Disclaimer: In my healing journey, I have done a lot of reading on narcissistic abuse. However, I cannot diagnose my abuser, and I have no knowledge that he has been diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder. What I do know is I have found my research to be enlightening and helpful for recognizing and understanding much of the psychological abuse that I endured. I believe that knowledge is power, so I am writing this piece to share what I have learned about narcissistic abuse in the hopes that it may help anyone reading this identify this kind of mistreatment in their lives, especially because so often victims of this type of abuse are left blaming themselves.
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There’s that cliché where the adults ask the child to “point to the place on the doll where he touched you.” The idea is that a child may not have the words or knowledge to say, “he sexually assaulted me,” “he raped me,” “vagina,” “penis.”
This deficient vocabulary exists, I have found, even in adults when it comes to psychological abuse and in particular, narcissistic abuse, which is a somewhat formulaic kind of abuse often enacted by individuals with narcissistic personality disorder.
To summarize my understanding of NPD, traits that are often exhibited by those with the condition are a lack of empathy, feelings of superiority to others, a belief that they are better than most and can only be understood by others who are also “special,” a tendency to exaggerate their own achievements, entitlement, taking advantage of others in order to accomplish their agendas, arrogance, and attention-seeking behavior.
Based on this, I suspected my abuser may be a narcissist. I read a book called Becoming the Narcissist’s Nightmare: How to Devalue and Discard the Narcissist While Supplying Yourself by Shahida Arabi, which is where much of the information in this blog post came from. Reading that book expanded my personal dictionary and opened my eyes to the reality of what I endured.
One of the first new words I learned from this book was “triangulation.”
Triangulation is an abuse tactic where the narcissist instigates jealous behavior in their victim by introducing others into the relationship. This can be done by openly flirting with others in front of their victim, by engaging in sexual activities with others, by comparing their victim to others, etc. My abuser was very overt in his utilization of this tactic: He would literally tell me all the time which of my friends he found fuckable (nearly all of my female friends), that he fantasized about having sex with my sister, etc. Realizing that there was literally a word that described this behavior was an absolute revelation to me; it helped to kickstart my journey to understand my abuser and the extent of what he did to me and be able to release any blame I still placed on myself.
Triangulation has several impacts on a victim which are desirable to a narcissist. It lowers the victim’s self-esteem, and it causes them to feel they are in competition for the narcissist’s attention and affection, inspiring them to put in even more effort to maintain the narcissist’s approval. It provides the narcissist with ammunition to later ridicule the victim for their jealous behavior while making them feel crazy for doubting the narcissist’s faithfulness. It puts the narcissist on a pedestal, as if to say, all these people are lining up at my door because I’m so special and awesome. It reinforces this delusion that the narcissist is, in fact, super desirable. It reinforces the narcissist’s mask.
Narcissists tend to be charming, and while they don’t experience many deep emotions, they are able to observe and understand how others experience emotions. As a result, they become masters of mirroring the people around them. Their entire personality, interests, and outlook can shift from person to person, and they do this intentionally in order to manipulate the people around them. I was able to recognize this in my abuser simply by talking to others – something he tried to keep me from doing. By hearing their accounts of their interactions with him, it became surprisingly obvious that with each individual, he told a different story and wore a different mask in order to gain our trust and ultimately get what he wanted out of us.
For example, when grooming me, he would tell me about how good his relationship with his girlfriend was. I considered her a friend and I cared about her. When he pursued me sexually, he used this story along with my low self-esteem to his advantage; he explained that I was just so special that even though his relationship was perfect, I was worth risking it all for. He was laying a foundation for me to rely on his opinion of me for self-worth and to feel indebted to him for seeing me as so valuable.
On the other hand, another girl he cheated on his girlfriend with has told me that during the same period of time he was relaying tales of a marvelously happy relationship to me, he was telling her the opposite. He complained about his girlfriend to her. He made it seem like he was dissatisfied and that its end was imminent. That way, when he attempted to pursue her, she might not feel bad for the girlfriend.
Narcissists are often pathological liars. They manipulate emotions of others to catch them in this cycle of abuse. The cycle generally has three major phases: idealization, devaluation, and discard.
THE IDEALIZATION PHASE is commonly known as lovebombing. This is where the narcissist grooms their victim, builds a trusting relationship. They give their victim attention, they learn their secrets, often by confiding in the victims themselves. In her book, Shahida Arabi writes, “In a narcissist’s idealization phase, you’ve never felt better: you feel beautiful, loved, cherished.”
Lovebombing can be extreme and a red flag in itself. It can look like that relationship that moves a little too quickly; huge, grand gestures of kindness. However, it is often indistinguishable from a genuinely good relationship; after all, it is the narcissist’s goal to become indispensably important to the victim and to win their loyalty, trust, and love. It is in the idealization phase where the victim falls for a narcissist’s mask, and they go on believing the mask is the real person even when they are being mistreated.
Some narcissists use sex in the lovebombing phase; some victims of narcissistic abuse have described the sex with the narcissist as the best sex they have ever had, and this is another way the narcissist keeps their victims holding on. Then, in the devaluation phase, the narcissist may withhold sex as a means of punishment and give it only as a reward.
THE DEVALUATION PHASE is where the mask starts to slip and the narcissist starts to show their true colors. They degrade and humiliate their victims, often playing the cruel things they say off as jokes. My abuser masked most everything he did with laughter. He would pin me down with the weight of his body and try to tear my clothes. I would beg him to stop and give him my reasons why, but he would ignore me and laugh, giving off the feeling that this was a joke and I was somehow in on it.
In the devaluation phase, the narcissist takes the insecurities and secrets they learned about their victim during idealization and uses the same against them. This can come in the form of subtle put-downs, condescending remarks, name calling, the withdrawal of attention and affection. Stonewalling is very similar to the silent treatment. The narcissist may employ this tactic when their victim tries to call them out on their behavior, as a form of punishment, or plainly for the sake of passively reminding their victim how little the relationship really means to them.
The effect of stonewalling is that the victim becomes used to a sense of instability in the relationship, and they may feel they’ve done something to warrant punishment. They may subsequently fear saying the wrong thing, disobeying the narcissist, or doing anything to cause them to once again withdraw their affection, so the victim may work harder to keep the narcissist pleased. At this point in the relationship, the narcissist will have convinced their victim that they need the narcissist; the irony is that it is actually the other way around.
Narcissists do what they do because they have a need for narcissistic supply. Narcissists lack an ability to truly connect with others, and as a result they experience a deep, chronic boredom. Their personality is founded on the concept that they are better than others, and they require constant admiration to help sustain this facade (unlike sociopaths and psychopaths who do not need admiration and instead inflict similar abuse purely for their own enjoyment.) They are sadists, and exerting power and control over others is food to them. Without supply, narcissists can experience meltdowns which are referred to as narcissistic injury and narcissistic rage. This lack of supply threatens the narcissist’s self-image and can manifest in erratic conduct, disproportionate anger, outbursts, and passive aggressive behavior. Because of their need for supply, when they are finished, or finishing, with one victim, they often quickly move on to the next one.
During devaluation, the narcissist will give their victim the lowest possible amount of attention to sustain the relationship at any given time. This will include spurts of kindness reminiscent of lovebombing, which keeps the victim believing that the “true” person is kind; it creates and strengthens the trauma bond, which is essentially a physiological addiction to the abuser; and it keeps the victim hoping and believing the narcissist’s treatment isn’t so bad or that they can change. In reality, narcissists tend to be very resistant to change. It is extraordinarily rare that they actually do.
Between disparaging and humiliating the victim, the narcissist will use gaslighting to minimize and deny the existence of any abuse. The narcissist’s goal in gaslighting is to get the victim to doubt their own instincts and perceptions, which might indicate that what the narcissist is doing is abusive. The different “realities” a narcissist may try to encourage are cleverly portrayed in “A Narcissist’s Prayer”:
Narcissists use gaslighting to rewrite history. Because the victim begins to distrust themselves, they become more vulnerable to the narcissist’s lies. Gaslighting is a tool which allows the narcissist to treat their victim’s mind as literal silly putty. Whatever the narcissist wants the victim to believe or not believe, gaslighting is the method of choice. They distort reality by claiming things happened that did not and vice versa. They will deny they have committed bad acts. The narcissist will repeat their story until the victim finally learns to intrinsically second guess their own credibility. They will say and do things to intentionally upset the victim, and then accuse them of overreacting. They will get their victim to apologize to them. They can get their victim to a place of such profoundly low confidence that they don’t even question the ever-changing narrative of the narcissist.
Devaluation is also where a victim may experience triangulation. Thus far, the tactics discussed have all been forms of psychological and emotional abuse. Their effects are extremely damaging. They can cause PTSD and c-PTSD. They can create trauma bonds which make it feel impossible for a victim to leave the narcissist. Many narcissists will not physically or sexually abuse their victims, and that does not mean the damage they cause is any less severe. The damage caused by narcissistic abuse is very real.
That being said, some narcissists do physically and/or sexually abuse their victims. Narcissists are sadistic in nature, so they enjoy causing harm. They also have a tendency towards reckless behaviors, including excessive use of drugs and promiscuous sexual behaviors. Sam Vaknin, an outspoken diagnosed narcissist, shared an insight that somatic narcissists “use other people’s bodies to masturbate” rather than having sex. Narcissists do not care about the needs or feelings of others, so if it doesn’t self-serve in some way, they won’t do it, and they won’t care. It is unsurprising, then, that narcissists are more likely to commit rape than non-narcissists.
There are two general ways to categorize narcissists: somatic narcissists and cerebral narcissists. Cerebral narcissists fixate on their knowledge and intelligence. They see themselves as smarter than others, and they will brag mainly about their academic and professional achievements. They may use overly complicated language to show off. It is not uncommon for cerebral narcissists to be disinterested in sex.
On the contrary, somatic narcissists fixate on their physical assets. They pride themselves on their appearance. To quote learning-mind.com, “A somatic narcissist will brag about his or her sexual conquests,” and I quote that because it is a sentence that so accurately portrays my abuser that it’s almost unbelievable. Somatic narcissists are highly sexual, and they may go to extreme lengths to attain a physique they find suitable, including plastic surgery and steroids.
THE DISCARD PHASE is when the narcissist ceases the relationship with their victim. There are several reasons theorized for why the narcissist discards when they do. They may do so if they feel their victim has started to catch on to the abusive nature of their behavior. They may just be tired of their current supply and ready for the next one.
One theory involves why the narcissist selected the victim they did in the first place. Narcissists tend to gravitate towards vulnerability – people with a history of abuse or trauma and people who lack a solid support network, for example. They also target highly empathetic people, partially because empaths are more likely to project their own feelings and good intentions onto the narcissist, making them easy to manipulate and harder for them to recognize the narcissist for who they truly are.
But one other thing that narcissists sometimes go after are people who they do deem genuinely unique, gifted, talented. Narcissists experience pathological envy of people like this, people who can feel all these deep emotions and who are good at what they do, because people like this are everything the narcissist wishes to be but cannot become. Because of this envy, narcissists seek to destroy those people who threaten the notion that no one is better than them. Once they feel they have accomplished that, they may feel ready to proceed to the next victim.
Conversely, narcissists may feel initially that their victim was worthy of their company, only to later recognize their humanity and imperfection and no longer wish to keep them around, thus the discard. Either way, the discard tends to be done in a way that leaves the victim hurt, ashamed, and likely questioning what they did wrong, while the narcissist will legitimately feel nothing. They do not feel any sort of sadness or loss. They do not care about their victims.
The narcissist may swiftly and completely disappear from the victim’s life following a discard. However, often the abuse does not end there. Narcissists may run a smear campaign, spreading rumors and putting the victim in a bad light, often portraying them as crazy so that no one will believe them if they tell others about their abuse.
Because narcissists tend to be charming, they are often able to develop a group of supporters called their harem. The harem exists to bolster the narcissist’s reputation, to stroke their ego. Essentially, the people in the harem are enablers of the narcissist’s behavior. Sometimes, the harem goes the extra mile and contributes to the smear campaign. These individuals who are used as an extension of the narcissists to further the narcissist’s abuse and lies are known as flying monkeys.
One red flag that someone may be a narcissist is if they describe their exes as crazy. Besides furthering the smear campaign of their former supply, this also sets the victim up not to give any weight to any concerns they may hear about directly or indirectly from the ex. Narcissists sometimes do put their exes up on a pedestal, as well, though.
After the discard, there is often no return of the narcissist. However, some narcissists do make a reappearance in their former victims’ lives; this is referred to as hoovering. A narcissist may sense that they have lost control of their victim and seek to get it back. They may claim they miss their victim to accomplish this goal. Narcissists also sometimes hoover if they see their former victim seeming to be doing very well, such as after getting a new job, getting married, etc. If they are successfully welcomed back into their victim’s life, the abuse cycle will almost certainly continue.
One final term that I haven’t managed to squeeze into this essay is pity ploy, and it seems appropriate to me to save it for last anyway. So many of these terms, including this one, were behaviors I had described having had no idea they were directly abusive or that they were commonly utilized methods of abuse. I remember when giving my second statement to the detective when I was reporting my rape, I mentioned how my abuser would often respond to my concerns with sob stories about himself and how hard his life is, and that’s exactly what pity ploys are. They divert the conversation away from any issues the victim may wish to address and instead take full advantage of the victim’s empathy for the narcissist. Pity ploys may cause the victim to feel guilty for even bringing up complaints, since the narcissist is “clearly” going through enough.
I hope that if you’re still reading that you found this knowledge as valuable as I did and validating if you’ve experienced this or something similar. The damage that narcissistic abuse and/or psychological abuse causes can be significant, but healing from it is entirely possible. Although healing is not a topic I discussed here, there is plenty of information out there about how to heal, so if this has resonated with you at all, please read more. The main purpose of the book I mentioned at the beginning is how to heal from this abuse, and I recommend it extremely highly. There are also support groups online and I’m sure in person, very helpful YouTube videos, and more.
I know this was a long post and a lot of information. I hope that it becomes common knowledge, that by recognizing it others can avoid investing too much time into these relationships, and that those who have been subjected to this abuse will feel liberated after learning it.
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If you are interested in learning more about narcissists and narcissistic abuse, there is an extremely well done documentary series on a narcissistic YouTuber called The Unmasking of a Narcissist made by Norvegan. It has helped many people identify narcissists in their lives and I highly recommend it.