Narcissistic abuse resembles an invisible virus that hacks your inner life and starts to corrode it from within.
It is a specific form of emotional abuse usually caused by narcissistic parents to their children. Nowadays the term is used more broadly to include relationships among adult partners in which the one with narcissistic tendencies is abusive to the other.
In both cases, the experience is deeply traumatic and may potentially trigger depression, anxiety, alcohol abuse, suicide and risky sexual behaviour (Norman, et al., 2012). The effects appear to be long-lasting and difficult to recover from.
So what is it about the narcissistic abuse that makes it so difficult to spot yet highly dangerous for the victim’s emotional well-being?
Narcissists avoid taking responsibility for their actions which is one of the challenging aspects of their communication patterns. They act as though they have no idea why you are upset.
In order to get a handle on what narcissistic abuse is one need to get familiar with its different manifestations.
Abuse may be emotional, mental, physical, financial, sexual or spiritual. Most often it is a combination of them.
Here are three common abusive behaviours that narcissists often use:
Darlene Lancer, JD, LMFT, explains it this way:
‘’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. ‘’
Narcissistic parents using manipulative techniques when raising their children create a climate of self-doubt and confusion. That, in turn, makes these children predisposed to tolerate toxic relationships later in life because that is what they consider normal. Obviously, that’s a trap set in early childhood and could be quite difficult to get out of.
Gaslighting is an assault on your common sense. It makes you distrust your perceptions and plants the seeds of self-doubt. Most importantly, narcissists use it in a way that lowers the victim’s self-esteem by making her feel mentally incompetent. They do it through denial of facts and feelings which their behaviour inspires. It might make you feel as though you’ve imagined a situation of legitimate hurt that according to the narcissist never happened. Lying and persistent deception is their way to avoid responsibility and to achieve their own ends.
Victims of narcissistic abuse are often full to the brim with fear, obligation, and guilt (it’s referred to as FOG). This is the result of being far too often threatened and/or punished. It may take the form of direct expression of severe anger and rage or more silently – by withholding love and affection. The roots of this unhealthy situation lie in the narcissists’ inability to state calmly and clearly what they want. They resort to this hurtful form of control in order to ensure compliance in meeting their own needs.
Narcissistic abuse may include many other components like sabotage, privacy invasion, neglect, and exploitation. All of them are mentally and emotionally corrosive for both children and adults. Once we come to recognize the damages this kind of abuse inflicts upon its victims, we might explore different ways to confront it.
The expert, Darlene Lancer, suggests a couple of ways to deal with it:
‘’Allowing abuse damages your self-esteem. Thus, it’s important to confront it. That doesn’t mean to fight and argue. It means standing your ground and speaking up for yourself clearly and calmly and having boundaries to protect your mind, emotions, and body. ‘’
Here is what you can do in order to get out of the victim’s role and reclaim your power in the relationship:
Know your rights
Everyone deserves respect and humane treatment. If you have been in the narcissist’s toxic aura for a long time, it may be difficult to believe in your right to decline requests, to refuse sex or to forbid exploitation altogether. You need to start trusting your feelings and opinions again and also regain the confidence to express them calmly and clearly. This leads us to the next step:
In a toxic relationship (like the one with a narcissist), the partners often adopt a passive-aggressive style of communication. The victim of abuse is usually in the passive role trying to appease the perpetrator in order to avoid conflict and anger. Another just as ineffective maneuver is to withdraw altogether from communication or to try to seek understanding (absolutely impossible with narcissists). It takes learning and practice to leave the passive-aggressive model and to become more assertive.
Darlene Lancer proposes some useful phrases to turn to:
“I’ll think about it.”
“Don’t use that tone with me.”
“I don’t respond to orders.”
“I’ll never be the good-enough wife (husband) that you hoped for.”
“I don’t like it when you criticize me. Please stop.” (Then walk away.)
“That’s your opinion. I disagree, (or) I don’t see it that way.”
“I won’t talk to you when you….” (Describe abuse, e.g., “belittle me.” Then leave.)
Do you have difficulties saying ‘’No’’? Do you put others’ needs and feelings first? Are you afraid that setting boundaries may jeopardize your relationship? If your answer to these questions is ‘’Yes’’, it might be that you have weak emotional boundaries. According to Lancer:
‘’Emotional boundaries distinguish separating your emotions and responsibility for them from someone else’s. It’s like an imaginary line or force field that separates you and others. Healthy boundaries prevent you from giving advice, blaming or accepting blame. They protect you from feeling guilty for someone else’s negative feelings or problems and taking others’ comments personally. High reactivity suggests weak emotional boundaries. ‘’
Setting effective boundaries is a skill and it takes practice to learn. But the effects it has on our relationships and our mental and emotional wellbeing are so huge that the efforts are worth it. Here is more information on how to set and keep your personal boundaries.
In conclusion, confronting narcissistic abuse is a great challenge that takes time and efforts.
You can expect resistance and pushback when you stand up for yourself. It is a good idea to try and get some support in order to sustain your courage and consistency.