Notes From Kristen

What Narcissistic Cruelty Looks Like

How do we describe what narcissistic abuse looks like? There's a cruelty to it that is difficult to define, but is told through our stories. Here's why.

Describing what narcissistic cruelty looks like is extremely difficult because it’s hard to explain exactly what it is in one or two sentences.

In contrast… 

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 types of abuse and some people don’t. Either way, both definitions 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 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 describe what narcissistic abuse looks like?

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. Yet, by its very nature, the abuser can’t interact with others in healthy ways. The abuse itself a patterned part of a way of thinking from which we don’t operate.

To explain what narcissistic cruelty looks like, we have to shift our frame of mind so that we can understand how they think. Otherwise, their behavior seems nonsensical. It is completely counter-intuitive to people who have and desire healthy social bonds with others.


Tell Your Stories About What Narcissistic Cruelty Looks Like

And what does narcissistic cruelty look like exactly? I think it looks something like these moments, as described below.

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 the author 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.

Her husband had invented a secret life for himself over the course of years, telling his wife, the author of the book, that he was a CIA agent who needed to travel frequently with another female CIA agent and their cover story included a fake marriage. None of it was true. It was actually the other way around. It was the marriage that was real and the CIA agent story was false– a cover story for his wife only, to keep her from knowing the truth about his other life.

Not only was he married to both women, he also had several children with both of them. In addition, he was about to face jail time for pending sex offender and fraud charges in a third secret life that the “CIA Agent wife” had just uncovered.

In another story I read online, one woman recounts 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 manifestations of what narcissistic abuse looks like are always so strikingly similar and become illuminated through the telling of stories about what happened when reality crumbles.

These devastating moments illustrate the contrast between what you thought was true and what is actually true. What narcissistic abuse looks like is 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.

Narcissistic abuse is the cold cruelty of betrayal that could only have occurred because the narcissist deceived us about their true intentions or their true nature or both. Because they did not care about how their actions made us feel, and their coldness was like a blade sliding deep into the same heart that moments ago they had cradled in their hands.

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 what narcissistic abuse looks like and how he slowly eroded my sense of self. First, he would deny 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 he would accuse me of being the one to deny, harass and abuse him for having the response. Below is such a conversation.


What Narcissistic Abuse Looked Like to Me: A Story

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.

Him: Ok

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

When You Learn What Narcissistic Abuse Looks Like Your Life Changes Forever

One day everything is okay, and the next it isn’t.

You learn what narcissistic abuse looks like at the precise moment you realize there is more than one of the person you have known all along, and then the trauma begins.

Sometimes that person changes only in your mind as you learn the truth.

Other times they change right in front of your eyes as you see the truth.

And then there are the times when it happens a little at a time and then everything just flips.

It’s can be either in the things they say to you or the things they do that you learn about or both.

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: They rip away the foundation of your reality 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.

It’s crushing.

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 narcissistic cruelty looks like, hidden in the stories of our broken and reconstructed lives.


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Kristen Milstead

Instagram: fairytaleshadows

24 thoughts on “What Narcissistic Cruelty Looks Like

  1. So exact adjectives, phrases…

    Had to stop reading for now.


    May fresh wind fill your lungs

    Socks Daughter

      1. Hi Katy: Sometimes it seems as if they all took the same course in how to be a narcissist! It’s eerie how they even say the exact same things. Thank you for reading the article. -Kristen

  2. Your conversation while on vacation is so similar to conversationS I have had with my narcissistic boyfriend. I know I have to leave, I’m just not ready yet. I’ve lost friends and/or they keep their distance. My N is a functional alcoholic & has physically abused me. People close to me are afraid he will eventually kill me or cause me serious permanent physical harm. I’m a highly educated woman with a good career that got sucked into an unbelievable nightmare.

    1. Hello Jeanne: I am so sorry to hear of what you are going through right now. I am glad you reached out. I feel worried for you. Our stories are very similar. My ex boyfriend also physically abused me although it was infrequent, and I do not talk about this as much. There were times I was scared and feared for my life, and many of my friends abandoned me. I also feel it was at the times he was at peak control and I was at the height of my brainwashed state. I would encourage you to start taking steps to leave immediately. Do you have anyone you can call to assist you or help you make a plan? Kristen

      1. Yes, I do have a good support system in place. I actually have criminal charges against him. He goes to court in May. And I’m sitting here with him right now replying to you. It has become so convoluted between us. I hate what I have aloud him to do to me.

      2. I am very glad to hear that you do have a support system. I hope that you will take some steps to try to get away from him. The best thing I know to do is just to keep reading and talking about what your mind knows to be the truth to be until the switch flips and you know you can do it. I do know how hard it is because of all the ways they twist things inside your mind to keep you there. No one can understand it unless they have been there themselves. Please stay safe.

      3. Jeanne, I made the mistake of keeping in touch with him after the man I was with assaulted me, and it was used against me. If he was charged with assault then there’s a no contact order in place – protect yourself and try to think long term. As someone who was with a Covert Narcissist for 5 years that the no contact phase is hard but it is the only tool that will help you gain your sanity back. My ex boyfriend threw me against the wall so hard that I no longer have my right vestibular nerve and have been in PT for 17 months. I also have cognitive deficits so please please get away from him. Right now I bet he’s being nice but makes jabs about the charges filed against him. I can go on and on but I plead with you to just get out. Disappear. Narcissists are dangerous….

    2. I know exactly what your going through and how you feel. I was in a 5 year relationship with a narcissist. He was a manipulator and a compulsive lair. He would get mad if you didn’t believe his lies or get angry for something he did. He always seen it different when it came from his point of view or actions. He had anger issues that he only would deal with by using his hands. He would break my things, grab, pull or shove me to ground or into things, , pull my hair, grab my face and push down on it. When i immediately afterwards would say something about him putting his hands on me; he would say ” what did i do? I didn’t do nothing to you”. Even after i received bruise after bruise; he would just say ” i bruise to easy and was anemic”. After 4 years being together He eventually broke my ankle and i had to have surgery. I got tired of lieing about what happened and told a nurse that i didn’t feel like talking about it. She contacted a social worker and after talking to her; that was my first time to press charges on him. I had been telling him for years that if he kept on putting his hands on me out of anger that i will call the law on him and he needs to understand that i am being serious. He was arrested after the warrant was issued and bailed out later that night by his friend. The next day, he came home and He basically told me that i was going to the court house to drop the charges. He made sure i was brought there to get it done. He didn’t care that i had a long ways to walk using crutches which was hard for me to do at that time cause i didn’t know how and hadn’t practice using them much. The DA said they were picking up the case and he was charged with simple battery. I told myself the same thing you are telling yourself. You know this isn’t right and will break down in tears after everytime he would hurt me out of anger cause you just keep hoping he won’t do it anymore but its just a disappointment every time. I always would tell myself i cant keep living like this but everytime i would really take leaving into consideration; it wasn’t as easy as I had hoped it would be. I couldn’t let go and accept him not being a part of my life. I literally said; i wouldn’t know how to go through each day without him not being around.” So i continued letting him treat me this way and i called it love. After he put me in a cast for 4 months and couldn’t walk due my ankle; i felt defeated. I walked on egg shells to try to keep him from getting so pissed off so he wouldn’t start an argument or raise his voice at me and having to live like this everyday caused me to sink into a deep depression. I no longer had a backbone to even try to defend myself. He was also abusive sexually. He obviously thought he had some sort of entitlement to it even if i said i didn’t want to but during the time i was layed up for him breaking my ankle; he told me we were going to figure something out cause he wasn’t going without for 4 months. It really discusses me now to think back to every time he told me he needed to; i never would say a thing and always gave him what he wanted and waited for about one minute till he was done and through with me. When i finally got out of the situation for good is when he put a bruise on me while still waiting to go to trial for the simple battery charge. I was sad for a couple days and felt bad that he was in jail cause of me but as the days went on; i began to feel a sense of peace by him not being there which made me not miss him so bad like i thought i would. It felt so good to not get bitched and hollered at everyday for something me or my kids did. I soon realized that i did not want to go back to living like that anymore. I had to pack my things and move into my own place where he didn’t know i would be. A month later he was released and put on probation. I am still broken from all the damage he has left me with. I have alot more anger towards him more than i do any type of sadness. When i would start to feel like i miss him; i had to keep asking myself ” what do i miss about him? The way he would get in my face to scream at me, or the fact he thought it was ok that he physically hurt me in front of my children, or how about how he would steal my money after he spent his paychecks how he wanted to and didn’t even try to help me pay for all our bills on our house and vehicles. It took a long time to see how horrible he really is. The song “Better Man” by little big town can make me feel emotional when i hear it cause like it says ” i wonder what we would of become if you were a better man”. Alot of men do come after a woman if she does or tries to leave the relationship and sadly these women end up killed by their abuser. So your love ones are viewing the situation from that standpoint or it ending that way if you dont ever leave. You really don’t know what they are capable of ya know or how far they actually would go to keep you from leaving and never being with anyone else. I could say that i am one of the few lucky ones that didn’t have that happen to and am just getting into becoming a supportive activist for the domestic violence against women and children program. I am a firm believer that this is definitely not something to take lightly. My heart reaches out for you and other women who are going through this because i know how yall feel and think. Its hard to leave someone you love and alot of people think it’s so easy to do and want to pass judgment for not doing so. Yeah i use to be one of them along time ago. My younger self would of never thought i would tolerate being treated like that and for so many years. I have said enough already but i just want to tell you that continuing to stay and try making it work doesn’t have to be the only option for you cause you or any woman dont deserve to be treated this way. Its not right and abusers dont seem to agree. Some will acknowledge that it isnt but the routine continues to repeat itself. Sometimes it does take time to be able to accept the fact to end the relationship for good and preparing where to go to and the best exit strategy. I think you need to at least have someone you are close to or trust that you can talk to and get support from through it all cause it is hard when it comes down to leaving but you don’t have to face this alone. Having someone there for you throughout the whole process and continuously let you know how brave and worthy you really are; is what is going to help you get through all this. Im going to keep you in my prayers and wish the best for you and your family.

  3. Wow this is typical of a conversation I would have with my ex husband… this actually made me tear up thinking of how I let him destroy everything I was. I left two years ago this month. And I am only now beginning to get back to normal- I mean if that’s even possible after a 6-7 year ordeal of on and off with him. I sincerely pray for all those involved with narcissist partners or even family members… my heart goes out to you. Please escape and don’t ever look back. It took me several tries … but I made it!

    1. Hi Susanne: Thank you for your message. I don’t think anyone who hasn’t been through it can understand what it does to you to be in a relationship like this. It utterly detroys everything about you until you don’t recognize yourself anymore. But you have come so far time-wise from that relationship and it is so inspirational. I am glad that you are feeling like you are able to start getting your life back now too! -Kristen

  4. Was like re-reading something out of my own texts. “I don’t have any answers, I don’t owe you anything”. Gave me chills.

  5. This made me cry. It’s like reading one of the text conversations with my partner/ex-partner (I don’t know what we are at the moment as i’m currently in the midst of yet another bout of silent treatment). We’ve been together on and off for 9 years this year and it’s been like this pretty much from the start. I kick myself constantly for not getting out sooner.

    I really want to be where you are now but I just don’t know how to get there? I don’t have any family to support me and the friends I do still have are bored and frustrated listening to how he mistreats and abuses me. They don’t really understand.

    I don’t want to feel like this anymore.

    1. Hi Emma: I felt so sad reading your words but I feel so much hope for you too because you are here on the Internet reading articles about how to get out and get away and that’s how it all starts. It was definitely one of the hardest things I ever had to do but it is possible. I encourage you to use the silent treatments as time for YOU to build yourself up very strong. Turn your mind away from him when you think of him, imagine that with him gone right now, this is your time to be free and do what you want to. Give him a silent treatment back if you can and start to fill up his absence with your presence! It has to start somewhere. One small step away from him and then you take one more, and someday the steps will get easier to take and he will not be as appealing. I believe in you! Thank you for reading the articles and I hope you have a great evening. -Kristen

    2. Hi, Emma. You are stronger than you know, and you don’t have to feel this way. Get out now and go no contact. It’s the only way to break the addiction. If you don’t go no contact, he will keep inserting himself into your life and the vicious cycle will never be broken. It’s very, very hard at first, but then bit by bit, hour by hour, day by day, it gets easier. He will never change, so unless you’re willing to waste your entire life feeling crazy, angry, insecure, and heartsick, then move out (or kick him out) and stay away from him at all costs. You can do this! Be your own support. There are great web groups out there to help support you, counselors who understand narc abuse, and free support groups that meet in person. I was with my narc for 28 years since I was 16 and I broke free. It takes work. When you distance yourself from the abuse and educate yourself on the tactics they use to abuse you, you’ll get stronger and stronger until you no longer want this toxic person in your life and see his manipulative tricks coming a mile away.

      1. Thank you both, that really means a lot. I’m trying so hard and so far have resisted responding to him. He’s doing everything he can to provoke a response. Friday night I looked out the window and he was sitting outside my house in his van. Today I’ve received flowers and chocolates to my work along with a card saying I Love You, I’m Sorry. None of this is new and I won’t be sucked in by empty gestures and intimidation this time. The fact i’m not responding makes him up his game every time and try harder. I get worn down by it and end up responding just to make it stop. Of course it never stops for long and then the cycle begins again. I’m determined to move forward and stop going back. With every article like yours I read, I feel a bit stronger and more able to do it this time.
        I live in the UK and as far as I know, there isn’t as much specialist support here for this type of abuse. I’ll keep looking though, keep reading and researching.
        I’m so glad I found your site. Thank you Kristen.

      2. Thank you, Emma, for writing about what you’re going through. Your strength is so inspirational. -Kristen

  6. Today is November 22, 2018. My short relationship with my N ended on Monday, October 15, 2018. I had heard the word Narcissist tossed around about him many times, but for whatever reason, I chose not to do any research. On the weekend of October 13 and 14, he actually brought someone in to our home for sexual relations while I was out. I found physical evidence and initially kept both pictures and the evidence. I later returned the evidence as it has no value or use to me. On the Monday, when he proceeded to yell at me and tell me our relationship was done, all the while denying that he had cheated on me. I calmy asked him how that was possible when the evidence says otherwise. Even in the face of evidence, he continued to deny his actions and believe his own lies. It wasn’t until November 1 that I began reading up on N’s, which I should have a long time ago. I have seriously learnt alot and it has dramatically helped my healing process. Of all the articles I have read in the past 3 weeks (at times I’ve had more than 100 tabs open on my phone as I open each next link that I an interested in reading), this is the first one that has brought tears to my eyes. I’ve read, and understood, and related to many, I’ve felt sick to my stomach by some (Toxic Logic by HG Tudor really hurt as an eye opener) but this one, this one I cried. The reason for the tears is because you summed things up so eloquently when you said (and I quote) “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.”

    Those of us who have went thru this will grasp the strength needed to survive, and thrive.

    Thank you for your articles Kristen. I certainly appreciate your openness and honesty


    1. Hello: Thank you so much for sharing what you have been going through. You must be incredibly strong to have come so far in your thoughts in such a short period of time. I can relate to so many of the things you wrote. It is painful to read about narcissism but I feel honesty with ourselves can be the only thing that helps set us free of their influence. You are not alone! Stay strong. -Kristen

  7. This is a brief, but powerful, account of the experience of having a relationship with a narcissist. Compared to my own experience, the genders are swapped, the situation different, the words somewhat dissimilar. What IS captured here, however, is the essence, the nature of the relationship. At its core lurks something truly rotten or disordered–an inequality that has been deliberately served up to one of the partners as an equality. In a narcissistic relationship, it is paramount that one of the parties’ interests be served as a priority. What the other party receives or takes from the relationship is of secondary importance. When that basic mechanism breaks down, the rug can be remorselessly jerked from beneath the secondary partner at any moment. The reason is unimportant. But the second partner instantly feels the rasp of inequality; he or she listens to the narcissist’s words, observes their behavior, and is thrust into the realization that the narcissist was never invested in the relationship in the same way as first portrayed. It’s indeed a rude awakening. Thanks, Kristen.

    1. Yes! Such a well-written description of exactly what happens in these types of relationships. Thank you! I hope you are well.

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