Narcissistic abuse is generally defined as emotionally abusive behaviour on the part of someone with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD), although it may also include physical or sexual abuse. I want to focus on narcissistic abuse of an emotional nature because it’s this type of abuse which can be so hard for the person on the receiving end to identify. Of course, abuse of any kind can be confusing for the victim as they may have been persuaded by the perpetrator into thinking they “caused” or “deserved” the abuse, or that the abusive behaviour never took place.
When someone has been emotionally abused, though, it can take a long time to figure out that there was anything wrong with the way they were treated, especially when the perpetrator was charming, manipulative and the picture of a wonderful parent, partner, boss, or friend to the outside world.
You may be suffering from severe depression and anxiety, you may have low self-esteem and engage in self-destructive behaviours and abusive romantic relationships, but it’s hard to point the finger at narcissistic abuse because of its subtle nature. Narcissistic, emotional abuse is intangible—as opposed to more obvious forms of abuse—and it may be shrouded behind a curtain of wealth, respectability, and generosity.
People who have been on the receiving end of narcissistic abuse may display symptoms including:
- attachment issues
- problems with decision making
- weak boundaries between self and others
- addiction issues
- people-pleasing behaviours
- low self-esteem
- self-destructive behaviours
- perfectionist traits
When I’m working with clients who fall into the above category, their first explanation as to why they experience some of these types of symptoms is because there is “something wrong with them.” They are unlikely to accept that someone else’s behaviour—usually a parent—was a causative factor in the problems they currently face. People on the receiving end of narcissist emotional abuse tend to have very low self-esteem and interpret those issues which cause them difficulty as being the result of their inherent inadequacies.
Mandy, a client in her forties, described the ways in which her mother slowly exerted more and more control over her and her siblings, denying Mandy friends of her own age.
“I was taught at home, ostensibly because my brother and I were unhappy at school. I had no friends and when I did occasionally make a friend, Mum would say they only liked me because I was rich. I became so attached to Mum—she told me everything. I was so involved in sticking up for her and became my dad’s enemy. It was very stressful.”
Mandy had suffered from anxiety, depression, and alcohol issues from childhood on. Her difficulties stemmed from the fact that she really didn’t like herself. Her self-talk was full of criticism and she had considered suicide to “end the constant pain.” Despite telling me in detail about her mother’s controlling, critical, self-absorbed behaviour, she found it so hard to accept the links between her upbringing and current issues.
And then, one day, she did.
“I feel pretty furious now, to be honest. And I also don’t know how I didn’t see it. It seems so obvious now. It’s a relief, really.”
Like other victims of narcissistic abuse, Mandy had a long road to recovery, involving various stages from anger, to acceptance, to relief and eventually to self-acceptance. It takes time—sometimes years—to really overcome this type of emotional abuse and move forwards in a positive way and the first step in this process is to take ownership of things which have happened to you in your past when you were in a vulnerable position in the hands of a narcissist.