You’ve most likely heard of the word “narcissist.” Some may use it in conversation, and some may have had experiences with people who exhibit narcissistic behavior. Understanding what narcissism truly is can be helpful if you are experiencing relationships that are affected by narcissistic behavior. Behavioral Therapist Amanda Maloy, LCMHC, is helping us understand what true narcissism is, different behaviors to identify, and some suggestions for those involved in a relationship affected by narcissism.
What is Narcissism?
The term Narcissism has been increasingly used in media and has become a part of everyday conversation to describe anyone who might be considered unpleasant, selfish, obnoxious, or vain, to downright abusive. Narcissism can be defined and measured in different ways. As a personality trait, it can be measured on a continuum. People can express varying degrees of narcissism, and it may be viewed a pathological when impairs relationships and other aspects of a person’s life. A narcissist would refer to someone who would score at the more severe end of this spectrum. Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) may be used to define a narcissist and is diagnosed by a professional using the criteria in the DSM-V (American Psychiatric Association, 2013).
Key Components of Narcissistic Behavior
- Lack of empathy
- A sense of entitlement
- Preoccupation with self
Narcissists are driven by shame. It’s the idealized image of themselves, which they convince themselves they embody, that they admire. But deep down, narcissists and people with NPD feel the gap between the façade they show the world and their shame-based inner self. They work hard to avoid feeling that shame by using defense mechanisms that can be destructive to relationships and cause pain to their loved ones. These coping mechanisms can even be abusive, however, not all abusers are narcissists, and not all narcissists are abusers. Abuse is abuse, no matter the abuser’s diagnosis.
Narcissistic Behavior and Relationships
As stated above, narcissistic behavior can cause serious damage to relationships. Those with a narcissistic partner may be more likely to experience various forms of abuse which can have a significant effect on their well-being. Such signs of abuse have been well-documented through research and includes:
- Verbal abuse: Belittling, bullying, accusing, blaming, shaming, demanding, ordering, threatening, criticizing, sarcasm, raging, opposing, undermining, interrupting, blocking, and name-calling. Note that many people occasionally make demands, use sarcasm, interrupt, oppose, criticize, or blame you. Consider the context, malice, and frequency of the behavior before labeling it narcissistic abuse.
- Manipulation: The indirect influence on someone to behave in a way that furthers the manipulator’s goals; can include covert aggression. On the surface, the words seem harmless, even complimentary; but underneath a person may feel demeaned
- Emotional blackmail: May include threats, warnings, intimidation, or punishment. A person may feel fear, obligation, and or guilt, sometimes referred to as “FOG.”
- Gaslighting: Intentionally making a person distrust their perceptions of reality or believe that they’re mentally incompetent.
- Negative contrasting – Making unnecessary comparisons to negatively contrast the partner with the narcissist or other people (“Why can’t you be more like…”)
- Sabotage – Interfering with their partner’s goals and/or relationships for advantage.
- Exploitation and objectification: Using or taking advantage of a person for their own ends without regard for their feelings/needs.
- Withholding – Can include money, sex, communication, or affection.
- Neglect – Ignoring a person’s needs.
- Privacy invasion – Ignoring your boundaries (looking through their phone, email, etc., entering their personal physical space, stalking)
- Slander – spreading gossip and/or rumors.
- Physical abuse/violence
- Financial abuse – Controlling someone through economic means or using their finances through extortion, theft, gambling, manipulation, or by accruing debt in their name, or by selling their property.
- Isolation – Gradually distancing (physically and/or emotionally) a person from their friends, family, services, and other supports.
- Sexual violence and coercion
Although physical assault is a more common theme underpinning intimate partner aggression, many survivors of abuse view the psychological/emotional abuse as more damaging, particularly as it relates to their mental health. Partners may be left feeling worthless, confused, anxious, depressed, have suicidal thoughts, develop distrust of others, and experience PTSD-like symptoms because of these behaviors.
Narcissistic abuse is a type of emotional abuse that involves manipulation to alter or damage the way a person thinks, behaves, or feels. There are several signs that indicate you may be suffering from narcissistic abuse. For example, in the early stages of a relationship, a narcissistic partner may act perfect, but then patterns begin to change, and manipulation tactics begin. Other signs include feeling confused, upset, or guilty about incidents that were not your fault but for which you are made to feel responsible. Narcissistic abuse may also involve public humiliation that is disguised as a joke.
Keep in mind that narcissistic behavior and narcissistic abuse doesn’t only affect romantic relationships. You might be in a relationship with somebody who has NPD in your family (i.e., “narcissistic father” or “narcissistic mother”), or in a friendship, or work relationships. While narcissistic abuse in any type of relationship is damaging, recovery from it is possible.
Dealing with narcissistic abuse for any amount of time can negatively impact a person’s entire life. Many people lose friends, family members, or even jobs during their time with their abuser.
While recovering from narcissistic abuse can be a lengthy and complex process, it is not impossible. The following recommendations outline efforts to help overcome the effects of narcissistic abuse while you embark on your recovery.
Acknowledge the Abuse
Before you begin healing from the abuse, you must acknowledge that it occurred. Since narcissistic abuse can be subtle by nature, you may question for a long time whether you were abused at all. During the relationship, you may have had to rationalize the behavior for so long that accepting that it wasn’t rational or excusable can be difficult.
Set Clear, Consistent Boundaries
Narcissistic abusers often try to reconcile with you by promising to change. This is why setting boundaries is important. Whether you’re setting boundaries with parents, a friend, or partner, it’s very important to be specific about what boundaries you consider necessary. This might include blocking them on social media. It might be they can only contact you via an email address you set up just for their communication. It might be that they can’t yell at you or talk down to you. Your boundaries are yours. You have every right to set them and be firm about them.
Process Your Emotions
Any type of breakup or ending of a relationship will come with difficult emotions such as sadness, anger, and grief. In the case of a relationship ending with a narcissistic abuser, you may also feel shame, suspicion, fear, anxiety, or experience symptoms of PTSD. Because you will be dealing with a lot of complex feelings, you will have to work through them in a healthy way. Seeing a therapist can help you work through your emotions in a safe and neutral environment.
While feeling pain or hurt due to abuse is unpleasant, experiencing those emotions is necessary. The purpose is to allow yourself to feel what you’re feeling without judgment so that you can process each emotion and let it pass.
Focus on Yourself
Because people often lose themselves in relationships with narcissistic abusers, focusing on yourself can aid in your recovery. You can do this by rediscovering yourself, your relationships with friends and family, and practicing self-care techniques. Self-care practices can include:
· Use positive affirmations to improve your self-esteem.
· Exercise to help release pent up feelings of anger, rage, or grief.
· Adopt breathing exercises to manage emotions and address any responses that may keep you locked in the mind state of being abused.
· Practice a new creative hobby as a way of self-expression.
Getting Professional Help
Professional help is an optimal step to take when recovering from narcissistic abuse because the trauma and long-term effects are hard to shake on your own. A trained mental health professional will be able to validate your emotions, help you process complex and negative feelings (such as guilt and shame), guide you in building positive coping skills, work to maintain healthy boundaries, and address other mental health symptoms, such as depression and/or anxiety. Some types of therapy that may help you recover from the abuse include:
· Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): A form of talk therapy that explores and changes automatic negative thought patterns.
· Trauma-Informed care: A form of psychotherapy that focuses on a client’s trauma history and its current impact on functioning.
· Motivational interviewing: A form of psychotherapy that helps patients recover by enhancing their motivation to heal.
· Eye movement desensitization reprocessing (EDMR): Therapy that focuses on changing the way memories are stored in the brain to help reduce negative feelings associated with trauma.
· Art therapy: Therapy that involves using creativity and self-expression to heal from trauma.
· Humanistic therapies: supportive counseling and non-directive therapy can help people going through recovery feel more understood.
If you are curious about attending therapy to help learn other skills to help lower distress, you can check out Avance Care’s Behavioral Health program and our therapists.
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