9 Signs Of Narcissistic Abuse, Explained By A Therapist

Photo: getty
close up sad woman's face
Heartbreak

You know that feeling you get following yet another high-drama argument with your partner about the same issue? You just know, deep down in the pit of your gut, that something is terribly wrong with this person, but you don't want to overreact, call what they're doing emotional abuse, or allow yourself to think they might be a narcissist.

People experiencing narcissistic abuse often feel a gut instinct to run early on, but talk themselves into ignoring even the most glaring signs. Unfortunately, continuing to deal with a narcissist for an extended period of time only leads to more pain.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) defines Narcissistic Personality Disorder as “a pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), a constant need for admiration, and lack of empathy, beginning by early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts.” Some signs of NPD include exploiting others, having a grand sense of self-importance, entitlement, arrogance, manipulative tendencies, inability to accept criticism, and the belief that they deserve special treatment.

Hard statistics on are difficult to measure, but NPD is believed to be present in an estimated 0.5 to 1% of the general U.S. population. And while only a qualified mental health professionals can diagnose someone with NPD (or any mental health condition), educating yourself about the signs of narcissistic abuse can potentially save you or someone you love the tremendous amount of trauma caused by narcissistic abuse.

What is narcissistic abuse?

Narcissistic abuse is a form of emotional and psychological abuse inflicted by a person with character traits consistent with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) or other related personality disorders, such as Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) and Antisocial Personality Disorder (i.e., sociopaths or psychopaths).

RELATED: How I Saved Myself From An Emotionally Abusive Man — And You Can, Too

As Alice Little, author of Narcissistic Abuse Truths, explains, “Narcissists withhold affection to punish you. Withhold attention to get revenge. And withhold an emotional empathetic response to make you feel insecure... Narcissistic abuse is not just that someone dumped you or who you had a little tiff with. NA is psychological abuse and brainwashing using intermittent reward and punishment, coercive control and withholding normal empathetic, emotional reactions to lower your self esteem."

So, that deep-seated feeling is your wise inner voice informing you that this relationship isn't normal, this person refuses accountability for their actions — how can you possibly be to blame for everything? — and that you may be a victim of narcissistic abuse.

While the person treating you this way may not meet all of the criteria for a clinical diagnosis of NPD, they may still display a number of narcissistic traits, and their treatment of you may certainly rise to the level of narcissistic abuse.

9 Signs of Narcissistic Abuse

1. Your partner lacks empathy and is extremely selfish.

If your partner seems to habitually disregard your needs and feelings, there is a good chance they just don’t care about you, because their only true goal in life is finding out what others can do for them.

Low empathy goes hand-in-hand with the ability to use others for personal gain. If behaving in a kind and generous way toward you results in some kind of benefit for them, they will do it.

This contradictory behavior undoubtedly leaves you feeling absolutely bewildered because you come to the realization that they do, in fact, know how to behave, but are deliberately choosing not to.

2. Your partner is arrogant and egotistical.

If your partner has the expectation that they are viewed and treated as superior — with or without accomplishments to back it up — it’s pretty likely there’s something not right there. They might exaggerate their achievements or even make their hero stories up altogether.

Interestingly, they may seek out other people who they believe are equally exceptional because anything less would be unworthy of them and all of their self-aggrandized supremacy, all the while seething with resentment toward them.

3. Your partner has an insatiable need for approval and reverence.

If you notice a pattern of your partner needing you to constantly stroke their ego and tell them they are genius, smoking hot, and are, of course, more talented than everyone else at everything, it’s quite likely you have wondered: Could you remember this ego boost for longer than 20 minutes before you need another compliment?

It’s quite likely that they are also fixated on illusions of power, status, authority, intellect, and other externally focused qualities because they need to feed their hollow need for significance.

4. Your partner asserts power and dominance.

Narcissists have a fragile sense of self and because of these deep-rooted feelings of weakness, they overcompensate by being power/control freaks.

They often seek jobs and relationships in their life where they are in a position of power, where they can justifiably force others to do things their way, or have influence over situations, as a way to reinforce their continual need for proving their self-importance.

Sadly, they may seek out partners who are strong, enjoying the challenge of breaking them down.

RELATED: How A Narcissist Thinks (Warning: It's Pretty Messed Up)

5. Your partner has an overinflated sense of entitlement.

Does your partner demand and expect they deserve immediate, unquestioning, and automatic compliance? Do they feel slighted if they perceive life as difficult, as if they were owed something special? Do they feel entitled to respect, love, and compassion but don’t feel responsible to extend the same courtesy to others?

If this is the case, it’s not just a bad attitude, it’s an attitude that has turned malignant.

6. Your partner feels resentment and envy at the success of other people.

This follows along with their entitled outlook on life. They may see another person’s accomplishment as a threat to their superiority and feel competitive toward them. They are often petty, childish and jealous because they see other people as competition.

Due to this faulty mindset, they also believe others are jealous of them.

7. Your partner is vindictive, aggressive, and moody.

When individuals are resentful and entitled and have a corresponding immature emotional development, they tend to behave in predictable patterns of unpredictability. Like Jekyll and Hyde, their behavior fluctuates widely (and often quickly) between normal and outright reprehensible.

They’re often passive-aggressive, moody, whiny, see themselves as the victim, and busy themselves with plotting and exacting revenge on others, and enjoy lashing out.

All of these traits lead back to your inner voice screaming in your head: What in the world is wrong with this person?

8. Your partner is defensive and hypersensitive.

Narcissists are unable to accept criticism, and tend to view any feedback as threatening and insulting.

If you notice your partner is overly upset when you offer the slightest suggestion contrary to what they have said, are overly annoyed if you give them feedback, or even fly into a rage if you outright disagree with them, you are dealing with someone who is undeniably toxic.

9. Your partner has a shifting personality.

This is the basis of a poorly formed sense of self and is usually displayed in behavior such as overt shows of love and kindness followed by acts of cruelty and shifting opinions.

If you’ve experienced the utter frustration of being with someone who presents themselves as having solid (even over-inflated) opinions that are presented as true convictions one minute, but then present contradicting opinion hours or minutes later, you know this character deficit is truly extraordinary.

Their chosen persona is often based on the situation, in terms of the company they are in, what their goal is (admiration, stirring the pot, or sounding educated), and how they are going to benefit from the character they take on at that given moment.

RELATED: 21 Signs You're In An Emotionally Abusive Relationship

What is narcissistic victim syndrome?

If you recognize any of the above signs in your relationship, you could be suffering from narcissistic victim syndrome. Simply put, narcissistic victim syndrome describes the effects of narcissistic abuse, which can be long-lasting and have detrimental effects on the sufferer’s mental health.

Subscribe to our newsletter.

Join now for YourTango's trending articles, top expert advice and personal horoscopes delivered straight to your inbox each morning.

These effects on mental health include depression, loneliness, stress, anxiety, fatigue, and many symptoms associated with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder -- flashbacks to traumatic experiences, intrusive thoughts, and emotional or physical triggers.

How does it feel to live with a narcissist?

Narcissists are unable to feel empathy, meaning they neither care nor understand the feelings of their partner. This makes it hard to deal with them, let alone share the same space. For individuals living with a narcissist, this repeated toxic behavior causes a major blow to self-esteem and self-worth.

Narcissists are bullies who rope people in with their charming demeanor, only to create crazy-making behavior in their relationships. They lie, have no compassion, and gaslight their partners. So, imagine living with this behavior on a daily basis, being bullied into feeling worthless, and questioning your sanity in the process.

If your partner possesses these traits, you're in a toxic relationship and are a victim of narcissistic abuse. Listen to the warning bells going off in your head and get out. This is your survival instinct that refuses to allow your self-worth to be shattered. Tell that narcissistic abuser in your life to pound sand before it's too late.

How to Get Help

The first step to leaving an abusive relationship or situation is to seek out counseling to rebuild your self-esteem, becoming strong enough to heal. Abuse leads to significant effects on your health, both emotional and physical; because of this, therapy is an essential part of healing.

Finding the right therapist may require a bit of research, but therapy is beneficial in helping you realize that this isn’t your fault, validating your experiences, providing healthy coping strategies to improve your mental health, and giving you steps for reclaiming your self-worth and learning to trust again.

In addition to therapy, surrounding yourself with a support system of friends and family is helpful to moving forward.

When you’re struggling with feeling overwhelmed, anxious and stressed due to an abusive situation, the strong support of close loved ones means you have a source of validation, strength, and faith in oneself.

If you think you may be experiencing depression or anxiety as a result of ongoing emotional abuse at the hands of a narcissist, you are not alone.

Domestic abuse can happen to anyone and is not a reflection of who you are or anything you've done wrong.

If you feel as though you may be in danger, there is support available 24/7/365 through the National Domestic Violence Hotline by calling 1-800-799-7233. If you’re unable to speak safely, text LOVEIS to 1-866-331-9474, or log onto thehotline.org.

Photo: The Hotline

RELATED: Why Leaving A Narcissist Is So Hard — And How To Get Away In 7 Steps

Joanne Brothwell MSW, RSW, CLC, APE is a therapist, social worker, author, and psychotherapist who specializes in helping survivors of abuse deal with trauma and depression.