Narcissistic abuse is a particularly insidious form of psychological and sometimes physical abuse – often not recognised for what it is by the victim and partly outside of the conscious awareness of the abuser.
If you had a narcissistic parent or caregiver, the therapeutic work for this kind of abuse would be deep – touching the original traumas that set the tone for your core beliefs, thoughts, emotions and behaviours, and what you told yourself as a result of those experiences – subconsciously at a very young age – about how your life would turn out.
Healing from the hurt, sadness, confusion, anxiety and anger that results from a relentlessly disapproving, unempathic and totally self-focused parent can be one of the challenges of a lifetime. But it can be done.
The therapy does not focus on why the narcissist in your life developed the disorder. It will focus initially on what happened and on clarifying the damage done to you before moving on to the healing work. The fact is you are not here to be a victim of that disorder – you have rights too.
While the therapy is tailored to each client and their prevailing issues, overall my aim is to help you achieve a more concrete self-concept with greater degrees of self-esteem, self-acceptance and self-compassion. Other work will include developing an academic knowledge of narcissism; alleviating self-doubt; using anger in a healthy way towards recovery; developing greater confidence; addressing trust issues, putting in place stronger boundaries and levels of assertiveness; learning strategies for dealing with narcissists without being retraumatised, and an enhanced ability to recognise them in the future.
I also don’t focus on the area of forgiveness, rather my view is that achieving a ‘letting go’ of what went on as an empowered survivor is the ideal.
This is a journey back to self, fortified for a whole new future.
How do I know it’s narcissistic abuse?
These are some aspects of a narcissist that you may have experienced in your family, relationship or workplace:
GASLIGHTING: This term describes how narcissists tend to deny or distort how a particular event or conversation played out. They can also invent something entirely fictitious and try to gaslight you into believing it happened. In extreme cases this can lead the victim to doubting their own memory, perception and even sanity.
TRIANGULATION: In the family system, for example, narcissists have an absolute drive to triangulate or ‘divide and conquer’. You may experience this as a favoured sibling – a ‘golden child’ who is overly enmeshed with the parent(s) and without empathy. The golden child is often manipulated into becoming a ‘flying monkey’ – that is attack you, the scapegoat, by proxy, normally using the narcissist’s lies and twisted version of events, often without checking their validity. The golden child is often invited by the narcissist and enabler to become involved in difficult situations, making matters worse for the scapegoat with their misguided take on the situation. Any complaint that the sibling is favoured will have been denied by all involved.
The scapegoat has many psychological challenges, but so too does the golden child as the role classically brings a false sense of entitlement, brittleness and the inability to function among others who don’t show the same huge (but false) love and respect as the narcissist. It also brings frustration, confusion and chronic anger. Golden children rarely come for therapy.
ENABLERS: You may be experiencing a less abusive parent/caregiver who attempts to be loving but is essentially loyal solely to the narcissist and often ends up being just as abusive. In a typical narcissistic family nest the enabler revolves around the attention-hungry narcissist and the children, despite appearances to the contrary, are sidelined physically and psychologically.
SMEAR CAMPAIGN: You may be experiencing a subtle distancing or even outright hostility from family and friends without knowing why. Narcissists will twist an event or comment into something that makes you look unethical or immoral and will make a point of telling everyone around you. Often their accusations centre around sexual, financial or inheritance issues. They are known for trying to poison the children of a scapegoat against them, often bypassing the scapegoat and contacting the grandchildren directly. Their ability to brainwash others against the scapegoat is truly amazing and powerful.
NARCISSISTIC RAGE: The narcissist, highly sensitive to perceived insults, can react with uncontrolled and irrational anger, often out of proportion to the situation that prompted it. That rage can be overt or covert, full of blame, entitlement, righteousness and setting in train a short or long-term plot for ‘revenge’.
HOOVERING: This can be one of the most stressful aspects of going ‘no contact’ or ‘low contact’ with a narcissist. Due to the nature of their disorder they find it difficult to let go of a source of ‘supply’ (attention) and will refuse to respect boundaries and honour requests for an end to the relationship. It is important to recognise that contact is not made by the narcissist because they love or miss the scapegoat. Classically, they will say whatever it takes to lure the scapegoat to return, but the only certainty is that a resumption of relations will lead to even greater punishments for daring to abandon the narcissist. Often the way narcissists try to hoover is inappropriate – emails into a workplace or to a grandchild’s place of education for example. Another part of hoovering means the narcissist will contact those around the scapegoat – family and friends – portraying themselves as the victim.
TYPES OF NARCISSIST AND MORE ABOUT THEIR BEHAVIOUR
There are many types of narcissist but overall the grandiose type is more easily identified, with the traits sitting pretty much below the surface and often on view. However, the covert type is much harder to spot: the same traits are there but display themselves in a subtler and different way. That does not make the covert any less dangerous. (See the pdf for more info on traits)
Narcissism can be co-morbid with other personality disorders and not infrequently narcissists are substance abusers (alcoholics etc).
Narcissists can verbally, physically, spiritually, intellectually and financially abuse their victims, often leaving them isolated via the smear campaign and spinning with self-doubt. Problems endured by the scapegoat become opportunities for vilification by the narcissist and their acolytes: when you are most in need of compassion and empathy they will be crudely reductionist. They manipulate, compete, demean by comparison, sabotage, exploit, and lie pathologically.
The potential harm from this kind of abuse is not to be underestimated.
WHAT ARE THE POTENTIAL IMPACTS?
The impacts of being brought up by, romantically involved with or working with a narcissistically disordered individual are manifold.
Being around a narcissist is exhausting, unsettling and upsetting since you will regularly be forced to deal with their traits – a shock will be in store no matter how long the waters have been smooth.
Cptsd is a common outcome and the resulting emotional flashbacks bring overwhelming feelings of depression, stress and anxiety. If one or both of your parents was a narcissist you will likely have low self-esteem and an impaired self-concept, not feeling good enough and unsure of who you are and what you stand for. You might also be experiencing guilt around reactive abuse – some of your behaviours in response to the abuse could have been wrong but were actually a result of years of being scapegoated.
Most damaging of all, because narcissists are masters of projection you will carry toxic shame. That deep level toxic shame can last for a lifetime unless addressed.
Narcissists can be ignoring and neglectful of your emotional and physical needs and then switch to seemingly attentive and loving behaviours. As a result cognitive dissonance reigns, as well as guilt at standing up for yourself or criticising the narcissist, which becomes a barrier to healing and insight.
The abuse leaves a void within that means you needily turn to other people for advice, love and support, totally relying on their approval and input, all the while never realising that the only true love and support that can validate, satisfy, sustain and empower you has to come from within; that you alone can provide all your emotional needs when you are finally ready to make that leap.
Other impacts may include:
Do you feel essentially defective at your very core? Not good enough? A failure in all or nearly all that you do? You cannot trust yourself or know whether to trust others. You find yourself making decisions that seem to satisfy your need for self-punishment.
Do you self-sabotage in ways you don’t understand? As if there’s a part of you that acts out in a way that’s outside of your control? Are you in the grip of an addiction or compulsive behaviour such as a reliance on psychic hotlines?
Have you come to see any financial assistance from your parents as the only true measure of their love? You may not realise how you have been controlled and infantilised in this way.
Are you good at connecting with others on a superficial level, but real intimacy seems impossible to achieve?
Do you feel that you attract narcissists as friends? Alternately are your friendships tinged with a lack of trust and perceived abandonment? You long for contact but when it comes you perceive it as overwhelming and destabilising.
Do you feel like you don’t fit in anywhere? Working in offices or groups stresses you out; knowledge of how to behave in these environments seems beyond you and you worry about the outcome.
Do you veer between thinking you are very special and, alternately, deservedly at the bottom of the tree?
Do you rage at others for their imperfections and perceived transgressions?
Are you easily controlled with no real knowledge of what your emotional and physical needs are and how to ask for them to be met?
Do you have a deep sensitivity to being made a fool of or disrespected? The cruellest trick of all has been played on you – that you believed your family loved you and you now realise they don’t and never did.
Do you have a hugely developed sense of justice, and a hatred of unfairness?
Do you feel you need to do all the work to please others, not having the confidence to realise that they will meet you half-way if they want to?
Do you find it difficult to ask for help – your aim is always to be fully self-supporting, except sometimes you collapse and have an overwhelming need for love and support – you can never get the balance right?
Are you an exhausted and perfectionist workaholic, unable to give yourself credit, suffering with imposter syndrome and never realising that what drives you is your toxic core shame? Or are you living down to the expectations of the role of scapegoat, coming to believe that you really are what the narcissist needs you to be?
Do you feel that it’s solely your responsibility to work for your partner’s love, for example, and if you don’t get it, it’s due to a shortcoming within you?
Disconnected from your feelings and unable to trust them you may have made bad decisions regarding partners. Have you had a series of failed relationships, every time attracted to a person who makes you feel incredibly excited initially, on a high and feeling as if you have ‘come home’ within yourself? The chemistry and sex is amazing and you feel this relationship is meant to be – he or she is your soulmate and it feels so right. However, after a time you start to feel like your partner is judging you and you’re falling short – he or she pulls away leaving you confused and panic stricken. That old familiar loneliness and sadness that has been the background tape of your life comes back in full – this time making you feel even more defective, not good enough, potentially traumatised, and feeling terrifyingly empty inside.
Or have you been single for years – lost faith in the possibility of a healthy relationship, perhaps not even knowing what a healthy relationship looks like? Or deep down you don’t believe that you are attractive enough or deserving enough to have what others achieve with ease.
Do you have CFS or physical ailments such as locked hips?
Do you ‘scapegoat’ a part of your body – singling it out for a special hatred, and you have no real compassion for or connection with your body overall?
Have you been pathologised by your family, told that you are mentally ill, or just a really bad person – the source of all the problems?
Are you told you’re imagining the abuse, or made out to be outrageously rude when you stand up for yourself?
Are you estranged from your family, attempting to lessen contact, or just finding it difficult to strike a balance that means you can have a halfway decent relationship with them?
Narcissistic Abuse Syndrome
A more extreme form of narcissistic abuse results in Narcissistic Abuse Syndrome (NAS). What actually happened when you met that exciting stranger was that you were familiar with their cold, unavailable energy – it resonated with you because it was the same as your narcissistic parent. As well as being used to that energy, your subconscious was grabbing at one more chance to resolve the problem or ‘get love from that parent’.
During the relationship the narcissist uses intermittent reinforcement (blowing hot and cold unpredictably), which creates a cognitive dissonance in the victim that keeps them from leaving when logic would normally dictate that as the obvious answer.
A ‘romantic’ relationship with a narcissist can invoke depths of emotion that are scarily destabilising: all the while the psychological damage is accumulating, often outside of the neurotypical victim’s awareness. Indeed, after even a short time in a relationship with a narcissist a person can be trauma bonded, his or her addiction to that person as strong as any class A drug. Often, they go on to develop an overwhelming obsession with the narcissist after the relationship ends that can take years to abate.
NAS can include symptoms of complex PTSD, suicidal ideation, insomnia, major depression, and a real deadening of hope and joy for years afterwards.