When it starts, it’s a fairy tale. You are dropped into an ocean of warmth and fuzziness, perpetually reminded that you are alive and never have been more alive. It’s love — and you feel it in every fibre of your being, you radiate happiness and you finally feel that you are seen, heard, loved and desired every moment of every day.
This is the love you have been waiting for and you are falling deeper every minute. You craved this. You deserved this. And they are finally here to give you everything you have ever wanted. You feel appreciated and perfect — because this is what they make you feel. You are revolving around them — like a planet in the orbit of the sun, enjoying the life that you are given.
You notice the first slip of the mask, yet you choose not to recognise it. You come up with excuses, you find the reasoning for everything they do. They are perfect — and their flaws just make them human, and you love them even more for them.
The mask slips more frequently, and you find yourself finding meaning in it — they are having a bad day, they are stressed, you were annoying and clingy. After all, you are human too.
You buy into your own narrative. True love prevails. Love is not about never having an argument. It is okay to have a bad day. If you love someone, you have to love them at their darkest times too — what would it make of you if you were only a fair-weather lover?
Narcissistic abuse is one of the most heinous things that can happen to you. It starts with you being idealised and idolised, you are made believe that you are loveable and appreciated. You are compared to all those who failed before you and it makes you a scarce commodity — someone to love even more.
Then slowly and imperceptibly cracks appear and the sight you are faced with is far from pretty. You silence your instincts and you turn your head. You refuse to see the red flags, you refuse to hear the sirens blaring, you reject the idea that the perfect love might be imperfect.
The signs of narcissistic abuse are obvious — when you are looking back. When the puzzle pieces fit, you will see everything clearly, you will see how you were used, manipulated, ridiculed and abused. But when you are in it, sucked into the depths of the illusion you want to preserve, it’s not so easy to notice the subtle hints.
Narcissistic abuse is a very specific form of abuse. It is a carefully orchestrated string of manipulative events that strips you from your agency, your ability to see clearly, your sense of reality.
There are users, losers, abusers, narcissists, psychopaths and sociopaths out there — hunting for prey, trying to get their needs. There is a whole range of toxic and dangerous individuals who can hurt you — in more ways you could imagine.
The narcissist is different from your average toxic person. The narcissist works according to a masterplan, where you are but a puppet in his show, where he is in the spotlight and he is using you to hold the lamp.
Narcissistic Personality Disorder is one of the Cluster B personality disorders — according to DSM-IV and DSM-5. It is a mental disorder in which people have an exaggerated sense of their own importance, an unhealthy need for attention and admiration. They are characterised by troubled relationships and a complete lack of empathy for others. They are usually charming and irresistible, but behind the mask of confidence and self-esteem, there is a fragile ego, vulnerable to the slightest criticism.
The disorder is assumed to stem from traumas, childhood abuse, neglect and or genetic predisposition. Narcissism, like most mental health issues, is not black or white, the individuals suffering from it can showcase its features on a scale.
On the lower end of the scale what we can find a selfish, entitled individual — who is usually just labelled a jerk. On the far end, where we are talking about Narcissistic Personality Disorder, there is an emotionally and morally troubled individual who is self-centred, callous and cruel, incapable of empathy for others, yet who hides behind the facade of a charming and attractive person.
What are the subtle signs in a relationship that can suggest that you are a victim of a narcissist?
1. The conversation is never about you
They talk. A lot. And you enjoy it. Finally, someone who can keep up a conversation; there are no awkward silences and you are never bored. They entertain you and make you laugh. They are funny and charming — and the more you know about them the deeper you fall. The dupe you with stories, and everything is a story — they are great storytellers and performers and they adore you for being the best audience ever.
You are listening and you are praising them, until one time you tell something important and they wave it away, directing back the attention to them. You try again, with an even bigger deal — you make yourself vulnerable, you open up, you tell them how you feel, maybe you tell them that you feel insecure or down. Only to have a cliché response or no response at all. It’s like they haven’t even heard you. The conversation is not about you — ever. It’s not about how you feel, not about how your life is, or what you think. You are not heard, not seen. You feel invisible.
For the first few times, you can chalk it up to a bad day, a more important story or more significant feelings. But eventually, in a relationship, there are no more important feelings. It’s not a competition, it should be equal — both parties to be equally heard and seen and respected for their feelings.
If you bring it up, they might hear you and they listen. They will show you that you are important, waving away your fears. But if it keeps happening, they might ridicule you for your insecurity, they might label you clingy and might even accuse you of not paying attention to them.
2. You don’t feel safe to express your emotions
In a relationship, the most basic thing is to feel safe. Even if you don’t always talk about your feelings and not every day is about having “the talk”, you need to know that when you want to say something, want to bring something up — you are free to do it without repercussions.
In a narcissistic abusive relationship, your feelings don’t matter, and it happens often that you get ridiculed for your emotions.
They dismiss your depression, they ignore your anxiety, they get confused and angry at your neediness. You are given a cold shoulder for letting them know that you need more attention and more time or less attention and less control. They stonewall you or they ghost you — only to come back claiming they needed some time out to think and process your needs, whether they can live with it.
You are slowly conditioned into not telling them about how you feel. You are taught not to complain about your bad days or your accomplishments.
If you can’t express your emotions freely, it might mean that your partner is not mature enough and you need to talk about how expressing emotions is crucial to a relationship. With a narcissist it’s not about immaturity, it is exactly what it feels like: they don’t care about your emotions and they are not even going to pretend that they do. They love it when you express how you feel about them, how much you love them and how much you admire them. Later on, they tolerate your emotions to keep up the appearances, but they don’t care about them.
3. You sometimes don’t recognise yourself
They say that in a good relationship we change — we want to become a better version of ourselves, we are working to improve and to be the best fit for our partner. We do it voluntarily because we want to please our partner. We might choose to be more outgoing, even if we are introverts — to be able to spend more time together, and because compromises are necessary. We might choose to become more experimenting and we realise that we like some things we haven’t liked before.
In a relationship with a narcissist, we slowly change — under their influence. They have their subtle ways of telling us how they would want us to be and we are changing to meet their expectations. It can be about behaviour or looks or overall values. The change is very subtle, and it doesn’t happen overnight. It’s almost imperceptible but there are signs.
There are moments of clarity when you don’t recognise yourself. You say something cruel about someone else and you are taken aback at your own callousness. You look into the mirror and you see a stranger with cold eyes looking back. You forget to call your mum and you get annoyed by the thought to apologise. It’s not you — yet it’s definitely you doing it.
The narcissist is slowly shifting your reality and shapes you, manipulates you into becoming someone else. You might refuse to fit the mould, but they are relentless to tweak you until you become a different person — less outgoing, less expressive, more dependent on them.
4. You seem to have lost your sense of humour
You have known yourself to be a funny one. With a healthy sense of humour who can take criticism and understand the jokes. Yet apparently, you are not fun to be around anymore. It seems that you have lost your sense of humour — or so they say. You are genuinely hurt when they make fun of your choice of clothes — haha, I didn’t know we were going to a Halloween party, you look like a witch. You don’t get their jokes about the shitty dinner — it was a joke, of course, you are a great cook. You don’t find it funny that they make fun of your kids — oh, but you see it too, she is really clumsy but in an adorable way. You don’t think it’s fair to call your mother co-dependent — it was just a joke, darling, you know I love that you are close to your mum.
Every insult is covered up with a joke. When you call them out on the insult or you are offended and shocked by something evil they said — they quickly add that they were just kidding and you are blamed for not having your previous sense of humour.
5. You need to walk on eggshells
Calling them out on what they say and do is the mature thing. You are old enough to know how to communicate assertively — you practised it enough at your workplace, with previous relationships, with your kids. You know what you want, you know your boundaries and you know how to talk about them in an adult way.
Yet it doesn’t work out in your relationship with a narcissist. The first sign is that you realise that they need to win every situation and every conversation. Even when there is no contradiction from your side, they will still express their opinion being the better one. They will draw your attention to how they are better than you — even when you are not competing with them.
They need to win and you find it easier not to go against their will, and you let it slip. At first, it’s very mature of you. But when it gets regular you start to notice that you watch your words, you start to move out of their way, you start trying to figure out whether they are in a good mood to ask them to do something or not.
You are walking on eggshells — and you are protecting their ego, you care for their workload, you defend their fragility — even against your own interests.
6. You find yourself in déja vu conversations
A normal relationship consists of repetitive situations — you are getting into an everyday routine and it’s only fair that you have the same conversation topics regularly. It is usually about work, about the kids, about friends and family.
With a narcissist, it’s usually about how he sees the world — with a couple of agreement from you injected in it to keep it up. But even within the constant topic of them singing their own praises or complaining about their lives, you will find yourself hearing the same stories again and again.
They don’t pay enough attention to keep up a normal conversation and they don’t care about being repetitive. They are happily telling you about their biggest romantic achievement, their star promotion ten years ago, their perfect kid who is definitely not your kid.
They use word salad against you to confuse you. Word salad is a circular conversation of repeating the same 2–3 basic thoughts phrased differently for appearances. They circle back and forth from the original subject and in a few minutes, you lose track of what the initial starting point was.
They use this technique in arguments and when you call them out. They will quickly direct the conversation back to a topic where they were still great, why they should be appreciated, or how you are mistaken or too sensitive.
7. The double standards are killing you
The boundaries for the narcissist are very vague. They believe that they are superior to everyone else and the rules don’t apply. This means that those who follow the rules — including you — are stupid and a pushover. This means that they are free to break them — and they do it often.
Whatever the topic is, they are above the rest of us, so those that apply to us will never apply to them. They will tell you to work harder to get your promotion yet get extremely annoyed if you suggest that the reason for them not being promoted was that they had just started a new job. They will tell you to speak less and be less of a know-it-all, yet will go to extreme lengths to tell every one of your friends about how they should live their lives. They will never allow you to express your emotions yet will demand you to listen to them when they want to express theirs.
Double standards exist everywhere and it is difficult to fight them, but when the allegedly same values get tweaked and twisted within your relationship, and you are not allowed to the same privileges as them, it’s a huge red flag.
8. They don’t take no for an answer
They say that the best test to spot a narcissist is to tell them no. They say that they will spiral into a rage and this is how you will know it. It would be great to spot them this easily, but it’s not that black and white. They are better than this.
They don’t take no for an answer and it manifests in different ways. At first, it’s incredibly flattering when they don’t take no for an answer. When you try to cancel on them and they beg you to just meet them for five minutes, they just want to see you and hold you — and you give in. After all, who doesn’t want to be loved this much — and they win. Then later when you try to establish boundaries they agree to them — and then they ignore it. They don’t even take it as a no, boundaries are for pussies and they don’t care about rules anyway.
If it starts to get out of hand and you ask for some me-time — they might stonewall you, ghost you and punish you with their absence. Then coming back, they gaslight you that it was you who wanted them to be gone, causing you major guilt and self-doubt.
The end game is that you are not one to make decisions — they are. The relationship is on their terms. It is important to notice that the ghosting and stonewalling only happens when you are sufficiently reeled in and they are sure that it will hurt you.
9. You can’t count on them
Speaking of saying no, and making decisions — they are the ones to make decisions. It is perfectly okay in a relationship if something comes up and one needs to cancel, or plans need to be adjusted. But it’s not okay if that one is always them.
Within a relationship with a narcissist, you will learn it quickly that you are not entitled to their time, while they are entitled to yours. You need to report about your whereabouts and plans and availability — which you take as a sign of caring. It’s not caring, it’s control.
But when you ask to know what their plans are they become distant and defensive, they call you clingy and needy. They keep stringing you along and in loads of cases, they cancel on you in the very last minute, where you can’t do anything about it.
If you realise that you can’t count on them, they don’t treat your time and attention as importantly as you should treat theirs, it’s a sign that they are entitled and selfish. If it happens in a normal relationship, you are free to bring it up, express your concern and work towards a solution. Maybe clearer communication is needed, maybe earlier planning is required — maybe it can be sorted out just with a little more attention.
The narcissist will not want to work it out, as your time and your life is not important enough to change his ways about their own time and their own life.
10. You get your apology, but it doesn’t mean a thing
There is great power in apologising. Sometimes apologising means that you are the bigger person, and you care enough about the other to suppress your ego. It takes a lot to tell someone that you were wrong — and those who can apologise are really great people. Except for the narcissist.
The point of an apology is twofold:
- admitting your own fault and the fact that it is possible to make a mistake and
- recognising a behaviour that is not to be repeated later on.
No one likes to apologise, and it is better trying to act in a way that you don’t need to apologise for your behaviour.
The narcissist is very good at apologising. It is their way of solving a conflict. They will put on a show and show you genuine guilt and remorse to make you believe that they are sorry for what they have said or what they have done. It’s all good and honourable — until you realise that their apology is empty and weightless, and they have zero intention to change their behaviour. They apologise and they do the same thing a day later.
If you see that your partner is willing to apologise a little too quickly — it might not be a bad sign. They might love you a lot and this is their way of expressing their love. But if no change can be observed in the faulty behaviour then the apology is meaningless, and you might be dating a narcissist.
Hindsight is 20/20. But there are signs that we ignore — yet they are very obvious.
If you feel that something is off in your relationship; if you feel that you are not heard and seen; if you tried communicating about your concerns in an assertive way yet you are hitting a wall — you might need to take the veil off and look at your relationship through objective eyes.
Where there is no narcissist in the relationship, you won’t conjure up narcissism by critically observing your partner. You might find a couple of things that you need to address. And it will be for the best.
But if you realise that too many things are off, you need to be very aware of what you are facing.
Narcissistic abuse is an ugly thing and it can leave you traumatised and depleted, ruined for years. The only way is out — there is no cure to narcissism. There is no therapy or medication — because they don’t want to be fixed. The path leads from awareness, through removing yourself to healing.
“Narcissism is one of the few conditions where the patient is left alone and everyone else is treated.”
I learnt it the hard way. I ignored every sign. I made excuses. And I paid a very steep price for being willfully ignorant. I hope it helps you not to get stuck for too long. But it’s never too late to move. And you can always heal. Take care of yourself — you are more important than they made you believe.