There aren’t many people who take the time to educate themselves on the complexity of narcissism. Instead, victims of narcissistic abuse are forced to endure narcissistic behavior and are shamed, denied, or ignored when they confide in the uneducated, also known as enablers. Narcissistic behavior patterns are designed to degrade the emotional stability of the victim so, the neglect victims of narcissistic abuse receive from enablers has the potential to be detrimental to their mental health. Thankfully, transforming from an enabler to a supporter is very simple, and it starts with empathy. In this article, we are going to unpack how to support someone in a narcissistic relationship.
5 Signs Someone Has Suffered Narcissistic Abuse
If you’re able to approach a victim of narcissistic abuse with a comprehensive grasp of the behavioral patterns that usually accompany the trauma they’ve endured, you’ll be much more likely to support a victim of narcissistic abuse, rather than enable their abuser.
If the person you’re trying to support has difficulty making simple decisions on daily activities like deciding what clothes they want to wear, it could be a strong indicator that they have lost trust in themselves which is very common within victims of narcissistic abuse.
“My sister is a fantastic cook, always has been. It’s been her passion for the longest time. However, a year into her relationship with her ex-husband, she stopped cooking. I was so confused because she loves it so much, so I asked her what was up. With the most heartbreaking tone I’ve ever heard, she told me she wasn’t a good cook, she never has been a good cook, and that her husband got sick from her cooking, so she doesn’t want to hurt anyone else.” – The sister of one of our participants.
Narcissistic behavioral patterns are designed to erode the emotional stability of the victim therefore the loss of one’s identity is very common in narcissistic relationship.
Sense of Helplessness
If the person you’re trying to support has alluded to the sense of being helpless in their relationship, it could be a strong indicator of narcissistic abuse. Here is a good example of this feeling from a journal entry from one of our participants on January 12th, 2019.
“What more can I do? I’ve tried to be nice, give him some distance, be clingy, everythinggg… no matter what I do, he calls me passive aggressive, accuses me of cheating, tells me to give him space… do I keep trying? Aren’t all relationships supposed to be hard? I feel so defeated… I don’t know what to do…” -anonymous
This could potentially be a sign of a narcissistic relationship because when it comes to narcissists, nothing is good enough. They feed off the chaos that comes with someone constantly trying to cater to their needs.
Social withdrawal is common among victims of narcissistic abuse for a variety of reasons. It’s possible for victims of narcissistic abuse to be afraid of being judged, embarrassed and ashamed that they’ve let someone treat them the way their abuser does.
Another possibility is that the victim of narcissistic abuse has acknowledged that what their abuser is doing is wrong. But socially withdraw because they aren’t ready to hear others acknowledging it as well.
“I was extremely defensive over him even though I knew some of the things he was doing was wrong…” -Brie Robertson
Rumination & Anxiety
Rumination is when someone continuously thinks about the same thoughts, which can cause an extremely high level of anxiety. In narcissistic relationships rumination and anxiety can manifest in these ways:
- Anxiety about what will happen if the relationship ends or continues
- Not wanting to leave the relationship out of the fear that their abuser will be better for the better person
- Wondering if they’re to blame for the abusive relationship
- Wishing for things to be different
- Wondering if they had done (X) differently if their abuser would still be abusive
Don’t Call Their Abuser Out as a Narcissist
It’s important to remember that guilt is a huge part of narcissistic abuse, which is why many victims of narcissistic abuse are incapable of acknowledging that they are being abused. Narcissist’s insecure need to look good, and fit in, creates manipulative tactics like projection, gaslighting, and love bombing, that are designed to reinforce their charming persona they embody to hide their crippling emotional instability.
After being subjected to such an extreme level of manipulation for an extended period of time, victims of narcissistic abuse could very well feel guilty, ashamed, and afraid to acknowledge what they are experiencing is wrong. Labeling the behavior, they are experiencing as narcissistic could cause the person you’re trying to help, to shut you out.
Imagine you witnessed your friend and their narcissistic abuser get into a huge altercation. Instead of pointing out all of the narcissistic behavior you witnessed, a much more helpful approach to support your friend would be to check in on their wellbeing and if they chose to talk about what happened, focus on the behavioral patterns they are experiencing.
If you focus on the behavior rather than aggressively labeling their abuser as abusive, you have a far better chance of remaining their much-needed line of support. There’s a possibility that they may shrug it off and tell you that they are fine, but it’s still worth a shot.
With that being said, even focusing on behavioral patterns could be too much for a victim of narcissistic abuse. Narcissists have an arsenal of manipulative tactics designed to disguise their abusive behavior. Instead of bluntly calling out their abusive behavior, a more subtle way could be to simply tell them you saw what happened and ask if they’re okay. For victims of narcissistic abuse, having their reality acknowledged and validated is immeasurable.
… so, my father was a narcissist for sure, but my mother wasn’t. She was just too afraid to stand up to him. Whenever I would try to confide in her or ask her to tell my father to stop, she would just gaslight me and tell me that I was being dramatic. It was so hard to understand what was going on, I didn’t know what to do or how to feel. The only time I felt sure about myself was when my sister, who was the truth teller, would give me a hug, hold my hand, kiss me on the cheek, and ask if I was okay… Her kindness is something that I’ll always cherish…” Dominic
Listen And Be Empathic
When I first met one of the 67 survivors of narcissistic abuse that we interviewed, Brie Robertson, I thought she was lying. Narcissistic abuse is so outrageous and unbelievable that I caught myself being skeptical on many occasions. I couldn’t understand how someone could be so evil.
I was able to learn about the complexity of narcissism very quickly, so my suspicions faded away immediately, but not everyone is able to see the truth as quickly as I was. If I were to continue to be judgmental, ignorant, and blind to Brie’s reality, I would’ve become her abuser’s enabler.
Enablers are people who allow narcissistic behavior to continue because they themselves don’t understand the complexity of narcissism.
When a victim of narcissistic abuse has the courage to acknowledge the abuse and confide in someone else, being an enabler can be just as damaging as being a narcissist because, you run the risk of gaslighting the victim as I showed in the photo above.
In narcissistic relationships, victims are unheard, and empathy is non-existent. It is not our place to decide the severity and validity of someone else’s trauma. Listen, support, and be empathic towards their reality.
Be A Supporter
The most unhelpful thing that you can do is to believe that you have the knowledge and/or ability to fix the situation. One of my favorite pieces of advice to pass on to victims and survivors of narcissistic abuse, is to let go of the wish for things to be different. I stumbled across this piece of advice while watching Ariel Leve talk about her narcissistic mother in a TED Talk. This advice is designed to help those affected by narcissistic abuse, to understand that their abuser is not going to change.
Part of the reason that narcissism is so devastating is because more often than not, victims and survivors of narcissistic abuse rationalize and justify the abusive behavior they’re enduring by blaming everything but their abuser, including themselves.
It’s really important to give good advice when you’re trying to support someone in a narcissistic relationship. The difference between an enabler and a supporter is the advice they give, failing to be a supporter will most definitely make the situation worse.
It’s also important to know when and how to provide educational resources and referrals to therapists. At first, educational resources and therapists are not the answer. As their friend or supporter, your number one priority is to offer them a safe place to talk and genuinely be heard.
It can be overwhelming to be bombarded with therapy recommendations and educational resources. Being a supporter and a friend means that you are present, genuine, and compassionate. Throwing unsolicited educational resources or therapeutic recommendations is extremely unhelpful at first. You should wait until they are comfortable to open up with a stranger like a therapist or read about the complexity of narcissism.
Ensure That You Don’t Criticize, Shame, Or Gaslight Victims of Narcissistic Abuse
You can almost guarantee that a victim of narcissistic abuse has already criticized, doubted, and shamed themselves for the abuse they’ve endured. It’s so important to ensure that as a supporter or friend, you don’t add more pressure on their internal struggle.
Gaslighting usually occurs when a narcissist doubt their victim’s reality and ability so frequently that the victim becomes consumed with self-doubt and subsequently can’t trust their own perception of reality.
There are many manipulative tactics that narcissists use that are designed to reinforce the concept behind gaslighting, like projection and scapegoating, but with the wrong approach, non-narcissistic people can accidently gaslight the victim of narcissistic abuse they are trying to support.
At a quick glance this could look like an ignorant comment that a victim of narcissistic abuse could easily shrug off because they know the truth.
But it’s not that simple…
Victims of narcissistic abuse are forced to live in an environment designed to chip away at their emotional stability and cause an immeasurable amount of confusion and self-doubt.
“It was really hard to survive my narcissistic relationship because the people I would normally confide in didn’t understand narcissism. So, when I went to them, they would accidently gaslight me by saying things like … are you sure that really happened Rebecca? That’s not the Mark that I know, he’s such a good kid… it was detrimental for me because 90% of the time I wasn’t trying to open up about my abuse, I was trying to get validation and reassurance for the way I felt because I wasn’t 100% sure that it was actually abuse. Even though it was clearly abuse, I still needed validation. Instead, I received denial, criticism, and doubt for years. I was so alone” Rebecca
Educate Yourself on Narcissism Before Trying to Support Someone in a Narcissistic Relationship
Having the ability to approach the trauma that comes with narcissistic relationships is extremely valuable. To do so, you must educate yourself on narcissistic behavior. This is a must for both those who are trying to figure out how to support someone in a narcissistic relationship, along with victims and survivors of narcissistic abuse.
When you do so, it’s important to remind yourself that just because you’re now educated on narcissistic behavior, doesn’t mean you have the answers. You may be able to provide extremely valuable advice about how to set boundaries, go gray rock, or even know contact with a narcissist, but the answer will always need to come from the victim or survivor of narcissistic abuse
What Should You Takeaway From This Article?
The most important thing to understand when learning how to support someone in a narcissistic relationship, is that your only purpose is to offer a safe environment where their voice will be heard and respected. You need to understand that as a supporter or friend, it is not your place to decide what the right thing to do is.
Narcissistic abuse doesn’t end when the relationship ends. It takes a huge toll on the psychological stability of victims. Yes you should offer educated and actionable guidance when the time is right, but they must see the abuse themselves.
They must put an end to the justification and rationalization behaviors themselves. Failing to do so will trap them within the abusive cycle either physically, psychologically, or both.
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All of the content that Unfilteredd creates is for educational purposes only and is not intended to be a substitute for clinical care — please visit here for qualified organizations and here for qualified professionals that you can reach out to for help. This article has been reviewed by our editorial board and has been approved for publication in accordance with our editorial policies.
Interviewing 67 survivors of narcissistic abuse
Navigating Narcissism in Family, Friends, & the Workplace