Narcissistic Abuse Explained by Rebecca Johnson, LMHC

What is narcissistic abuse, really?  Information about narcissism and narcissistic abuse can be found in every corner of the internet and social media.  With the information on this topic being plentiful and because we cannot trust everything we read or watch on the world wide web, it is crucial to be sure that what you are learning is accurate.

What is a narcissist?  To be labeled a narcissist (Narcissistic Personality Disorder) one must be diagnosed by a mental health professional, according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.  The tricky part is, most individuals with narcissistic traits steer clear of any support or insight from a psychiatrist or therapist.  (I’ll explain why this is in a later blog.)

Narcissistic Behaviors and Traits

  • Lack of empathy
  • Believes they are superior
  • Lack of boundaries
  • Excessive desire for attention
  • Manipulative
  • Self-Centeredness
  • Admiration Seeking
  • Feelings of entitlement
  • Will not take responsibility or be accountable for their behavior
  • Inability to self-reflect

So where does that leave someone who is in a relationship with a self-absorbed, vain, selfish and emotionally immature person?  They are likely left feeling alone and trapped in a cycle of mistreatment and abuse. 


What does narcissistic abuse look like?

Narcissistic abuse creates emotional and psychological harm.  It is the deliberate use of actions and words to manipulate, emotionally scar, confuse, or frighten.  These behaviors control and isolate the victim.  The manipulation tactics break down the self-worth and identity of the abused.  

Narcissistic abuse looks like…

  • Insults
  • Threats
  • Anger and rage  to intimidate
  • Humiliation 
  • Control over what you wear or eat, where you go
  • Invalidation of your feelings
  • Questioning your memory, ideas, and thoughts and pretending to not understand what you are saying
  • Minimizing or criticizing your needs
  • Gaslighting (intentionally denying reality to make you doubt yourself)
  • Twisting your words or emotions, passive-aggressiveness
  • Silent treatment or some type of punishment when the abuser doesn’t get their way
  • Blame-shifting 
  • Guilting or shaming you to get what they want
  • Isolating you from family and friends 


How does narcissistic abuse feel?

Narcissistic abuse has many layers and can be difficult to identify. Survivors struggle to find accurate words to describe what they are experiencing and are puzzled about identifying it as abuse.  The narcissist may be well-liked and admired by friends or co-workers, but the abuse and mistreatment directed at loved ones lie right under the surface.  Because control, bullying, and manipulation are often covert, narcissistic abuse may not be seen from the outside.  

This subtle, yet dangerous, abuse leaves you feeling…

  • Small and unimportant
  • Confused (how can someone who loves me treat me this way?)
  • Emotionally attacked and manipulated
  • Insecure emotionally and physically
  • Anxious and fearful
  • Controlled, oppressed, or intimidated 
  • Hypervigilant, paranoid
  • Helpless, worthless, powerless
  • Trouble making decisions or stuck in a fog
  • You’re always in trouble
  • Traumatized
  • Guilty and shameful for not being enough


Now what?

The realization that you are a survivor of narcissistic abuse feels overwhelming and you feel pretty lost.  You may have developed anxiety or depression due to the abuse.  Symptoms of persistent mistreatment may have impacted your physical health, creating body aches, illness, or troubled sleep.  Many survivors struggle with post-traumatic stress or mood swings.  

It is imperative to remember that it is unlikely that your abuser will participate in counseling.  They are unable to reflect on how their harmful behaviors affect others and they cannot take responsibility or own how they have mistreated others.  

However, as a survivor of narcissistic abuse, reaching out for help from your support system and finding a therapist that is familiar with this type of abuse, is necessary.  Taking care of yourself is equally important and implementing healthy self-care will help you find the road to recovery and healing. 

A trusted friend or therapist can support you in the first steps of your recovery with the following:

  • Listen to your gut – stop questioning yourself
  • Do not welcome false promises from your abuser
  • Set healthy and appropriate boundaries
  • Educate yourself on the manipulation tactics of your abuser
  • Accept that you cannot change them
  • Do not isolate yourself with your abuser
  • Learn to regulate your emotions
  • Acknowledge that you may need to end the relationship or take a significant break

As a survivor of narcissistic abuse and as a therapist specializing in this subtle yet painful type of abuse,  I identify with the confusion and the destructive psychological and physical impact it has on survivors.  Even though you are disoriented in the sea of confusion and fear, there is hope.  Healing and recovery is a big endeavor but it is possible.  The consequences of being disrespected, devalued and dismissed run deep.  I believe that you can find yourself again, be restored, and be whole.  

Future blogs will focus on further characteristics of narcissistic abuse, traits of survivors, tools to heal and recover, as well as education on the many manipulation and abuse tactics.  

If there are specific topics you would like me to spotlight in blogs to come, please email me at


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