Examples Of Narcissistic Abuse: Identifying Your Situation

Medically reviewed by Julie Dodson, MA
Updated June 7, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that include abuse which could be triggering to the reader. If you or someone you love is experiencing abuse, contact the Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). Support is available 24/7. Please also see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.

It can be challenging to recognize whether the behavior you’re experiencing from your partner is abusive or toxic. While conflict, disagreements, and occasional mistakes can occur in many relationships, abusive relationships can differ. One type of abusive relationship is narcissistic abuse, not to be confused with narcissistic personality disorder

Narcissistic abuse refers to abuse by someone with narcissistic traits. They may or may not have a personality disorder diagnosis. However, having a personality disorder does not necessarily mean someone is abusive, so understanding the difference between narcissistic abuse and narcissistic personality disorder can help reduce mental health stigmas.

If you are in a relationship with someone with narcissistic tendencies, you may notice that they ask for excessive admiration, lack empathy, and showcase a sense of entitlement. Understanding how to identify these behaviors and signs of narcissistic abuse can help you receive support and find safety.

This article explores types of narcissistic abuse (e.g., mental, physical, sexual, or emotional abuse), how to identify if your intimate partner might be abusive, and the potential mental health effects of narcissistic abuse. It also includes resources for those who experience abuse. 

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What is narcissistic abuse? 

Narcissistic abuse is a term referring to abusive behaviors with narcissistic tendencies. For many in these types of relationships, narcissistic abuse can cause a confusing cycle in which you know your relationship is unhealthy but suspect it may be your fault because you are blamed for the behavior. 

This behavior is not unique to romantic relationships. You can experience these feelings in a relationship with a parent, a mother-in-law, a co-worker, or a friend. No matter who is engaging in this hurtful and confusing cycle with you, you may be considering multiple explanations, looking for an answer to help you understand what is happening in your relationship. 

The United Nations defines abuse as behavior that demeans, belittles, threatens, harms, or overpowers a person in order to have power over them. Abuse can be emotional, mental, physical, or sexual and occur in any relationship. 

What does a person with narcissistic traits act like? 

A person with narcissistic traits is someone who exhibits the personality traits of narcissism. Although the term “narcissist” is often used in society to refer to those diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), the term can be limiting, as not everyone who lives with NPD is defined by their condition. In addition, the term “narcissistic” can be used outside of the clinical setting to describe someone who shows traits of narcissism but doesn’t necessarily meet the diagnostic criteria for a personality disorder diagnosis.  

A person with narcissistic traits may show signs of insensitivity, lack of empathy, and manipulative tendencies. These symptoms can feel hurtful to others who interact with them, and may even be abusive. If an individual has narcissistic traits, they may have the following personality traits: 

  • An exaggerated sense of self-importance

  • Unhappiness when they do not get their way 

  • A difficult time accepting criticism

  • A need for constant praise

  • A tendency to take advantage of others

  • Difficulty seeing the needs of others

  • Focusing on success, beauty, and power above all else

  • A lack of empathy 

  • Callousness or cruelness 

  • Believing they are better than others or deserve more than others 

It may be difficult to understand why a person might stay in a relationship with someone with traits like these. People with narcissistic traits may be charming and kind when you first meet them and early on relationships. However, the charming behaviors often end after a few months together. 

Narcissistic abuse is often a hidden type of abuse. Narcissistic abuse might be challenging to identify because those in such situations may have difficulty articulating the manipulation they have experienced or struggle because they can’t put their finger on any physical symptoms. For example, when narcissistic abuse is discussed in survivor support groups, survivors often use the analogy of a frog being slowly boiled alive in a pot of hot water. If you threw the frog in right away, he would be immediately, painfully aware of the heat, and jump out as fast as he could. However, if you gently drop a frog into a pot of room temperature water and slowly turn up the heat, he will not notice the gradual increase in temperature. 

For many survivors of narcissistic abuse, this analogy is used to understand how the abuse occurs. If this analogy resonates with you, you are not alone. If you did not notice the signs right away, it is not your fault, and you can still find support and leave your abusive partner if you have not already. 

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Examples of narcissistic abuse 

Having evaluated the impact of narcissistic abuse, you may also benefit from knowing the forms narcissistic abuse may take. You may have experienced physical, sexual, emotional, psychological, or financial abuse. In many cases, survivors of narcissistic abuse have been subjected to many forms of abuse over a prolonged period. The following are a few examples and signs of narcissistic abuse. 

Narcissistic abuse: gaslighting or psychological manipulation

Gaslighting is a form of psychological manipulation that causes another person to question elements of reality or their own lived experience. Below is an example of gaslighting behavior: 

You have a letter you need to mail, so you address and stamp the letter, take the letter out to your mailbox, and raise the flag. You have now done everything you needed to do to make sure the letter gets mailed.

Later, after a stressful and chaotic day, you cannot remember if you mailed the letter. You ask your partner if they recall you doing so. Your partner clearly remembers that you mailed the letter. However, instead of putting your mind at ease and saying, “Yes! You mailed it; I remember seeing you put it in the mailbox,” they tell you that you did not. Their deliberate misinformation may result in a frantic search for the letter and stress for you. As you search, they further gaslight you by telling you you’re “crazy” and “must be losing your mind,” despite knowing you’re not. 

Gaslighting may cause you to start to question your sanity. The following can be signs that you are a survivor of this behavior: 

  • Apologizing often, even when it is not your fault

  • Blaming yourself for every setback 

  • Loss of confidence

  • Feelings of isolation from your friends and family

  • Difficulty with decision making

  • Feeling like you have lost a sense of self

When someone engages in gaslighting, they make statements to encourage you to doubt your memory of what has happened. They might tell you that you said something you know you didn’t say or question the details of an event until you start to question it as well. 

The behaviors involved in gaslighting can be difficult to catch from the start because they are often gradual. People with narcissistic traits may know when to turn their “charm” back on to avoid losing the relationship. If you start to catch on that they’re gaslighting you, they might initially react defensively and then decide to apologize profusely or give you a gift to try to make up for it without addressing the problem.

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Blame shifting

Another form of narcissistic abuse is blame-shifting. People with narcissistic traits may struggle with self-esteem. They may be overly critical of themselves and others, potentially making them reluctant to accept responsibility for their actions. As a result, they might find it easier to ignore the stress of accepting responsibility and pass all the blame to you. Blame shifting can cause you to feel you are at fault for their actions. 

If this behavior continues, you may start to believe them and accept the blame. If you do this enough, it can lead you to start believing that you are the person acting abusively. As a result, you may struggle with low self-esteem and self-doubt, even if you have never experienced these issues before your relationship. Over time, this behavior can wear you down psychologically and emotionally, and you may feel you have lost your sense of self.

Withholding 

In some abusive relationships, a person may withhold certain areas of your life together to manipulate you into doing what they want. Withholding could include money, conversation, affection, love, or kindness. If you try to confront them about their behavior, they may deny it or blame you. They may tell you that your needs are wrong or abusive.  

In some cases, you might feel that you are constantly working on trying to earn what you need from the individual. When it suits them to stop withholding, they may expect you to feel grateful for their sudden generosity and assume that you will thank them for doing you a favor. 

For example, the person acting abusively may withhold love from you, despite being in a relationship. You might try everything you can to get their love, including sending messages, giving them gifts, thinking about their needs the entire day, or apologizing for past mistakes. However, you may notice that they only start to give you love once you decide you’re done trying and want to leave them. Once they notice they might lose you, they “turn their love back on” and start to give you affection, potentially causing you to want to stay in the relationship and deny your own needs. 

Ignoring boundaries

In some cases, abusive relationships may involve an invasion of personal space or ignoring boundaries. For example, your partner with narcissistic personality disorder may follow you to track your location using an app. If you set boundaries, they may ignore them. If you enforce the boundaries, it may lead to a cycle of gaslighting, blame-shifting, withholding, and isolating that leaves you feeling confused and hurt. If this happens repeatedly, it could indicate you’re in an abusive relationship. 

Isolation 

At times, individuals with narcissistic tendencies may isolate their partners. They may not want their partner to be influenced by others, knowing that their behavior is unhealthy. They may also worry that their partner’s loved ones will identify something wrong within the relationship and encourage their partner to end it. Isolation could also occur due to jealousy or fear of you “cheating” or leaving them for someone else. 

Isolation often occurs when the individual tries to convince you that your family and friends are causing you problems. For example, they may spread rumors about the people you love, telling you they have said or done unhealthy things. You might experience tension with your loved ones due to this, which could cause conflict between you and those you love, strengthening your belief that your partner is right.       

If you are no longer spending time with people you care about, such as friends and family, your partner may believe they have more control over your ideas, and they may use the opportunity to try to mold your opinions. You might also feel isolated and scared to leave if they are the only person in your life. 

Potential effects of narcissistic abuse

Narcissistic abuse inflicted by an intimate partner characterized by manipulative and exploitative behavior can have profound effects on one's mental and physical well-being. 

Individuals who experience abuse often endure chronic stress, anxiety, and depression as a result of the constant emotional turmoil and gaslighting tactics employed by their partners. This sustained psychological trauma can manifest in various health issues, including insomnia, high blood pressure, and autoimmune disorders. Moreover, narcissistic abuse can lead to self-esteem and identity challenges, hindering one's ability to trust and form healthy relationships in the future, which can perpetuate a cycle of emotional distress.

What to do if you are experiencing narcissistic abuse

Support is available if you believe that you or someone you love is being subjected to abuse of any kind. You may recognize that some of the behaviors mentioned above are similar to what you have experienced (or are experiencing). Accepting that someone for whom you care would mistreat you or abuse you can be challenging. You may also have strong feelings or empathy for your partner and not want to leave them. It is common for abuse survivors to live with sadness, shame, and anger. 

However, no matter how much you love them, the effects of narcissistic abuse are dangerous. Any abuse, whether it’s mental, physical, emotional, financial, or verbal abuse can lead to injury or death. To safeguard yourself, taking the first step to leave the relationship may be best. It may be difficult to leave if the person in question is a parent, partner, or family member. However, finding a support system can help you feel safe and supported as you choose to exit the relationship. A qualified therapist can help you learn strategies to safeguard yourself while navigating this situation. 

In addition, you can call a hotline for support and local resources. If you are experiencing physical abuse, stalking, or life-threatening abusive behaviors, you may be able to receive support from a domestic violence shelter. Many shelters offer free social work support, legal advice, housing, and vouchers to help you get back on your feet if you’re struggling to leave due to financial or legal reasons. 

Where to find long-term support for narcissistic abuse

If you are interested in talking to someone about the possibility that you are living with abuse, there are many resources available. If you are worried that your partner might discover that you’re seeing a therapist or you aren’t ready to see a therapist in person, you can also meet with someone online. Online therapy through a platform like BetterHelp can be a safe and available option. 

Current research has shown people who attend online therapy believe they can trust their therapist to a greater degree and feel safer due to the distance and familiar environment in which sessions are held. Rather than attending in-person therapy sessions, you can connect with a mental health professional from the comfort and safety of your own home, at a time that’s convenient for you. In addition, studies have found that online therapy can be more effective than in-person therapy for survivors of domestic violence and abuse of any type. 

Takeaway

Recovering from narcissistic abuse by someone with narcissistic personality disorder can be a long and challenging journey. However, the first step can be recognizing you need help. By reaching out for support from a therapist or hotline, you can take the first step towards breaking free and beginning your recovery journey. In addition, if you have already left an abusive relationship and are struggling to cope, therapy can be an effective resource as you process what occurred with help from a mental health professional. You’re not alone in experiencing narcissistic abuse, and support is available.
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