Describing narcissistic abuse is extremely difficult because it’s hard to explain exactly what it is in one or two sentences.
We all have a shared definition of physical abuse that says something about the intentional infliction of bodily harm on someone for the purposes of controlling them.
We also have shared definitions of psychological and emotional abuse. Some people separate the two and some people don’t, but both basically revolve around acts of verbal aggression or non-physical hostility that result over time in the loss of self-esteem or ability to trust one’s own mental thought processes.
Narcissistic abusers use emotional and psychological abuse tactics– yet not all psychological and emotional abusers are narcissists or abuse people in narcissistic ways.
So what’s the difference? How do you define narcissistic abuse?
It’s not easy… if you can find a way to put language to it, it either sounds too abstract to be useful as a definition, too outrageous to be believed, or too inconsequential to be destructive.
There’s a reason for that! It’s because we’re trying to understand it from the perspective of a non-disordered person, but by its very nature, it’s inflicted by a person who can’t function in healthy ways so the abuse itself a patterned part of a way of thinking from which we don’t operate. To explain what they did, we have to shift our frame of mind to understanding how they think, which seems completely counter-intuitive to people who have and desire healthy social bonds with others.
Tell Your Stories
In the book, The Bigamist, the author writes about getting a phone call one day from a woman who asked to speak to “Mrs. Jordan.” When she affirmed her identity, the caller then said, “I am the other Mrs. Jordan.” The writer then describes how her life with her husband of fourteen years unraveled. He had told her that he was a CIA agent who needed to travel frequently with another CIA Agent, and their cover story included a fake marriage. None of it was true. He was married to both women and had several children with both and additionally had pending sex offender and fraud charges for which he was about to face jail time due to offenses committed in some of his other lives.
Another woman recounts online the moment when she realized that the boyfriend she was living with at the time and with whom she was planning marriage was a narcissist. He texted her to let her know he would be getting off work early and wanted to take her to dinner. He took her to a doctor’s appointment first and was loving and supportive throughout, then they went to dinner and had fun laughing and talking as always. Afterward, at home, he looked her in the eyes and told her coldly that she wasn’t religious enough for him, he had quit his job and was moving away the next day. He had already packed up all of his possessions into a moving truck.
Whether you were together six months or three decades, whether you’re a woman or a man, whether you had no children together or ten, whether you were also physically harmed by this person or they did not use physical abuse as a means to control you, the devastating and dangerous effects of narcissistic abuse are always the same and become illuminated through the telling of stories about what happened when reality crumbled.
What stories about our devastating moments of realization with narcissists illustrate is how the harm that is specific to narcissistic abuse is the contrast between what you thought was true and what is actually true. It’s the cruelty of knowing that someone can look you in the eyes one minute as if the relationship is real and knowing that you believe it to be so, and yet carry out the most savage acts of betrayal at the very same time.
I have not only the memories but hundreds of thousands of text messages between my ex-boyfriend and myself. Reviewing them now feels surreal. They play back brutal and baffling conversations word for word that used to shred me internally in real time and then later re-traumatized me to read. Now they serve as the instruction manual for how he slowly eroded my sense of self, by denying me any interaction that would dignify my feelings and needs or even allow me to have a reasonable, human response to horrific cruelty and abuse, and then accusing me of being the one to deny, harass and abuse him for having the response. Below is such a conversation.
Days before this conversation took place, I found out that he was cheating on me with several people. He coerced me into going on a trip that we already had planned by saying he wouldn’t move out of the apartment we shared together or let me move out without holding me accountable for my share of the rent unless I went with him anyway. I was in shock at everything that had happened and having trouble processing all of the lies, abuse, and callousness, in contrast to the person and relationship I’d known less than a week earlier. He had been the love of my life.
On this day, we were sitting in the hotel dining room having breakfast, and when tears came to my eyes, he threw his napkin into his plate in disgust, stood up and walked out. He texted me a few minutes later.
* * * * *
[Please note that the following conversation contains explicit language]
Him: Thx for ruining it
Me: ______, what do you expect? You are being cold and I have nothing to take my mind off what’s happened.
Him: U fucking ruin everything, I can’t even eat in pc or fucking go to sleep
Me: I’m in so much pain I can barely breathe.
Him: Then call 911
Me: We’re here together all the time and there’s no one to talk to. You’re being cold and it hurts even more.
Him: Well I’m not going to talk to you because all you do is fucking cry and bitch why I did this or that
Me: I just wanted kindness and maybe thirty minutes of explanation of why you did it all. Then I could get myself together, but everything is just hanging out there right now.
Him: You do need to get yourself together cuz I don’t need this shit in my life
Me: You’re ridiculous for thinking I’m not going to be in a huge amount of pain. I loved you. Or who I thought you were.
Him: I don’t have to explain anything to you
Me: No you don’t. But you said you loved me, so I was just asking that part of you that did to tell me. Give me that one last thing, so I could go on these last few days.
Me: That’s all I wanted from you. That one piece of kindness.
Him: Well I can’t do it. I’m sorry. N I don’t want this shit
Me: I didn’t want any of this shit. Why can’t you?
Him: Cuz I don’t want to that’s why. Ur my ex. Get this in ur head n don’t ask me shit
Me: Are you serious? I was a good faithful girlfriend to you… Not perfect, but I loved you and you lied to me and cheated on me over and over. I asked you because I wanted you to be kind, as someone if you had human decency.
Him: Well, I’m not going to be kind when all you do is fucking cry and ruin everything
Me: All the plans we made meant nothing. They were a lie…
Him: Yes they were
Me: It will take me a little while to completely understand that and let it sink in. You have to see that surely.
Him: Think what you want. I do not give a fuck
Me: Did you ever love me?
Him: I don’t want to answer any of your questions. It’s fucking 9 am n u already ruined my day. This is so you. Ur such a bitch
Me: You are in control of yourself. You decide if your day is ruined or not.
Him: That’s all you fucking do n ur good at it too
Me: That’s what made me cry.
Him: I do not care what made you cry. If you want to cry then cry but I don’t want to see it
Me: You told me last night that I could ask you questions. So when is a good time?
Him: Well I don’t have to answer shit
Me: Why then did you say you would?
Him: Cuz I wanted you to fucking stop talking that’s why. All you want is answers and guess what, I don’t have them so you better stop cuz ur ruining this vacation
* * * * *
The trauma starts to take place at the precise moment you realize there is more than one of the person you have known all along. Sometimes that person changes only in your mind as you learn the truth. Sometimes they change right in front of your eyes as you see the truth. Sometimes it happens a little at a time and then everything just flips. Yet when the switch happens, it is the equivalent of:
- learning you have been living in the Matrix
- floating in the middle of an ocean and suddenly seeing a shark fin swim by
- jumping out of an airplane and discovering your parachute won’t open
- waking up in the hospital and learning you’ve been in a horrible accident and will never walk again
To summarize: The foundation of your reality is ripped away at the very same time that you realize you’re not at all safe. And you also suddenly know things will never be the same as they once were. You are never going back. You’re lost.
The psychological transition period your brain must undergo to adjust to the new reality and navigate with no safety net is your test of how strong you can become.
You will crawl through a seemingly endless wasteland, exposed to their elements, caught and laid bare, while they circle around you picking at every insecurity and feeding on every dying crumb in every crevice so that there is nothing left before they go.
If they can. Unless you find the strength amidst the devastation to leave first.
This is what cruelty by a narcissist looks like, hidden in the stories of our broken and reconstructed lives.
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