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The Terrible Toll of Narcissistic Abuse

Narcissistic abuse leaves lasting scars.

As social media has made all of us the “stars” of our online profiles, narcissistic behaviors have naturally been given more space to take hold and grab the spotlight. While diagnosable narcissistic personality disorder exists in less than 5% of the population, controlling behaviors are increasingly common, driven by an overinflated sense of self; an unrelenting drive for being seen as successful, powerful, and superior to others; feelings of entitlement in all aspects of life; conceit; and self-centered behaviors. While we can all love a winner, two dangerous aspects of narcissism include an absolute lack of empathy or concern for others and a willingness to callously use others to advance their own desires.

Some experts suggest that narcissism may spring from childhood trauma because of corrupted early relationships, from hypersensitivity as a child, from genetics, or simply from random factors in one's personality or temperament. Regardless of the origin, the damage that narcissism can wreak typically targets the people an individual most needs in their lives to feed their narcissistic appetite.

Rather than their manipulative behaviors being motivated by a desire to shore up low self-esteem, narcissists are more likely to use manipulation and coercion to maintain their overly high self-image when faced with inadequate homage and adulation from others (Vickie, 2019). They believe they are something more than they are and grow incensed when others do not respond "appropriately' to this inflated sense of self. Because narcissists lack empathy or concern for others, their narcissistic rage at being treated with less than what they feel is their due respect can be traumatizing.

Narcissistic Abuse

Emotional abuse of a partner takes a cyclical and predictable form for narcissists. Physical abuse may or may not be present, but the psychological abuse alone can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder.

While narcissists lack basic empathy for others, their ability to seek out potential targets is uncannily strong. Narcissists tend to look for partners who are empathetic toward them and can be effectively wooed through flattery, attention, and shows of affection: They like someone they can sweep off their feet in a whirlwind romance. We all fall in love with the projections we have of a potential partner, but in the case of narcissists, the projections are much more fancifully imagined as narcissists are experts at pretending to be what we want a partner to be.

Once they have hooked a partner, the honeymoon lasts only as long as it takes for the relationship to take hold. Narcissists choose partners who allow them to maintain their sense of superiority. Due to the absence of empathy, they see people as either tools to be used or obstacles to overcome.

  • Tools to Be Used: Narcissists may choose to align themselves with a partner whose status has the power to raise the narcissist’s own status or standing with others. They will use the partner as a means of moving in the “right” circles or gaining the admiration or acceptance of others. The relationship lacks mutuality and intimacy as these are qualities narcissists are incapable of providing. However, the partner does provide access to the ego-sustaining supply that narcissists crave.

  • Obstacles to Be Overcome: When a partner doesn’t offer entry into rarified circles or provide access to status bumps, or their assistance is no longer necessary, narcissists continue the cycle of abuse that began early with duplicitous shows of affection and commitment. Narcissists verbally abuse partners with patronization, insults, belittling comments, and disregard for their comments (Vickie, 2019). This may begin in private but may be taken public, but with a more insidious use of innuendo and humiliation. By tearing down a partner, the narcissist is proving their superiority.


Gaslighting is accomplished through the manipulation of a partner’s psychological equilibrium by making them question whether they actually know what is going on around them. Narcissists may share information or plans with a partner, but when their partner asks about how the event had turned out, the narcissist may completely deny having ever stated the event was going to occur. The narcissist will intentionally toy with a partner by denying truths that are evident and concocting stories designed to make the partner question their own sanity.

Calling It Quits

Once a victim begins to question their own grip on reality, they need to move quickly to exit the relationship before any greater damage is done. When a relationship compromises your well-being and sense of self, it’s time to leave.

While all of us would like to believe that the person we care most about also cares for us, relationships with narcissists inevitably end poorly. Not only do narcissists care nothing about others’ feelings, but they also have no feelings or substance to offer to a partner—leaving partners feeling indescribably bereft, alone, and hurt.

Allow yourself to heal by preparing for and making a clean break. Don’t try to convince yourself that the narcissist will change. Don’t try to justify the abuse you’ve suffered as being “deserved” for being less than what your partner wanted. Don’t minimize the hurt you’ve suffered by saying it was “only words.” Don’t replicate the gaslighting by your partner by trying to tell yourself that what you know happened is maybe just your faulty memory. Don’t leave without adequate preparation: Whether it’s making copies of important documents or putting away money that can only be accessed by you, take every precaution needed to allow your exit to be final. Log out of online accounts, from email to social media to financial sites. Update all your passwords on a device the narcissist cannot access. If you share children, consult an attorney before leaving.

When any relationship ends, we need supportive people around us. Let caring others help you in the ways that matter—with kindness, support, trust, and intimacy. Recovery isn’t always smooth, especially when narcissists try to re-insert themselves into others’ lives. Block their number, send back letters or gifts, and leave behind any reminders or souvenirs of your time together. Seek out professional help if you’re feeling overwhelmed by the situation. Learning to trust yourself again can often be a challenge, so be patient with the healing process.

To find a therapist, please visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.


Howard, V. (2019). Recognizing narcissistic abuse and the implications for mental health nursing practice. Issues in Mental Health Nursing, 40, 644-654.

Summers, D. M., & Summers, C. C. (2006) Unadulterated Arrogance: Autopsy of the Narcissistic Parental Alienator, The American Journal of Family Therapy, 34, 399-428, DOI: 10.1080/01926180600817885

Lane, S. L. S. (2020). Is it me? Am I losing my mind? Living with intimate male partners presenting with subjective narcissistic behaviours and attitudes (Master's thesis).

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