If you are someone who is confused about your reality and feels that your sense of self has been completely eroded, being in a relationship with a narcissist can do that to you.
Stress, anxiety, and depression are natural outcomes of narcissistic abuse, though the intensity may vary from person to person.
If you feel that you have been manipulated, harassed, lied to, ridiculed, or bullied, it’s very likely that you are, and have been experiencing narcissistic abuse. Today we are going to talk about some of the important signs of narcissistic abuse syndrome that you should be aware of.
Understanding of some of these subtle signs of abuse is the key to protecting yourself from further abuse and ensuring your mental wellness.
1# You struggle with low self-esteem
Now it’s important to understand that what primarily triggers the narcissists is your sense of self-worth and self-acceptance. This is what they lack within themselves and it hurts them to see people who are in abundance.
This is where the idea of self-esteem, according to me, is different from that of the self-worth. Self-worth is determined by how you perceive yourself. For example, being your authentic self in daily life situations (good or bad) is an indication of high self-worth and high self-acceptance.
Self-esteem on the other hand is a concept that is promoted by the society based on the standardized ideas. It revolves around fulfilment of expectations created by people within your social circle.
For example, a person who is secure financially, has good social standing, commands respect, and perfectly fits into a particular strata of the society is believed to have high self-esteem.
Narcissists usually create very high standards for themselves and for their victims. They want people to subscribe to their way of thinking and accept their goals and ideals. However, most of these high standards are not realistic and are formed on whims and fancies of the narcissist.
Deep down the narcissists are extremely insecure and they attack people who are self-sufficient. That is how they gain control and power over you. Through constant abuse like silent treatment, gaslighting, smear campaigns, they create doubts and insecurities within you.
So they convince you that you’re the one with low self-esteem. They might use subtle comparisons, for example, when you cook something nice for them, they might say something like, “This is amazing. But you know Gina also make amazing pies, in fact, she stood first in county blah blah baking contest. You should get her recipe”.
Now if you confront them, they would immediately go in denial, backed up by further manipulation. For e.g., they would say “Oh no dear. I didn’t mean to hurt you. I just want you to be better” – all disguised as constructive criticism.
But the seed of doubt has already been planted in your brain. Now you start doubting yourself. What they have done is – they have successfully made you believe their false idea of self-esteem, and you doubting yourself and your own capabilities have reduced your own self-worth.
2# You fear pursuing your own interests
When in a relationship with a narcissist you always feel like you’re walking on egg shells. You feel anxious about the fact that one small mistake at your end will piss off the narcissist. As a result, you sacrifice your interests in order to satisfy the narcissist’s ego.
In my particular case, I used to be a part of a narcissistic clan that was completely against pursuing any creative profession. They had already decided the “right” course of action for my career and wanted me to do what they perceived was best for me.
I was brainwashed for years to prepare for this highly competitive career in which I absolutely had no interest. Whenever I tried to talk my way out of it I was met with aggression, silent treatment, or stonewalling.
As a child, I was a good sketch artist, but the moment I started receiving appreciation for my work, the narc clan started dissuading me. They would plant all kinds of negative thoughts in my mind as to how this is not a sustainable career, and how I would be miserable all my life if I pursued it.
Out of all the sketches I made as a child, I don’t have even one preserved as a memory. They were all subsequently disposed of. And the reason I stopped doing it was because I was scared of upsetting the clan members.
Narcissists will not let you pursue the things that interest you because they very well know that that will empower you and give you the courage to move out of the abusive relationships. You remaining codependent to them keeps them assured of the narcissistic supply.
That do everything in their power to prevent you from taking up hobbies and interests of your choice. In fact, they superimpose their own ideas so that you take up hobbies that they like.
They are highly envious of your success and freedom, and they wouldn’t hesitate from doing anything in their capacity to keep you dependent on them. By keeping you dependent they can satisfy their ego by exercising control over you.
3# You feel worthless and criticize yourself
In the context of narcissistic abuse, the victim is always made to feel inadequate and a failure by the narcissist. This enables the narcissists to control their victims and manipulate them as they please.
The reason why narcissists make nasty hurtful comments is because they want to cover up their own vulnerabilities and personal inadequacies. Because behind the façade of grandiosity and extreme confidence is a broken individual that has some series issues with his or her own self-worth.
So in order to feel adequate themselves they like to put down others by using insults and intimidations. It’s a winning situation for the narcissist when you the victim starts believing in the whole bunch of lies that they tell you.
They use subtle form of insults to confuse you, and later dismiss it as a joke. Let me give you an example. A couple of years back I used to be grossly overweight, and I used to feel extremely bad when anyone passed a comment on my looks or on any aspect of my physical appearance.
There used to be this friend of mine who would from time to time touch my belly and say something like, “wow man, looks like this is your third month, have you started experiencing any morning sickness?”, or he would point at my chest and indicate that I’m developing female breasts.
He would do this in front of other people and then would laugh it off as a joke. His next words would be, “Oh come on! Be a sport … I was only kidding”. But you know what, It’s quite a different thing when you ‘kid’ with a grown up body.
As a guy, this used to make me go into a rage internally. He knew my triggers and he would leave no opportunity to exploit. This would make me doubt my masculinity, invoke my inner critic, make me feel worthless, and also hurt my ego.
So triggered by what he said, the next impulsive thing I did was to announce my 6 months transformation journey of weight loss (including building 6 pack abs) on social media.
Not only did I miserably fail to achieve this goal, but instead, ended up gaining more weight. I felt ashamed and started withdrawing from people in general.
If you analyze this, you’ll notice that through my unconscious impulsive action, I ended up giving more ammunition to my enemy. I was mocked and ridiculed, and this further worsened my already low self-esteem.
Narcissists make disparaging comments when they have a fear that their own flaws and insecurities are being exposed in some way.
It’s a self-defense mechanism that protects their over inflated and highly fragile ego, and over time this becomes a pattern of behavior.
It doesn’t matter if they are doing it consciously or unconsciously, IF THEY DO IT – IT’S WRONG.
4# You question your own sanity
Narcissistic abuse is a psychological manipulation tactic delivered with the objective of controlling thoughts and will of the victim. Sometimes this manipulation is so subtle that it is hard to discern, and this kind of abuse creates dissonance.
Gaslighting is the primary manipulation tactic that is used to propagate this abuse. Gaslighting explained simply is lying to the victim with such a strong conviction so as to make them believe that they are losing their mind.
I had been many times subjected to this abuse in course of my 15 years’ experience working with big business corporates. In my last job, my boss was a covert narcissist who took every opportunity he had to put me down.
He would often come up with unreasonable demands at the last moment when he knew I was preoccupied with some other work. Whenever I confronted him I was met with blatant lies and denial. He lied with such confidence that I used to wonder if I had missed something
He would often use words such as:
- “I told you rules the very first week you joined this department, everybody knows”.
- “I told you clearly but you never listen”.
- “You never pay attention to a word I say”.
And whenever I confronted him on his behavior, I was told that I’m being over sensitive and the things he expects are common sense, and that everybody knows about it, except me. He would make excuses and refuse to communicate over medium (like chats and emails) that leaves a proof.
Six months with this guy and I started feeling insane. My anxiety was through the roof, I started gaining weight, losing sleep, was not getting time for anything outside work, and overall, my physical health started deteriorating.
Covert narcissists are very clever in their delivery of abuse. They leave no trace of abuse, and they are generally perceived as very humble and charismatic by other people.
But behind that deceptive charismatic outward appearance is a cowardly person with extremely fragile ego, and a very low self-esteem.
5# You experience a loss of self-identity
Most people suffering from narcissistic abuse don’t even realize the loss of their self-identity until they move away from the abusive environment. The abuse keeps them trapped in a mindset that whatever they do must be in order to serve their abusers interest.
Narcissists themselves don’t have a good understanding of who they are and they keep changing their thoughts and actions based on the short term gratification they receive by tormenting their victims.
The loss of self-identity doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a slow process that takes over time by frequently exposing the victim to psychological manipulation and instilling false beliefs.
One of my friends is a mother two kids married for ten years to a covert narcissistic man. And I can see what this toxic man has done to her confidence and self-esteem. A couple of years back she used to be a happy person with great artistic skills.
However, living with this man, overtime, she started believing that she’s not good enough to be out there in the world to pursue her creative interests. Her choice of being a home maker is purely dictated by the false sense she carries. She believes that she’s not strong enough to face the challenges of life.
I’m neither judging her and nor she being a home maker. I personally think that taking care of your home and family is one of the most wonderful thing in the world. It is challenging, but at the same time it also brings great joy.
What I’m trying to say is that she is capable of way more than she thinks. I see her completely ridden with fear, and she makes all kinds of excuses when asked to hang around with friends.
Loss of self-identity leads to denial and self-isolation that further aggravates the mental health.
6# You feel exhausted going through repeated cycles of abuse
Let’s first talk about the cycle of abuse. The narcissist’s abusive cycle involves four stages in general.
If it’s happening too fast too soon, there’s something definitely wrong.
During idealization, the narcissist would be love bombing and mirroring their target in order to gain trust. They put you on a pedestal and everything feels like a fairytale. They are very charming, angel like, and they sweep you right off your feet.
They smother you with lots of complements and praises, flowery promises, the sex is intense, the outings and vacations are amazing, and it feels like you’ve found your ‘soulmate’.
The idea is to engulf the target into an emotional bond, as soon as possible. They are always available at your beck and call. They would text you at random times (like late at night) and expect that you hold on to the conversation.
They mirror you many a times where they would say that they were thinking the same thing. For example, when you tell them that you feel like eating Italian food, they would say something like, “Oh my god! I was craving Italian food myself”.
If you’re a religious person, they become religious. If you’re into jazz music, they start liking jazz. You get the point. The emotional high is so great that the feeling is that of ecstasy.
Once they know that you have become emotionally attached – then comes the devaluation phase.
This is where things start to go down south and you feel that something is wrong in this otherwise fantastical journey. At this point your spidey sense is activated. They put you on the pedestal during the idealization phase, now they push you off it.
They would say something mean just to evoke a reaction out of you. They do this very slowly and covertly so that you don’t suspect them. But you begin to see the red flags.
Now they slowly start withdrawing all forms of intimacy by pulling away, just to get an emotional reaction out of you. This is usually confusion followed by anger. And the reaction they get out of you serves as the narcissistic supply for them.
Please note that just like you, even the narcissist is not happy about the devaluation, but the reason is different.
The narcissists are unhappy because their target was not able to meet the perfect idealized image they had formed about them during the idealization phase, hence, devaluation is the punishment for defiance.
You on the other hand are in a state of confusion and shock. You constantly rack your brain as to what happened. Note that the narcissists are never clear in their communication during the devaluation phase.
Since the communication is not clear, you keep wondering as to what happened. You otherwise fantastical fairytale starts turning into a nightmare at this point. The narcissist would never tell you the reason.
They either give you the silent treatment or stonewalling (shutting down the conversation before you’ve even started). They would not reply to your texts or may just send short cold replies, not response to your calls, block you on social media platforms, etc.
The victim constantly tries to communicate in order to understand the narcissist’s cause of discontent, but since there’s no logical explanation from the abusers end, the whole exercise is in vain.
If you find yourself experiencing unusual emotions like anger, resentment, hatred, jealousy, please know that IT’S NOT YOU. This change in your thinking and behavior is a result of the narcissist’s projection that you have internalized.
For example, in your day to day life you are not an angry aggressive person, but all of a sudden you find yourself angry, aggressive, or even passive aggressive. Again, it’s not you.
The way narcissists block you is by pinning the blame on you for everything that went wrong. Yet, they will never tell you the exact cause of their discontent. They will dodge and deflect but never get to the real cause, mainly because there isn’t any.
This is again a manipulation tactic to exercise control over the victim. The unsuspecting victim gets confused and blames themselves for the mess.
Finally you decide that enough is enough. You’ve had it with this person and it’s time to move on because there’s no openness in this relationship. That’s when the last phase of abuse kicks in. THEY SHOW UP.
They apologize for what they did but there’s no sincerity in their apology, and you can sense it. They usually start with “I am sorry” – then proceed to, “I am sorry, but you shouldn’t have done this or that …” – to finally, “You got upset for no reason”, and that narrative sticks thereon.
They do this in a very covert manner. They make get flowers delivered at your house (with smiley card – saying sorry), may offer to take you out for dinner, may buy you an expensive gifts, whatever they do – it’s all fakery. The covert message is that “I want you back in my web”.
And the Cycle of Abuse Repeats
Many people give into hoovering and then the same cycle repeats again and again. Narcissists hardly ever change. In fact, all the narcissists I have met in my life never changed.
This is extremely draining for the victims. They find themselves exhausted out of their own emotions. They constantly doubt themselves, are not able focus at work, give attention to other relationships, and many a times end up developing physical health conditions.
7# Self Engage in Self-Destructive Behavior (Self-Sabotage)
Self-sabotaging is very common in people who suffer from narcissistic abuse. Here again, narcissists use manipulation to plant a seed of doubt within you and make you feel bad about yourself. And when you give into that manipulation, you give your power to your abuser.
For example, imagine you have been preparing for an event since a long time, and your narc has been very encouraging and supporting all through. But just the last minute, something unexpected happens.
Just about the time you are about to start the event, they would say something ambiguous which will instantly confuse you and bring down your energy.
They might say something like, “No matter what happens today, you’ll always be the best in my eyes”. Now this is a covert manipulation tactic that creates cognitive dissonance (holding two conflicting believes) within you.
From that very moment, you’ll start doubting yourself and your inner dialogue will start, “Why did he/she say that?”, “What did it mean?”, “I’m a thinking too much?”, “Maybe he/she is just concerned for me”.
Take note of the timing here. If they would have said this any other time, in a caring and compassionate manner, that would be okay. But saying such things just before you are about to enter a meeting, give a presentation or performance, is clear case of mental abuse.
Sometimes they would be covert – as described above, other times they would be loud, aggressive, rageful, would pick up a fight, or create scene in front of people. And they mostly do it at the last minute, when they know your mind is preoccupied and you are not in a position to confront.
No matter covert or overt, this kind of abuse brings down the victim. They start doubting themselves and their capabilities. The result of such an abuse is that they are either unable to give their best or completely quit. This is self-sabotage.
And if you notice carefully, this happens very frequently when you’re in a relationship with a narcissist.
Understand The Narcissist’s Mind and Healing Yourself
A narcissistic individual is incapable of emotional intimacy which is not limited to romantic relationships. It can occur in friendships, workplaces, and even general acquaintances. To them intimacy feels like emotional strangulation – something akin to torture in small bit and pieces.
It is unreasonable to expect any form of compassion or empathy from such people. Whatever they do is completely fake. Their grandiose behavior on the outside make them appear strong and confident, however, on the inside, you’re dealing with a wounded soul.
What makes them unpredictable and dangerous is that they are like children in a fully grown body. While the children are innocent, and it is natural for them to crave attention and validation, because that is how they communicate their needs, but the same behavior from an adult is abnormal.
Narcissist on the other hand are stuck in a never ending loop. The validation and the narcissistic supply they crave to fulfill that void, has no bounds. It’s never ending and insatiable. And hence, the abuse never ends.
In the pursuit of strengthening their façade, i.e., their false self, that they project so vehemently, they lose all touch with their true self, i.e., the inner child.
They so fiercely guard their false projected self, that any attempt to break it (as in to make them realize what they are) will result in sever narcissistic rage.
The key to healing yourself lies in your ability to detect the patterns of abuse and taking protective measures to safeguard yourself. That may entail minimizing communication or completely going ‘no contact’ with the abuser.
If you’re a codependent, and going ‘no contact’ is not an option, at least try to minimize your interaction, as much as possible. Form firm boundaries around the information and how much of it you share with them.
In addition to the above, I would also suggest speaking to a loved one or preferably a certified therapist who understands what you’re going through.
My personal view on this subject is that complete healing takes place only when we heal physically, mentally, and spiritually. Without spiritual healing the soul will continue to be burdened.
It’s like a missing piece of the puzzle. Therefore, understanding the nature of your mind and your true ‘self’, gives an insight into where the suffering originates from and what can we do about it.