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Narcissistic Abuse and the Symptoms of Narcissistic Abuse Syndrome

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Narcissistic abuse is what a person in a relationship with someone that meets the criteria for narcissistic (NPD) or antisocial (APD) personality disorder experiences. The potentially crippling, life long effects of narcissistic abuse on a partner’s mental health form a cluster of symptoms, not yet included in the DSM, known as narcissist victim syndrome.

Narcissistic abuse

Narcissists** and sociopaths use language in specific ways, with a specific intent to take another’s mind and will captive. The term “emotional manipulation” should be reserved for narcissistic abuse, to avoid risks of falling prey to a narcissist’s ploys to hide themselves, blame-shift and mislabel those they victimize as narcissists.

NPDs and APDs are masters of disguise, and narcissistic abuse is a form of thought control, a specific use of language, designed to emotionally manipulate another person into handing over their mind and will, and thus their thoughts, desires, agency as possessions for the narcissist’s personal gain.

NPDs and APDs use language specifically designed to get their victims to:

  • Question their sanity
  • Mistrust those who support them, i.e., family, parents
  • Feel abandoned, as if only the narcissist cares
  • Feel worthless
  • Give themselves no credit for their hard work
  • Doubt their ability to think or make decisions
  • Disconnect from their own wants and needs
  • Give in to whatever the narcissist wants
  • Devalue their contributions
  • Obsess on their faults or mistakes
  • Ignore or make excuses for narcissist’s actions
  • Spin their wheels trying to gain narcissist’s favor
  • Obsess on how to make the narcissist happy
  • Idealize the narcissist

In present day circumstances, these disordered personalities have advanced their methods with scientific studies on how to emotionally and mentally devastate another person, more often a partner in a couple relationship, to exist in altered mind and body states of powerlessness and helplessness — at least temporarily, until they wake up and come out of the fog.

Narcissist abuse syndrome

A person victimized by narcissistic abuse often comes to counseling, and presents oblivious and disconnected from her own emotional pain and mental anguish. Instead she tends to be obsessed with her own failures, inadequacy, desperately seeking answers on how to solve the specific problems and flaws the narcissist has identified as causes for his misery. He*** may even have given her a list of the expectations she has not met to take with her to therapy, most of which are centered around her not being attentive enough, being too attentive to the children or her family, and not enough fantasy sex.

Her mind is often spinning, preoccupied with trying to sort the confusion — the effects of the use of tactics such as gaslighting and word salad on her mind, with intent to distort her reality and impose his own — seeking an explanation for why the narcissist is so miserable, why he treats her the way he does, why he’s so insecure, why they cannot communicate, why he still doesn’t “get” what she’s trying to tell him, and so on.

The thinking patterns of a victim of narcissistic abuse are often replete with self-blame and self-condemnation. At the start of therapy and even in later stages, for example, she often repeatedly makes statements such as the following:

  • “We really have no problems, just minor things.”
  • “We’re happy and get along most of the time!”
  • “It really is all me.”
  • “Can you fix me please?”
  • “Can you make me stop upsetting him so much?”
  • “I don’t’ want to lose him, can you fix me?”
  • “After what I did, how can I ask him to love me?”
  • “Is there hope for me?”

In addition to repetitive statements, her thinking and words describes the issues she faces with an imbalanced sense of responsibility. For example, that she:

  • Is “failing” to make him feel loved and secure.
  • “Can’t figure out” how to fix herself to stop upsetting him.
  • Can’t blame him for interrogating her, being punitive, moping, ignoring her, yelling, name calling, etc.
  • Did things that “so crushed him” he’ll never get over, even though “it’s minor things.”
  • Doesn’t understand why she resists one or more of his demands, i.e., to agree she’s “crazy” and “needs meds.”
  • Is the cause of his affairs with other women.

In other words, what the victim of narcissistic abuse feels and thinks about herself, life and the narcissist, in most areas, is mirrors to some or greater extent what the narcissist wants her to think, believe, feel.

This is what “emotional manipulation” is, and really looks like. The term needs to be reserved for narcissistic abuse, as it is distinct from the use of language, such as guilting, threats, name calling, shaming, etc., that, while emotionally abusive, most persons use (to include victims of narcissists) to some degree, and most have experienced firsthand in childhood (these practices are unfortunately still widely considered normal in child rearing). Whereas emotional manipulation has aggressive aims to take another’s mind and will captive, emotionally abusive language (also harmful!), is rooted in automatic reactivity that is primarily defensive and protective.

This distinction is also important to disarm the tactics of narcissists who strategizes, covertly and overtly, to hide and blame-shift the labels of “narcissist” and “emotionally manipulative” onto their victims.

Narcissist abuse syndrome exhibits many of the symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), to include:

  • Intrusive thoughts or memories
  • Physical-emotional reactions to reminders of trauma
  • Nightmares and flashbacks (feeling as if event is happening again)
  • Avoidance thoughts, people or situations associated with the trauma
  • Negative thoughts about self and world
  • Distorted sense of blame related to trauma
  • Sense of detachment or isolation from other people
  • Difficulty concentrating and, or sleeping
  • Hyper-vigilance, irritability, easily startled

The nature and effects of narcissistic abuse 

If you’ve experienced narcissistic abuse, understanding the nature of narcissistic abuse, its effects and narcissistic abuse syndrome is critical to healing and restoring your ability to engage in self-care.

The main difference between an NPD and APD is a line the NPD doesn’t cross. Both exhibit no remorse for exploiting and hurting another, however, unlike a narcissist, a sociopath crosses the line from lawful to unlawful exploitation of the other, i.e., physical abuse, financial exploitation, and so on.

In their mind, those in status positions are supposed to prove they’re calloused, show no empathy. In a couple relationship, inflicting pain is regarded a ritual right by both NPDs and APDs alike, akin to hazing practices in exclusive groups for men, i.e., fraternities, secret societies, sports teams.

Both take pleasure in hurting and exploiting others for their own gain — with no remorse. No remorse comes with the territory. Remorse and empathy are for weak, inferior, low status persons.

A narcissist remains weak and fragile, and hooked on proving human love and mutual caring are phony, to the extent that he refuses to acknowledge that he’s human, and every human being is fully equipped with resources and intelligence — and that it’s impossible to control another human being, even children, without high cost to self.

The human brain has mirror neurons. To the extent one feels scorn, hatred, disdain for another, one’s body produces the neurochemical states of mind and body inside themselves. It’s impossible for a human being to seek to intentionally hurt another without hurting themselves.

And staying numb inside is not really living at all. It’s merely existing.

In a paradoxical way, the codependent remains similarly hooked on enabling the narcissist, as narcissist supply.

There is a key difference however! Unlike the narcissist, she has not lost her connection to being human!

She’s lost in a fairy tale illusions that makes her refuse to let go of the belief that, somehow and someday, her love and sacrifice will turn a stone cold abuser into a prince that sees and cares about her feelings.

So, relatively speaking, there’s no comparison! She’s the healthy one, simply because: she yearns to know how to love — that is human, and it doesn’t get better than that!

The real problem, and therein lies the solution, is to break free of “toxic femininity” norms that do not give her permission to love and respect herself, as a necessary foundation love another.

Love is action, judicious action. Genuine love fosters the growth and wellbeing of both self and the other whole beings, capable of giving and receiving love.

Nothing is more important than coming out of the fog and illusions of toxic femininity (codependency) … to feel alive again.


**   The terms narcissist or narcissism in this article refer to persons that fully meet the criteria (as opposed to mere tendencies) for narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) — or its more extreme version on the spectrum, sociopathology or psychopathology, labeled as antisocial personality disorder (APD) in the DSM. These character disorders are serious cognitive disturbances. Unlike other mental health disorders, they predispose persons to intentionally act out their rage and scorn for certain others, in characteristic patterns of behaviors (known as narcissistic abuse). 


****   The use of male pronouns is supported by decades of research showing that domestic violence, sexual assault, rape, mass shootings, pedophilia, and other acts of “false-power” violence are not gender neutral. On the contrary, they are rooted in rigid adherence to gendered might-makes-right norms that idealize “toxic masculinity” for men (and “toxic femininity” for women). These norms also idealize violence and intimidation as means too establish superiority and male entitlements (over females and others, i.e., “weak” males). Though fewer in number, female narcissists do exist, however they too rigidly self-identify with toxic masculinity norms. It’s important to note that, women are often mislabeled as narcissists, as a direct result of a narcissist’s smear campaigns; or they may be groomed accomplices (groomed to serve a narcissist’s interests, a form of narcissistic abuse). See also post on 5 Reasons Narcissistic Violence Is Not Gender Neutral.

Narcissistic Abuse and the Symptoms of Narcissistic Abuse Syndrome

Athena Staik, Ph.D.

Relationship consultant, author, licensed marriage and family therapist, Dr. Athena Staik motivates clients to break free of anxiety, emotion reactivity, and other addictive patterns, to awaken wholehearted relating to self and other. She is currently in private practice in Northern VA, and writing her book, What a Narcissist Means When He Says 'I Love You'": Breaking Free of Addictive Love in Couple Relationships. To contact Dr. Staik for information, an appointment or workshop, visit, or visit on her two Facebook fan pages DrAthenaStaik and DrStaik

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APA Reference
Staik, A. (2020). Narcissistic Abuse and the Symptoms of Narcissistic Abuse Syndrome. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 21, 2020, from


Last updated: 26 Feb 2020
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