Narcissistic Abuse under the Microscope

Vol 10 #10

Caroline Giroux

Author information:

Associate Clinical Professor, Psychiatrist, University of California, Davis Medical Center, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Sacramento, California, USA. [email protected]

As I was watching an episode of the Simpsons, the one on Itchy and Scratchy, I had an epiphany. A psychiatrist from Vienna was dismissing the level of violence that Marge was campaigning against in a TV talk show. As he said that he had been treating far worse ailments than the impact from media violence, the fact that he chose “women who love too much” as a first example, (followed by sex addiction, and fear of winning) startled me, to the point that it took me some time to laugh again with my children. Something felt unfair about this statement. I was brought back over 20 years ago, when after I had extirpated myself from yet another disastrous relationship, realizing that I had a pattern, I found a book (unread) at my mother’s, a book that opened my eyes about my own interpersonal dynamics in intimate partnerships. “Women who Love too Much”, by Robin Norwood.

What struck me the evening of watching the Simpsons, as validating as this book had been in naming my co-dependency tendencies, is how I had let myself once again bear the burden. Again, the focus was on the victim, or the heartbroken one. “The woman who loves too much”, and not “the man (or partner) who loves too little” (I actually looked up this title after writing it down and there is apparently such a book with a similar title but by a different author and it seems to be about unlocking the potential to love and be intimate!). I can now name and marvel at how powerful euphemisms can be in minimizing a behaviour while adding an unnecessary burden to the victim: “do you tend to fall in love with men who are emotionally unavailable?”. I think my journey might have been different if the author had instead said something like “do men who have a hard time showing love tend to be attracted to you?”. Just like saying or writing “Nicole was raped” has a different impact on our narrative than “Ted raped Nicole”. Reframing the dynamic by spelling out the flipped side would have impacted my self-concept differently. Instead of trying to change myself while attending to past wounds (quite a task!), I would have focused on reconnecting with my own well of love, and learned to detect vampirizing dynamics in partners better. When we just contemplate the emotional damage without paying attention to the causal mechanism, the problem is not solved. There should be more books on Covert Narcissism, Neglectful Partners, Non-Reciprocating Partners, Emotional Withholders etc. But by persisting on finding gaps in the victims, we get distracted and the perpetrators continue their insidious damage. It takes the responsibility away from them, but they should be held accountable.

“There is nothing wrong with me.” I started repeating this mantra that evening. Even though I had heard it from great friends, it is only now, after this illuminating line in The Simpsons that I am starting to feel it and deeply believe it. Even though once I understood many years ago how my primary attachment relationships had evolved into unhealthy templates, which didn’t mean there was something inherently wrong with me, I thought that due to adversity, my responses had led me to develop some traits that were not quite right. A hole to fill. A problem to fix.

But now I feel differently. If I have had so many deep, long-lasting and fulfilling friendships most of my life, I should stop beating myself up for other types of relationships that didn’t go well. This shift in attitude took place as I turned progressively my attention to the other side of the issue, a personality sub-type that can take a while to detect but is no less destructive: covert, or “closet” (as opposed to overt or flamboyant) narcissists. The type of men (and some women are too) described in Norwood’s book typically have prominent narcissistic features (lack of empathy, inauthenticity, exploitation of others etc.).

I will be detailing what I wish everyone knew about this often missed personality profile, at the root of subtle abuse and insidious damage. I am talking about predatorial, severe manipulators. They have been given various names, but what is more important to detect is the behaviour. They operate first by seducing their victims (using love-bombing), then they control (through oppression and isolation, by controlling the victim’s activities, finances, beliefs, whereabouts, even self-esteem by denigrating her/him, and eventually making her/him doubt their sanity). The third stage is made of attempts to destroy their victims’ lives, with more and more control (and less and less seduction). They use “variable reward” (similar to gambling) by displaying affection in an unpredictable way, a tactic to get the victim hooked. As opposed to the “garden variety” narcissist we might encounter in our clinical settings, these people have so little insight and empathy that they generally don’t intentionally seek care, and their manipulative behaviour can go unnoticed for a long time, hence generating suffering in more than one victim.

At one point, as I struggled to understand why this happened to me, a friend in a similar situation reframed my existential question. That this happens to them.

An important premise here is that nobody asks for mistreatment. No matter how self-loathing, insecure etc., everyone wants to feel better. The main mistake is putting that task of nurturance into someone else’s hands, especially a person who has deep shame and acts out on it, rather than admitting it.

How does that work? Such a manipulator finds an empath and uses the scripts learned from other empaths to earn the partner’s trust. The predator cannot regulate his own painful emotions well and at the same time cannot stand the positive emotions in others, especially the partner. He/she is possessive, insecure, prone to fragmentation and envy. Once there is a bond created after a seduction phase characterized by love-bombing (superlative compliments, extravagant gifts etc.), the partner shares more vulnerability, providing ammunition to the manipulator, who will even use the empath as an incubator for his own self-concept and a metabolizer of anger and sadness. For instance, the anger in that type of predatorial profile will be projected onto the partner by saying something like “you are angry at me, stop shouting” while in fact the partner is simply anxious or irritated, and the emotion misread, distorted by the manipulator to his advantage. This creates confusion, bewilderment in the victim, who then forcefully protests, looks agitated, only to hear: “See, I told you, you are angry at me, what have I done to you, how can you treat me like this?” etc. Not only are you confused, you are scared, and start doubting your sanity. This abominable strategy is called gaslighting. Another fancy, psychoanalytical term for it is projective identification: a person projects an unacceptable affect onto another person, who in turn unconsciously identifies with it by containing, feeling and even owning it.

But the victim, with her strong empathy, has a sincere need to understand the partner. She cannot see him as an abuser yet. So it can take years of subtle abuse (see list) and bruised self-esteem to realize that one has been cut from one’s true self. She basically doesn’t know who she is, or what she feels, because of the manipulator’s attempts at reprogramming her. “I know you better than anyone else”. She doesn’t remember what she likes or what she’s good at anymore, because her soul and inner gifts have been so often belittled and denigrated, her beliefs attacked, ridiculed. She feels devitalized, emotionally and spiritually wounded.

To prevent the crystallization of the personality under such immature defenses, shame in the future perpetrator must be first acknowledged at a young age, then normalized by compassionate caregivers, and eventually it will be laser-beamed by self-compassion, otherwise it can take monstrous proportions like in The Talented Mr. Ripley, this macabre story about a man who thought it was “better to be a fake somebody than a real nobody”.

Clearly, this task cannot land only on mental health professionals’ shoulders. When it gets to our attention, it is a little too late. This is in fact everyone’s responsibility, especially parents, school teachers, caretakers, even politicians. When we look at the grotesque and frightening proportions this destructive and severe personality disorder can take, we must do something collectively to prevent the regression of our species.

On a larger scale, we need a shift of values and should question the monotheism of success and competitiveness, look at how it affects development and contributes to over-emphasize ego-driven attitudes at the expense of attunement and altruism. We need to practice mindfulness with the intention of letting go of control (of our emotions , and of other people).

Do you know someone who exhibits harmful narcissistic and manipulative behaviours? Maybe you were raised by one. Maybe you worked with one, or married one. Maybe one of the children you raised sounds like the description above. Do not despair. Speak up. Hold perpetrators accountable. Set firm boundaries. Trust your feelings and intuition. Avoid denial and start ensuring you lead an authentic life, by spreading love and compassion. Because authenticity and true love will be to destructive narcissistic behavior what sunlight and garlic are to the vampire.


List 1. How to spot destructive narcissistic behaviour (red flags) and the corresponding victim’s experience of narcissistic abuse


How to spot covert narcissism (red flags)           


1. Rigidity, extreme need to control (remember the abusive spouse in Sleeping with the Enemy)

2. Gaslighting

-Projective identification

-Twisting things around, distorts other people’s words and uses them as ammunition

3. Love-bombing and initial seduction

4. Belittling, contempt, condescension, abrasive remarks

5. Testing boundaries; disregard for others’ wellbeing or emotions

6. Unpredictable mood with anger outbursts; tyrannical attitudes, retaliatory behaviours

7. Uses the relationship to self-regulate (possible addiction to conflict or opposition)

8. Splitting of self (Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde type of personality)

9. No insight (externalizes blame); minimizes actions, makes it into a joke (gaslighting)

10. Absence of mourning;  cognitive empathy (uses scripts, but no heartfelt support); the narcissist will do anything that makes him/her look good and maintain an impeccable social image (moralism); multiple aliases, only a few friends, frequent moves, parallel lives


Examples of corresponding responses or experiences in the victim


1. Feeling suppressed, “suffocated” (might have panic attacks or difficulty breathing as a symbolic somatization)

2. Feeling stunned (“what did just happen”); shock, doubts her/his own reality, feels like she/he is going crazy

3. Under the spell, or feeling undeserving

4. Attempts to over-empathize/understand the narcissist (possible co-dependent traits); gives benefit of the doubt, forgives easily (at first)

5. Physical, emotional, spiritual energy depletion; self-sacrifice; decreased self-esteem and poor sense of self-worth; disconnection from self

6. Fear, panic attacks, dissociation, hypervigilance; nightmares

7. Might be overwhelmed by shame, anger, confusion and not knowing why (because these are the emotions of the narcissist that were projected onto the victim)

8. Confusion, fear, difficulty trusting one’s own perceptions

9. Feelings of invalidation, frustration, perplexity

10. Confusion, grief, feelings of betrayal, living a lie, shame, guilt






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