Narcissistic abuse syndrome (also called narcissistic victim syndrome) refers to the constellation of symptoms experienced by the intimate partner of a person with narcissistic traits. A narcissist is someone who uses psychological manipulation and abuse to meet their insatiable needs for admiration, status, power, and control.1 The consequences of these relationships can be devastating, but with support, you can heal and learn how to protect yourself.
What Is Narcissistic Abuse Syndrome?
Narcissistic abuse syndrome is not a diagnosis, but rather refers to the constellation of symptoms commonly experienced by the romantic partners of individuals who display narcissistic traits.
Symptoms of someone who has experienced narcissistic abuse can include:
- Low self-esteem
- Reduced self-confidence
Survivors of this type of abuse might also display symptoms of trauma bonding, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or complex PTSD from continued exposure to trauma. To understand how narcissistic abuse syndrome occurs, it is important to understand the bigger picture.
The narcissistic partner has an unflappable sense of their excessive entitlement – believing they are superior to others, and deserving of the best, in all aspects of their life. They believe they are “special” and rules don’t apply to them or their circumstances.
Others’ needs and feelings are of little importance to them, unless they can be manipulated to get what they want. For the narcissistic partner, relationships are a means to an end, to obtain what they believe they deserve – in terms of status, admiration, authority, control and power.2
Narcissistic partners can be very skillful at emotional manipulation and “game playing” – presenting themselves as charming, attentive, confident, and interesting, and thus can deceive you into believing that you have found the ideal partner.3
However, after you are securely drawn into the relationship, their pretenses will begin to slip. They will begin to engage in hostile, angry and vindictive outbursts when their demands for authority, entitlement, and admiration are not met.4
Signs of Narcissistic Abuse Syndrome
Narcissistic abuse syndrome is characterized by a pattern of behaviors that are emotionally and psychologically abusive and manipulative. The purpose of these behaviors is to meet the narcissistic partner’s insatiable needs for entitlement, admiration, and power/authority over others.
If your partner engages in the following types of behaviors, you will be at risk for narcissistic abuse syndrome:1
At the beginning of the relationship, in order to draw you in, your partner will shower you with compliments, attention, and gifts, as well as words and acts of love. They will admire your personal and professional qualities and accomplishments.
With love bombing, early on in the relationship, your partner will express how perfect you are for them, and might even claim that you are their “soulmate.” You might feel like you have found the ideal partner – someone who truly understands you and deeply cares for you.
Your partner will adapt how they appear to you, to match what they believe you are looking for. They will only share positive accounts of themselves, i.e., stories that put them in a good light. They will often make up or exaggerate stories to impress you with their importance and accomplishments.
Criticism, Disrespect, & Other Forms of Abuse
As your partner seeks to gain power and control over you and your life, they will begin to undermine and criticize your decisions and who you are as a person. They will start to belittle and minimize your accomplishments, thoughts, and feelings.
This will likely be confusing for you, because previously, your partner presented as being loving and supportive. Financial abuse, physical abuse, and sexual abuse might also be used by your partner to punish, shame, and control you. Sex with a narcissist is often a means of control for them.
Lying & Gaslighting
Lying and gaslighting are hallmarks of narcissistic abuse. Initially, your partner will likely devise a story about how they have been victimized and mistreated in their last relationship, and/or by others in general. These stories will be used to elicit your empathy, caring, and protectiveness.
As the relationship progresses, so will lying and gaslighting. Other types of abuse might also begin to occur (e.g., financial, physical, sexual).
If you try to discuss the abuse with your partner, they will either claim to forget their abusive behaviors, or tell you outright that what you experienced never happened (ie., gaslighting). They will forcefully insist that what you saw, heard, and felt did not happen. They might say you are “crazy” or are suffering from mental illness – to try to confuse and manipulate you. They will try to make you doubt your own perceptions of reality, and possibly even your own sanity.
Narcissistic partners will often use the “silent treatment” as a tool to control and punish you. They use this tactic when they perceive that you are challenging their power and authority, sense of entitlement; or that you are not providing the level of admiration and submission they believe they deserve.
After a time, you will find that your partner has removed you from the pedestal they had you on. They let you know that you can be discarded, because you are not measuring up to their expectations. Through criticism, belittling, and other disrespectful behaviors, they will try to shame, devalue, and control you.
Exploitation & Vengeance
Your partner might tell other people lies about you in order to hurt your reputation, and turn others against you. They might engage in acts of revenge. They might also involve others in spreading false stories about you and/or in engaging in abusive, retaliatory behaviors towards you.
Abandonment & Possible Re-Engagement
At some point, your partner might enter into another relationship (or a number of other relationships) while still in the current one with you. This can provide them with a heightened sense of power and control, and inflate their status in their own eyes. They will continue to engage in lying, manipulative, and controlling behaviors with all of their partners.
At this point, they might abandon you and end the relationship, while blaming the relationship failure solely on you. However, in time, there is a possibility that they will return and try to draw you back into communication and a relationship with them. If they are successful in re-engaging with you, love bombing will begin anew, as the pattern restarts.
Most Common Symptoms of Narcissistic Abuse Syndrome
The prolonged experience of emotional/psychological manipulation and abuse, which are characteristic of narcissistic abuse syndrome, can be devastating. It can negatively impact your sense of self, your ability to trust, and your emotional and physical well-being. In the most extreme cases, it can lead to a diagnosis of PTSD.
Some of the most common symptoms of narcissistic abuse syndrome include:
- Confusion and self-doubt: As a result of your partner’s initial false presentation, lying, and gaslighting behaviors – you will likely feel confused, and question your perceptions of who your partner was/is, as well as your own experience of reality.
- Guilt: You may buy into your partner’s insistence that all of the relationship problems are your fault, and that you are to blame for their abusive behaviors towards you.
- Fear: You might experience fear in different areas, such as fear of disappointing your partner, fear of further abuse, fear of facing the fact that you were deceived into this relationship, etc.
- Lowered Self-Esteem and Confidence: Having experienced an abusive relationship can injure your self-esteem and reduce your self-confidence for a time.
- Conflicted feelings: It is not uncommon to experience conflicting feelings about your partner. There will likely be part of you that cares for and loves the parts of your partner that were kind, funny, comforting, etc. At the same time, there will likely be another part that is angry and hurt about how your partner abused and manipulated you. Both parts need attention.
- Trauma bonding: Despite the abuse, you might still feel a strong attraction and bond with your abusive partner. This can be a natural consequence of trauma bonding.
- Post-traumatic stress disorder: You might experience PTSD, including symptoms of complex trauma as a result of narcissistic abuse.
When & How to Get Help for Narcissistic Abuse Syndrome
The earlier you seek help for narcissistic abuse syndrome and get out of a relationship with a narcissist, the better, because the longer the abuse goes on, the more you will suffer, and the greater the chance that the abuse will continue to escalate (e.g., physical, sexual).
However, the fact of the matter is, that for many people, it can take time to realize that something isn’t right in the relationship. You may be in denial and as a result, you may not be ready to ask for help. It takes courage to reach out for help, but you deserve a healthy new start with a professional counselor and a strong support system as you work to “untangle” and understand this complicated relationship and the pain it has caused you. You may also need professional help for dealing with a narcissist while you end the relationship.
There are many sources of potential help available to you through the stages of healing. You might want to start with a loved one who has been through something similar. Or you might feel more comfortable talking about your concerns in a confidential relationship, such as with your family doctor, or a professional counselor.
When you are looking for a counselor or therapist, try to find one who understands the impacts of narcissistic abuse (which is commonly referred to as “complex trauma” or “psychologically abusive relationships”). Our therapist directory is a good place to start your search.
Dealing With PTSD After a Narcissistic Relationship
The emotional/psychological manipulation and abuse that are characteristic of Narcissistic Abuse can lead to the development of PTSD among survivors of this type of trauma (sometimes specified as post traumatic relationship syndrome). Symptoms of PTSD, due their disruptive nature, can cause you to have difficulty functioning in one or more areas of your life.
If you are experiencing PTSD, your symptoms might include:2
- Reliving the trauma—through nightmares, night terrors, flashbacks, or dissociation (i.e., “zoning out” or “spacing out”).
- A strong need to actively avoid anything that reminds you of the trauma (e.g., conversations, places, thoughts, people, objects, feelings).
- Persistent negative thoughts—about yourself, your worth, the world—believing any problems are your fault.
- Persistent negative feelings (e.g., fear, sadness, anger, shame, guilt).
- Inability to feel positive emotions such as joy, hope, peace, etc.
- Memory loss about particular instances of the abuse.
- Inability to relax, let your guard down, and feel safe.
- Always on alert for signs that your partner might become angry and abusive (e.g., listening for footsteps, tone of voice, slamming of objects; carefully watching facial expressions and non-verbal behaviors).
- Having difficulties with sleep and/or concentration.
PTSD occurs when the experiences of trauma change the way the brain functions. What happens, in short, is that the brain is so overwhelmed by the stress of the trauma, that it is not able to record the traumatic event(s) as having a beginning, middle, and—most importantly—an end.
Instead the brain records the trauma as having a beginning and middle – but no “end” – and so whenever you are reminded of the trauma you go right back into reliving it, as though it is happening in the present moment. Resetting the brain, once you have PTSD, will often require professional help. There are a number of trauma therapies that have been proven to be effective in treating PTSD, such as EMDR or trauma-focused CBT.
Healing From Narcissistic Abuse Syndrome
For many, healing from narcissistic victim syndrome will involve education and therapy. For some, medication might also be necessary to manage distressing and debilitating symptoms. Healing usually involves accepting support from others. There is no shame in this. Asking for support is a sign of courage, wisdom, and strength.
Narcissistic abuse syndrome is generally treated through trauma therapies. These therapies are able to help you to release the trauma, and “reset” the mind and body, so that the brain is finally able to record the trauma as being “finished,” and in the past.
For survivors of narcissistic abuse, people are often treated with cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), prolonged exposure therapy, or eye movement desensitization and reprocessing.5,6
Your family doctor or a psychiatrist might prescribe medication to manage some of the debilitating symptoms of PTSD. Some medications that are commonly used to treat anxiety or depression have been found to also be effective at treating PTSD symptoms. These include medications like fluoxetine (Prozac), sertraline (Zoloft), paroxetine (Paxil), and venlafaxine (Effexor XR).5,7
Other Ways to Get Support
In addition to professional support, you might find it helpful to talk to others who have been through a similar experience. This can help to reduce your sense of isolation, and let you know that you are not alone. Community agencies and hospitals sometimes offer group therapy for survivors of abusive relationships. There are also online support groups available.
Self-care is another way that you can support yourself. This is about treating yourself with kindness, gentleness, and compassion in your thoughts and behaviors.
Additionally, educating yourself about narcissistic abuse syndrome and trauma can be helpful to:
- Help you to better understand and see the bigger picture
- Validate your perceptions, thoughts, and feelings
- Assist you in realizing that your partner’s abusive behaviors are not your fault
- Learn how to protect yourself from psychological abuse and manipulation.
Final Thoughts on Narcissistic Victim Syndrome
If you have experienced narcissistic abuse syndrome, you are not alone. Narcissistic partners are very skilled at deception, gaslighting, and blaming others. You do not deserve the abuse you have experienced. No one does. Starting to recognize what is really happening is the first step. The next step is allowing yourself to accept the help that is available to support you as you seek healing.
Narcissistic Abuse Infographics