Narcissistic abuse: Recognising the signs

These days discussions about narcissistic abuse seem to be everywhere. It dominates self-help books, websites and support groups as victims find their voice and share their stories. This increased awareness is crucial – by understanding the manipulative tactics used by narcissists, we can help victims recognise these harmful relationship dynamics faster. Providing this knowledge and support network empowers them to leave sooner and heal.

So, what are some of the common signs and symptoms victims experience when trapped in an abusive relationship with a narcissist?

Subtle put downs

Narcissists use subtle, biting remarks to undermine their victim’s self-esteem. These include backhanded compliments, sarcasm, condescension, and comparing you unfavourably to others. This gradual erosion of confidence allows the narcissist to exert more control. Victims describe walking on eggshells, fearful of sparking their partner’s next cutting analysis.

Control and isolation

Narcissists psychically and emotionally isolate their victims from friends and family. They insist on knowing their partner’s whereabouts at all times and will punish them for failing to comply. Victims become withdrawn from hobbies, work colleagues and other support networks. This enhances dependency on the narcissist, further embedding them in the abusive dynamic.


A manipulative technique used to make victims question their own sanity and perception of reality. Narcissists will swear events never occurred, deny or twist previous statements. Over time, this can leave victim’s confidence in their judgment and assessment fundamentally shaken. They apologise more while narcissists evade taking responsibility.

Hot and cold behaviour

Narcissists switch between showering their victim with affection and attention to withdrawing it completely. This intermittent reinforcement is powerfully addictive, creating an obsessive attempt to win back their affection. Victims are left in a state of constant uncertainty, trying endlessly to avoid triggering their partner’s wrath.

Projection of blame

Abusers deflect responsibility for their actions by blaming their partners instead. They refuse to take accountability, loudly pointing the finger at their victim’s shortcomings to make them feel inadequate. Slowly the victim accepts blame that is not theirs to shoulder, thinking they can ‘fix’ themselves and save the relationship if they just try harder to keep their volatile partner happy.

While more covert manipulation can take time to perceive, as Dr Ramani Durvasula states: “When you’re confused, it’s often because somebody wants you to be confused.” Trust your instincts if you sense something feels ‘off.’ Talk honestly with friends, family or specialists at domestic violence organisations. Know the signs, reclaim your self-worth and break free to heal.

The cycle of idealise, devalue, and discard

Narcissistic relationships follow a cycle of idealisation, devaluation, and discarding. In the beginning, narcissists shower their victims with over-the-top affection, compliments, and apparently caring gestures that make you feel like the most special person. As the relationship progresses, they gradually withdraw this idealisation, now utilising subtle criticism, gaslighting, and intermittently withholding affection to undermine the victim’s self-worth. Over time, these ups and downs intensify with episodes of verbal aggression, intimidation, threats to leave or cheating to dismantle any remaining self-confidence.

This intermittent cycle bonds the victim to their abuser through what is termed “traumatic bonding.” The cruelty is so shocking, yet quickly followed by a “honeymoon” reconciliation phase of renewed niceness, gifts and apologies. The whiplash makes victims doubtful they interpreted the previous explosive incident accurately. They are left trauma-bonded to their abuser, excessively appeasing them to avoid further emotional torment, much like hostages developing a bond with their captor.

“Cognitive dissonance” also prevents the victim from acknowledging the relationship’s harm – reconciling their partner’s sudden shifts from loving support one day to cruelty the next is too mentally distressing. Accepting the deception causes intense discomfort, so victims rationalise the behaviour, blame themselves, and continue hoping the abuser will revert to their initial charm offensive.

Feeling lost, confused, and unable to recognise yourself

Many victims describe reaching a breaking point where the emotional turmoil finally outweighs any hopes of fixing the relationship. You may feel a profound sense of confusion – unable to recognise the person you have become after years of manipulation has left you questioning your own judgment and reality.

Victims often feel lost, depleted, anxious, or depressed without understanding why – devoid of the vibrant optimistic person they once were. You may feel constantly on edge, panicking and apologising for anything that might set off your partner’s anger or cold withdrawal of affection that somehow became vital for your emotional stability.

It often requires hitting this rock bottom – where you start evaluating your own mental health or sense of identity – before you seek answers. Exhausted, you turn to books, articles, and Google searches grasping for ways to better understand what is happening. Here you may first discover terms like “narcissistic abuse” and the validation that you are not alone in experiencing this – it is the dysfunctional relationship dynamic harming you, not some personal failure to make your partner happy no matter how much they blame shift.

The relief of having language to articulate the manipulation occurring is enormous – finally providing clarity and letting you start developing skills and supports to reclaim your independence.

Seeking specialist support and an escape plan

Discovering you are in a relationship with a narcissist can be devastating yet also liberating. You now can put a name to the manipulative, exploitative behaviour you experienced. Despite what your abuser says, you are not crazy, oversensitive or imagining things – the dysfunction stems from them, not some personal deficiency within you.

It is vital you realise you cannot fix this person or salvage the relationship on your own. The key priority now is safely exiting. Start quietly gathering critical documents and any financial resources you can muster. Contact domestic violence specialists to discuss an escape plan and emergency options if needed. These experts understand the challenges victims face leaving narcissistic relationships and will believe you.

If possible, connect with a therapist who comprehends narcissistic abuse like Jeanne van den Bergh at Guidance to Grow. Her assistance can be invaluable; providing coping strategies while you prepare to exit as well as much-needed validation and healing support. You deserve so much better. Know you have the inner strength to break free and rebuild your life.

Contact Jeanne today to take the first step in truly reclaiming and embracing your authentic fulfilling life beyond the pain.

Read more:

A Guide to Healing After Losing a Relationship

Overcoming Self-Doubt: Building Self-Confidence and Resilience in Counseling

The Consequences of Ignoring Depression: Why It Shouldn’t Be Taken Lightly

Normalising Depression Symptoms in Midlife

Media contact: Cathlen Fourie, +27 82 222 9198,,

More about Guidance to Grow

Guidance to Grow is a South African-based therapeutic consultancy that provides professional counselling and life coaching services. Guidance to Grow, under the leadership of Social Worker in Private Practice, Jeanne van den Bergh, has a focus on supporting individuals who are experiencing grief, bereavement, and trauma. They offer a range of services that are designed to help clients process and manage their emotions, including one-on-one counselling, group therapy, and workshops.

At Guidance to Grow, Jeanne takes a compassionate and personalised approach to each client’s unique needs. She works closely with clients to understand their challenges, provide guidance and support, and develop customised strategies to help them move forward and find a sense of peace and fulfillment.

Guidance to Grow’s commitment to providing exceptional therapeutic services has earned them a reputation as one of the most trusted and reliable counselling and life coaching providers in South Africa. If you or someone you know is struggling with grief, bereavement, or trauma, consider reaching out to Guidance to Grow for compassionate support and guidance.


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