A long time ago I was taught that a narcissist was a person who stared into the mirror and adored themselves for hours. But after years of working with couples on many kinds of issues, including narcissistic abuse, my perspective on narcissism has broadened greatly.
Narcissists wouldn’t be so bad if they didn’t also drag other people into their world, manipulating them to do what they want regardless of the harm they inflicted. If they kept to themselves most people could ignore them and go on with life.
But they don’t keep to themselves. To them, we are here to feed their ego and self-esteem.
Most narcissists seek their “supply” from the rest of us so that they can feel better about themselves. As long as we provide them an endless amount of admiration, attention, and subservience, they won’t make our lives a living hell. And even that’s not always a guarantee.
If you find that you’ve given up much of your own wants, needs, and desires to fulfill the needs of someone else, you may be experiencing narcissistic abuse.
In this article, I’m going to highlight some of the characteristics of narcissistic abuse so that you have some understanding of what it entails. This kind of abuse can be so subtle that many people who are going through it don’t even know they’re being abused. They know something is wrong but can’t figure out what it is.
After reading this article, you’ll have a better understanding of what can happen in a relationship with a narcissistic abuser. The list below stems from my direct conversations with clients and also from my analysis of their partner’s communication (emails, texts, audio) that these clients have shared with me.
Narcissistic abusers require you to do as they wish regardless of your thoughts or feelings. They are seeking comfort and happiness just like most people but usually aren’t concerned in the least with your well being while doing so. Most people appreciate being loved, admired, and adored, but they probably don’t lie or manipulate to get it.
A narcissist’s purpose is to fulfill their own needs regardless of the harm they inflict on you. Narcissistic abuse happens when the narcissist subtly or overtly manipulates you to fulfill their needs on a continual basis, emotionally draining you.
Are you experiencing narcissistic abuse?
The following list highlights many typical characteristics of narcissists.
- …want what they want and will do anything to get what they want, even if their behavior harms you
- …invalidate and diminish you, making you feel like you’re never enough and not worthy of better treatment
- …will quote what other people say about you (regardless if those people actually said it or not), putting you down and making you feel inferior
- …threaten you in a way to make you feel loss if you don’t do or think as they desire
- …will make comments about how you are not really loved or appreciated by others
- …will make it clear that no one will ever love you as they will
- …can say “I love you” while diminishing you at the same time. i.e. “I love you so much. I just don’t understand why you are destroying this family.”
- …put down the people you love, making them sound like idiots or fools
- …make it clear how bad your decision-making ability is, even when it is perfectly sound
- …will use what you hold sacred against you (children, love, God, etc). i.e. “I can’t believe you would do this to our kids.”
- …treat you like property
- …spread lies to others about you
- …compare you to other people that are “better” than you
- …don’t want you to feel pleasure in your accomplishments and will even make you feel bad or wrong for accomplishing something
- …play a victim better than most actual victims
- …teach their children to lie to make the narcissist look good. i.e. “Daddy can’t afford to pay his rent because of you” (parroting the words of the narcissist)
- …treats everyone except their partner as their best friend (The narcissist is a different person outside the home)
- …have little or no empathy (but can fake it really well sometimes)
Unfortunately, this is just a tiny percentage of a long list of traits and characteristics shared by many narcissists. Narcissistic abuse is very prevalent in our world but hard to spot when you’re in it because it’s so insidious.
If you’re in a relationship and feel at all a sense of low self-worth or low self-esteem, or you’re lacking the ability to make good decisions, or you feel a bit crazy because you just don’t know how to do anything right for your partner, you may very well be experiencing narcissistic abuse, or its close relative emotional abuse.
Many emotional abusers and manipulators come from dysfunctional homes. Often a lack of love or healthy attention can cause a child to not be able to develop compassion and/or empathy for others. The beliefs and perceptions about the world that these children develop don’t necessarily apply to the adult world, so they don’t know how to function as mentally healthy adults when they grow up. Their romantic relationships often fail because they cannot sense the harm they are doing to their partners.
Some abusers know they are harming their partner and others do not. There’s no excuse for their behavior either way but sometimes it’s helpful to know that not all manipulators and abusers actually mean to hurt others; it can be an unconscious process that developed a long time ago. They still need help and healing but it doesn’t mean you have to stay with someone abusing you until they get it.
I hate to admit it, but I was emotionally abusive in several of my relationships over the years. It was the end of my marriage that made me stand up and take note that something was wrong with the way my life was going. After my divorce, I took responsibility for my role in all my failed relationships and decided that I needed to heal.
That’s why I’m a firm believer that leaving an abuser often does both of you a favor: It removes you from the abusive situation and it gives the abuser an opportunity to experience accountability for their bad behavior.
In other words, if you stay, the abuser may never fully realize that they are harming you. Staying lets them know that their behavior must not be so bad after all because you continue to stick around. Narcissists often, only learn through accountability. Without accountability, they continue their bad behavior.
When you stay in an abusive relationship, most abusers are not compelled to heal or work on themselves. Only when they lose that which they are so desperately (and often successfully) trying to control do they finally realize that perhaps their actions are not healthy. Even then, not all abusers will believe they need healing.
I’m not saying have to leave a relationship like this. You certainly have a choice. But if you stay, don’t do it out of guilt. Victims of narcissistic abuse will often feel guilt that they might be harming their partner in some way if they leave them. Narcissistic abusers love to use your guilt as a tactic to get you to do things they want you to do. Don’t let guilt drive your choice to stay or go.
Remember, when you leave an abusive relationship, you give both of you a gift.
I am so fortunate my wife chose to leave me. As painful and devastating as it was, I would never have started my healing journey had she not taken action to protect herself. I would not have understood just how much damage I was doing had she never left.
After I stepped on the path to healing, I decided to learn as much as I could about verbal and emotional abuse, and even more recently about narcissistic abuse. Now I can look back at every one of my relationships that ended and see them as opportunities to look within myself and understand my old, toxic behavior a bit more.
When I was an emotional abuser, I made sure to make it known that I felt emotionally wounded and in need of consistent comforting. I wanted to make my partner feel guilty for thinking about leaving. I highlighted to them that they weren’t supportive or loving. This amplified their guilt and kept me in control.
I’m not proud of this behavior at all, but I share it to emphasize what can go through an abuser’s mind.
Leaving an emotionally abusive relationship is not the only path out of the abuse but it can be a faster path to healing. Of course, leaving a relationship where there’s actual, physical danger involves an entirely different set of variables and planning. If you feel at all threatened by your partner then it’s vital you plan your escape long before leaving the relationship. Making an escape plan is a good idea regardless of the level of abuse.
If you are in an emotionally abusive relationship or if you’re questioning if you are, start doing your research so that you don’t go crazy thinking it’s you and not your partner. Often when you enter a relationship feeling pretty good about yourself but later on feel like you can’t do anything right – you might be experiencing some sort of narcissistic or emotional abuse.
If you want an in-depth analysis of your relationship, consider getting the M.E.A.N. workbook below. It’s a revealing process that helps you pinpoint exactly what’s going on in your relationship and how you can become empowered to start trusting yourself again and stop the manipulation.
Narcissists don’t have to have the upper hand. Once you know who and what you’re dealing with, you can begin the healing and start learning how to stop supplying their narcissistic fuel.
Narcissists can and will use everything you appreciate against you and make you feel bad just for feeling good! It’s important you learn as much as you can about their behavior and how you may be exacerbating it so that you don’t inadvertently become your own worst enemy.
The line from the 1982 movie Poltergeist sums it up best:
Now clear your minds. It knows what scares you. It has from the very beginning. Don’t give it any help, it knows too much already.