What is Narcissistic Abuse?

excerpt taken from Never Again... moving on from narcissistic abuse and other toxic relationships...


Narcissism in essence, is a defence against deep and intense feelings of shame. Shame is an awful feeling. Shame is the feeling that tells us that we are defected, useless, worthless and unlovable. For a narcissist, it is simply too psychologically unbearable to connect with this shame and deep inner pain. Their psychology and actions therefore seek to defend them from doing so. It would simply be too much for their mind and fragile ego state to cope with. In their ongoing bid to keep well away from this deep pain and damage, narcissists rely on a variety of mental and psychological defence mechanisms and destructive behaviours. Much of these actions, when it is focused on those around them, are abusive. Abuse can be emotional, psychological, physical, sexual, financial or spiritual. 

Abuse of any kind is abuse. It is never acceptable. 


Narcissistic abuse is also often referred to as ‘invisible abuse’. Unlike physical abuse where the results are clear and undebatable in the form of bruises or cuts, narcissistic abuse and bullying is often seemingly very subtle, especially in the beginning. It is usually progressive and at times very difficult for people to spot. Narcissistic abuse is often executed in a way where nobody else, aside from the victim, sees or suspects it. In fact, often narcissistic abuse is so manipulative and abusive that often sufferers are left unsure if what they are experiencing is abuse at all. Instead, many people end up feeling - because they are told such by the narcissist - that they are simply being too sensitive, that they’re overreacting, imagining things, or that it’s them and their fault. A key feature of narcissistic and related emotional abuse is by the means of the abuser, then saying it’s you and your fault, that you are the one to blame. As a result of this kind of abuse, it’s very typical that you then deny or doubt your own perception. That in itself is a fundamental sign of narcissistic abuse. 


Other indicators and characteristics of narcissistic abuse include:


Boundary violation: Narcissists have no boundaries. They also have very little, if any, respect for anybody else’s space or personal belongings. Boundaries can be physical, sexual, mental or emotional and are vital for healthy relationships. For a narcissist, their wants or needs are always the priority. Even if they may pretend otherwise, it is usually with the aim of ultimately getting what they want.


Denial: A point blank inability to accept or acknowledge any truth, responsibility or error. The level of denial and absolute assurance that often accompanies it in a narcissist can be quite alarming. (I have met narcissists that would quite adamantly deny the sky is blue on a bright summers day!) 


Devaluation: in opposed to idealisation, devaluation relates to highlighting or pointing out other peoples faults of flaws in order to knock the other person and basically to help them to feel better about themselves.

Divide & Conquer: Often through idealisation or devaluing or indeed any other forms of manipulation, a narcissist will try to split people apart in groups, in family or at work. This gives them a sense of power. Divide & conquer describes the split and alienation the narcissist with create in a chosen individual who will then be set apart from the others - either in a positive ‘chosen’ capacity or through alienation and bullying. This serves to weaken and isolate group members.  It often leads to fall outs within the group, as well as paranoia, mistrust, resentments and competition, essentially leaving it easier for the narcissist to maintain control in the dynamic. 

Emotional Blackmail: This includes anything that is communicated to you that is experienced as threatening or intimidating. This also includes punishment, silent treatment, use of anger, aggression or threats. Emotional blackmail is intended to elicit feelings of fear, guilt and compliance. A narcissist will simply use emotional blackmail in order to get what they want. They have little, if any regard for the welfare or affect that has on you. They will often deny they are even doing it. Or they will use other techniques to turn things back on you repeatedly, perhaps suggesting you are exaggerating or being ‘too sensitive’.

Exploitation: Taking advantage and using people to serve their own gains and ambitions. A narcissist will not think twice about doing this. For them it is second nature.


Finger pointing: A narcissist will never genuinely take responsibility for themselves. They never or rarely apologise - they will not feel the need to. They will instead attempt to keep any accusations, blame or responsibility away from them by pointing out what anybody and everybody else is doing or not doing. In any argument or dispute, a narcissist will be highly skilled at turning the focus onto somebody else and making others feel like they are the ones at fault. They keep the heat off themselves by constantly pointing fingers at other peoples actions, words or behaviours.


Fishing: This is when the narcissist, just like a fisherman, will throw out ‘hooks’ in order to catch their supper. They will be attuned into using the exact bait necessary to catch and reel their target in. It can be very helpful to identify for yourself what kinds of bait leaves you vulnerable. What have been the hooks that have pulled you back in before? For example, is it your feelings of guilt, their use of fear or anxiety-inducing comments or behaviours? A need to rescue or fix within you? It can be helpful to work to identify your vulnerable bait or pulls. Awareness is a first step to change.


Gas-lighting: Gas-Lighting is a term used to describe how a narcissist will say and do things that will leave you second guessing yourself, doubting your own reality, your own judgements or perceptions. It is highly psychologically abusive and dangerous. Through gas-lighting, you begin to doubt yourself, lose trust in yourself and as a result, at times feel like you are losing your mind. In extreme cases, it can lead to having a complete nervous breakdown.


Ghosting: Narcissists do not manage endings. Ghosting is when they end a relationship by suddenly cutting ties and all communication without any discussion or explanation. The shock of this can be traumatising. 


Idealisation: the worshipping or an individual or organisation. Narcissists and many people with personality issues tend to view things in extremes - either good or bad, black and white. With idealisation a person or thing is viewed as incredible, the best thing since sliced bread, perfection. Is it also this kind of validation they seek from others. Parents of narcissists also either tend to completely worship their child in this way, as if the child can walk on water, or relate in the other extreme, where they are devalued and not good enough.


Inconsistencies: The one thing you can rely on with many narcissists is that they are consistent in their inconsistencies. Be it with words and/or behaviours. Saying one thing and doing something else that is completely at odds with that. eg. declaring they want to be with you, but not acting like it, or being unable to commit, despite promises of commitment.  


Isolation: An abuser of any kind will ultimately be aiming to isolate their victim away from friends, family or colleagues. People are more vulnerable and easier to manipulate, control and abuse when isolated. Narcissists aim to achieve this in a variety of ways including trying to be seen to have your best interests at heart, For example, ‘those friends are no good for you, you are better than that’ or perhaps insisting you give up work, that they’d take care of things financially (financial control). Through negative judgements, gas-lighting and manipulation, slowly but surely, they will aim to isolate you away from loved ones and create an over-reliance on them. 


Judging: A defence mechanism commonly seen in narcissists where they will comment negatively and harshly on other peoples actions, choices, speech, looks, abilities and so on. Passing judgement on others serves to make them feel better about themselves and also helps them to maintain a position of superiority.


Love-bombing: Overwhelming others with affection and attention, compliments, praise and gifts in order to gain their interest and 'love'. The aim of love-bombing is ultimately to manipulate and control.


Lying: Standard for any narcissist. This can be anything from slight exaggerations of the truth to out and out complete and utter fabrications, creation of false identities and point blank denial. 


Projecting: The suggestion or accusation that you are the one with their issues. They will accuse you of the very behaviours or feeling states they are exhibiting or experiencing. ‘You’re being paranoid/over-sensitive’. ‘You are so selfish!’, ‘You are acting like you’ve got something to hide…’ even ‘You’re a narcissist!’. 


Responsibility: Not taking any. For a narcissist, it is very typical they will have zero ability to take personal responsibility. It is invariably always yours and everybody else’s fault/issue/responsibility. They will want to convince both themselves and others that they are the victim. ‘I cheated because you weren’t there… if you were there for me then I wouldn't have had to sleep with anybody else!’ People cheat because they want to. It is their choice and their responsibility. 


Slander: Spreading lies and rumours to cause harm and damage. Also to illicit a sense of power and control.


Toddler Tantrums: Underneath the arrogant exterior lies an emotionally stunted child (usually within the first 4 or 5 years of life). They have little ability to operate as a grown up emotionally and so will react in very childish ways, effectively throwing their toys out of their pram, shouting, screaming, storming off, giving you the silent treatment and other forms of emotional manipulation. In a bid to feel better about themselves they will often judge or belittle others, be scathing or otherwise cruel and hostile. They will want to devalue others to feel better about themselves or to ease the deep inner turmoil they experience and have no emotional skills to deal with. 


Topping: Most narcissists have a habit of ‘topping’ or ‘upping’ above anything anybody else has achieved, obtained or owns. This serves to quickly return the focus of attention and admiration to them. Narcissists find it difficult to tolerate enjoying the success or achievements of others. Topping can also include negative bragging about such things as illness. For example, if you have a health concern, such as a headache, they already have a brain tumour. Topping fuels competitiveness and cheating. 


Verbal Abuse: This can be done through a range from subtle (snidey, ambiguous, indirect comments) to blatant direct abuse (shouting/screaming). Other types of verbal abuse include: name calling, belittling, shaming, blaming, demanding, manipulating, sarcasm, criticising, judging, undermining, interrupting / not letting the other person speak, not listening, laughing. Silent treatment is also a form of verbal abuse. 


Withholding: Narcissists need to feel power and control. Withholding offers them this sense. They gain a sense of control and power by holding back and controlling money, communication, affections, etc. 


Violence: Physical abuse, hitting, pushing, shoving, pulling hair, slapping, restraining, throwing or damaging you or your belongings. Narcissists can be violent, however in my experience I consider it to be more common that narcissistic abuse is done in a more sophisticated, discreet and hidden manner than that. They are more likely to not want to leave any physical evidence or marks that can clearly identify their actions, preferring instead more subtle forms that they can more easily deny.

© 2019 Dr. Sarah Davies

Never Again... self help book for narcissistic abuse. Recovery from narcissistic abuse, emotional abuse and toxic relationships. Help for codependency & echoism.


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