People with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), otherwise known as narcissists, have a grandiose sense of self, unreasonable expectations of favorable treatment, and a marked lack of empathy for others.
People with narcissistic traits often have difficulty maintaining interpersonal relationships across all areas of life, including at home, at work, and in the community. Their relationships with others can sometimes be emotionally abusive.
The narcissistic abuse cycle refers to an abusive pattern of behavior that characterizes the relationships of people with narcissistic traits. It involves first idealizing a person, then devaluing them, repeating the cycle, and eventually discarding them when they are of no further use.
While it's common for people to have narcissistic traits, the severity of traits runs on a spectrum. Note that people can be in a narcissistic abuse cycle with someone who doesn't meet the full criteria for NPD, but may have NPD traits.
This article explores the various stages of the narcissistic abuse cycle, the mental health impact of narcissistic abuse, and some coping strategies that may be helpful.
Stages of the Narcissistic Abuse Cycle
Listed below are some of the characteristics of the narcissistic abuse cycle, according to Aimee Daramus, PsyD, a licensed clinical psychologist.
This stage is also known as the appreciation stage and it is typically characterized by love bombing.
The narcissist creates a sense of instant connection with you. They make you feel unique and wonderful, and put you on a pedestal. No matter what type of relationship it is—whether romantic, friendly, professional, or otherwise—it moves fast and has a fervent quality to it.
In a romantic relationship, the narcissist will dazzle you with gifts and compliments. They will make you feel special and appear to be overwhelmingly attracted to you. It will seem like they have fallen in love with you right away and it will feel like it was destined to be.
Despite seemingly innocent or even endearing, some controlling tactics may be present early on. For example, they may guilt or shame you for spending time with others outside of the relationship or breaking boundaries you've previously communicated.
In a friendship, the narcissist will praise you, spend a lot of time with you, and depend on you for all sorts of things.
With a narcissistic boss, you'll get the feeling that you're their dream employee and that no one else is as good at the job as you are. There will be hints of raises and promotions that don’t actually materialize.
The devaluation stage, also known as the depreciation stage, comes next. It often starts slowly.
The narcissist will start dropping subtle hints that you've done something wrong, that you’ve forgotten something important, or that you've hurt their feelings. You'll start to feel insecure.
Some indicators include:
- Backhanded compliments
- Excuses for poor behavior
- Subtle criticism
- Mind games that seem harmless
- No win-situations
- Lack of empathy and validation
- Comparisons to others
- Ridicule and humiliation
They narcissist will accuse you of things you didn't do and keep pressuring you until you wonder whether you actually did it. This is known as gaslighting. You’ll start to question your memory and your sanity.
Aimee Daramus, PsyD
You’ll find yourself starting to wonder why the narcissist puts up with you. It’s a terrible feeling. You’ll question your own memories and judgment and strive to be better so the narcissist doesn’t abandon you.
— Aimee Daramus, PsyD
The devaluation stage can leave you feeling depressed, anxious, confused, and scared of losing your relationship with the narcissist. You might either try harder to please them or pull away from them to protect yourself. The narcissist will feel hurt and enraged at your attempts to distance yourself from them.
Then, the cycle of idealization and devaluation will start all over again. They will suddenly behave extremely nicely toward you, shower you with compliments, and make you feel valued again. However, as soon as you start to feel secure in the relationship, they will start to devalue you once more.
A 2017 study notes that while people with narcissistic personality disorder are successful with relationships in the short term, they struggle with long-term relationships because they attempt to protect their own fragile sense of self by belittling others.
The discard stage can play out in a few different ways.
The narcissist might decide that they’re done with you and that you have no further use for them. The rejection is typically swift and brutal.
Or, you might wake up and realize that this partner, friend, employer, or acquaintance isn't healthy for you and try to leave the situation. The narcissist might start love bombing you again, and the cycle of idealization, devaluation, and discard will repeat itself until you finally break free.
17 Signs You're in a Narcissistic Marriage or Relationship
Mental Health Impact of Narcissistic Abuse
The narcissist will do things that leave you feeling—and often acting—unstable, then blame you and call you "crazy" for it, says Dr. Daramus.
Aimee Daramus, PsyD
Narcissistic abuse toys with your sense of self, your sense of what's real, and your emotional safety. It's common to feel like you're exaggerating, that you're too sensitive, or blowing things out of proportion, especially if there was no physical abuse.
— Aimee Daramus, PsyD
According to Dr. Daramus, if narcissistic abuse goes on for long enough, a victim can end up with mental health conditions such as:
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
A 2019 study notes that narcissistic abuse can even be fatal in some cases. The study concluded that narcissistic abuse can be extremely debilitating, so recovery can be a long and complex journey.
Coping With Narcissistic Abuse
Dr. Daramus shares some steps that can help you prevent and cope with narcissistic abuse:
- Give your relationships time: The first step is to remember that real relationships, whether romantic, sexual, friendly, professional, or otherwise, usually start slowly. They develop over time, from mutual interest in each other to a stronger, more genuine connection. Be suspicious of instant love.
- Be clear about your boundaries: Know your boundaries and how you expect to be treated before you enter a new relationship. Be ready to set limits or walk away if someone develops a pattern of mistreating you.
- Maintain a record: If you suspect someone might be manipulating you, keep a record of your communication. Write things down. Find every excuse to do things by text or email. This can help if the other person tries to gaslight you and present an alternative version of events.
- Keep your trusted friends close: The narcissist may try to drive a wedge between you and your loved ones. Try not to let it happen. When you start to wonder what's real, they can help you figure it out.
- Maintain your financial independence: Try not to be financially dependent on the narcissist if you can help it. Obviously, that may not be possible if they're your employer. However, for other types of relationships, such as friendships or romantic relationships, having your own money is helpful when you’re getting ready to leave the relationship.
How to Avoid Falling Into a Narcissistic Relationship Pattern
A Word From Verywell
Narcissistic abuse can be traumatic and emotionally scarring. It’s important to recognize this pattern of behavior and extricate yourself from it as soon as possible, in order to protect your mental health and preserve your sense of self.
What Is Trauma Bonding?
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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Howard V. Recognising narcissistic abuse and the implications for mental health nursing practice. Issues Ment Health Nurs. 2019 Aug;40(8):644-654. doi:10.1080/01612840.2019.1590485
Fraser S. The toxic power dynamics of gaslighting in medicine. Can Fam Physician. 2021 May;67(5):367-368. doi:10.46747/cfp.6705367
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By Sanjana Gupta
Sanjana is a health writer and editor. Her work spans various health-related topics, including mental health, fitness, nutrition, and wellness.
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