What is narcissistic abuse and how does it affect its victims

Narcissists can stoop to any level to guard that image, often ending up emotionally — and sometimes physically — abusing their loved ones.

Myupchar October 17, 2019 13:46:13 IST
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What is narcissistic abuse and how does it affect its victims
  • Experts define narcissists as people driven by guilt or shame, who have a fake self-image that they admire

  • They can stoop to any level to guard that image, often ending up emotionally - and sometimes physically - abusing their loved ones

  • About 450 million people have a narcissistic personality disorder (NPD)

The word narcissist is often used for people who spend a bit too much time loving or caring for themselves. However, at its core, narcissism is much more than an obsession with selfies or the mirror.

Experts define narcissists as people driven by guilt or shame, who have a fake self-image that they admire. They can stoop to any level to guard that image, often ending up emotionally — and sometimes physically — abusing their loved ones.

What is narcissistic abuse and how does it affect its victims

Representational image.
Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

According to the website of World Narcissistic Abuse Awareness Day (WNAAD), about 450 million people have a narcissistic personality disorder (NPD).

People who are constantly abused by narcissists tend to believe a distorted version of reality as they are constantly lied to and manipulated. They tend to be sceptical about everything and find it hard to trust others as they have been conditioned to do so by their abuser.

It has been scientifically proven that repeated and long-term abuse can damage not only memory but also the thinking and learning ability.

What damage does it cause to the brain? 

In a blog published on Psych Central, author and researcher Kim Saeed wrote that narcissistic abuse acts like traumatic stress and can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Studies suggest that long-term traumatic stress affects three major parts of the brain - the hippocampus, prefrontal cortex, and amygdala.

Hippocampus stores the short-term memories in your brain before they get converted into long-term memory. Hence it decides how and when you learn new things. Continuous stress due to abuse can damage the brain cells in the hippocampus, making it gradually shrink in size. As a result, the person starts to forget things easily and finds it difficult to learn new stuff.

The prefrontal cortex is the region of the brain that is located right behind the eyes. This region controls attention, memory, decision-making, and planning. Just like the hippocampus, this region is observed to shrink in traumatic stress. People suffering from narcissistic abuse find it difficult to make decisions and tend to have a shorter attention span. They also tend to be depressed and present with a lack of self-care.

Finally, amygdala — the fear centre of the brain — gets activated every time you feel anxious or scared. It stores all the memories of the abuse and gets activated every time someone talks about it. Traumatic stress increases the size of the amygdala. This manifests as increased anxiety and mood disorders.

Do narcissists know what they are doing?

Though the victim might not be consciously aware of the abuse, most narcissists know what they are doing.

Erika Carlson, an assistant professor at the Washington University in St Louis explained the mindset of a narcissistic person in her paper published in the Journal of Personality and Social Disorders. According to her, narcissists are aware of their negative traits but they either do not care or think that people around them fail to see how "awesome" they are. They just love who they are and have no desire to change.

What can be done to stop it?

The best way to stop narcissistic abuse is to end the relationship with the abuser or simply stay away from them. Elinor Greenberg, a psychologist and writer, and lecturer on borderline, narcissistic and schizoid conditions, lists the following ways to cope with the after-effects of narcissistic abuse:

  • Notice what personal beliefs are keeping you from moving forward and challenge yourself to deal with them.
  • Find out what was making you support the abuser and blame yourself.
  • Write down what your mind says about the situation. So while your heart may say that you still care for that person, your mind would always know that something was wrong.

Health articles in Firstpost are written by myUpchar.com, India’s first and biggest resource for verified medical information. At myUpchar, researchers and journalists work with doctors to bring you information on all things health. To learn about other mental health conditions, please read our article here.

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