Have you ever been in a relationship with someone who seems to have very little empathy and/or an excessive need for attention? Someone who reacts to the smallest perceived slight or disagreement with intense rage? Someone who gaslights or puts you down? Or all of the above? If the answer is yes, you may be or have been in a relationship with a narcissist.
A narcissistic personality disorder is a mental health condition where people have an unreasonably high sense of their own importance. They seek attention and have a deep-seated need for approval. While narcissists may appear extremely confident, behind the facade, there are feelings of low self-esteem and extreme sensitivity that can lead to negative behaviors – often directed at their loved ones.
Victims of narcissistic abuse may become depressed, anxious, hypervigilant, ashamed, or even overwhelmed by feelings of helplessness.
Meredith Costa, a guide on the emotional support platform Circles, knows exactly what this feels like first-hand. She not only runs a very successful narcissistic abuse support group on Circles but is a survivor of narcissistic abuse herself.
“I knew nothing about narcissistic abuse until about six months after I left my ex,” she says. “My self-esteem was utterly destroyed by that relationship, and I didn’t know why. I didn’t know terms like gaslighting or recognize what was going on until I began researching narcissistic abuse. To this day, it breaks my heart to hear people come into the group confused and upset about their experiences with their narcissistic partners. It fuels my passion for the work that I do.”
What Are The Emotions That People Navigating Narcissistic Relationships Face?
According to Meredith, people who are in narcissistic relationships often have a sense that something isn’t right but can’t quite pinpoint it. Many narcissistic abusers will use gaslighting to gain control over their partner’s feelings, protect their own egos and make them question their own credibility or things that have happened. They will distort the truth to instill self-doubt in their partners and make them question their own version of reality.
“Gaslighting is meant to be covert. People don’t realize that that is happening. They are being broken down further and further because the abuser is convincing them that everything that is happening is their fault.”
According to Meredith, that is why it is so important for victims to know what to look for and recognize that they are being mistreated. Some of the emotions victims of narcissistic abuse may experience includes:
Self-doubt is a primary emotion that people in Meredith’s narcissistic abuse group experience. Many victims of narcissistic abuse already have a tendency to suffer from low self-esteem, and it’s very easy for a narcissist to play on those emotions and manipulate their partners or friends into submission. “People with NPD target individuals that are already vulnerable,” she explains. “We refer to it as chum in the water. They can smell low esteem a mile away.”
Narcissistic partners may play on insecurities and weaknesses, or invalidate feelings and experiences, which can make their victims doubt their own perception of reality. They may make victims take responsibility for something they are not responsible for or coerce them into doing something they wouldn’t normally do. At times, they may simply resort to humiliation in order to feel superior.
A simple example of this would be to use your own words against you, usually by taking them out of context to suggest that you are contradicting yourself, e.g., “I thought you said,” “You were the one who suggested that…”
Shame and Guilt
Narcissists have an inflated sense of self-worth and feel superior to everyone around them, including their partners. They may also feed off the reactions of others, e.g., when someone gets upset by something they said, they feel reassured that they still have power. They lack the ability to understand or share other people’s feelings, which is a skill needed for any relationship to work.
Narcissistic partners will shame others tactically so that they will put the narcissist first and obey every demand to avoid more shame. They will weaponize shame by chipping away at their partners’ opinions, ideas, identity, and confidence in order to gain the upper hand. For victims that already struggle with low self-esteem, it makes it even harder to set boundaries and fight back. “Many of us were raised to believe that we, in and of ourselves, are not enough. We may not believe that we have the right to advocate for ourselves and set boundaries,” Meredith explains. “Guilt and shame are heavy hitters.”
Partners of narcissists may feel guilty or betrayed because narcissists often begin a relationship by being attentive, romantic, and considerate before beginning to chip away at their self-esteem. They may not understand why things have changed or that the other person’s behavior is abusive because they feel less sure of themselves than they did before.
“Because this type of abuse is so intentionally covert, people who suffer it are equipped to internalize it as their own fault because they don’t understand what is happening. It’s meant to be destabilizing and put the person off and question themselves because it’s all about control,” Meredith explains. “When you are doubting yourself, the control is firmly in their hands.”
Victims may remember the warmth and caring of the person they fell in love with and take on the responsibility for the change in their behavior. “You may find yourself making excuses for them, e.g., dismissing or validating their behavior because they had a rough childhood or are under a lot of pressure.”
Sadness and grief are common consequences of suffering narcissistic abuse. Victims feel isolated and misunderstood. Their abuser’s behavior may have left their self-esteem and sense of worth in complete tatters for years afterward, leading to anxiety and depression. Victims may also become angry with themselves for not recognizing the abuse or taking action sooner. “There is a lot of grief, and people will often ask, “How did this happen to me?”, or “How did I let this happen to me?” It’s not a matter of letting ourselves be abused. We don’t recognize what is happening to us, and people who struggle with low self-esteem often take that responsibility upon themselves,” Meredith explains.
Finding Support as a Victim of Narcissistic Abuse
Meredith believes that having a community of supporters can have a significant impact on your ability to heal. “I didn’t have a group like Circles on my own journey, and it would have made a huge difference,” she says. “Community is essential because people who haven’t been through this type of abuse don’t understand it. The group and community within the group provide support and a place to share stories and receive advice.”
Circles has a number of online emotional support groups that victims can join at any time, including the narcissistic abuse support group run by Meredith. Circles enable users to access support through voice rooms led by peers and experts who have gone through similar experiences. It’s also possible to remain anonymous.
Meredith encourages everyone who suspects they may be in a narcissistic relationship to believe in themselves and to take positive steps toward healing. “Trust yourself and your gut. You are a lot more aware of what’s happening than what you give yourself credit for.”
To learn more and join support groups like Meredith’s, head to www.circlesup.com.