What I Learned About Narcissistic Abuse
Not long ago, at the kind urging of some compassionate friends, I sought the help of a professional to find answers to some nagging health issues: poor quality of sleep with vivid nightmares, lapses in memory and concentration, gains in anxiety and self doubt, and lack of faith in intuition. I met with a cognitive therapist, and explained the life dynamics that preceded the symptoms. She soon gave the diagnosis:
“You’ve been dealing with narcissistic abuse at the hands of someone with NPD, a personality disorder characterized by deceptive behavior. Narcissistic abusers aren’t who they appear to be. They put up false appearances they want the world to see, but that’s not who they really are. Narcissistic abusers hide their true selves behind these false appearances. Their deceit undermines their partners’ perceptions of reality. Being exposed to narcissistic abuse can negatively affect your health.”
“Narcissistic abusers,” she said, “are solely interested in their false appearances. They continuously seek attention and approval of their fake personae. The constant need for attention is all-important to them.”
“They know no boundaries. They stop at nothing to get the attention they need because they see themselves as entitled to special treatment, and believe they are unbound by traditional social mores and ethical values. They only care about having as large a collection of partners and multiple sources of attention as possible. Understanding this disorder will help you manage and overcome the symptoms.”
I shared more examples of the life dynamics I experienced.
“What you describe is a textbook example of exposure to narcissistic abuse. Narcissistic abusers behave in these documented, predictable ways.” She suggested I review some online content. “You’ll see the published science behind what you describe.”
I read all the articles and watched every video she recommended. I made a commitment to follow her plan to get back to feeling healthy again. I was in therapy for nearly a year, and I learned a few things worth sharing.
First of all, I learned narcissistic abusers are self-centered liars. Everything else I learned stems from this simple fact.
I also learned narcissistic abusers are all about multiplicity and availability. Despite what they say, they have no intention of maintaining commitments to one partner. They amass a tremendous number of social media contacts, out of which they derive dozens of sources of “benefits,” especially something called “emotional supply.” Emotional supply refers to any degree of satisfying emotional experience sourced from a contact. It can range from a “Like” on a Facebook post, to the sharing of instant messages, to phone or Skype or FaceTime conversations, all the way to physical encounters. Narcissistic abusers have a pathological need for multiple sources of emotional supply.
I learned narcissistic abusers have a preference for “open relationships.” However, they also have a preference for lying about that. While they may tell committed partners they want loving, trust-filled, committed relationships, they have no intention of maintaining them. They lie to their partners and everyone else about who they really are, and what they really want, including themselves, in pursuit of even more attention and emotional supply.
I also learned narcissistic abusers develop and conceal many emotional and physical relationships, all of which they secretly maintain using digital communication technologies. They stay up-to-date with all of the latest social apps and digital tools so they can better promote their false appearances, and better connect with multiple partners, carry on multiple “hidden” conversations, and take part in multiple “private” relationships.
In the course of these communications, they “collect” many partners with whom they share physical and emotional intimacy. They engage in hidden communication and secret dialogue. And they prey on people who demonstrate empathy. They target kind-hearted contacts and seek their attention, regardless of their current marital or relationship status. They will date people who are married. They have no respect for boundaries. Narcissistic abusers go to extremes when developing their sources of emotional supply. They work hard to gain the attention of dozens of partners using predatory approaches.
For example, they post messages on social media designed to evoke sympathy. They upload pictures and make comments about about loved ones and pets they lost on anniversaries of their deaths. This technique attracts attention from the more empathetic of their contacts, and helps narcissistic abusers identify and develop new partners. While it may look like mindful sharing, these are well-crafted, intentional appeals to emotions, deliberate attempts to find and groom new sources of attention and emotional supply.
Other psychologically predatory tactics that help them attract attention and add to their collection of false relationships include “mirroring,” a communication technique in which they echo back nearly verbatim what their contacts say and write to them. Attempting to make their false appearances seem more attractive, abusers use mirroring to trick potential committed partners into believing that they have a lot in common with and are well-suited for each other. However, mirroring is just another strategy for misleading potential partners and acquiring their attention.
I learned narcissistic abusers are also adept at “future-faking,” another deceptive communication technique in which they articulately describe and promise moments of kindness, fidelity, happiness, and pleasant events in the days to come, on which they have no intention of following through. They create fake futures to make their false personae appear more desirable, again to further deceive their contacts, attract new sources of attention, and/or further groom and deceive potential and current partners.
I also learned that once false “committed” relationships are established, narcissistic abusers will take as much as they can from committed partners.
But the abusers are never satisfied. Their pathological needs for new members in their collection and additional sources of attention never go away. In order to meet the demand for their emotional supply or develop new sources, they begin to deceive committed partners in a number of ways, some of which can be easy to spot:
For example, I learned that when lying, narcissistic abusers will frequently use the words “actually” and “honestly” in their writing or in their conversations, which are documented indicators of language that’s trying to deceive.
Other “tells” include “distancing,” a communication strategy which involves avoiding the use of a person’s name about whom someone is lying. When lying about particular people, narcissistic abusers will avoid saying their names, in order to put “distance” between themselves and their lies. Remember when Bill Clinton avoided using Monica Lewinsky’s name during his public denials of their relationship? To distance himself from his lies about Ms Lewinsky, instead of using her name, he referred to her as, “that woman.”
Also, I learned narcissistic abusers reveal they are lying when they avoid using contractions in their denial statements. Rather than say, “I didn’t do that,” narcissistic abusers will say, “I DID NOT do that.” Avoiding contractions and using non-contracted denials are attempts to add emphasis to their lies, to make their denials sound more convincing. Again, recall Bill Clinton’s deceptive denial language, “I DID NOT have sexual relations…with that woman.”
In addition, I learned narcissistic abusers will give away the fact that they are about to tell more lies when they repeat questions that are posed to them, often verbatim. Repeating questions is a delay tactic, a sign that they need more time to think of the content of their next lies.
Plus, I learned narcissistic abusers will often experience dry mouth when telling lies. As their brains are working overtime, trying keep track of all their lies, this extra “cognitive load” causes their brains to undergo significant stress, which may involve increased heart rate, increased demand for more oxygen, and changes in breathing patterns, all of which can be associated with dryness in the mouth. Signs of dry mouth include visibly pronounced swallowing, fingers covering their lips, and sudden thirst for water.
Lastly, I learned narcissistic abusers inadvertently reveal that they’re lying because their brains are prone to “information leakage.” When they are lying, their brains can’t omit or “un-know” everything that’s already known. So often, despite their best efforts to conceal all their knowledge, narcissistic abusers will frequently tell lies that unwittingly reveal some of the truth.
If committed partners aren’t paying close attention, they can miss all these tells. That’s why they need to rely on their gut intuition. The subconscious brain instinctively knows whenever something isn’t right in a relationship, and picks up on all these signs well before the conscious brain does.
I learned another way narcissistic abusers lie is through the use of social media to create alibis, which help provide false proof about where they say they are and who they say they’re with. They post time-stamped notes, photos, and comments on Facebook or other social sharing sites that appear to confirm their whereabouts at given times. The truth is they’re with other partners in different locations, despite what the content and timings of their posts suggest.
I also learned that in order to conceal their multiple relationships, narcissistic abusers also use a psychological form of deception called “gaslighting.” The name is derived from a movie from the 1940’s, starring Ingrid Bergman, in which she portrays a woman who is subject to systematic lying, a situation involving the gaslights in her home: her lover lies to her about the dimming of the gaslights in the house, despite her noticing and questioning him about it. He’s responsible for dimming the lights, but he denies they even dimmed, telling her it’s all in her mind. This abusive form of deception pushes her to doubt her view of reality, and soon she questions her sanity.
When “gaslighting” their partners, narcissistic abusers do the same thing. They tell and retell lies and alternative facts — and mix those lies with the truth, distorting what’s really happening in the relationship. This cruel form of deception represents a complete abuse of the trust on which the relationship is built. Gaslighting undermines the committed partners’ sense of reality, and leaves them doubting their own perceptions. Confused and yet still wanting to believe that narcissistic abusers are telling the truth, committed partners experience intense cognitive stress and constant acute anxiety, as they begin to doubt their sanity. They’re anxious all the time because they never really know what’s true — and what isn’t true — about their relationships. As committed partners begin to live with continuous uncertainty, they can become more vulnerable to further deception, and narcissistic abusers will continue lying.
To fully understand gaslighting, I first had to learn about the “truth bias,” the human trait in which we all give people the benefit of the doubt, and we believe others at their word: we speak with integrity, and we expect that others will do the same, so we believe what others say. The truth bias helps bind society together. Without it, we would all be doubtful of everything everyone says, and we would question every conversation we ever have. The truth bias predisposes our brains to accept what people say is the truth, especially the words of people we care about. As such, the truth bias is one of the foundations of mutual human trust.
Narcissistic abusers are keenly aware of the truth bias and leverage it for all it’s worth. Knowing that partners will believe them at their word gives narcissistic abusers the freedom to tell lies and deceive their partners at will.
I also learned narcissistic abusers are known for initiating “inappropriate physical contact,” including touching, rubbing, leaning on, or otherwise crossing the personal boundaries of others from whom they seek attention and emotional supply, often strangers. Frequently, they engage in this behavior in full view of their committed partners, which is usually followed by additional “gaslighting,” as narcissistic abusers deny and distort what partners had just seen them do.
They are also known for “triangulating,” which involves flirting with, plotting for, and pitting people against each other in order to attract attention to their false appearances, again without the slightest regard for their committed partners.’ It’s all done in the service of gaining additional sources of emotional supply.
I also learned that narcissistic abusers “lack object constancy,” a clinical term for the inability to maintain respect for their committed relationships when they are not in the presence of their partners. For example, when narcissistic abusers are in a public place or social setting by themselves, they have no regard for the value or sanctity of their committed relationships. Again, their pathological needs for additional attention and emotional supply drive their actions. In such settings, abusers act as though they are not sharing in committed relationships. Their behavior says, “Look at me: I’m available.”
I also learned that while narcissistic abusers are known for concealing multiple “hidden” relationships, they will also allow partners to notice “coincidences” in their behavior and that of their “secret” partners. Allowing committed partners to witness these “coincidences” gives way to even more anxiety, which makes them more vulnerable to additional lies and further gaslighting.
I also learned narcissistic abusers care only about getting the attention they seek, and are not concerned about how their lies and greed can wreck homes, ruin marriages, hurt families, and change lives.
They care only about themselves.
I also learned narcissistic abusers have a preference for physical relationships with people who are married or who are already in committed relationships. But they don’t care about the relationships with which they’re interfering. They care only about the attention derived from the “flings” they have with people who are in committed relationships. They scour their social media contacts in search of such people, so they can groom them for future opportunities. They take pleasure in convincing these contacts to break their commitments and sever their wedding vows. They have no respect for love, commitment, and fidelity, relationship qualities they’ve either decided not to pursue, or they’re simply incapable of sharing.
I also learned that oddly enough, narcissistic abusers are so accustomed to lying that they will tell lies — even when it’s far more logical and advantageous for them to tell the truth. They tell lies because that’s what they do best. Lying is their talent, the skill that helps them maintain their ongoing sources of emotional supply. Plus, lying keeps committed partners off balance. Partners never really know what’s true and what isn’t about the relationships. This makes it easier for narcissistic abusers to continue to deceive committed partners, and continue to maintain multiple hidden relationships.
However, I also learned that when committed partners begin to see through the deception and confront all the lies, narcissistic abusers are known to “stonewall.” This involves abruptly ending conversations, quickly changing the subject, leaving the room, suddenly having to go to the bathroom, or needing a drink of water. If the conversations are taking place on the phone or via video chats, narcissistic abusers will abruptly disconnect the calls, and later claim the calls ended due to interference or bad connections. They will do many things to avoid facing their lies.
Narcissistic abusers will also stonewall by attempting to blame committed partners for the causes of the problems in the relationships. They will attribute the conflicts to their partners’ “paranoia,” “insecurities,” “obsessions,” or their “being too sensitive,” (see “gaslighting” above). Essentially, they try to turn the empathy of committed partners against them. As such, these stonewalling tactics are attempts by narcissistic abusers to prevent committed partners from getting to the truth.
Here’s where it gets frightening: I learned that should committed partners decide they’ve had enough lies and want out of the false relationships, narcissistic abusers will refuse to let go. They may become violent, lashing out at committed partners for attempting to end the relationships. But more likely, since they need these rich sources of emotional supply and attention, they will go to extremes to try and keep the false relationships going.
They will continue to communicate with former partners, long after those former partners have ended the false relationships and have ceased all communications with the narcissistic abusers. Abusers will not quit, however, and will go to great lengths to try to maintain these sources of emotional supply. To try and keep the relationships alive, they will employ documented techniques, some of which have interesting nicknames:
I learned narcissistic abusers like to employ a strategy called “abusers-by-proxy,” also referred to as “flying monkeys.” A term taken from the story “The Wizard of Oz,” it describes friends or family members of abusers who are asked to communicate with former partners, and help abusers try to rekindle their false relationships. Most of the time, they are dispatched to provoke a reaction from former committed partners, as abusers attempt to reacquire their lost sources of emotional supply.
I learned narcissistic abusers are also known for “hoovering.” Based on the vacuum cleaner brand, this nickname describes attempts by narcissistic abusers to “suck” former committed partners back into the false relationships, and regain their lost sources of emotional supply.
While some people call this behavior “stalking,” examples of hoovering include the sending of unwanted flowers, cards, letters, gifts, texts, emails, and voice mail messages to former committed partners. They may even break the law by putting items in former partners’ mailboxes, which is a federal offense. Most often, these well-crafted correspondences contain highly charged emotional content, and can range from tender appeals for sympathy, all the way to merciless vitriol.
These correspondences will typically arrive around holidays, birthdays, or even tragic events like illnesses or deaths in the family. Despite appearing to be sent spontaneously or out of good will, they are all carefully calculated attempts to get reactions from former committed partners. Narcissistic abusers don’t care whether they evoke positive or negative responses. They simply want reactions, which they hope will lead to further contact, and again, further attention and emotional supply.
Interestingly, I learned that in all their attempts at hoovering, narcissistic abusers will never apologize. They see themselves as incapable of doing wrong to others. Even when they attempt to express sorrow, their statements will always assign blame to committed partners.
For example, narcissistic abusers will frequently attempt to evoke a reaction from former committed partners, yet absolve themselves of their lies with empty apologies, accusing committed partners for the causes of the problems, saying, “I’m sorry you couldn’t see how much I love you.”
I also learned that narcissistic abusers like to use “victimhood,” a strategy in which they communicate and behave with their friends, family members, and social contacts as if they were the ones who were mistreated in the false relationships. This is yet another form of deception that’s used to not only try to discredit former committed partners, it’s used to gain sympathy and new sources of emotional supply from their contacts, all while allowing them to maintain their false appearances.
I also learned that when committed partners finally put an end to the false relationships, there are no fond memories associated with the time spent with narcissistic abusers. Everything that transpired between narcissistic abusers and committed partners happened under false pretenses. So there are no, “We’ll always have Paris,” moments on which to look back fondly, the way Bogart and Bergman do in “Casablanca.” Since everything that transpired was one giant lie, memories of time spent with narcissistic abusers are meaningless.
The bottom line: I learned narcissistic abusers lie to their committed partners, and seek and maintain multiple “secret” partners within their vast social media universe, all driven by their pathological needs for attention. This pathology drives everything they do. Their behavior is never associated with love. They’re incapable of real relationships, real commitment, real love.
The good news is that the therapy worked: I was fortunate to have found a healthcare professional who has a long career in counseling people on the receiving end of narcissistic abuse. Learning the names and definitions of what I had experienced and seeing how well-documented the behaviors are gave me hope that I could overcome the nagging health symptoms fairly quickly.
And I did.
The therapist’s specific advice was spot on. Based on her evidence-based counseling, I’m thriving again: sleeping soundly, no more bad dreams. Memory and focus are as sharp as ever. Self doubt and anxiety are gone. I trust my gut feelings again, as I know my intuition was right all along, despite all the lies I was told. I dropped twenty pounds, as I’ve returned to a regular exercise routine. It’s been a satisfying and remarkable return to health. I’ve also earned the trust and friendship of others who have had “the experience” and with whom I have shared additional support.
What was the true ticket back?
Central to the healing process was the therapist’s advice to stop all contact with narcissistic abusers.
When she first recommended this, I challenged her: “No contact? Isn’t that just being mean-spirited?”
“Not at all,” she said. “Going no contact is different from passive-aggressive behaviors such as shunning, ignoring, or ghosting someone. Going no contact is a healthy, defensive strategy to protect yourself from further attempts at deception and abuse, and help you regain trust in yourself. Like a math problem, all those lies add up. The only way to retrieve your sense of self is to take the narcissistic abuser out of the equation. Completely. Any show of attention is a step on the path back to deception and abuse. You must maintain no contact.”
Juan Gabriel Vasquez wrote: “The saddest thing that can happen to you is to find out your memories are lies.”
I’d like to tell Mr. Vasquez it may not be the happiest thing that can happen to you, but when you delete narcissistic abusers and their lies from your life, it truly is a delightful thing. Over time, you begin to distance yourself from the cruelty. Eventually, you no longer feel pain, but pity.
And it is a pity, as the therapist said, that “Narcissistic abusers can’t change. They’ve been deceptive for so long, they remodeled their brain circuitry. They feel no remorse about the lies and emotional damage they inflict on people. When they get bored with one source of emotional supply, they have hundreds more always just a few clicks away. They commit their lives solely to acquiring multiple sources of attention, and they live for the freedom of concealing relationships with multiple partners, forever losing the chance of sharing a lasting love with one true, committed partner.”
“Man,” I said, “It’s as if the only commitments they can make are to their greed, their social apps, and of course, the batteries in their communication devices.”
“It does seem that way,” she said. “Next to their false appearances, they care most about having the latest technologies — smart phones, digital watches with haptic messaging, remote chargers, incognito browsers, all the latest tools and apps to help them stay in touch with their full collection of partners, and communicate behind the backs of anyone who tries to care for them. Their need for emotional supply far exceeds what a single, committed, truly loving relationship is.”
“Why are they like this?” I asked.
“Sex addiction, attention addiction, histrionic personality disorder… take your pick. There are dozens of neuroscientists and cognitive psychologists who have many theories on why narcissistic abusers behave this way. It could be that they were abused by someone they trusted in their past, like a teacher, or a parent. The pain of that abuse could have stunted their emotional growth, and so they could remain at that emotional level and behave as adolescents, despite their actual ages. They may continue to repeat that pattern of abuse with others. And as sick as it sounds, they may even continue to have relationships with the people who abused them. Sadly, they never believe they’re doing anything wrong.”
“Perhaps,” I said, “they subscribe to the theory of behavior put forth by Phillip Zimbardo, at the conclusion of his Stanford University Experiment: that we humans act according to our situations, and therefore are not accountable for bad behavior.”
“Well,” she said, “we all know now that Mr. Zimbardo wasn’t entirely truthful about that research. Ultimately, in my experience, narcissistic abusers are hiding something, often something shameful. But this is not for you and me to figure out. Narcissistic abusers can seek treatment and work on healing themselves, and that’s up to them. They usually don’t pursue treatment, however, as they believe they’re never doing anything wrong. Sadder still, when they do attempt therapy, they usually lie to their therapists. Lying is what they rewired their brains to do best. So therapy is a waste of time and money.”
“Speaking of brains, it’s difficult to accept,” I said, “that people can give their hearts and souls to others, to completely change their lives in pursuit of relationships with people who blatantly deceive others, who put their pathological needs above all else, people who know all the time that the relationships are just giant lies.”
“It’s difficult, but not impossible,” she said.
“Yes,” I said, “thanks to you.”
I shared gratitude for explaining the pathology of narcissistic abuse and showing the way out of it.
“You helped me dodge a great bullet,” I said. “I have friends who are former FBI profilers who warned about all this, but it took a year of therapy to fully understand it. Thanks for all your help.”
“You’re welcome, Tom,” she said. “Just remember: long-term relationships with narcissistic abusers are impossible,” she said. “The only path forward is resistance.”
“So,” I joked, “in this case, resistance is not futile, it’s mandatory.”
If you had — or have — the great misfortune of being on the receiving end of narcissistic abuse, I can put you in touch with a treasure trove of helpful information to help you get through it. Or reach out and I’ll put you in touch with a terrific therapist.
The great news is you’re not alone, and all the techniques work. Happily, I’m living proof of that.
Thanks for reading. I hope I helped. And I hope you learned.