By Dana Morningstar
This is a term that originated in the early twentieth century due in large part to the work by famed psychologist Alice Miller. Miller used the term “narcissistic abuse” to refer to a specific type of emotional abuse against children that resulted from narcissistic parents who required their child to give up their own wants, needs, and feelings, (i.e. their individuality) in order to meet the parent’s needs for self-esteem. In this dynamic, the narcissistic parent only saw the child as an extension of themselves and not the child they were.
The term “narcissistic abuse” has since grown to include any type of dynamic with a narcissist in which the narcissistic person seeks to get their needs and wants met at the expense of another. The way a narcissist goes about getting others to give up their wants, needs, and feelings, and to try to be what the narcissist wants them to be, is through using, abusing, and exploiting them.
However, while the term narcissistic abuse applies to any dynamic in which a person is being used, abused, exploited, or neglected to meet the needs and wants of a narcissist, many people tend to use the term narcissistic abuse to mainly refer to more covert forms of verbal, emotional, and psychological abuse, such as gaslighting, subtle jabs and put-downs, and the slow and systematic grinding down of a person’s self-esteem and self-image. In other words, it’s often used to describe the more psychological (or “invisible”) aspects of abuse, as any form of abuse that doesn’t leave physical bruises is often minimized and seen by many as “not really abuse” because there are no visible signs of abuse, violence, or harm.
But make no mistake, the psychological and emotional damage that is done often causes long-lasting emotional and physical damage. A person who goes through narcissistic abuse is often left not knowing who they are, not knowing how they feel, not trusting their judgment, and not knowing the difference between safe and dangerous behavior. They often find themselves in a series of narcissistic relationships, friendships, and other abusive dynamics. This is in large part due to the manipulative nature of narcissists who continue to use, abuse, and exploit their targets, and deny, minimize, or blame their target for the abuse. Narcissists often have a careless and cruel indifference about the damage their behavior causes, a jaw-dropping level of entitlement, a lack of sincere remorse (or a lack of remorse at all), and never-ending justifications for their abuse. Over time, this damaging, destructive, and sometimes even deadly behavior, and the target’s justifications of it, become the target’s new normal. And the target quickly learns that the narcissist’s “love” is conditional. Either the target conforms to the narcissist’s every whim and expectation, or any crumbs of attention and affection that they give them will be withheld. Any relationship with a narcissist is a one-sided relationship, with everything being all about the narcissist doing whatever they want to do, and in the narcissist’s mind, anyone who has a problem with that is crazy, difficult, too sensitive, cruel, manipulative, and abusive to them!
*In the following examples, I focus mainly on the dynamics between parents and children, as the other examples in this book are primarily about dating or marital relationships.
Here are some examples of narcissistic abuse in motion:
- A parent who continually “taunts and teases” (psychologically abuses) a child about their appearance or choices and then when the child cries, or tells them to stop, they blame the child for being too sensitive or too emotional.
- A parent who either makes their child sick, continually insists that their child is sick (when the child isn’t) or exaggerates their symptoms because the parent likes getting the attention and sympathy from others due to their sick, dying, or dead child. (This is also known as Munchausen by proxy.)
- A spouse who continually lies and cheats but continues to keep their partner in the marriage with false promises of change because they like having two incomes, as well as having their spouse cook and clean for them.
- A parent who uses guilt, shame, and sympathy to get their adult child to continually give them money—even if it’s destroying their adult child’s marriage or putting the adult child in a financial bind.
- A parent who insists that their adult child work in their family business but then pays them significantly less than the fair market value for their work, and makes their child feel guilty, greedy, and ungrateful for wanting to get paid more.
- A spouse who makes their partner feel lazy, selfish, and bad for being sick in bed with the flu, and unable to make them and their needs (cooking dinner, having sex, etc.) a priority.
- A parent who doesn’t spend any money on a child’s basic needs such as clothes that fit, taking them to the doctor or to the dentist, but then the parent spending their money on extras such as getting their nails and hair done, or buying an expensive new car.
- A spouse who is overly critical and undermining of the other spouse by continually telling them all the reasons that whatever they want to do will not work. They might say things such as, “No one would hire you,” or “You are too old to go back to school—besides, I don’t think you’re smart enough anyway.” If the spouse tries to defend their decision, the narcissist will most likely claim that they are just being honest, and that it’s the target’s fault for not being able to handle the truth.
- A parent who locks their child (who has a fear of the dark) in a dark bedroom for an hour as punishment for something. When the child is released from the bedroom and starts to cry, the parent gets annoyed and upset with the child for crying, and blames the child for what happened telling them that they wouldn’t have acted that way if they had just listened or if they weren’t so difficult—and that they should be grateful that they don’t hit them or beat them with a belt like some other parent might do.
- A spouse who baits their partner into a fight by planting seeds of jealousy or insecurity and then when the spouse questions them about it or gets upset, they spin it and exclaim that the spouse is crazy and overly emotional.
- A parent who lies, abuses, and steals from their child, but if the child tries to protest or cut off contact, they use guilt, obligation, and twisted views of religion (spiritual abuse) to keep them around, claiming that they need to honor their parents, and that they need to forgive and forget.
- A person who seeks out single parents on dating sites in order to lure them by pretending to be a loving and caring partner, all so that they can molest their children once trust is established.
- A parent who uses guilt, shame, and obligation in order to manipulate a child into not asking for basic (and reasonable) requests such as food, hygiene needs, medical or dental care, money to buy a gift for a friend’s birthday present, or clothes that fit properly. If the child protests, the parent may spin things around and tell the child that they are the ones who are greedy, demanding, insensitive, uncaring, selfish, and manipulative.
- A person who is manipulative and abusive towards their partner and who then accuses their partner of being the one who is manipulative and abusive.
- A spiritual leader or therapist who takes great pride (and gets their self-esteem needs met) in their ability to keep marriages together…even if these marriages are abusive.
- A parent who steals their child’s identity and opens up credit cards in their name.
- A parent who has their child’s life planned out for them, including what kind of hobbies they will (or won’t) have, where they will go to college, or what profession they should have. For example, a parent who insists that their child give up their love of art and instead become a doctor. Or a parent who insists that their young child take up acting or modeling because they, themselves, were either an actress or a model, or because they never got to be an actress or a model and are trying to live out their dream through their child. And if the child doesn’t want to do these things, they are often told that they are ungrateful, spoiled, bratty, difficult, having a bad attitude and will never amount to anything.
Narcissistic Abuse (Symptoms): During and after an abusive relationship, a person often feels a major shift in their personality.
The symptoms of abuse include:
Wanting to avoid other people.
Feeling distrustful of others.
Having a loss of interest in things that were once enjoyable.
Having no desire to date (this can go on for years after the relationship ends).
Having a lack of desire and fear to ever be emotionally vulnerable to anyone.
Feeling detached or numb.
Feeling hopeless about the future.
Having sleeping or eating difficulties.
Being easily startled.
Having flashbacks of abusive things that were said and done.
Feeling like their life is a movie and not something that’s really happening to them.
Developing psychosomatic illnesses (pain with no physical cause).
Fatigue, feeling overwhelmed by small, everyday tasks.
Loss of self-esteem.
Feeling alone in their pain.
Engaging in self-harming behaviors such as drinking, drug use, or cutting.
Thoughts of suicide.
Feeling at fault for the abuse.
Rage at the abuser, or even feeling suicidal or homicidal.
It’s also very common for targets of narcissistic abuse to feel embarrassment and shame and to blame themselves for what happened (in part because they were blamed for the abuse and also because they feel ashamed for not seeing the abusive behavior for what it was sooner, and for not leaving sooner).
After leaving the relationship, many targets often need constant reassurance of decisions they are making or of their thought processes in general because they have experienced gaslighting and other manipulative techniques designed to erode their sanity. Even if the relationship did not contain gaslighting, or any forms of overt abuse, seeing the narcissist’s “mask slip,” and realizing they had been used, abused, and exploited for the narcissist’s own selfish reasons is enough to shatter a person’s concept of what is real, and who can be trusted. This is often the case with people who find out that their seemingly ideal partner was living a double life, and was only using them for sex, money, social status, or for some other reason.
In addition, many abuse targets develop Stockholm syndrome and want to support, defend, and love their abuser despite what they have endured. This is why many targets, in response to the question of, “Why didn’t you leave?” will answer, “Because I loved them,” or “Because they were my mom/dad/child/friend/etc.” To the outside world, this explanation doesn’t seem to make any sense, because being used, abused, and exploited isn’t love, but to the person who was in this dynamic, they were conditioned to think that how they were treated wasn’t a problem, it was partially their fault, or that it was somehow part of the normal highs and lows of a relationship. In addition, the person who got caught up in this “manipulationship” had real feelings, and made real attachments, and sorting out what happened and how they feel takes time. Because an abusive relationship is, at the core, a confusing relationship.
Example: Sally was recently discarded on her birthday by Jace, her boyfriend of ten months. Two days after he broke up with her, he began posting pictures of him and his new girlfriend on Facebook, talking about how happy they were. Sally was devastated, and couldn’t believe he could move on so fast. It was like she and their relationship meant nothing.
During the time they were together, Sally felt like she was on an emotional roller coaster. The good times with Jace were really good—ideal even, but the bad times were really bad and included cheating, lying, and lots of yelling, name calling, put-downs, and criticism. Although the bad times were really bad, she’d held onto hope that if she could just get through to him to let him know how hurtful his behavior was, eventually he’d stop.
Now that the relationship ended, she has a hard time falling asleep, and when she does she either has nightmares or very emotional dreams about him, and wakes up screaming or crying. She often feels numb or full of rage, and only leaves the house to go to work or to get groceries. She finds herself thinking about him all the time and rehashing both the good and bad times. Family and friends tell her that he was a loser and that she should be glad he’s gone, and while on one level she knows that is true, she can’t help but be concerned that maybe the way he treated her was partially her fault. She wonders whether, if she’d only been more careful about how she brought up issues she had with their relationship, maybe he wouldn’t have yelled so much or called her names…and maybe he wouldn’t have left. She finds herself obsessively looking at his Facebook page and thinking about him all the time.
In many ways, she feels addicted to him, and a part of her hopes that maybe he’ll contact her. At one point she breaks down and texts him, telling him that she misses him, and he sends her a text back with a picture of him and his new girlfriend in bed together, and tells her to stop stalking him, and that she is pathetic, crazy, and needs therapy. Sally is crushed. She wonders if perhaps she really was the problem, because he looks so happy in his new relationship.
(I’m going to continue this example, as can be helpful to address what happens to many people when they seek help from professionals who are not familiar with narcissistic abuse.)
After months of being on an intense emotional roller coaster and struggling with depression, anxiety, bouts of rage, and feeling like her life and her sense of self are blown apart, Sally decides to see a psychiatrist. When she does, the psychiatrist diagnoses her with having Borderline Personality Disorder because she has a fragmented sense of self, intense emotions, often feels suicidal, and has a pattern of unstable relationships. Sally goes home and begins to research this disorder, and much to her horror, she finds out online that Borderline Personality Disordered people are often abusive and manipulative—just as much as narcissists. She is devastated and suicidal, as this diagnoses is now confirmation to her that she was the problem all along. Her psychiatrist has a therapist in his office that he recommends she start seeing. She tells her therapist about her last relationship, and the therapist tells her that every relationship takes two people to make it work and asks her about her part in things. Sally feels like she is being blamed for Jace’s behavior, and with her new diagnosis, she is more confused than ever.
She decides to join a support group for Borderline Personality Disorder. She begins to open up about her devastation about her diagnosis and how her behavior ruined her relationship. The more details she gives about her last relationship, the more it becomes clear to other members in the group that she was in an abusive relationship, and is seeing two professionals who don’t understand the dynamics (or aftermath) of an abusive relationship. Sally realizes her relationship wasn’t perfect, but since she was never hit, she doesn’t feel comfortable calling it abusive. The more she learns about verbal, emotional, and psychological abuse, and the more she hears stories from others, the more her behavior makes sense. Some of these members begin telling her that trauma and PTSD from abuse are commonly misdiagnosed as Borderline Personality Disorder, and encourage her to see a therapist who specializes in trauma. Again, Sally feels like she is overreacting by referring to her relationship with Jace as “trauma,” as it wasn’t like he beat her. Members of the group explain that all abusive behavior causes some degree of trauma, and that a person doesn’t need to go through the worst of the worst in order to become traumatized or to develop PTSD. The members also reassure her that the problems in her relationship weren’t communication issues; they were power and control issues—and they were Jace’s issues, not hers. They encourage her to explore the topics of healthy boundaries and deal breakers, as well as the different forms of abuse—and how abusive people go about eroding a person’s boundaries and then grinding down their sense of self-worth and making them think they deserve the abuse.
Many members also tell her that they were misdiagnosed with the same disorders and felt even more depressed and suicidal. They tell her that even if she did have Borderline Personality, this didn’t necessarily make her abusive. They encourage her to ask herself if she had these kinds of behaviors (or felt this way) before this relationship, or if she began feeling this way after this relationship. Sally realizes that she’d never had issues like this before, decides to join a support group for abuse, as well as to seek out a therapist who specializes in abuse and EFT or EMDR treatments for trauma, and to get a second opinion from that therapist about her previous diagnosis.
Once Sally began to get treatment for her PTSD and began reading more about abusive behavior, it was like the pieces of the puzzle clicked into place, and she began to move forward in her healing.
Dana Morningstar is a former psychiatric nurse turned domestic violence educator who specializes in abuse awareness and prevention. Her passion is working with survivors of abuse to reclaim and rebuild their self-esteem, boundaries, confidence, and identity. She is an author of multiple books on the subject, and also has a blog, podcast, and YouTube channel, as well as several online support groups, all of which you can find under the name “Thrive After Abuse.”