Narcissism has become a more identifiable issue in our society and is indeed, difficult to understand and assess. I read recently that the rates of people exhibiting the qualities associated with Narcissistic Personality Disorder are on a sharp rise. Perhaps this is because of better assessment techniques or a stronger knowledge base amongst professionals, but the frequency with which I see the effects of Narcissistic abuse are most definitely on the rise.
And I’m not talking about selfish behaviour. Narcissists create a relationship based on control and manipulation that is designed to feed their own ego. This systematic dynamic of control and manipulation creates an abusive situation for their partner or Narcissistic Supply.
In my practice and beyond, I’ve witnessed several individuals who show the signs of having been in or are in Narcissistic relationships. The markings of narcissistic abuse are unmistakable, once you know what it looks like.
Unfortunately, because of the sophisticated methods of the Narcissist, they are often overlooked as a piece of the puzzle in the victim’s current state of mental breakdown. It’s often only when we know the backstory that we can identify Narc abuse.
We can all have Narcissistic traits (it’s a spectrum, right!?), like being selfish or thinking about our own needs first. But typically these characteristics do not affect our ability to have relationships and be successful in our daily lives. It’s only when the Narcissist becomes toxic that we see dysfunction in the people that are closest to them. One of the prominent problems with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) is that the person suffering from this feels intense self-loathing and shame but no empathy for others. They engage in intimate relationships whereby they can mediate these feelings by abusing their partner. As they use control and manipulation to systematically inflict the abuse, they project their negative emotions onto the victim and the relationship serves to lessen these feelings within the Narcissist (Narc), all the while increasing negative emotions in their partner. The Narc seeks out someone who holds the qualities that they want to possess and who will be vulnerable to his coercion and in this way, they are deemed “Narcissistic Supply” (Narc Sup). Narc Sups often have a track record of Narc relationships either with parents, past partners or friends. They are an easy mark for the sophisticated NARC because of this history.
Because it is a co-dependent relationship, we don’t often see the Narc Sup as a victim however, as with any abuse, they are. This relationship can exist over many years (especially if it is with a Covert Narcissist) and it’s often the Narc Sup who seeks out therapy to help as their lives become more dysfunctional. Unfortunately, the therapist never sees the Narc, and therefore can often misdiagnose the issues in the Narc Sup. Fortunately, the prevalence of NPD in our culture has created a spectrum of professionals who are trained in what to look for and have the experience to back it up. So just as a trained animal tracker can differentiate between bear tracks and wolf tracks, a trained professional can see the imprint of the Narc in someone’s life.
These are a few key elements that mark the unmistakable trail left by a narcissist.
Signs of Narcissistic Supply:
- Identity Disorder: The longer the relationship with the Narc continues, the less you feel, act, look and talk like you. This comes from the Narc dictating who you are. If you tell them how you feel, the Narc will twist it and say ‘no that’s now who you are’ or ‘I know who you really are’. A lot of victims after a Narc relationship will say “I don’t know who I am”.
- Exhaustion and Adrenal Fatigue: The longer the relationship exists the more responsibility you take in the relationship and the less the Narc takes on. As difficulties in the relationship arise, you are expected to overcome them. Because the narc is so exploitive, they are stepping back in everything and you are taking on more and more. Financial, children, home, etc…the responsibilities lie on the shoulders of the Narc Sup and yet the Narc will complain as if it’s never enough. You give and give and assumer more and more responsibility to show them that you are trying to do your part and worth their love, you don’t even realize that they aren’t doing anything anymore.
- Cognitive Dissonance: A condition when your mind experiences 2 contrary or opposing thoughts. For example, they love you but they don’t want to see you happy. Then if you ask them “how can you love me if you don’t want me to be happy” they respond with something like “How can you accuse me of that? I’ve never accused you of that despite what we’re been through”. They flip it back on you and twist things to keep you in a constant state of confusion. Nothing seems to make sense and you live in a constant state of confusion because your brain is struggling with what’s true and what’s not.
- Constantly Thinking: Your mind is so occupied with thoughts about why things are happening they way they are, why you can’t make sense of it, why they treat you the way they do, why it seems to be one way but the Narc says it’s not that way, that you can’t enjoy the things around you. You are so worried about not setting the Narc off, trying to figure out how to make them happy and wondering what is going to happen next, that you miss out on friends, family and the joys of daily life.
- Brain Fog: Your ability to concentrate is gone, your memory is failing and you can’t understand the simple things about relationships that you used to. You can’t see clearly: you don’t feel centered and nothing makes sense.
- You begin Doubting your Sanity: Narcs are emotional manipulators are attracted to peaceful, kind and generous people. However, their desire is to systematically erase these qualities from that person and create a mirror of themselves. Over time, as they manipulate your feelings and the rollercoaster of blowups continues, the brain makes associations and the Narc Sup will begin to think that they are losing their mind. Gaslighting is a prevalent technique used to make the Narc Sup question themselves. When referring to a past argument, the Narc will suggest that something didn’t happen or something wasn’t said. When referring in a previous situation, the Narc will deny and insinuate that things didn’t happen the way that the Narc Sup remembers. They will often engage the help of others, such as children or friends. When the Narc creates an argument and the Narc Sup blows up out of frustration, the Narc will say “look at you, you are the problem, I’m not blowing up”. They twist the situation to make you the problem, not them. You remember that that’s not how you used to be and you begin to believe that you are the problem.
- Suffer from PTSD: You have been in emotional warfare for so long that your emotions are unpredictable. You never know what bomb is going to go off…you never know when the Narc has received injury (even if that injury is only in their mind) so you can never relax. There is no emotional downtime. Little by little you learn that the minute you relax is the minute that the bomb goes off, so you never allow yourself to relax.
- Depression: Who you were is not who you are anymore. The simple joys that you used to have in the things that you are passionate about are gone. That’s the definition of depression: you no longer enjoy the things that once made you happy. Over time, as you engage in the things that make you happy, the Narc will make comments like “I just want to spend time with you, but you’re too busy with ____”. You don’t realize that they are attacking your passion, you just think that they want to spend more time with you. Over time, your brain makes these negative associations with those things that make you happy, and systematically you stop doing them.
- You Look or Feel like an Empty Shell: Because the Narc has been slowly erasing who you are, you no longer feel like yourself. It affects the tone of your voice, the light in your eyes and how you look, but often it’s not realized until after the relationship is over.
- Emotional Disconnect: It’s almost like someone has turned a switch off inside of you. You have been conditioned to not experience very many positive emotions because the Narc feels threatened by your positive emotions. Your negative emotions are rewarded by the Narc by giving you peace without the unpredictable explosions and you end up in a grey area of emotional disconnect.
- Low Self-esteem: While you may have had low self-esteem prior to this relationship, this is problematic because it’s continually being chipped away at by your abuser until it becomes dysfunctional to your daily life.
- Addicted to the Abuser: Even if you realize that you are in an abusive relationship (friends, family or therapist has helped you to see it), instead of really owning it you feel an obsessive need to gain this person’s approval. Nothing else matters.
- Sense of Shame: The Narc projects their negative emotions on to you, and even pass it on at a subconscious level. For example, if you actually have a good time with friends and enjoying yourself, the Narc will see that as a threat to them and shoot you a glance that makes you wonder what you have done to upset them. You will retreat into the confusion and mental anguish that surrounds you in wondering what you have done and why they are upset.
- Nightmares: Frequent disruptive nightmares that symbolize the upset and lack of control in your relationship. These may be symbolic of the turmoil in your waking life.
- Dissociation: This coping mechanism is often put in place by our brains to lessen the effect of the abuse. This is prevalent in many different psychological conditions and results from being emotionally overwhelmed. We are removed and distant from our experiences and separates us from the turmoil and anguish. You have to retrain your brain that you can handle intense emotions and stress.
- Easily Triggered: Your dominant stress response (flight, fight, freeze or fawn) is easily triggered. When things get difficult your immediate trauma response is easily set off. When things get difficult, you immediately have this trauma response. You are living with an emotional manipulator that teach you that you have to live at a 9 in anxiety: they never let you relax, constantly cause turmoil and have you constantly walking on eggshells. They do this because they feed off of the explosive reactions, so they want to keep you at heightened anxiety because it means that they don’t have to work as hard to get a response. Being easily triggered to react with a trauma response in combination with a difficultly in turning off that response, is a big red flag.
- Addictions: Whether it’s alcohol, drugs, eating, watching tv, shopping or gambling, you are prone to addictions that are destructive in nature. (leads into destructive behavior)
- Destructive behavior: Sabotaging one area of your life. This may be relationships with friends or career success, the Narc Sup will take over the abuse and slowly destroy what is important to them.
- Anxiety: Over time, under these abusive conditions, anxiety levels within the Narc Sup increase to damaging levels. Continued anxiety can give way to other psychological issues, for example, Phobias. The pattern of Narc abuse is that any social event will be precipitated by a massive blow-up so that the Narc can release their negative emotions. So, at the event, the Narc looks great, while the Narc Sup is a mess. This creates a negative association in our brains surrounding being in social situations which, over time, can manifest into a social phobia. These changes in the Narc Sup’s personality are ultimately used against them
- Panic Attacks: The natural progression of anxiety can be to turn into panic attacks. While this is not always the case, when the brain is dissociated and the body is under continual stress, the mind is constantly learning new negative pathways and creating those based on experience.
If you suspect that you are in this type of relationship, there is no easy answer. Ultimately, once you have become a shell of your former self and the qualities that the Narc needs from you are exhausted, they will most likely move on. Their need for Narcissistic Supply is obsessive and will rule their behavior, while you and your changes will be blamed and his ‘moving on’ will be justified.
How to start healing…
- Limit interactions. If you can avoid the Narc altogether, that would be perfect, however this is often not possible when children are part of the picture. Avoid conversations as much as possible and when you need to converse, have someone else present during your interactions. Some people have even gone so far as to block their former partners on social media.
- Create Boundaries. This will be a foreign word for you, but creating emotional boundaries around the rules of engagement for someone interacting with you is mandatory. How do you expect to be treated? How is the way you treat another person different from how you were treated in the past and what needs to change? What are you simply no longer willing to tolerate? Get clear on this…great relationships exist because of clear boundaries.
- Learn to trust your gut….trust your intuition: If it doesn’t feel right…if it puts a knot in your stomach or a lump in your throat, trust that. I know this is hard, but trusting yourself again will make you see things differently.
- Remember a prior loving relationship that filled you with peace…even if it’s a pet. That’s how a relationship should feel. Focus on the differences between that feeling versus the feeling you have with your partner.
- Journal. Get your feelings out on paper. Continue to release the emotions and thoughts surrounding the relationship, re-reading your entries as you progress. Look at your writings like a novel and be inquisitive to dig a little deeper.
See the relationship for what it was.
Ask for help. A Therapist can be particularly useful in processing the trauma from the relationship.
If you’re ready to create something new…new relationships, new career, new life….If you want to move forward and stop living in the past, then we should talk.
Katrina Murphy is a Professional Intuitive Mindset and Confidence Coach in Ontario, Canada, serving clients across Canada and internationally. Katrina helps professionals to change the relationship that they have with themselves so they can reconnect both in their relationships and at work. She’s been featured in various publications and is the creator of the Power-Passion-Purpose Framework.