What is Narcissistic Abuse?
Narcissistic abuse is where the wants, needs, thoughts, feelings, and sense of self of one person is eroded or erased due to the invalidation and selfishness of another--usually someone who is highly narcissistic.
The concept of narcissistic abuse was made popular by the work of psychologist Alice Miller. Her work primarily focused on exploring the family dynamics between a narcissistic parent (or parents) and their children. What Miller found in her work with emotionally abused and neglected children were that for them to "survive" their environment (meaning, for them to try to get their basic needs met—including food, clothing, shelter, love, and acceptance), they were forced to give up their wants, needs, and feelings—and thus their identity—to serve their parent's need for validation and esteem.
The term "narcissistic abuse" has grown to include the dynamic between a narcissist ("friend," parent, child, neighbor, coworker, significant other, member of their church, etc.) and their "target" where the target is manipulated out of their wants and needs, and thus their sense of self, to please or satisfy the other.
If you've experienced narcissistic abuse, you might feel like the definition mentioned above pales in comparison to what you've gone through.
A target is manipulated through a series of boundary pushes that, over time, erode a person's sense of reality along with their sense of self. This "grinding down" happens slowly and systematically through some form of abusive or neglectful behavior. This behavior includes any type or combination of verbal, emotional, psychological, physical, sexual, financial, or spiritual abuse. What drives abusive behavior is the need for a narcissist to get and keep power and control over another to continue to meet their own esteem needs.
These boundary erosions primarily occur when the target is alone with the narcissist, evolve slowly and steadily, and are often minimized or denied by the abusive person. The abuser often blames the target for being the cause of such treatment. Narcissists erase the core of their prey in such a way that the target doesn't realize it until much later. Generally, while this is erosion occurs, the target tends to feel like they are letting the narcissist down or that something is wrong with them and that they deserve to be treated this way.
This erosion of another person's sense of self is generally done in four main ways:
Slow & Subtle
When a person is continually undermined, their faith in their decision-making abilities and reality as a whole is slowly erased. The slow and subtle erosion happens when one person repeatedly tells another that they are some form of wrong, inadequate, or incompetent. What makes this form of abuse so effective and so dangerous is that sometimes there is a kernel of truth to what the other person is saying, and it can even come across as though the abuser is concerned about the person they are grinding down. This type of abuse results in the target having a hard time developing the self-esteem needed to set goals and achieve them. They get caught up in self-doubt and self-loathing. They often turn to the abusive person for guidance because they seem so sure about what they should do or how they should feel.
Fast & Not So Subtle
This type of abuse is when direct intimidation and aggression are used to gain power and control over someone. This abusive behavior could be yelling, cursing, throwing something at the target, hitting a wall close to the target, hitting, shoving, or acting physically or verbally aggressive towards the target, or any other intimidating or violent act. This behavior tends to happen fast and out of the blue, escalates quickly, and their rage is disproportionate and inappropriate to the situation. Within an instant, the relationship's dynamic has changed, and the target has now learned never to question the abuser, challenge them, or act in any way that might upset them for fear of what they might do.
Hot & Cold
This type of abuse is when the person experiences excellent times and then awful times with a narcissist. To get things back to the really good times, they begin walking on eggshells, "turning themselves inside out," and trying to suppress and silence anything about themselves that will upset this other person. The reason the hot and cold cycle is so hard to escape is that the target feels compelled to stay because of all the good times, feels responsible for all the bad times, or feels that this time is different, that this time they finally got through to their abuser, and that their relationship is finally turning a corner. The hot and cold cycle can also include the narcissist being "sweet or mean." Meaning, they may be very affectionate, attentive, and on their best behavior, and then out of nowhere, a switch seems to flip, and they become cold, cruel, or callous in their treatment of the target.
Neglectful behavior often goes hand-in-hand with other forms of abusive behavior. Neglectful behavior is when a person is taught to survive on, and be thankful for, the narcissist's physical or emotional crumbs. Frequently if a person voices a complaint about the crumbs they are given, their concerns are minimized or dismissed or spun around to accuse them of being ungrateful, selfish, or difficult.
The result of any of these types of abusive or neglectful behavior patterns is that they tend to leave a person feeling like they lack a tangible sense of self and are confused about what's "normal" and what's dysfunctional as far as other people's behavior goes. This is because when a person has been continually told that what's manipulative or abusive isn't a problem, or is somehow their fault, then they often find themselves living in a state of perpetual confusion. Think of the story of "Alice in Wonderland" - nothing is as it seems, and they struggle to have a solid footing in the reality of what's going on and why.
This level of confusion and introspection is a big reason people stay in abusive relationships for as long as they do and why many people leave one abusive relationship only to find themselves in another one. After an abusive relationship, the victim tends to doubt themselves and their perception of reality and other people's behavior, making them incredibly vulnerable—and odds are they don't even realize it.