Identifying the Signs of Narcissistic Abuse

Darlene Lancer LMFT

Narcissists don't really love themselves. Actually, they're driven by shame. It's the idealized image of themselves, which they convince themselves they embody, that they admire. But deep down, narcissists feel the gap between the façade they show the world and their shame-based self. They work hard to avoid feeling that shame. This gap is true for other codependents, as well, but a narcissist uses destructive defense mechanisms that damage relationships and their loved ones' self-esteem.

Many of the narcissist's coping mechanisms are abusive – hence the term, "narcissistic abuse." However, someone can be abusive, but not be a narcissist. (Learn the traits required to diagnose narcissistic personality disorder,"NPD.") Addicts and people with other mental illnesses, such as bipolar disorder, anti-social personality disorder (sociopathy), and borderline personality disorder are also abusive, as are many codependents without a mental illness. Abuse is abuse, no matter what the abuser's diagnosis. If you're a victim of abuse, the main challenges for you are:

  • Clearly identifying it;
  • Building a support system; and
  • Learning how to strengthen and protect yourself.

What is Narcissistic Abuse?

Abuse comes in many forms. It may be emotional abuse, or mental, physical, financial, spiritual, or sexual abuse. Here are a few examples of abuse you may not have identified:

  • Verbal abuse: Verbal abuse includes belittling, bullying, accusing, blaming, shaming, demanding, ordering, threatening, criticizing, sarcasm, raging, opposing, undermining, interrupting, blocking, and name-calling. Note that many people occasionally make demands, use sarcasm, interrupt, oppose, criticize, blame, or block you. Consider the context, malice, and frequency of the behavior before labeling it narcissistic abuse.
  • Manipulation: Generally, manipulation is an indirect influence on someone to behave in a way that furthers the goals of the manipulator. Often, it expresses covert aggression. Think of a "wolf in sheep's clothing." On the surface, the words seem harmless – even complimentary; but underneath you feel demeaned or sense a hostile intent. If you experienced manipulation growing up, you may not recognize it as such. See my blog on spotting manipulation.
  • Emotional blackmail: Emotional blackmail may include threats, anger, warnings, intimidation, or punishment. It's a form of manipulation that provokes doubt in you. You feel fear, obligation, and or guilt, sometimes referred to as "FOG".
  • Gaslighting: Intentionally making you distrust your perceptions of reality or believe that you're mentally incompetent.
  • Competition: Competing and one-upping to always be on top, sometimes through unethical means (e.g. cheating in a game).
  • Negative contrasting: Unnecessarily making comparisons to negatively contrast you with the narcissist or other people.
  • Sabotage: Disruptive interference with your endeavors or relationships for the purpose of revenge or personal advantage.
  • Exploitation and objectification: Using or taking advantage of you for personal ends without regard for your feelings or needs.
  • Lying: Persistent deception to avoid responsibility or to achieve the narcissist's own ends.
  • Withholding: Withholding such things as money, sex, communication or affection from you.
  • Neglect: Ignoring the needs of a child for whom the abuser is responsible. This includes child endangerment (i.e., placing or leaving a child in a dangerous situation).
  • Privacy invasion: Ignoring your boundaries by looking through your things, phone, mail; denying your physical privacy or stalking or following you; ignoring privacy you've requested.
  • Character assassination or slander: Spreading malicious gossip or lies about you to other people.
  • Violence: This includes blocking your movement, pulling hair, throwing things, or destroying your property.
  • Financial abuse: Financial abuse might include controlling you through economic domination or draining your finances through extortion, theft, manipulation, or gambling, or by accruing debt in your name or selling your personal property.
  • Isolation: Isolating you from friends, family, or access to outside services and support through control, manipulation, verbal abuse, character assassination, or other means of abuse.

Narcissism and the severity of abuse exist on a continuum. It may range from ignoring your feelings to violent aggression. Typically, narcissists don't take responsibility for their behavior and shift the blame to you or others; however, some do and are capable of feeling guilt and self-reflection.

Malignant Narcissism and Sociopathy

Someone with more narcissistic traits who behaves in a malicious, hostile manner is considered to have "malignant narcissism." Malignant narcissists aren't bothered by guilt. They can be sadistic and take pleasure in inflicting pain. They can be so competitive and unprincipled that they engage in anti-social behavior. Paranoia puts them in a defensive-attack mode as a means of self-protection.

Malignant narcissism can resemble sociopathy. Sociopaths have malformed or damaged brains. They display narcissistic traits, but not all narcissists are sociopathic. Their motivations differ. Whereas narcissists prop up an ideal persona to be admired, sociopaths change who they are in order to achieve their self-serving agenda. They need to win at all costs and think nothing of breaking social norms and laws. They don't attach to people as narcissists do. Narcissists don't want to be abandoned. They're codependent on others' approval, but sociopaths can easily walk away from relationships that don't serve them. Although some narcissists will occasionally plot to obtain their objectives, they're usually more reactive than sociopaths, who coldly calculate their plans.

Get Help

If you're in a relationship with an abuser or a narcissist, it's important to get outside support to understand clearly what's going on, to rebuild your self-esteem and confidence, and to learn to communicate effectively and set boundaries. Doing the exercises in my books and e-workbooks, particularly Dating, Loving, and Leaving a Narcissist: Essential Tools for Improving or Leaving Narcissistic and Abusive Relationships will help you make changes. Join my mailing list and receive a "Checklist of Narcissistic Behaviors." If you feel in danger, don't believe broken promises. Get immediate help, and read "The Truth about Domestic Violence and Abusive Relationships."

© Darlene Lancer, 2016

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Darlene Lancer is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and expert author on relationships, narcissism, and codependency. She’s counseled individuals and couples for over 30 years and coaches internationally. Her books include "Conquering Shame and Codependency: 8 Steps to Freeing the True You," "Dating, Loving, and Leaving a Narcissist - Essential Tools for Improving or Leaving Narcissistic and Abusive Relationships," and "Codependency for Dummies," plus seven ebooks, webinars, and other resource materials. Her books are available on Amazon, other online booksellers and her website, www.whatiscodependency.com, where you can get a free copy of “14 Tips for Letting Go.”

Los Angeles, CA
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