What is Narcissistic Abuse?

abuse, narcissistic abuse, shame, low self-esteemNarcissists don’t really love themselves. Actually, they’re driven by shame. It’s the idealized image of themselves, which they convince themselves they embody, that they admire. But deep down, narcissists feel the gap between the façade they show the world and their shame-based self. They work hard to avoid feeling that shame. This gap is true for other codependents, as well, but a narcissist uses defense mechanisms that are destructive to relationships and cause pain and damage to their loved ones’ self-esteem. (Learn the traits required to diagnose a narcissistic personality disorder, “NPD.”)

Many of the narcissist’s coping mechanisms are abusive–hence the term, “narcissistic abuse.” However, someone can be abusive, but not be a narcissist. Addicts and people with other mental illnesses, such as bi-polar disorder and anti-social personality disorder (sociopathy) and borderline personality disorders are also abusive, as are many codependents without a mental illness. Abuse is abuse, no matter what is the abuser’s diagnosis. If you’re a victim of abuse, the main challenges for you are:

  • Clearly identifying it;
  • Building a support system; and
  • Learning how to strengthen and protect yourself.

What is Narcissistic Abuse
Abuse may be emotional, mental, physical, financial, spiritual, or sexual. Here are a few examples of abuse you may not have identified:

  1. Verbal abuse: Includes belittling, bullying, accusing, blaming, shaming, demanding, ordering, threatening, criticizing, sarcasm, raging, opposing, undermining, interrupting, blocking, and name-calling. Note that many people occasionally make demands, use sarcasm, interrupt, oppose, criticize, blame, or block you. Consider the context, malice, and frequency of the behavior before labeling it narcissistic abuse.
  2. Manipulation: Generally, manipulation is indirect influence on someone to behave in a way that furthers the goals of the manipulator. Often, it expresses covert aggression. Think of a “wolf in sheep’s clothing.” On the surface, the words seem harmless – even complimentary; but underneath you feel demeaned or sense a hostile intent. If you experienced manipulation growing up, you may not recognize it as such. See my blog on spotting manipulation.
  3. Emotional blackmail: Emotional blackmail may include threats, anger, warnings, intimidation, or punishment. It’s a form of manipulation that provokes doubt in you. You feel fear, obligation, and or guilt, sometimes referred to as “FOG”
  4. Gaslighting: Intentionally making you distrust your perceptions of reality or believe that you’re mentally incompetent.
  5. Competition: Competing and one-upping to always be on top, sometimes through unethical means. E.g. cheating in a game.
  6. Negative contrasting: Unnecessarily making comparisons to negatively contrast you with the narcissist or other people.
  7. Sabotage: Disruptive interference with your endeavors or relationships for the purpose of revenge or personal advantage.
  8. Exploitation and objectification: Using or taking advantage of you for personal ends without regard for your feelings or needs.
  9. Lying: Persistent deception to avoid responsibility or to achieve the narcissist’s own ends.
  10. Withholding: Withholding such things as money, sex, communication or affection from you.
  11. Neglect: Ignoring the needs of a child for whom the abuser is responsible. Includes child endangerment; i.e., placing or leaving a child in a dangerous situation.
  12. Privacy invasion: Ignoring your boundaries by looking through your things, phone, mail; denying your physical privacy or stalking or following you; ignoring privacy you’ve requested.
  13. Character assassination or slander: Spreading malicious gossip or lies about you to other people.
  14. Violence: This includes blocking your movement, pulling hair, throwing things, or destroying your property.
  15. Financial abuse: Financial abuse might include controlling you through economic domination or draining your finances through extortion, theft, manipulation, or gambling, or by accruing debt in your name or selling your personal property.
  16. Isolation: Isolating you from friends, family, or access to outside services and support through control, manipulation, verbal abuse, character assassination, or other means of abuse.

Narcissism and the severity of abuse exist on a continuum. It may range from ignoring your feelings to violent aggression. Typically, narcissists don’t take responsibility for their behavior and shift the blame to you or others; however, some do and are capable of feeling guilt and self-reflection.

Malignant Narcissism and Sociopathy
Someone with more narcissistic traits who behaves in a malicious, hostile manner is considered to have “malignant narcissism.” Malignant narcissists aren’t bothered by guilt. They can be sadistic and take pleasure in inflicting pain. They can be so competitive and unprincipled that they engage in anti-social behavior. Paranoia puts them in a defensive-attack mode as a means of self-protection.

Malignant narcissism can resemble sociopathy. Sociopaths have malformed or damaged brains. They display narcissistic traits, but not all narcissists are sociopathic. Their motivations differ. Whereas narcissists prop up an ideal persona to be admired, sociopaths change who they are in order to achieve their self-serving agenda. They need to win at all costs and think nothing of breaking social norms and laws. They don’t attach to people as narcissists do. Narcissists don’t want to be abandoned. They’re codependent on others’ approval, but sociopaths can easily walk away from relationships that don’t serve them. Although some narcissists will occasionally plot to obtain their objectives,  they’re usually more reactive than sociopaths, who coldly calculate their plans.

Get Help
If you’re in a relationship with a narcissist, it’s important to get outside support to understand clearly what’s going on, to rebuild your self-esteem and confidence, and to learn to communicate effectively and set boundaries. Doing the exercises in my books and e-workbooks, particularly Dealing with a Narcissist: 8 Steps to Raise Self-Esteem and Set Boundaries with Difficult People will help you make changes. If you feel in danger, don’t believe broken promises. Get immediate help, and read, “The Truth about Domestic Violence and Abusive Relationships.”

© Darlene Lancer, 2016

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15 thoughts on “What is Narcissistic Abuse?

  1. I have a sister who claims our mother is a malignant narcissist and throws around terms like flying monkeys to refer to the rest of us. I grew up in the same house and don’t see my childhood the same way she does. Help me to understand.

    • There are many blogs and a peer-reviewed article on narcissism on my website. Moreover, sometimes a narcissist targets specific children and favors others, but even if not targeted, there is subtle shaming that a child may not be that aware of. Conquering Shame and Codependency explains this in more detail.

  2. Patricia from July 11th: you’re right to wary. Your husband is gaslighting you. It makes you question your reality and de-stabalizes you. He wants counseling so that he feels the therapist will say he is right. Be careful. You can get re-victimized. My therapist kept telling me to lower my expectations (of being treated decently and lovingly) and finally told me to have “no expectations”. That allowed him to hi-jack the whole marriage and made me completely submissive. I didn’t understand he’s narcissistic (malignant) or the emotionally abusive relationship, married for 15 years & 5 marriage counselors. NO professional (DOCTOR) caught it !!!!

  3. My Ex-H just pulled a N episode on me for the 3rd time. It was not until a few days ago when I was left bewildered one again that he could “love me more than I would even know” to not talking to me and blaming me for being a liar when I caught him in a lie, that I realized that he actually is a narcissist and has repeatedly done this to me for the past 20 years. B/c I was the one who had an affair in our marriage that always clouded the way he treated me. We even divorced and he remarried. Now I’m left feeling helpless and broken pretty sure he went back to his current wife, the one he left recently to start fresh with me, his “soul mate”

  4. My long-time verbally abusive husband is now very condescendingly insisting that we go to couples counseling after he’s said hurtful things and denied doing it. I’ve read that it usually results in the victim being revictimized, due to counselors having no idea that the charming, intelligent man is actually an abuser. My husband almost instantly denies having said anything vicious to me and has never admitted to having done so. So what are the prospects for counseling for “a communication problem”?

    • A good counselor should be able to see through that. Also, YOU need counseling to set boundaries with him, and go to CoDA meetings. Finally, some people bring in written communications or even recordings of arguments to reveal abusive language to the counselor. Shortly, I’ll have a webinar on assertiveness up. Until then, practice from “How to Speak Your Mind.”

      • “How to Speak Your Mind” has a wealth of good suggestions–I read it today and will reread parts of it and make some lists of things to focus on. In the past, I would write down each hurtful thing he would say and it did discourage his chronic denial. So I’m going to start that again. He doesn’t do it often, so I’ll need to maintain my resolve and focus on assertiveness and boundaries for life. But I’m no longer feeling as hopeless as I was. Thank you for all this help!

          • Yes, I think that webinar might help me. It probably seems odd that I’m still working on these skills at 69, 30+ years into a 2nd marriage, but I was raised by an abusive narcissistic mother and my first marriage was to a charming, handsome, violent sociopath who was abusive in just about every way. I’m a late bloomer :/

            I did have an excellent therapist 20 years ago, but I was unable to put most of his advice into practice then. I was on so many antidepressants that I felt like a zombie. Glad to be off all of them now, though I’m still coping with anxiety (by walking a lot).

  5. Do Narcissists know they are that way?? I have done a bunch of these things in my relationship -how do I know if I am the Narcissist or if I am just reacting to them??

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