I’ve had an increasing number of clients come to me recently with relationship difficulties and presenting with symptoms of trauma, but they could not identify any specific traumatic events. They often reported feeling like they were ‘going crazy’ yet it was as if they were in a fog.
When asked about their relationships, clients reported that they started fast and strong, an overwhelming love that they had never experienced before. They described initial bliss, intensity, and an all-consuming love affair. They thought they’d finally found the loves of their lives.
Then the cracks began to surface. Slowly they were criticized, manipulated, controlled, and made to feel responsible for each relationship hiccup. Some were encouraged to isolate themselves from beloved friends and family. Others questioned their own mental health, and if they sought couples therapy they were identified as the problem. Their partners withdrew and used the silent treatment to punish them.
And just when things were at their worst, their partners would show up in a loving way again. The bliss was restored, the manipulation excused or forgotten. The intense love returned. Everything was right again, and the hurt was explained away.
If this sounds like you, I assure you you’re not ‘going crazy.’ You may be the victim of covert narcissistic abuse.
The features of “overt” narcissism, or narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) are defined in the DSM, a manual of the symptomatology of mental illness. The pronounced symptoms (among others) include grandiosity, arrogance, self-importance, entitlement, a lack of empathy, and a need for admiration. Those suffering from classic NPD seem ‘big’ in a room - loud, brash, and arrogant. Mental health professionals have long identified Donald Trump as a textbook example of overt NPD.
Covert narcissism (sometimes called vulnerable or introverted narcissism) is different. The entitlement, lack of empathy, need for admiration, and arrogance are all still there. But these symptoms are quieter, with less bravado and grandiosity, housed in a false humility. They seem more fragile than overt narcissists, making it easier to draw in victims with their humility and charm. Some call them “A wolf in sheep’s clothing” referring to the Biblical “Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves” (Matthew 7:15). Dr. Martha Stout believes that, "Covert manipulators rely on our empathic nature to get us to fall for them. They prey on our sympathy, compassion, and our willingness to give toxic people the benefit of the doubt."
It's not that we attract these kinds of people. It's that our empathy makes us explain away 'red flags' and not extricate ourselves from these situations when they become apparent.
How might you know if you're dealing with covert narcissistic abuse? Here are a few warning signs, though this is not an exhaustive list:
1. Lovebombing - You're intoxicated by the ferocity of feelings from the person you're newly dating. This is different from beginning a new, exciting, healthy relationship. The covert narcissist will text, call or email multiple times a day, send gifts, and make plans for the future even at a very early stage in the relationship. They tell you they've never felt this way before, even though you barely know them. They may want to see you at a sped up frequency. Healthy relationships start slowly, and a narcissist's lovebombing feels like it's taken off at a hundred miles an hour.
2. Idealization, devaluation, discard - This is a classic cycle of emotional abuse. Once you're ensnared in the lovebombing (idealization), you begin to see signs of cracks in their facade, similar to the clients I've described above. The covert narcissist will begin to hurt you and commit acts of indirect aggression in order to bolster his own fragile or nonexistent self-esteem (devaluation). This might take the form of subtle put-downs, or comparing you to others that are more successful, intelligent or attractive in his/her life. You may begin to feel controlled and your needs are minimized. If you stand up for yourself or object to this treatment, they withdraw, give you the silent treatment, or abruptly disappear (discard).
3. Isolation - Victims of narcissistic abuse often report that their abusers encourage them to withdraw from or isolate themselves from their support systems. Family members may be labeled as 'toxic' by the narcissist. This is all in an unconscious effort to isolate victims from loved ones who may cast a different light on the relationship, and help rescue the individual from his/her abuser.
4. Exploitation and managing down of expectations - Victims of narcissists oftentimes report feeling diminished, exhausted, and if in these relationships long enough, they feel out of touch with the person they were prior to the relationship. They may be exploited sexually by engaging in sexual activity they are not comfortable with, but consent to in order to avoid the rage or silent treatment by the narcissist. They may also be held to a standard different from their narcissistic partner (i.e. their phones are inspected, they are continually under suspicion and required to report their whereabouts where the narcissist has free rein to be private about these things). If 'managed down" the narcissist will downplay reasonable expectations of a relationship (being present for mutual support, attending events with us, showing up on time, etc.) and decrease what we expect from the relationship so that we expect less while he/she gets away with more.
5. "They were all crazy" (or unstable, bipolar, or similar) - Emotionally healthy people know that relationships end because either the chemistry or compatibility in the relationship isn't working. We do our best to end relationships that don't suit us in a compassionate way without destroying or publicly humiliating the other person. Narcissists, on the other hand, typically report that each past relationship ended due to the other party's being 'crazy' without accepting any responsibility. Be on high alert if your new partner typifies every ex as a crazy person.
6. Gaslighting - According to Shahida Arabi, prolific contributor to the field of narcissistic abuse, "Gaslighting is an insidious erosion of your sense of reality; it creates a mental fog of epic proportions in the twisted "funhouse" of smoke, mirrors, and distortions that is an abusive relationship. When a malignant narcissist gaslights you, they engage in crazymaking discussions and character assassinations where they challenge and invalidate your thoughts, emotions, perceptions, and sanity." Gaslighters mean to destabilize your sense of reality so you stop trusting your gut instincts and do not leave the relationship when it's proven to be abusive.
7. Walking on eggshells - Clients I've worked with who are in relationships with narcissists report feeling that they're always on the defensive, fearing attack, or criticism. They become so accustomed to being hurt and ridiculed for insignificant events that they hold themselves differently, like a child fearing corporal punishment. If you feel like you are consistently walking on eggshells to spare yourself from abuse, are making your own needs smaller and still fearing retribution you may be in a relationship with a covert narcissist.
8. Problems with empathy - Narcissists are known for their lack of empathy and literal inability to consider that others have feelings and needs separate from their own. Notably, Donald Trump has led our country through both a pandemic and a Black Lives Matter cultural revolution, yet in all his press conference verbosity, I cannot recall ever hearing him express any remorse for mistakes or empathy for the challenges faced to people of color or the victims of police brutality. Narcissists are remorseless, and simply missing the humanity that makes them sensitive to the needs and feelings of others.
If any of this has happened to you, it is not at all your fault. You are never to blame for falling victim to a narcissist.
Interestingly, you may have been targeted exactly because of your compassion, empathy, and success. Narcissists feed off of high value people to prop up their poor self-esteem; It makes sense that the more together you are, the more attractive you are to predatory narcissists. Andrea Schneider, therapist and narcissistic abuse expert, talks about the SuperPowers of narcissistic abuse survivors here.
This abuse is quiet and insidious, yet extremely damaging to its victims. Covert narcissists, in particular, are extremely hard to identify until victims are mired in the abuse and seek help. Even when they do, therapists may not be trained to spot the warning signs, leading to further victimization of survivors. Sadly, the larger mental health community has been fairly slow to identify the signs of this form of abuse.
If you think you or a loved one may be the victim of narcissistic abuse, please reach out. There is a thriving community of healers experienced in this area, and I can help connect you to resources.