How To Identify If You Are Experiencing Narcissistic Abuse

Updated January 13, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

If your relationship with your partner feels toxic, then their behavior has undoubtedly been very difficult for you to deal with. While having rough times in any relationship is natural and normal, a toxic relationship with a mentally unhealthy person carries with it deeper problems. One of these unhealthy personality disorders is narcissism, or narcissistic personality disorder. If you are in a relationship with a narcissist, you may notice that that they ask for excessive admiration, have a general lack of empathy and a sense of entitlement. 

Unsure If You Have Experienced Narcissistic Abuse By a Partner?

You may also find yourself in a confusing cycle in which you know there is something unhealthy about your relationship but feel it may be your fault because you are blamed for the behavior. 

Sadly, this confusion 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 putting you through this hurtful and confusing cycle, you are probably considering multiple explanations, looking for an answer that can help you understand what is going on in your relationship. In this article, we will briefly explore the reality of narcissistic abuse, how to identify it, and how you can get help.

If you feel are threatened or have been subjected to abuse, seek help immediately by calling 911 or the National Domestic Violence Hotline by calling 800.799. SAFE (7233).

What Is A Narcissist? 

Although you may often hear “narcissistic” used as a synonym for “vain,” the reality is that narcissism is more than a personality trait. While many people can be vain and self-obsessed, that does not necessarily mean they are narcissists. Clinical narcissism is not a personality trait— it is a diagnosable mental health condition known as narcissistic personality disorder (NPD).

A person with NPD shows signs of insensitivity, lack of empathy, and manipulative tendencies. Unsurprisingly, these common symptoms can be very hurtful to others who interact with the narcissist. Other symptoms and personality traits of NPD include:

  • An exaggerated sense of self-importance

  • Demanding their way and unhappy when it does not happen

  • Has a hard time accepting criticism

  • Need for constant praise

  • Takes advantage of others

  • Struggles to see the needs of others

  • Focuses on things like success, beauty, and power

As you read over the traits, it might be hard to understand why someone would be in a relationship with someone like this. However, people with NPD can be very charming when you first meet them. If the narcissist displayed all these personality traits upfront and gave you a preview of what was to come, you may never had entered a relationship with them. Unfortunately, that is exactly why they often adopt a charming facade that helps them win people over.

Narcissistic abuse is typically a hidden type of abuse and is difficult to identify because those who are abused have a difficult time in articulating the manipulation they have experienced. 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, of course he would be immediately, painfully aware of the heat and jump out as fast as he could. But 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. By the time he finally realizes he is— literally! — in hot water, 

For many survivors of narcissistic abuse, this is exactly how it feels. So, if you find that this analogy resonates with you, you should know that you are not alone. If you did not notice the signs right away, it is not your fault and it does not mean that anything is wrong with you.

Narcissistic Abuse Examples

The following material contains potentially disturbing contents and may cause distress in some individuals. If you feel threatened or have been subjected to abuse, seek help immediately by calling 911 or the National Domestic Violence Hotline by calling 800.799. SAFE (7233).

Having evaluated the impact of narcissistic abuse, it is important to understand the different forms this abuse can take. You may have experienced physical, sexual, emotional, psychological, or financial abuse. In many cases, survivors of narcissistic abuse have been subjected to many different forms of abuse at once over a prolonged period. But some types of abuse can be easier to identify than others. The following are examples of common types of abuse that may be more difficult to spot.

Gaslighting 

Gaslighting is a form of psychological manipulation which causes another person to question elements of reality or their own lived experience. For example, in practice, gaslighting might function something like this:

 You have a letter you need to 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 are not able to 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. But 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 will likely result in a frantic search for the letter and a lot of stress for you.

This is when the narcissist’s behavior makes you start to question your own sanity— especially when you confront them. The following can be signs that you are a victim of gaslighting.

  • Apologizing often, even when it is not your fault

  • Always thinking problems are your fault

  • 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 is gaslighting, they may do or say that make you doubt your memory of things that have happened or have been said. This could be that the person says you said something that you know you did not say. Or it could be questioning the details of an event until you find yourself questioning what you believed to have happened.

The behaviors involved in gaslighting can be difficult to catch from the start because they tend to be gradual. People with NPD can be good at knowing when to turn the charm back on to not lose the relationship. The good times can be so enjoyable that it can be hard to decide to end the relationship.

Blame Shifting

Another form of narcissistic abuse is blame-shifting. People with NPD often struggle with self-esteem. They tend to be overly critical of themselves and others which makes them reluctant to accept responsibility for things that they have done wrong. As a result, many narcissists find it easier to ignore the stress of accepting responsibility and pass all the blame to you. This often leads to you being blamed for their actions and for any perceived wrongdoings they assign to you.

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

Withholding 

Some people with NPD withhold things to manipulate others into doing what they want. This could include withholding money, conversation, sex, or other forms of affection. If you try to confront them about their behavior, they will probably deny it or shift the blame to you.

You may feel that you are constantly working to try to earn the things that you need or desire. When it suits them to stop withholding whatever they have taken from you— whether that be affection, healthy communication, or any other aspect of your relationship— they may expect you to feel grateful for their sudden show of generosity and assume that you will thank them for doing you a favor.

Invading Privacy And Ignoring Boundaries

Unsure If You Have Experienced Narcissistic Abuse By a Partner?

They may even follow your or you to track your location using an app. 

But many narcissists invade those boundaries at will. When you try to reinforce them, this often escalates into a cycle of gaslighting, blame-shifting, withholding, and isolating that leaves you feeling confused and hurt. If this happens repeatedly, it may be a strong indicator that you are dealing with a narcissist.

Isolation 

It is also common for people with NPD to try to isolate their partner from their family and friends. They may not want their partner to be influenced by others. They may also be worried that loved ones identify that something is wrong within the relationship and encourage the partner to end it.

Isolation often effectively occurs when the narcissist 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 that they have said or done things that would upset you.       

This can lead to tension between yourself, and your loved ones and you may find yourself spending less and less time with them or making less of an effort to communicate. Once your friends and family are out of the picture, the narcissist has more control over you, and they can use this new opportunity to increase their manipulative hold over you. This often makes it harder to break free from the relationship.

What To Do If You Think You Are Dealing With Narcissistic Abuse 

If you believe that you or someone you love is being subjected to narcissistic abuse, the most important thing to know is that there is help available. You may also be recognizing that some of the behaviors mentioned above are similar to what you have experienced (or are experiencing). It is difficult to accept that someone you care for would mistreat you or that your partner would abuse you. You may also still have strong feelings for your partner and not want to leave them. It is common for survivors of narcissistic abuse to live with feelings of sadness, shame, and anger for any of these reasons. 

But no matter how much you love them, abuse is never okay. For the sake of your own mental and physical wellbeing, it is vital to act and break free from the cycle of abuse. Often, it is not easy to leave, especially if the person in question is a parent, partner, or families. Nonetheless, it is important to move forward so you can start a new, healthy, and abuse-free path in life. A qualified therapist can help you learn strategies to protect yourself and safely leave your relationship with the narcissist in your life.

Where To Get Help

If you are interested in talking to someone about the possibility that you are living with abuse, there are many resources available. You may even be worried your partner may discover that you are seeking therapy. Do not let this stop you. Online therapy through BetterHelp can be a safe and accessible option. Current research has shown people who attend online therapy feel they are able to trust their therapist to a greater degree and feel safer due to the uknown nature of these visits (in contrast to in-person office visits). Rather than attending in-person therapy sessions— which can be difficult you can connect with a therapist from the comfort and safety of your own phone.

If you suspect that someone is reading your messages or has installed a tracking device on your own phone, it may be safer to borrow someone else’s phone or to use a laptop at a library or cafe. BetterHelp can connect you to a therapist if you have an internet connection and you will be able to meet online with a therapist anywhere that is convenient for you. 

Remember, if you feel threatened, seek help immediately by calling 911 or the National Domestic Violence Hotline by calling 800.799. SAFE (7233).

Recovering from narcissistic abuse can be a long and difficult journey but the first step is often the most difficult. By recognizing that you need help— and reaching out for support— you can take the first step towards breaking free and beginning your recovery journey. And, no matter what, remember that you are not alone. Help and support are only a call or click away if you contact BetterHelp or the National Domestic Violence Hotline.

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