Narcissists employ varied and creative means to torment their targets. Victims often don’t notice or mistake the signs that they are in a toxic relationship. From my own experience and client stories, this is how you tell if you have an abusive narcissist on your hands.
Abusive narcissists attack their loved ones in three stages. First, they build you up with “love bombing”, lies, and a false backstory. Then, they will assert control through criticism, the silent treatment, and hot/cold behavior. Finally, they will pull you in their story with “gas lighting”, selective amnesia, triangulation, and outright exploitation.
One of the most insidious tricks that narcissists use in relationships is to convince you that you are the crazy one. This makes it difficult to tell from the position of the target of abuse if what you are seeing is real or not. Below, I’ll go in to detail on the signs of an abusive narcissist
Extremely common at the start of a relationship, narcissists will lure in their target with extreme, over-the-top displays of love and affection. This can take the form of:
- Unexpected gifts
- Incessant praise
- Boasting about your good qualities to others
- Putting you “on a pedestal”
This behavior may seem great at first, but is the beginning of long term abuse. First, by raising you up the abusive narcissist seeks to build up dependence on them. Once you get used to their effusive praise, it will hurt once it is taken away. Praise also serves as bait to get you to commit to the narcissist, so they can leverage that commitment against you in later stages.
Finally, love bombing also serves to build up the narcissist own ego and sense of self-esteem. This false narrative they are building about how great you are makes them seem so much greater, in their own estimation, because they are your partner or loved one.
Abusive narcissists will say anything they can think up in order to protect and bolster their own well hidden sense of inferiority. Lies are not always well planned out, and by habit a narcissist can often lie about the most ridiculous and inconsequential things. They will speak lies impulsively.
If you pay close attention, it is actually pretty easy to spot these silly little lies, but most victims ignore them when they do see them.
False or Misleading Backstory
Narcissist live in a fantasy of their own making. They are both consciously crafting a life story that makes them the hero and everyone else the bad guy, as well as acting out internalized lies that they no longer remember aren’t the truth.
Early in a relationship, abusive narcissists will craft an entire back story that makes them worth of your love and admiration. Some signs of this behavior are:
- Stories of their past relationships make out their previous partners as abusers and how they were mistreated by them
- They are reluctant to introduced you to friends or family
- Their backstory seems too good to be true
- Elements of their past seem to change over time, or be forgotten at a later date
While it may be normal for people to omit, embellish, or over emphasize their own life story early in a relationship, abusive narcissists take this to the ultimate level. Nothing they could say is to outlandish, so long as it can develop psychological or emotional power over you in the long term.
Ultimately, as you start to find out about the true past of an abusive narcissist, you may come to realize that you actually know nothing about this person you supposedly fell in love with.
As the relationship processes, and a bond has been formed, the abusive narcissist will begin to put away the carrot and take out the stick. They use these harsh methods as a way to build up dominance over their partner.
Usually, the first sign of this switch is an increase in cutting and direct criticisms against their partner. This behavior shines in stark relief to their previous excessively loving posture.
Abusive narcissists are often experts at thinking up cutting remarks disguised as off-hand statements are even as backhanded praise. If tell your friends about what was said to you, they will probably not consider it to be a criticism at all, or just intentionally hurtful.
But, a consistent pattern of this type of covert criticism is a good sign that you have an abusive narcissist on you hands.
The Silent Treatment
Another extremely common form of control which an abusive narcissist is likely to deploy against you is the classic silent treatment.
This can range from a complete and utter blockade on all communication, to just being unresponsive and distant while they are around you. They may make a show of spending time with other people and go out of their way to demonstrate that they don’t need you.
If you bring their cold shoulder tactics to them directly, they will usually deflect, saying that you are misreading them, or that they are just tired, etc. Ultimately, they will try to re-frame their behavior as a sign of your failing, and seek some justification for their actions.
Hot and Cold Phases
One of the most effective means the abusive narcissist has of gaining control over their partners is through a rapid switch between adoration, and the cold shoulder.
The primary key to this working is that there seems to be no rhyme or reason to their mood switches. This forces you to be reactive to their emotional state, and constantly walk on egg shells around them.
They may even time the switches to shoot you down during your emotional highs and then pick you up when things have gone to far.
As this tactic continues to be used, the victim can’t help be pulled in to the narcissist’s illusions and false constructed reality, bring you even deeper under their control.
An increasingly common term these days, gas lighting means that an abuser tries to control their victim by questioning their sanity. When you bring up the behaviors of the abuser, they will have no idea what you are even talking about. They will distort facts and generate alternative versions of events to make you question your interpretation of reality.
Abusive narcissists will often go to the point of bringing in third parties to support their position. Or, fabricating physical evidence to disprove your version of events.
Similar to gas lighting, one clear sign of an abusive narcissist is a “selective amnesia” that they develop around their own behavior. Events that you clearly remember will completely escape them, leaving them absolved of wrong doing in their own mind.
While there is a natural psychological process in humans where we tend to repress bad experiences and forget facts that go against our existing belief systems, narcissist will take this to an extreme.
They may “forget” and events that happened just days or hours before, taking their memory loss to an absurd level.
A very common behavior for abusive narcissists is to have multiple relationships going at the same time. This gives them additional perceived power over both victims, because they know that they could drop one at any time and still have the other as a fallback.
At the very last stages of a relationship, when the abusive narcissist is ready to discard their prey, they will employ their second relationship as a means of one final attack.
Often, they will suddenly and completely end their relationship with one of their victims without explanation. At the same time, they will usually spread around a story about how they were the one abused in the relationship, and how bad their victim really was.
Also, they may broadcast their alternate relationship to the victim they just cut off as a way of rubbing salt in the wound. If that relationship is in the early building of phase of the narcissist abuse cycle, then you will see gratuitous praise and “placing on a pedestal” of this new partner, making the whole thing unbearable to watch.
Narcissists need to bring as many people as possible in on their delusions of grandeur. They will spread stories and lies about you to other people as a means of gaining control over you and dominating the narrative.
Usually these stories take one of two general forms:
- The narcissist is a good, virtuous person just trying to help their partner, who is ungrateful and bad
- The narcissist is an innocent target of the transgressions and “abusive” behavior of their victim.
Anything the narcissist can do to muddy the waters about what is really going on will be actively employed against you.
As they begin to turn people against you, they will engineer situations where these people come in to you lives, either to bring yet more people to the narcissist’s side, or to convince you that you are indeed at fault.
One of the best resources I have found when dealing with an abusive narcissist is the book Unmasking Narcissism: A Guide to Understanding the Narcissist in your Life. For a more technical treatment, the article “Recognising Narcissistic Abuse and the Implications for Mental Health Nursing Practice” published in the journal Issues in Mental Health Nursing is a good place to start.
What are the signs of narcissistic abuse?
Narcissistic abuse is characterized by lies and deception on the part of the narcissist to build up their own sense of self worth-while gaining control over yours. Initially this may take the form of praise and predatory love, while later on taking the form of cutting criticism and psychological manipulation tactics.
How do you deal with narcissistic abuse?
The most important step to take when dealing with narcissistic abuse it to get help from someone able to assist you in see through their deceptions. Ultimately, you need to learn to identify abusive behavior on their part and to set appropriate boundaries.