What Is Narcissistic Abuse Syndrome? This Manipulative Relationship Dynamic Can Damage Your Mental Health
Abusive relationships and personality disorders don't always go hand-in-hand. But if your partner is a narcissist, life can be particularly difficult.
Living with a narcissistic partner can lead to a phenomenon called narcissistic abuse syndrome (also known as narcissistic victim syndrome), in which a person's self-confidence and mental health are adversely affected.
This isn't a mental health condition that can be officially diagnosed, but it can be the harsh reality for someone in a relationship with a narcissist.
What is narcissism?
Narcissism is a self-centered personality trait in which a person is often preoccupied with their own physical or mental status or image. "It involves feeling superior to other people with a sense of entitlement and general disregard for other people's feelings," Rashmi Parmar, MD, a California-based psychiatrist with Community Psychiatry and MindPath Care Centers, tells Health.
Narcissists have a grandiose sense of self, with fantasized thoughts and feelings of their achievements or success. They constantly crave praise and admiration from others, and deep down they may actually fear rejection and strongly desire approval or acknowledgment from other people.
"Another key feature is that narcissistic people often try to control or manipulate others and can be verbally or emotionally abusive at times," Parmar explains. "They have a hard time accepting their flaws and blame others for their faults."
Parmar points out that narcissism in its true sense should be viewed as a spectrum, and a mild form of it is actually a healthy trait that is necessary for developing a mature ego and self-esteem. But when it reaches the severe end of the spectrum, it's categorized as narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) and falls under Cluster B personality disorders in the Diagnostics and Statistics Manual (DSM)-5.
What is narcissistic abuse syndrome?
Narcissistic abuse is a form of emotional abuse suffered by someone in a relationship with a narcissist.
"People who are in a relationship with a narcissist may experience significant amounts of abuse, particularly emotional abuse," Santa Monica-based psychologist Sheila Forman, PhD, tells Health. Narcissistic people tend to use words and language to belittle, invalidate, or manipulate their partners or control their behavior—whether they're aware of it or not. Consequently, the partner feels like they are inadequate or a failure.
Being the victim of narcissistic abuse disorder can result in symptoms similar to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), including emotional triggers, flashbacks, isolation, detachment, avoidance, and hyper-vigilance, says Forman.
Narcissistic abuse syndrome results from constant or significant exposure to a pathologically narcissistic person. "The affected person feels choked in the relationship, especially with an emotionally abusive and manipulative partner," says Parmar. "The relationship often revolves around the narcissistic individual at the expense of the other person's emotional well-being."
The affected person ends up feeling worthless and confused and may blame themselves for the failure of the relationship. "You might notice yourself being extra cautious around a narcissistic family member and being easily coaxed into agreeing with them to avoid arguments or confrontations," Parmar says.
Over a period of time, trying too hard to win the narcissist's approval can lead to a loss of your own sense of self. Affected people often struggle with a serious loss of self-esteem or self-worth, may find it difficult to trust others, and struggle to make decisions, Parmar adds. They will often isolate themselves from others due to a fear that people may not understand or even believe what they're going through.
Don't blame yourself if you've fallen for a narcissist
Most people don't have the full picture when they get involved with a narcissist, because the signs of NPD typically don't arise until the relationship is established.
While every relationship is different, research published in the journal Mental Health Nursing in 2019 suggests that the abuse tends to start slowly. During the early days, the narcissist is typically loving and generous, and they may even go over the top with displays of affection, adulation, and extravagant gestures. With such intense attention and special treatment, it's possible that any subtle warning signs are missed.
Plus, narcissists use several techniques to manipulate their partners, such as gaslighting (making them question their own reality, disregarding their feelings, and refusing to engage in conversation) and playing hot and cold. All narcissistic techniques serve the same purpose—making the partner more susceptible to emotional abuse.
Sometimes, narcissistic abuse is part of a codependent relationship. The narcissist creates a relationship with another person and manipulates them into becoming dependent upon the narcissist. Putting their partner down makes the narcissist feel better about themselves, but they are typically just as dependent on their partner, because they need them to be a target for their emotional abuse.
Signs of narcissistic abuse syndrome
If you think you or somebody else might be struggling with narcissistic abuse syndrome, there are some common signs to look out for. A partner of a narcissist may regularly question themselves and their perception of reality, lose trust in their family and friends, and believe that the narcissist is the only person who sees their worth. They may also experience self-doubt and feel ashamed of the things they were previously proud of, like their work or creative projects. And despite the abuse, they may hold the narcissist in high esteem.
It's crucial to seek help if you think you or someone you love is struggling with narcissist abuse syndrome, because the effects can be severe. "Narcissistic abuse syndrome can take a severe toll on a person's emotional health over time," warns Parmar, and can lead to serious psychiatric illnesses like depression, anxiety disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder.
How to seek help
Working with a therapist is a good first step toward breaking free from a narcissist and recovering from narcissistic abuse syndrome. However, it's not always a linear process. Not everyone who is being affected by a narcissist may be willing or able to see the impact of that relationship. Some people may even approach a counselor with the goal of self-improvement because they've been made to feel so ashamed, anxious, or paranoid that they genuinely believe the problem lies with them, and not the narcissist.
If you're seeking help, consider reaching out to city, county, or state mental health services; they can direct you to experts who can help and other resources. Online or teleheath therapy is also an option, and many providers have a sliding fee scale, if you don't have insurance. Finally, if the abuse you're dealing with has turned physical, staying with your partner is endangering your health. The National Domestic Violence Hotline can help you understand your options.
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