It’s often difficult for victims of narcissistic abuse to recognize it for what it is and make sense of their experience. There are many reasons for this. I’ll try to explain some of the most common before recommending a book of essays by survivors of narcissistic abuse for those of you who, after reading this, suspect you are, or were a victim yourself. 

A relationship with a narcissist often begins with what’s known as love bombing or the idealization phase. Narcissists choose victims with attractive qualities they wish they possessed; qualities that will increase their social currency if they can win you over. They are effusively charming and complimentary. They make you the primary focus of their life, telling you they have never met anyone as perfect. Never loved or respected anyone they way they do you.  During this phase you feel like you’ve hit the relationship jackpot and have never felt as valued and loved as you do with this person. They often become the primary focus of your life as well because they have identified and are feeding many of your emotional needs to an extent you may have never experienced before and because they require and demand the same from you. This is something that, during this phase of the relationship you are more than happy to provide. 

However, once the narcissist feels they have secured your devotion, affection, and trust, (the “narcissistic supply” or validation they need) their interest and affection for you start to wane. This is the devaluation phase. They find ways to place the blame for this on you. Projection and gaslighting are two of the most common tactics they use.  Assigning their own negative qualities and behaviors to you, such as accusing YOU of showing less interest or affection in THEM, not the other way around, is an example of projection. It’s also a form of gaslighting- convincing you that something you are seeing and experiencing isn’t real. You may catch them flirting or cheating and confront them with the evidence, only to have them deny it and call you crazy. At other times, they may deliberately hurt you and use your (understandably) negative emotional reaction to justify their behavior. “See??! You’re crazy! How do you expect me to treat you?! You’re so irrational!” This is known as “reactive abuse” and is also a form of gaslighting.

At this point in the relationship you are likely thoroughly disoriented, doubting your sanity and self worth, and begin to question whether you are maybe to blame for the toxic dynamic at play. Very often, your self esteem and sanity has been systematically destroyed to the point where you assume responsibility for the problems with your partner and may try your best to please and placate the narcissist. When this fails and your efforts are dismissed and criticized, you feel even more helpless and hopeless.  

To make matters worse, the narcissist has likely isolated you from friends and family by effectively making you reliant on them, the narcissist, having worn you down via their love bombing, demands for all your time and attention, jealousy, and by making you question your sanity and self worth. At a time when you have lost all perspective, you also now lack a support system to help restore it. 

The final stage in the cycle of narcissistic abuse is the discard phase. By this time, the narcissist has gotten what they needed from you which was to provide them with the self esteem they covet but lack and, in the case of the most malignant narcissists, may have taken your friends, job, and the contents of your bank account for themselves. And because they lack ego strength, they must find a way to blame you for all of this and use it as an excuse to move on. In fact, they are almost always looking for their next source of narcissistic supply during the devaluation phase. Once they find a new victim, they discard you, often flaunting their new victim in your face and extolling their virtues, leaving you severely traumatized, confused, and isolated, faced with the monumental task of rebuilding your life from the wreckage they have left behind.

Click on the book title below for a link to the book.

POWER: Surviving and Thriving After Narcissistic Abuse: A Collection of Essays on Malignant Narcissism and Recovery from Emotional Abuse, provides a wealth of information on the topic of narcissistic abuse for anyone unfamiliar with this type of abuse and the stages of the cycle. It will give you the much needed language and stories (you will likely find the latter to be very familiar to your own) that will allow you to make sense of, and give voice to your experience. This is the first step in the healing process. Being armed with the language and understanding of the abuse cycle will help you find the resources you need to rebuild your life and your confidence.