Narcissistic Abuse

Posted on May 8, 2015 · Posted in Relationship Counselling

images (3)The recent popularity of E.L. James’ book, 50 Shades of Grey and the subsequent movie has led to much interest in narcissism.

Yet the character Christian Grey is not necessarily what I would call a classic narcissist, and much of what has been written about narcissism is confusing and complicated. Narcissism is often very subtle and insidious. The purpose of this article is to summarise the best and simplest indications of whether or not you are being targeted for narcissistic abuse.

As a target it is likely that you have not had a lot of luck in previous relationships. Despite being loving, generous and genuine you have experienced lack of appreciation, betrayal, selfishness, heartache and perhaps even abuse in previous relationships (see repetition compulsion). Trust me, if you are involved with a narcissist your luck isn’t changing anytime soon, in fact your situation has become very grave… Ironic, as at least at the outset you probably thanked God for bringing this ‘amazing dream girl’ into your life.

Much of the contents of this article are based on the pioneering work of my friend and colleague Melanie Tonia Evans, who in my opinion is to narcissism what the great Melody Beattie has been to Co-dependence. Anything that appears hereafter in quotation marks is credited to Melanie

As a male writing this, for convention I will be referring to the narcissist as ‘her’, however obviously narcissism is attributable to males as well as females. It is perhaps even more common amongst males, although as the famous quote states and is so applicable in these cases “the female of the species is far deadlier than the male”.

Relationship history

In my experience, the single best indication of narcissism is the individual’s relationship history – narcissists do not merely break hearts, they destroy people from the inside out. After a difficult but ‘normal’ break-up most people will move on and find happiness in another relationship within 2-3 years. However, it is common for ex partners of narcissist to still be heart broken and unable to move on after 5, 10, 15 or 20+ years. If this is the case with more than one of your partners ‘ex’s’ there is every likelihood you are dealing with a narcissist.

Why is this, such a strong indicator? Narcissists are consummate actresses, and they can get inside a target’s head very quickly. Sexually they are chameleons and can become whatever you have always wanted. They will also figure out what ‘emotionally’ constitutes your ‘dream girl’ (largely from what you tell them you didn’t like about your ex), and become that person.  Until you are totally hooked and besotted. Then the real person starts to emerge and there is utter disbelief. You begin to realise that it was all smoke and mirrors; you pray please God don’t let it be so, but it is. It is the horror and pain of this realisation which destroys your very faith in human nature, not just your misplaced faith in the narcissist, leaving you dependent and addicted. The loss of faith in human nature can become a self- fulfilling prophecy, otherwise known as the ‘law of attraction’.

Bizarrely narcissists usually manage to remain ‘friends’ with their ex partners. The ex, being addicted, hopes one day for reconciliation whilst the narcissist is sourcing energy (attention) and using the ex as a convenience. As Melanie puts it so well, “they are like crocodiles, they like to keep dead bodies (or ex’s) under rocks, so they can go back and chew on them once in a while”. It is quite common for narcissists to be carrying on a sexual relationship with one or more ex partners despite having ‘moved on’ to their next target (in one case I know of, even whilst getting engaged, during planning the wedding and after marrying the next victim). They simply cannot be with just one person because to do so would leave them feeling vulnerable, which is unbearable to a narcissist.

“The Look”

“If you’ve been narcissistically abused, you will recall times when you were shocked to see the narcissist’s eyes become empty and lifeless; their face cold and turned to stone.

You have seen the total lack of compassion that is akin to being confronted with a reptile, devoid of any warmth.

The narcissist is MERCILESS at these times and is a cruel, heartless machine”


If you are involved with a narcissist, it is highly likely that you will be painfully aware of how there always seems to be ‘someone else in the frame’, a ‘rival’ for there affections… It is usually an ex at the beginning of your relationship. Often they will still be sleeping with them, whether you are aware of that or not. They will also make absolutely sure that you know about anyone who shows interest in them, but it will be done in such a way that it can be excused as just ‘being honest’ or ‘inadvertently’ just dropped into conversation… But you will feel the sting and won’t know why.


Narcissists consider apologising a humiliation and as such apologies from a narcissist are rare. On the odd occasion they do occur, they just don’t come across as heartfelt (because they are not).

Are the losses mounting?

Do you have the same relationship with your family that you did when you met the narcissist? Do you have the same best friends?

In most cases, if you are a victim of narcissistic abuse the answer will be no, you will have become estranged from more than one person who was close to you at the outset.

And yet, this was not because of the narcissist…. Or was it?

You will probably have been encouraged by the narcissist to maintain or attempt to heal the relationship in question. Yet if you did, there would have been a tone in the narcissist’s voice, a posture, a look, nothing you could really put your finger on but it was there. Or the narcissist’s encouragement to restore the relationship will have made you feel defensive of the narcissist and thereby dissuaded you. Either way the relationship with the family member or friend is badly damaged if not lost entirely. Yes, it’s insidious and subtle and make no mistake, it was deliberate. You are being systematically separated from your support network in order to make you more vulnerable and dependent on the narcissist.

You are probably so addicted that you are willing to try and preserve the relationship at ANY cost, the problem is the narcissist knows this and will use it.


Narcissistic behaviour is designed primarily to get attention, the energy which they feed off.

A narcissist would rather be hated than ignored! Whilst positive attention may be preferred, in its absence, provoking you into negative response will suffice. Furthermore this provocation will often be so covert, that to the untrained eye, the narcissist did nothing ‘wrong’.

Selective memory

One of the most insanity provoking traits of the narcissist is ‘selective memory’. On the odd occasion you will feel utter relief that the narcissist ‘finally gets it’. Something you have been trying to explain for a long time about the impact of their behaviour, or the defence of a false accusation, finally seems to have sunk in, you may even get one of those elusive apologies. All the more devastating when hours, days or weeks later it is as if the conversation never took place, the narcissist has literally NO recollection of it and has reverted back to their original position.

Selective reinforcement

This phrase was first coined by B.F. Skinner.

Skinner conducted a famous behavioural experiment with vermin.

Three separate enclosures were set up containing similar vermin. Each had a feeding mechanism that was rigged in a different way.

The feeding mechanism on the first enclosure was left to work in the normal way, in that each time the vermin pecked at the dispensing bar they received a pellet of food.

The feeding mechanism on the second enclosure was rigged so that it was jammed, in that no matter how many times the vermin pecked the bar, they received nothing.

The mechanism on the third enclosure was rigged so that it was random, in that on occasion when the vermin pecked the bar they received a pellet of food but most of the time they received nothing, nor was there any ‘pattern’ to when the mechanism dispensed.

The vermin in the first enclosure soon became ‘lazy’ in that they realised they only needed to peck the bar when hungry. The vermin in the second enclosure became ‘disinterested’ in that they realised no matter how much they pecked they would receive nothing – and so gave up. The vermin in the third enclosure were going crazy, pecking continuously as they never knew when they would receive one of the pellets.

If you are involved with a narcissist, I suspect this 3rd scenario will feel awfully familiar to you, often manifesting in the relationship with constant ‘push/pull’ behaviour. One minute the narcissist will be declaring undying love for you and the next pushing you away and/or engaging in actions that prove the exact opposite. Selective reinforcement is a very powerful psychological principle, exploited mercilessly by narcissists to keep you destabilised and give them power.

Pathological liars

Narcissists are in the main pathological liars, in fact their whole life is a lie, a constant act, designed to gain attention and to ensure they always look good to the outside world.

They are invariably secretive, and no one, not even their best friend knows the whole story. If their lips are moving they are probably lying.

There is a deep rooted belief which drives most of their disgusting behaviour and that is, if anyone ‘really’ knew the whole story and what they were ‘really’ like they would be rejected and ostracised (which in a narcissist mind is considered a fate worse than death).

False accusations

A narcissist may well constantly accuse YOU of cheating, despite the fact you probably love them so much you wouldn’t dream of it. This is a projection and/or a cover up technique. Often a narcissist has never been faithful in ANY of their major relationships. The constant accusations keep you so destabilised such that the narcissist gets masses of attention through your attempts to prove your innocence. This also of course ensures you do not have the time or energy to notice any signs that they are in fact the one who is cheating.

Narcissist’s defences

Narcissist’s are built on survival mechanisms, the favourite and default defence mechanisms being, Denial, Justification and PROJECTION

Much of the time you will likely be accused of behaviour and intentions of which in fact the narcissist is guilty. This in itself is insanity provoking.

If you point out the projection, the narcissist will invariably project it back on you. If you are quite self-aware and responsible (unlike them), you are likely to become very confused and unsure as to who is projecting what onto whom, it is like being in a hall of mirrors!


Narcissists don’t do emotional vulnerability, to them it is the most frightening scenario imaginable and they will do anything and everything to avoid it.


Touched upon previously and not evidence on its own, but narcissists will have often cheated in numerous if not all previous relationships, and almost certainly are, have or will cheat on you!

Off and On, Off and On….

Do not be surprised if the narcissist breaks up with you on a regular basis, for short periods of time. Often for the most ridiculous and trivial ‘reasons’. This behaviour has a dual purpose. Firstly it creates great confusion and emotional upheaval within you, this keeps you destabilised and the narcissist firmly in ‘control’. Secondly if you are a little too astute for the narcissist to regularly cheat on you right under your nose, these regular brief ‘break ups’ provide the narcissist with the perfect opportunity to get away to see their lover(s). If then caught out, they can claim ‘but we weren’t together’. If you challenge this, the narcissist will invariably ‘project’ it onto you, but ask yourself, who initiated the break up? Even if it was you that left, the provocation probably left you with no choice, it was the narcissist who INITIATED it!


Narcissists have very little if any integrity, they have no ability to stick to a commitment or promise, they only ‘mean’ it at the time they say it. Consequently nothing they say can be trusted, their promises are meaningless and there can be no stability. The goalposts are constantly moving and you never really know where you are.


Narcissists are abusers and like all abusers they manage to convince themselves, that they are in fact the victims, that’s how abusers live with themselves and continue to do what they do.

All narcissists truly believe that they are NOT narcissists!!!

In some cases they can be great parents (except perhaps when their child embarrasses them)

And because they can feel, can be empathic, can feel guilt, can apologise etc., they reason that the DSM type criteria for narcissism does not apply to them.

The difference is that unlike normal people they are never able to ‘stay’ with such feelings or accept any responsibility for long.

Let’s take guilt as an example, in relation to narcissists, guilt is often really a shame attack and gets suppressed quickly. No narcissist ceases to behave amorally for long because of guilt; they get over it real quick!

Narcissist’s struggle with, but can ‘feign’, empathy. To the point where they can convince themselves (and you) that they have it. Yet they do not really ‘feel’ it, certainly not for long.

Narcissists are very charming and plausible and one important fact I have not as yet seen any expert point out, is that no-one is 100% narcissist, 100% of the time! There are small ‘windows’ where the ‘real self’ is present, (this of course adds to the victims confusion and makes the abuse harder to spot). Furthermore, if they were 100% narcissistic 100% of the time, there behaviour would be obvious and they couldn’t get away with what they do. They are consummate actors, and need to look good/perfect.

Why Me?

If you are involved with a narcissist, you are not a partner, boyfriend or husband, you are prey!! They are the ultimate predators and again quoting Melanie, “the lioness has to feed her cubs”, you as the wounded gazelle, split off from the herd, are simply collateral damage, it’s not personal (although I know only too well it feels very personal).

Narcissists hand pick their partners, or rather prey. They seek out those who are emotionally wounded (they can sense it in you – they are very perceptive, almost psychic). They target those who will be devoted, dependent, and socially acceptable (to make them look good). Above all they target those who won’t see through them (at least for a long time) and are controllable. They also tend to target those they can control their feelings for. If at any point the narcissist develops any genuine feelings for you (rare but can happen during the ‘windows’ I referred to) and cannot control them, then their ultimate fear of vulnerability kicks in and their behaviour towards you may well graduate from narcissistic to sociopathic.

Is it deliberate?

Do they know they are doing it?

The jury is out on this one and opinions vary, I think not (consciously)…. Most of the time.

Furthermore there are ‘windows’ of opportunity within the insanity when they recognise what they are doing. However these windows close over very quickly as the defence mechanisms kick in to protect the fragile ego from vulnerability.

Can therapy help a narcissist?

Sadly the general consensus amongst experts is that narcissism is the one neurosis which cannot be successfully treated. This is why most therapists do not in fact understand much about the condition, as there is little point expending the effort learning about it.

Narcissists don’t usually seek therapy, and if they do, they invariably don’t stay in treatment long, or they pick therapist they can seduce – (not necessarily sexually)

How can anyone be like that?

In my experience, narcissists have invariably suffered serious abuse during childhood.

Betrayed by those whom they should have been most able to trust, they decided, at an unconscious level, never to need anyone again. They believe that the closer you allow yourself to get to someone, the more they will hurt you. So it’s a case of kill or be killed.

This is an adaptation developed in childhood to survive.

As Harville Hendrix describes so well, “it is the very adaptations we make in childhood to survive that detrimentally affect us in adult life, especially our relationships”.

Victims of narcissistic abuse also invariably have a history of abuse in childhood although they adapted in the polar opposite direction to survive, that is, to always cling on no matter what, try to be good, loving and treat others well so that they will love you and not leave you.

Hence narcissism is the mirror image of co-dependency.

Are they monsters? No. They are very HURT people who are suffering and sadly oftentimes, hurt people…. hurt people.

What can you do?

In my experience the only hope of recovery from this nightmare is absolutely NO contact with the narcissist, permanently! This is because having done it so successfully before, a narcissist will ALWAYS find a way to poison you and hook you back in, insidiously, silently, invisibly, like toxic waste! If you have children with a narcissist my heart goes out to you as this may involve some very difficult and heart wrenching choices. The only words of comfort I can offer is that your children will undoubtedly be used at times like ‘a gun to your head’ . This is not in your interest, certainly not in the children’s and ultimately not in the narcissist’s, sometimes all you can do is ‘take the gun out of their hands’ for the sake of everyone.

12 Step support groups such as CODA (co-dependants anonymous) can provide valuable support.

You would also be well advised to seek expert help, although regrettably therapist’s with the required level of expertise in this area are very few and far between.

Further reading

The Betrayal bond by Dr Patrick Carnes

Zari Ballard –



By Mr T Roberts

Senior Consultant

Dolphin Psychotherapy Practice

This page was written by Mr T.Roberts, Consultant Psychotherapist. .