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What is Narcissistic Abuse?

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I previously offered an explanation for why narcissists engage in their abusive behavior, or, more specifically, what narcissists get out of it. For the sake of continuity, I’ll summarize it here. In short, they are incapable of getting their social needs met through traditional means because of the nature of their personality disorder, but their personality disorder enables them to engage in harmful, dysfunctional behaviors to get them met. The behaviors they use alienate them from others and lead to further exclusion from traditional processes, so it’s a self-reinforcing cycle.

So what are these harmful, dysfunctional behaviors that are so alienating, and yet are still adaptive enough that narcissists are able to get their needs met? They are the behaviors that comprise narcissistic abuse. Although they are largely psychological and emotional in nature, to leave it at that is unsatisfactory. Narcissistic abusers often do make use of many of the same emotional and psychological abuse tactics which are already widely known thanks to organizations such as the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. These tactics include things such as humiliation, accusing partners of cheating without cause and monitoring where they go.

Yet these behaviors co-occur and are used in conjunction with additional behaviors that are not as widely discussed and are unique to narcissistic relationships. It is these latter behaviors that actually define narcissistic abuse.  What narcissists do is so distinctive from what other abusers do, it must be identified and highlighted in order to understand exactly how it operates, how it can be recognized, and why its effects are so damaging.  Therefore merely to say the abuse is psychological and emotional is not descriptive enough. 

The key feature of narcissistic abuse that distinguishes it from other types of abuse is the narcissist’s intricate false construction of reality to manipulate people in social and romantic relationships.

How does this actually work?

We can look to financial crimes for a mental construct for understanding this type of behavior. A reporter for the New York Herald first used the term “confidence man” to describe a type of thief who stole money not by taking it from people directly but by gaining their confidence and abusing their trust so that they willingly handed it over.

The same blueprint can be applied to narcissists who are interested in the emotional, interpersonal and social rewards that come with manipulating others. They are “confidence men and women,” or con artists, who figure out how to gain the trust of the people from whom they want something: they develop a set of false selves that they present to each in turn and maintain with a series of lies.

When narcissists meet someone who has a particular quality or resource that they desire or covet, they will learn what it is that they must become in order to extract what is desired from the other person. Then they will build a persona directed at that person in order to obtain it. A narcissist may develop several false selves at the same time that they maneuver between simultaneously, keeping all of them and everyone compartmentalized. If people that are connected to different personas know or learn about each other, what they are told will be lies and half-truths as the narcissist figures out how to work them into each narrative in ways that will make sense to everyone else in it but will not threaten the roles he has designed for everyone in the elaborate universe.

What this means is that none of these people actually know who the narcissist really is because he or she has constructed a separate reality for each person, a distinct life that is a false world that only benefits the narcissist.

That’s a little mind-blowing if you actually think about it from a big picture perspective.  But when you zoom in and think about it from the perspective of even just one of the people who has been manipulated into the universe, when cracks inevitably start to show and lies start to unravel, when one of those worlds start to crumble and then fall apart totally, it can unseat a part of the identity of that person who lived in that world.  Reality was not real.

Watch lifecoach Richard Grannon use the film Inception to describe how this happens in narcissistic abuse below.

(I recommend the entire video, but the part I’m referring to if you are rushed for time is from about 4:00 to 12:30)



He also makes the point that unless you have been through it, it sounds over-dramatic.

It does, doesn’t it?

I used the term mind-blowing, but, yes, I’ve made the “over-dramatic” point too.  We have a schema for serial killers and mass murderers and even people who swindle unsuspecting people out of their life savings, but not people who just make up false selves in interpersonal relationships.  We have almost no words to describe it. We have stories, fables, and archetypes, but those are entertainment. 

I, too, once believed that without a crime, there was no such thing as a sociopath.

Just being able to explain what happened to you if you’ve been through it to someone who hasn’t is something many survivors feel they are never able to do. And if you are unable to do that, it’s difficult to explain almost anything else about narcissistic abuse, such as, in a nutshell:

  • how you ended up in the relationship in the first place (you were tricked by someone who wanted something you had)
  • why you love or miss someone who caused you so much pain (you fell in love with someone who wasn’t real)
  • why you had such a hard time leaving or kept re-entering that world so many times (you weren’t in your own reality, didn’t know it, and because of that you were just no match for the psychological abuse tactics used on you)
  • why you weren’t acting like yourself (your identity was eroded)
  • why you thought or talked about the relationship so much (you were trying to figure out what was real)
  • why you can’t just go back to the person you used to be (your concept of humanity has been altered and you’ve had to figure things out)


So let’s keep hashing this out until we can put some words to it.  We don’t need to keep their silence or live in their worlds anymore.


Kristen Milstead

Kristen Milstead is a narcissistic abuse survivor who has become a strong advocate for finding your unique voice and using it to help others find theirs.


  1. Hi Kristen me again, I forgot to add that his reasons for no longer loving me was that I didn’t trust him, I was clingy, I was on anti depressants, I didn’t appreciate all he did for me. After the divorce I again ended up in a clinic. I am being treated for PTSD. And I’m sure I’ll remember more soon. He also treats me like a total stranger, a work colleuge.

  2. Hi Kristen I was with my ex for 14yrs, 9 of which we were married. In the first 5 yrs he had a cyber affair with an ex girlfriend in another province. He then promised it would never happen and and begged me to marry him. 4_5 yrs down the line he had an affair with my assistant, he swore he never slept with her but not before telling everyone I was mad, including the marriage coyncellor who believed him. It took a year to get the whole story out of him and only because I kept finding out new things. I then had a breakdown and ended up in clinic for 2 weeks. Again lots of promises, he even had a new very expensive wedding ring made for me.
    He did a lot around the house and always spoilt me. He never used me for money. Then we joined a gym and every time I arrived he was always talking and laughing with the women. Because of the affair I took him on about this, but from then on things just got worse until he left on the 4th March this year, he came home told me he didn’t love me anymore and that he was leaving, which he did. He divorced me on the 20th March and moved in with a woman the beginning of April. He swore blind that he had never lied to me so ce his affair with my assistant. What I have since found out is that he was talking to numerous other woman about our problems, lied about his girlfriend when my granddaughter saw her name on his phone, he called a 9yr old a liar. We were also vegans and very involved in animal rescue, we adopted 5 huskies and 3 cats together. When he left, he is no longer a vegan, doesn’t ever ask how the dogs are. And cut my whole family off, including his 9yr old step granddaughter. I have asked him why but he just says he needed a break. I unfortunately work with him. He and the girlfriend are now engaged. But he told our boss that they had broken up.
    Is this narcisstic behaviour

  3. This is excellent. Those last six points are exactly it. I had a narcissistic therapist. It resulted in my divorce after a long and happy enough marriage. I was love bombed and then made utterly crazy by her tactics.

  4. What people fail to understand is the level of commitment narcissists will undergo in order to construct their “false self”. I was in a relationship with this man for 6 full months before I saw the first sign of who he really was. Up to that point he had been unfailingly charming, attentive, sensitive and loving. He had utterly convinced me he was the dream partner I had been seeking all my life. And I had fallen head over heels in love with him in a way I never had before with any man, including my husband of 14 years and father of my 3 children. I was blissfully happy with him beyond anything I could have ever imagined possible. And then one evening he was driving us to a local restaurant to have dinner and I said, “My friend Shannon called me earlier and said she wanted to go out tonight but she had been drinking and didn’t want to drive so she asked me if I would come and pick her up later and drop her off at the bar. So I may need to leave for about 15 mins after dinner to go and get her.” It seemed like such a reasonable request that it never even occurred to me that anyone would take issue. But he lost his shit! He turned to me with pure rage and hatred in his eyes and said, “We made plans to spend time with each other this evening and now you’re going to take off and pick up your drunk friend in the middle of our date?! Fuck you, this is MY time and if you don’t respect me enough to make me a priority then go do what you need to do without me!” Then he did a squealing U-turn in the middle of the highway and goes right back to his place. I was totally shocked by his reaction and based on how reasonable and perfect he had been up until now I thought I must have unknowingly committed some terrible crime in order for him to behave this way. I immediately began falling all over myself apologizing. “I’m so sorry! I’ll call her right now and tell her I’m not coming.” All the while crying my eyes out and begging him not to be upset with me. I should have saved my breath because it had ZERO effect. He pulled up in front of his apartment, reached over me to open the passenger side door, and said, “Get the fuck out!!” I pleaded with him to calm down and let’s talk about it but he was having none of it. He said either I got out on my own or he would drag me out. I finally stepped out of the vehicle and the moment my feet hit the curb he hit the gas and sped off. I tried to call and text him over and over with no reply. I was an emotional wreck! He went 2 full days without acknowledging I existed while I laid in my bed and cried my eyes out. When he finally did contact me he offered no excuse or apology. His whole attitude screamed, “You’re damn lucky I’m even talking to you after the shit you pulled”. I was so grateful to have a second chance I welcomed him with open arms and never even brought up his appalling and disrespectful behavior. From that moment on he had me. This man had proven himself for 6 months to be a decent, kind, and reasonable human being so obviously I had done something terrible to bring out this monster, even if I couldn’t figure out what it was.
    That’s narcissistic abuse.

    1. Kristen Milstead

      Exactly! I could empathize with that story, and I’m so sorry for what you’ve been through. That exact moment when something happens and whatever it is, you know it’s absolutely not normal and it’s beyond your comprehension. But you’re in such shock and you have no frame for understanding it. So when they come back, the only way you have of understanding it is to put it behind you, take on the responsibility so it will “go away,” and decide it was a one-off. After that, you’re right, they have you, and as the abuse continues, you start to lose yourself and your ability to even think coherently anymore and they have the control, yet they are able to make it appear as if they are victims. It’s so twisted. Thank you for sharing your story. I hope you are out now and on your way to recovering from the relationship. -Kristen

  5. Hi,

    After his hoover i went back for the … time and tried the relationship again. Yesterday he ended it again. The first weeks of the relationship it felt good. He didnt put pressure on me and was understanding and nice. Then he slowly started to pull me into his life again. Started complaining again about all of his troubles, wanted me to help with this and that and i started to feel the pressure again. Because i’m becoming more aware of whats happening i tried to keep my boundries but he got mad about that and wasnt so understanding anymore. He blames me for everything and i feel guilty. He puts me down and belittles me. In a way its very clear to me but i still feel guilty and insecure. What could i have done different and is he wright about me…All those questions go through my mind and i’m tired of fighting and feeling so bad about myself. It keeps me in a state that doesnt help me to get over this.
    I hope there are readers who have suggestions or regonize what i’m going through because wright now i feel alone and blaming myself.


    1. Kristen Milstead

      Hi Jacky: I just sent you an E-mail in response to your message. Maybe others can offer some advice and insight as well. Try to have a good day today and take care of yourself. You don’t deserve this and it is not your fault.

      Take care,

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