A toxic relationship can leave you with trauma and damage your self-worth immensely. While physical abuse is overt and easily identifiable, emotional abuse is often covert and can go unrecognised for a long time. This is especially the case with narcissistic abuse, which is emotional abuse associated with narcissistic personality disorder.
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What is narcissistic abuse?
People with narcissistic personality disorder have an inflated sense of self-importance and demand constant attention and admiration from others. Their narcissism denotes a lack of ability to understand others’ perspectives and needs, which can lead to an increased risk ofemotionally abusive relationships. Emotional manipulation, gaslighting and pathological lying are some behaviours that a narcissistic abuser can engage in to damage their victim’s self-esteem. Narcissistic behaviour patterns leave victims confused and questioning themselves. Narcissists often live with a false sense of entitlement and cannot handle any form of criticism or rejection. Thus, ending a relationship with them can become quite challenging and dramatic.
Your abuser may not have been diagnosed with a narcissistic personality disorder but may still possess narcissistic traits and subject you to their abusive behaviour patterns. Moreover, narcissistic abuse is not only restricted to romantic relationships. Instead, you might even find yourself being a victim of it within families (parents or children), at your workplace (boss or colleagues) or even within your community (friends, neighbours or community leaders).
What does narcissistic abuse look like?
If you feel someone you know possesses these traits and are wondering about your relationship with them, the following signs can help you identify if you are in a narcissistic relationship.
Idealising your abuser
Narcissists have a preoccupation with excessive success, power, beauty and brilliance and may often hold a charming demeanour. To fulfil their fantasies of admiration and ideal love, they tend to make big gestures and commitments to build a strong bond of affection. Their intention is to win your trust and blind you towards their narcissistic tendencies, projecting themselves as ideal and irresistible.
They may even try to evoke empathy from you by sharing stories of their past, victimising themselves and building upon the idea of how much they’ve already suffered. This emotional manipulation can work quite well if you’re a compassionate individual and may even make you feel responsible for providing all the affection and attention the narcissist believes they deserve.
A common trait among narcissistic abusers is pathological lying. They tend to have expertise in using language to manipulate reality. They believe they know better than everyone else and would not hesitate to even contradict themselves to prove the same. Their compulsive lying also comes with a lack of ability to take responsibility for their emotions and actions. They may even turn aggressive if you try to defend your version of reality and then blame you for triggering their reaction. They can make you question your memory, leave you doubting yourself and feel guilty about misunderstanding them.
Financial abuse is a lesser talked about yet critical part of narcissistic abuse. Narcissists seek power and control in relationships, and finance is a common medium for this. They may start subtly, building your trust in their financial knowledge but then gradually escalate to taking complete charge of your finances. This happens gradually and you may easily confuse their intention of control for care.
However, once they have financial control over you, they can use it to blackmail or even threaten you to stay with them. They may even accumulate debt under your name, making you feel trapped in the relationship.
Another tool used by narcissists in relationships is making false promises. When a narcissist feels threatened, they may start promising that they will provide you with whatever you wish from the relationship, be it taking the next step or bringing a change in the dynamics. They may even follow through on their promises for a while, but once they’re certain you’re not leaving, these promises lose value for them.
It is important to understand these promises stem from their wish to continue the relationship, which is feeding their narcissistic needs. Making these false promises revives their control over the relationship, ensuring that you’re not able to end the relationship until they want to.
The inability to understand others’ needs and emotions makes it difficult for narcissists to build genuine relationships. Their inherent tendency to believe that they’re more important than others often results in them objectifying others as a tool to fulfil their needs rather than a companion.
Their grandiose ideas of success, power or love require them to have relationships with others who can satisfy their emotional, sexual or financial needs. However, these relationships are imbalanced and centred around their needs, where they have control, and the other person is treated as a mere object rather than an equal.
Gaslighting is a form of psychological manipulation that leads you to question your own reality. It is a common behavioural pattern seen in narcissists. Their emotional manipulation and inability to take responsibility result in them forming a reality wherein they shift all responsibility to the other person. Being exposed to such emotional manipulation over an extended period of time can leave you questioning your reality and trigger immense self-doubt.
Narcissists’ inflated sense of self-importance leads them to believe that you must put their needs first and above everyone else. To ensure this, they may try to make you end all other relationships. They use emotional manipulation to make you believe that no one else can care for you more than them and hence you just need to focus on them. This process of isolating you from all forms of social support can make you vulnerable and gives more power to them. It also protects their narcissistic tendencies from being exposed by others.
5 tips for healing from narcissistic abuse
Narcissistic abuse within relationships can leave you with severe self-esteem issues or even post-traumatic stress disorder. Healing from such abusive relationships is a time consuming and gradual process. The following steps can help you through it.
1. Accept the reality
An important first step in healing from narcissistic abuse is to identify and accept the reality that your relationship has become abusive. Narcissistic abuse happens gradually and it can be difficult for you to identify the emotional and behavioural changes you’ve gone through due to your relationship. While the initial phase of the relationship might have seemed enchanting, it is important to look out for these signs of narcissistic abuse and acknowledge their negative impact.
2. Set clear boundaries
Once you’ve identified the abusive behaviour within your relationship, it becomes essential to build strong healthy boundaries with your narcissistic partner. The AI-powered mental health app Wysa contains several self-help tools and exercises based on cognitive behavioural therapy techniques that can be useful. For instance, it has a ‘Difficult Conversation Planner’ tool that can also help you plan these conversations with your partner.
Whether you choose to end or stay in the relationship, your boundaries must be clear. The intention of setting boundaries is not to keep your partner away, especially since they might be someone you love and care about, but to ensure that their emotional manipulation and lying don’t impact your well-being.
It is not an easy task to build these boundaries especially if you’ve experienced violence or abuse in the relationship. If you feel having a conversation may risk your physical safety, be sure to seek help from your social support or have them around to ensure your safety during any interactions that you fear may trigger physical violence. Or if you are able to, discuss with a mental health professional and build a safety plan for yourself. Remember Wysa also has an SOS button which can provide you quick access to emergency helpline numbers if you’re feeling threatened.
⚠️If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, help is at hand. Please visit this list of helplines and resources for different countries.
3. Reach out to your support system
While narcissistic abuse can lead you to isolation, recovering from it will require you to reach out and reconnect to your support system. Being with a narcissist can make you feel like they are the only one you have and the fear of being all alone without them might feel overwhelming. Hence it becomes important to rebuild connections with a family member or friends who can help you overcome your self-doubt and vulnerability. Wysa has a ‘Network Of Trust’ tool that can help you through this process. You may even join a support group or look for online therapy as an alternative. Having such support can not only help you with the decision of ending or continuing your relationship but also with healing from the abuse.
4. Grieve and express your emotions
Acknowledging your emotions during the process of healing is crucial. Relationships with narcissists can be intense and can leave you with a lot of conflicting feelings, especially guilt. Even ending an abusive relationship triggers a sense of loss and grief. Allow yourself to grieve and process your own feelings rather than suppressing them or burying them through other unhealthy coping mechanisms.
Journaling your feelings can help you express your emotions honestly and reflect on them. You can try Wysa’s ‘Letter Writing’ tool to begin this process. When expressing these feelings in words, you may sometimes feel overwhelmed and can practise mindfulness which helps in processing these painful experiences.
5. Set goals and indulge in self-care
Experiencing narcissistic abuse can deeply impact your self-confidence and leave you questioning your reality. The healing process involves reconsolidating your sense of self and setting well-being goals. Building your self-esteem involves working on both your physical and mental health, as they are intertwined. If your body isn’t feeling well, you won’t be able to feel good too. Start with small steps to build healthier habits, such as eating at least one healthy meal a day or getting at least 15 minutes of exercise.
Similarly, begin with small goals for your emotional well-being like investing at least 15 minutes during the day in a hobby that brings you joy or rediscovering your identity by trying something new.
Recovering from narcissistic abuse isn’t about demonising the person with narcissistic traits, but about understanding how their behaviour is hampering your well-being and healing from its trauma. Narcissists are not evil individuals, but being in a relationship with them is challenging and you must take the necessary steps to protect yourself from their abuse.
Photo by Vera Arsic
Photo by Ron Lach