your road to recovery without judgement.

Having your story heard and validated by a professional in a safe space can help you feel believed, understood, and accepted. They can also help you rediscover the things that make you uniquely you, finding a sense of identity. There's no easy way of dealing with the after-effects of narcissistic abuse but having some time and space to talk freely is a powerful way to stop the abuse cycle and feel a sense of contentment.


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