What Is Narcissistic Abuse Syndrome?

The mental and emotional consequences of dating a narcissist can be narcissistic abuse syndrome. Here's what therapists want you to know.

When reality begins to blur

Think about a multiplayer video game. In these games, you choose a character, then that character goes into the world of the game and builds a life there. While you’re playing, you’re essentially living in that world through your character. And when it’s time to stop playing, you turn off the game and return to your life in the real world.

Now imagine that the lines between these two worlds become blurred. You grow confused, thinking you see characters from the video game walking past you on the street. You start to lose trust in your ability to differentiate between the real world and the game world. Self-doubt, confusion, and maybe even self-hatred soon follow.

Even if you doubt that the characters from video games will be invading your reality any time soon, people who are in relationships with partners who have narcissistic personality disorder can have a similar experience. Experts call it narcissistic abuse syndrome or narcissistic victim syndrome. (Here are the signs you’re dating a narcissist.)

What is narcissistic abuse syndrome?

“It’s not an official diagnosis, but it’s a bit like Stockholm syndrome,” says Elinor Greenberg, PhD, a licensed psychologist and author of Borderline, Narcissistic, and Schizoid Adaptations: The Pursuit of Love, Admiration, and Safety. “When you’re with a dominant narcissist, they tell you what reality is. But they don’t actually have a strong sense of reality themselves.”

This idea, as it relates to narcissists, is known as the reality principle problem. “The psyche works best when perception matches or comes close to reality,” says W. Keith Campbell, PhD, psychology professor at the University of Georgia and author of The New Science of Narcissism.

“On a manageable everyday level for narcissists, basic self-enhancing ego distortions lead [them] to believe that [they’re] slightly more attractive than [they] are or that [their] professors are to blame for a bad grade,” he says. “At the same time, this self-enhancement has negative costs.”

If you’re involved with a narcissist, some of these negative costs include understanding that your version of reality—not the one your partner perceives—is actually the correct one. The effects of this disconnect between what you see and what you’re being told can range from disorientation and confusion to anxiety and depression. (Here are more signs of narcissistic abuse.)

Couple talking while sitting at sidewalk cafeCavan Images/Getty Images

What leads to narcissistic abuse syndrome?

“Narcissists struggle with empathy for others and are driven by selfish motivations to increase their ego and status, all to validate themselves,” explains Mike Gallagher, licensed professional clinical counselor and clinical director at the Shoreline Recovery Center in Encinitas, California. “To accomplish this, narcissists devalue those around them.”

Even if the relationship starts out sunny and seemingly filled with love—a practice known as “love bombing,” in which the narcissist bombards you with love, charm, and attention at the beginning of a relationship—these attempts at devaluing soon follow. (Find out: can a narcissist change?)

Push for perfection

“Once the narcissist has you, they begin to realize that you aren’t perfect. So they start looking for ways to make you perfect,” says Greenberg. “They try to change the way you dress or your accent or try to convince you to go back to school. And if you object, they get miffed and take it personally.”

But even if you agree to wear the dress instead of the pants or have dinner with your partner’s boss instead of your friends, these attempts are unlikely to cease. (Here are real-life examples of narcissistic abuse.)

Offloading responsibility for failure

“Narcissists do not ever want to admit they’re wrong, so they offload the responsibility for failure onto somebody else—their partner, in many cases,” Greenberg explains. “So you’re continually being told that everything going wrong is your fault, which can lead to self-doubt, self-hatred, and worry that you really did do something wrong.”

Isolation

The next step for the narcissist to bring their partner over to their version of reality is to isolate them. “They begin to resent time you spend with your friends and family and eventually force you to choose” between being with friends and family or being with them, says Greenberg. Isolation is a tool commonly employed by emotional and physical abusers.

According to Break the Silence Against Domestic Violence, a nonprofit that helps those affected by domestic violence, isolation allows the abusive partner to assert a greater degree of control in the relationship. It’s also a way to make the person being isolated feel as though they have no one to turn to for support outside of the relationship.

Gaslighting

“Effective manipulators, narcissists also employ more discrete methods of abuse, such as gaslighting,” adds Gallagher. Over time, “this leaves the victim questioning their sanity.” (Here are gaslighting examples to beware of.)

How to rebuild your self-image

“In many cases, people will go into a relationship with a narcissist feeling attractive and liked and then leave the relationship feeling broken and not good enough,” says Greenberg. This confusion is at the core of narcissistic abuse syndrome. “You’re always being made to doubt your version of reality. And it can be very convincing.”

Fortunately, once you are again exposed to a reality free of video-game characters and filled with supportive friends and loved ones, you can start to rebuild your self-image outside the context of the relationship.

Therapy can be helpful to validate your experience—which you likely did not characterize as abuse while it was happening. A therapist who specializes in abuse recovery or in personality disorders like narcissistic personality disorder can be especially helpful.

Next, here’s how to tell if you have a narcissistic mother.

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