- Victims of narcissistic abuse develop coping mechanisms in order to survive. But once the abuse has ended, their coping mechanisms may turn maladaptive.
- Over-focusing on others' needs, failing to set strong boundaries, or doing anything in exchange for kindness may pave the way for further maltreatment or abuse.
- Recognizing old coping mechanisms and letting them go (often with a therapist's help) can restore a lost sense of self and help build healthy relationships.
Over the years, I have worked with numerous survivors of narcissistic abuse. They all have been subjected to sophisticated manipulation, disrespectful treatment, and conditional "love." The longer that has been going on, the stronger the after-effects. And even victims who seemed to have recovered still show certain typical behaviours.
Narcissists aim to undermine their victims—subjecting them to behaviour that is reducing them to nothing, gaslighting them to make them think they are going mad, and killing off any sense of self and self-esteem. In order to survive, victims had to develop behaviour that kept them as safe and sane as possible and it is this behaviour that stays with them long after they have escaped their narcissist.
I have been subjected to narcissistic abuse from my mother, who also created a dysfunctional family and it took me decades to understand what was going on and unlearn some unhelpful behaviours.
Are you a victim? Do you know a victim? You might recognize the following five behaviours, which easily invite abuse.
1. You do anything for kindness.
As a victim, you have been deprived of kindness and are now craving it. Kindness in any form is welcomed, but also needs to be rewarded. When someone is kind to you, it will make you happy, but it also makes you think it needs to be repaid with sex, running errands, or doing favours. Receiving kindness without repaying it seems unnatural, as you have been brainwashed by your narcissist into the "something for something" approach. Narcissists will never do anyone any favours unless it is an exchange.
It might be difficult for you to understand real kindness, the type that doesn’t need to be reciprocated, and it might make you feel on edge to be on the receiving end.
When someone was flirting with me and offering me compliments, I always got nervous as I couldn’t take it for what it was. To me, it meant I was expected to return the "kindness" by offering sexual favours.
2. You always tune in to the needs of others.
Life with a narcissist has trained you to be sensitive to other people’s needs, especially those of your narcissist, of course. And to respond to those needs rapidly. On automatic pilot. In order to survive. This behaviour usually continues. You notice someone’s requisites and step into action to help them. Sometimes even before they realise there is a problem, you already solved it.
It is not unusual to evoke an unpleasant reaction while you help someone, as you can come across too strongly as someone who interferes.
I was on a continuous mission to help negative people see the positives. Offering ideas, taking actions, thinking things through on their behalf. Only to realise that what I decided needed to change in them was not what they wanted at all.
3. "It's my fault—I must have done something wrong."
Having been accused and blamed for anything that didn’t go the way your narcissist wanted has led to a default mental position where your first thought is: "Where did I fail, what error did I make?" In a work situation, social setting, or other circumstances, you are feeling instantly responsible for what is going on—even if it has nothing to do with you.
Because you are offering to take the blame, people might take you up on it and you might find yourself in the familiar situation of being accused and expected to solve something that has nothing to do with you.
Whenever things went wrong or not according to plan, I immediately needed to "make it right." I started to make amends or find solutions, even if initially the situation had nothing to do with me.
4. "I am working hard, putting all my energy into what I am doing."
Being trained by your narcissist to be available and being expected to offer your time, energy, and resources at any time to suit them has made you someone who is used to putting an effort in. It is very difficult for you to not do anything and it is easy for you to be busy, doing stuff. Most likely for others, not for yourself.
You are very welcome in any committee or organisers group as you seem OK with doing the majority of the work.
My working ethos is extreme. I never give up, keep on going, and it isn’t an effort. It is just what I do. It pays off as I get a lot done and it is a positive pay-off of my childhood "training."
5. "I struggle with boundaries."
Boundaries are the result of stepping into your power and honouring your own needs. This is new territory for victims of narcissistic abuse. As your confidence has gone, so has your sense of power. As your self-worth has been undermined, so has the awareness of your own needs. Being able to say "no" and "stop" to others is a way to protect yourself. You were not allowed to do that when you were with your narcissist and it is still difficult.
It is easy for others to (ab)use you when you are not clear about what is acceptable or not.
It took me years to acknowledge my self-worth and recognize what I needed to be happy. And to put up boundaries, so I could honour that self-worth. Building a loving and respectful connection with myself has made all the difference. In my coaching now, I help clients to build that BFF (best friend forever) relationship.
These typical behaviours are leftovers of an abusive relationship. Unfortunately, if they are not addressed, they can easily attract other abusers or abusive situations.
Find yourself applying these behaviours? Address them one by one, either by yourself or with the help of a professional.
To find a therapist, please visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.