Narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) is a complex mental health condition that typically involves:
- low empathy
- a grandiose or inflated sense of self
- an extreme need for admiration and attention
People with NPD or narcissistic tendencies sometimes show a pattern of manipulative, controlling behavior that involves both verbal abuse and emotional manipulation. This all falls under the umbrella of narcissistic abuse.
These tactics can confuse you, make you question your sense of reality, and damage your self-esteem.
Narcissistic victim syndrome is a term that collectively describes these specific and often severe effects of narcissistic abuse. While it’s not a recognized mental health condition, many experts acknowledge narcissistic abuse can have a serious, long lasting impact on emotional health.
Keep in mind that abuse and narcissism aren’t always related. A diagnosis of NPD doesn’t automatically translate to abusive behavior and many people who engage in abuse don’t have NPD.
Regardless, a mental health diagnosis never excuses abusive behavior. People choose to abuse and manipulate others, and it’s possible to live with traits of narcissism, or any personality disorder, without becoming abusive.
With that in mind, here are 12 signs that might suggest you’ve experienced narcissistic abuse.
They seemed so perfect — at first
Narcissistic abuse tends to follow a clear pattern, though this pattern might look a little different depending on the type of relationship.
In a romantic relationship, research from 2019 suggests, this abuse typically begins slowly, after you’ve fallen hard and fast.
It’s no wonder you fell for them. During the love-bombing phase, they seemed loving, kind, and generous. They made you feel special and adored with gushy compliments, affectionate displays, and expensive gifts.
This early stage might have felt so intense and overwhelming you never stopped to consider whether they might be too fantastic. Then slowly, negging or other manipulative tactics began to replace the gifts and declarations of love.
Narcissistic parents might also offer love, adoration, praise, and financial support until you do something to displease them and lose their favor. Then they, too, often turn to tactics like negging, silent treatment, and gaslighting.
People doubt the abuse took place
Narcissistic abuse is often subtle. When it happens in public, it might be so well disguised that others hear or see the same behaviors 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.”
A narcissistic parent might gently say, “Are you sure you want to eat dessert?” Or they might turn a broken dish into a joke at your expense: “You’re so clumsy. You just can’t help yourself, can you?” They laugh with everyone in the room while patting your shoulder to make the insult seem well intentioned.
You would hope friends and loved ones believe you, but unfortunately, this doesn’t always happen. Your loved ones might not doubt your belief you were abused, but they might question your perception of events or assure you, “You must have misunderstood them. They’d never hurt you intentionally.”
This doubt can be doubly harming. Not only does it dismantle your faith in your loved ones, it can lead you to wonder whether the abuse took place after all. Maybe you did read too much into their words or imagine that look on their face.
They’ve started a smear campaign
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 behavior, they might lash out by:
- openly directing their rage toward you with insults and threats
- involving others in criticizing you
By telling your loved ones stories that twist the facts about your “harmful” or “unstable” behavior, the narcissist tries to discredit you. Even worse, when you react angrily (who wouldn’t?), 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 sees that still.
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.
You feel isolated
When your loved ones won’t listen to you, you probably feel pretty alone. This leaves you vulnerable to further manipulation. The person abusing you may pull you back in with kindness, even apologies, or by pretending the abuse never happened.
This tactic, known as hoovering, often works better when you lack support. You’re more likely to doubt your perceptions of the abuse when you can’t talk to 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 that connection with them.
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 instead.
The freeze response usually happens when you feel helpless. It often involves dissociation, since emotionally distancing yourself from the abuse can help decrease its intensity, effectively numbing some of the pain and distress you experience.
While freezing can have some benefit in certain situations, it doesn’t help much when you can escape from danger.
If you believe there’s no way out of the relationship, you might remain in it instead of seeking support to help you leave safely — more on this in a moment.
You have trouble making decisions
A pattern of devaluation and criticism can leave you with very little self-esteem and confidence.
Narcissistic abuse often involves frequent implications that you make bad decisions and can’t do anything right. An abusive partner may even call you stupid or ignorant outright, though they might insult you 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.
You always feel like you’ve done something wrong
A key characteristic of narcissism is difficulty taking responsibility for any negative actions or harmful behavior.
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.
Say you suspect they’ve cheated on you. You explain the concerning behaviors you’ve noticed and ask if something’s going on.
They respond with extreme anger:
“How dare you doubt my loyalty, after I show you again and again how much I love you? How would you even know I’ve had phone calls from someone? You’ve been snooping through my things. Obviously you don’t care about me at all. You’re so disengaged, you don’t even enjoy having sex. If I were having an affair, it would be because you’re so boring in bed.”
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 struggle to accept that you didn’t cause those problems.
You have unexplained physical symptoms
Abuse can trigger anxious and nervous feelings that sometimes lead to physical symptoms.
You might notice:
- appetite changes
- upset stomach or nausea
- stomach pain and other gastrointestinal distress
- muscle aches and pains
Using alcohol and other substances can sometimes seem like a helpful way to manage these symptoms, especially insomnia. As a result, you might end up consuming more than you’d like in an effort to manage unwanted feelings or physical distress.
You feel 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 behaviors you’re beginning to recognize can also leave you constantly on edge. You may not know how to relax anymore. It might even feel unsafe to let your guard down.
You don’t 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 drinks 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.
You have 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.
You have symptoms of 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 behavior.
You might feel hopeless or worthless, lose interest in things that used to bring you joy, and struggle to see any more 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 narcissism.
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.
How to find help
Any kind of abuse can take a significant toll on emotional and physical health. If your loved ones still doubt you or tell you to just move on, you may feel unheard and unsupported. This can make it hard to trust people again, leaving you feeling isolated and alone.
Whether you’re just beginning to notice the first signs of narcissistic abuse or still trying to make sense of a relationship you’ve already left, therapy can help you begin to heal.
Therapy offers a safe space to:
- learn coping strategies to manage mental health symptoms
- practice setting healthy boundaries in relationships
- explore ways to rebuild your sense of self
A therapist who specializes in abuse recovery can validate your experience, help you understand that you aren’t at fault, and offer support through the early stages of recovery.
Get help now
You can also get emergency support 24 hours a day, 7 days a week from the National Domestic Violence Hotline.
For free, confidential help:
- Call 800-799-7233.
- Text LOVEIS to 866-331-9474.
- Chat online.
Crystal Raypole has previously worked as a writer and editor for GoodTherapy. Her fields of interest include Asian languages and literature, Japanese translation, cooking, natural sciences, sex positivity, and mental health. In particular, she’s committed to helping decrease stigma around mental health issues.