Narcissism is a very popular topic these days. There’s no shortage of narcissistic politicians and celebrities who are obsessed with themselves. It is easy to write off their blatant arrogance as comical, assuming it is no big deal.
However, there is a far more sinister reality to narcissism percolating beneath the surface of the grandiose, selfish, or entitled behaviors that have become rampant in society. When a narcissistic individual wields power over another person, there is always the potential for abuse.
It Begins with Control and Trust
A boss, colleague, friend, spouse, or family member can control us in subtle, harmful ways. For most of us, this feels unfathomable. How could someone who supposedly cares about me abuse me? The denial in that question alone is often all it takes for the abuse to begin.
Most of us trust in the goodness of others. We can’t believe they would lie, cheat, steal, bully, change the rules, or otherwise intentionally harm us. The painful truth is that a narcissistic person is so heavily motivated by their own needs that anyone in their path is just a means to their own gain.
Those who are high in narcissistic traits don’t experience genuine love. For them, life is a series of transactions where everyone around them is just a pawn to bolster their fragile egos.
If you happen to be around a narcissist, and you are not fully aware of the dangers of their behaviors, you are primed for their abuse. How do I know? I’ve been through it more times than I’d like to admit – through work relationships, friendships, romantic partnerships, and family connections.
The following six signs finally alerted me to the narcissistic abuse that I needed to heal:
1 – Anxiety / Fear
Our physical bodies are always a mirror of our emotional and spiritual states. As such, anxiety and fear are by far the clearest signs that you are being emotionally manipulated or abused.
In general, anxiety occurs when the nervous system gets so overstimulated that it goes into overdrive. This can happen for physical reasons like hyperthyroidism, if you are sensitive to stimulants, or during an obviously stressful period in your life (i.e., the pandemic, a scary diagnosis, or a loss of finances).
However, if you are feeling afraid or extremely uncomfortable around certain people and in certain situations, that is a clear red flag that something is wrong. If you have grown to dread spending time with the friend who always makes passive-aggressive comments about your appearance, the boss who nitpicks your work or makes promises they never keep, or the spouse who withholds affection and constantly criticizes you, you are probably experiencing situational anxiety that is directly related to the behaviors of others.
Narcissistic people lack empathy, making it very easy for them to bully, insult, or make you do things for them without ever considering your needs or mental health. They don’t care that they are making you anxious. In fact, they probably get a secret thrill out of it because they LOVE to be in control of others. A relationship that has unreasonable expectations is practically guaranteed to cause a conscientious person to feel insecure on an emotional level, which ultimately shows up as anxiety in the body.
Anxiety is a very complicated issue. There isn’t one root cause, but please note when it arises for you. If you can connect it to a person, you must protect yourself by limiting your exposure to that person.
2 – Chronic Health Issues
Like the last point about anxiety, the internal anguish of dealing with a narcissist who plays by their own rules, ruthlessly criticizes or mocks you, is hypocritical, and lacks ethics or empathy is very taxing on the body. The physical distress causes most people who experience this type of abuse to develop chronic health issues. Autoimmune conditions are especially common.
On an energetic level, this makes a lot of sense. Autoimmune conditions like Lupus, MS, Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis, Celiac Disease, and Sjogren’s Syndrome are all examples of when the body’s immune system turns on itself and begins to attack its own cells. Similarly, in emotional abuse, your mind turns on you because the negative subconscious programming inserted by the narcissist’s cruelty makes you believe you are not a good person or worthy of love. Those self-critical messages play on a loop in your head, flooding your mind, body, and spirit with toxicity. It is like you have been poisoned.
Other common health issues that can occur due to narcissistic abuse include digestive problems, IBS, depression, chronic fatigue, high blood pressure, ulcers, candida, and skin rashes. Through these ailments, the body is desperately trying to signal to you that something is wrong.
Again, like anxiety, not all health conditions are going to stem from abuse. But, please consider this as a potential. I have three autoimmune conditions and had battled anxiety for years while living with a narcissistic partner. My health has greatly improved now that I don’t have narcissistic abuse in my life.
3 – Confusion or Brain Fog
Gaslighting is commonly used by narcissists to control and confuse others. The National Domestic Violence Hotline notes that gaslighting, “is an extremely effective form of emotional abuse that causes a victim to question their own feelings, instincts, and sanity. As a result, the abusive partner has a lot of power (and we know that abuse is about power and control). Indeed, once an abusive partner has broken down the victim’s ability to trust their own perceptions, the victim is more likely to stay in the abusive relationship.” [SOURCE https://www.thehotline.org/resources/what-is-gaslighting/ ]
When you have been lied to and manipulated, the obvious outcome is confusion. You literally can’t think straight. The cognitive dissonance of living with two conflicting ideas – the one you believe to be true and the one the narcissist is telling you – is deeply distressing.
It makes a conscientious person doubt themselves. It is so unbelievable that someone would make up bizarre and insignificant lies just to control you. Yet, that is exactly what narcissistic people do.
4 – Feelings of Guilt or Shame
One of the main ways that narcissists abuse others is through guilt and shame. Guilt is believing you have done something bad or wrong. Shame is believing you, as a person, are bad or wrong.
As two of the lowest energetic states we can operate under, guilt and shame are incredibly debilitating and toxic. They leave us feeling helpless, hopeless, and unworthy of love.
The biggest problem with the guilt and shame inflicted on us by a narcissist is that it is always unwarranted. Again, just as they hijack our subconscious minds, they also hijack our emotions through the subtle, dismissive, and repetitive ways in which they put us down.
Sometimes the abuse isn’t subtle at all. A narcissist has no problem telling you that you are a bad person simply because you said “no” to them, or because you accurately pointed out a flaw or an area where they were wrong. They are completely above reproach, but will eagerly project any shame, guilt, or other negative feelings onto those around them.
Over time, this leads a caring person to believe that they are wrong, bad, or shameful simply because they honored their needs and wants. When I left my emotionally abusive marriage, where I had been constantly criticized, mocked, dismissed, and invalidated, I had a tremendous amount of unwarranted guilt and shame. I believed what my husband told me – that I was a terrible person for finally putting up boundaries and walking away.
To most people, this won’t make sense. But, for those who have been through abuse, I know this will resonate. The thing to remember about shame and guilt is that those feelings are only warranted when you have intentionally harmed another person. In all other cases, they are lies that you must learn to actively question and dismiss. You are always allowed to protect yourself and honor your own needs. No one else’s needs or wants are more important than your own.
5 – Inability to Make Decisions
The overwhelming physical and mental distress of narcissistic abuse – the anxiety, poor health, confusion, and guilt – send you into a place of emotional lockdown. This might feel like numbness or as if you don’t even know who you are anymore. This ultimately leads to a fear of making decisions because you don’t want to end up in another abusive situation.
This sign, while scary and seemingly incapacitating at first, is a great opportunity to slow down and assess your life. One of the best ways to prevent ourselves from experiencing further abuse is by being very aware of what is happening around us. If you feel incapable of making decisions, this is also a call to simplify your life as much as possible. That will help you regain your confidence and sense of control.
6 – Hypervigilance
Repeatedly experiencing abuse typically leads us to become hypervigilant of our surroundings. This means we are on high alert all the time.
Empaths and those who are highly sensitive tend to be hypervigilant by nature. Our energy fields are already porous and prone to picking up all the energies and emotions around us. Similarly, people with codependency, who are prone to people-pleasing, also commonly experience hypervigilance. All three types of people are driven to attain harmony and safety, so they have learned to scan their environments for threats. Although hypervigilance serves a very functional purpose, it can lead to anxiety, stress, and exhaustion.
Again, the way to reduce hypervigilance is by making note of the people and circumstances that cause you to be in this elevated state of protection. Learning self-soothing, deep breathing, and other stress-relieving techniques can also help you to live in a more peaceful state.
Narcissistic Abuse is Trauma
In a broader sense, being manipulated or abused by a narcissistic individual can lead you to:
- distrust yourself,
- take full responsibility for all the problems in your relationships,
- over-apologize and blame yourself when things go wrong,
- disregard your own needs and feel guilty for setting boundaries or making simple requests, and
- lose hope for your future.
If any of this rings true, I am so very sorry this has happened to you! I know how devastating the pain and suffering of this type of abuse can be. It permeates all areas of your life, making it hard to experience love, joy, and ease. Life feels bleak, as if there is no relief in sight. Luckily, that is only an illusion orchestrated by a master puppeteer.
The toxic, subconscious programming you have been under is exceptionally difficult to recognize and accept. Yet, once you do see it, you are on your way to healing. This awareness is a powerful first step that will help you reclaim your life.
[This information is based on an excerpt from my upcoming course on healing from narcissistic abuse. UPDATE – 1/7/24 – The Free From Narcissists course is ready! Order this 10-Step Program to Reclaim Your Joy here.]
Help for Narcissistic Abuse
The following resources can also offer relief from narcissistic abuse:
- Working through these free natural healing tools for Mind & Spirit ;
- Reading, “Reclaiming Your Power“,
- Establishing a journaling practice so that you can document and process incidents of abuse; and, if you need extra support,
- Contacting me for Compassionate Coaching.
If you are in immediate, physical danger, please call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-7233. Their website at https://www.thehotline.org is also filled with great resources.
Michelle Gibeault Traub is a health writer, compassionate coach, and the author of Free From Narcissists and Online Dating for Sensitive Women. Her mission is to help women be their best in body, mind & spirit. Sign up for Michelle’s FREE Gifts – The Natural Healing Toolkit and 33 Ways to Add More Joy to Your Life.