How To Recognize Narcissistic Abuse Syndrome

A partner's severe narcisstic tendencies is a form of emotional abuse that can leave you feeling worthless.

Living with a partner who displays signs of narcissism—a general disregard for others, an exaggerated sense of self-importance, and cold-heartedness, among others—can be difficult.

Those relationships may lead to an influx of harrowing emotional abuse. And sometimes, that abuse may lead to a phenomenon that some therapists, like Christine Louis de Canonville, colloquially refer to as narcissistic abuse syndrome.

Also known as narcissistic victim syndrome, de Canonville classifies the experience as adverse mental health outcomes that result from being on the receiving end of a narcissistic personality.

Narcissistic abuse syndrome is not a mental health condition that healthcare providers can officially diagnose, but it can be a harsh reality for someone in a relationship with a narcissist. Here's what you need to know about narcissistic abuse syndrome and how to seek help.

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What Is Narcissism?

Someone who has narcissistic tendencies may often be so preoccupied with their own status or image that they become unsympathetic to the emotions of others.

"It involves feeling superior to other people with a sense of entitlement and general disregard for other people's feelings," Rashmi P. Parmar, MD, an adult and child psychiatrist at Mindpath Health in Newark, Calif., told Health.

"Another key feature is that narcissistic people often try to control or manipulate others and can be verbally or emotionally abusive at times," explained Dr. Parmar. "They have a hard time accepting their flaws and blame others for their faults."

Dr. Parmar also pointed out that people ought to look at narcissism on a spectrum. A mild form of it can be a healthy trait that is necessary for developing a mature ego and self-esteem. But on the other end of the spectrum, some people who display severe signs of narcissism may develop narcissistic personality disorder (NPD).

Per the Johns Hopkins Medicine Health Library, people diagnosed with NPD often feel superior to their friends and family and do not lightly accept criticism from others. The Diagnostics and Statistics Manual, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), which includes the most up-to-date criteria for diagnosing mental disorders, defines NPD as a cluster B personality disorder.

What Is Narcissistic Abuse Syndrome?

When it comes to sharing a relationship with someone who displays harmful narcissistic tendencies, a person on the receiving end of such detached behavior may suffer the effects of emotional abuse. Specifically, that is called narcissistic abuse syndrome.

"People who are in a relationship with a narcissist may experience significant amounts of abuse, particularly emotional abuse," Sheila Forman, PhD, a psychologist based in Santa Monica, Calif., told Health.

Whether they are aware of their mistreatment, narcissistics often speak negatively to their partners in an effort to invalidate or manipulate their emotions.

"The affected person feels choked in the relationship, especially with an emotionally abusive and manipulative partner," said Dr. Parmar. "The relationship often revolves around the narcissistic individual at the expense of the other person's emotional well-being."

Thus, that person may encounter feelings of worthlessness and confusion, often blaming themselves for the negative aspects of their relationship.

And after trying too hard to win a narcissist's approval, Dr. Parmar added that a person could lose their self-esteem or self-worth, as well as develop difficulty trusting others and making decisions. People enduring narcissistic abuse syndrome will often isolate themselves from others due to fear and judgment from others not understanding or even believing their experiences.

"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," explained Dr. Parmar.

Experiencing narcissistic abuse syndrome can also result in symptoms that are similar to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)—including emotional triggers, flashbacks, isolation, detachment, avoidance, and hypervigilance, noted Dr. Forman.

Don't Blame Yourself if You've Fallen for a Narcissist

Most people do not have the full picture when they get involved with a narcissist because their behavior, or signs of NPD, typically do not emerge until establishing the relationship.

During the early days of a relationship, a narcissistic person is typically loving and generous. They may even present over-the-top displays of affection, adulation, and extravagant gestures. With such intense attention and special treatment, also known as "love bombing," it is possible that the red flags are not obvious.

Plus, narcissists use several techniques to manipulate their partners. In an article published in 2021 in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science, gaslighting is a technique that makes people question their own reality by disregarding their experiences and refusing to engage in conversation.

Those behaviors serve to make a narcissistic person's partner more susceptible to emotional abuse.

Sometimes, narcissistic abuse is part of a codependent relationship, according to a study published in 2015 in the journal Humanities and Social Sciences. The narcissist manipulates the other into becoming dependent upon them. Putting their partner down allows the narcissistic person to feel superior. However, they are essentially dependent on their partner for those feelings of dominance.

Signs of Narcissistic Abuse Syndrome

If you think you or somebody you love might be struggling with narcissistic abuse syndrome, there are some common signs to look out for. According to de Canonville, a partner of a narcissist may:

  • Regularly question themselves and their perception of reality
  • Avoid their friends and family
  • Detach, or dissociate, from reality
  • Have trouble sleeping or eating
  • Lose interest in the things that they were previously proud of—including their work or creative projects

It is crucial to seek help if you believe that 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," warned Dr. Parmar. It can lead to other mental illnesses—like depression, anxiety, and PTSD.

How To Seek Help

Working with a healthcare provider, like a therapist or psychiatrist, is a good first step toward breaking free from a narcissist and recovering from narcissistic abuse syndrome.

However, healing is not always a linear process. Not everyone who is 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 feel so ashamed, anxious, or paranoid that they believe that the problem lies with them rather than their partner.

If you are seeking help, consider reaching out to a local mental health rehabilitation center, where people can direct you to experts and other resources. Virtual therapy is also an option.

Finally, if the abuse you are 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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