People who have been in relationships with narcissists often display specific symptoms that reveal what they’ve experienced.
These same symptoms can manifest whether they’ve been dealing with a narcissistic parent or romantic partner.
Some people experience only a few of them, while others can display the entire array of them at various times.
Below are 12 of the most common symptoms of narcissistic victim syndrome, and how they can manifest. If you’re recovering from narcissistic abuse, some of these may already be familiar to you. You may experience them in different ways than others do, of course, as every individual feels things in their own way.
That said, it’s important to recognize these symptoms when and if they appear. They speak volumes about your experience, and can be a good reference for you and your health support network to help you heal from your traumas.
Many victims of narcissistic abuse find that they’re constantly braced for abuse. They might flinch every time they make a noise on the off chance that the sound will cause their narcissist to hurl insults at them.
They may wince at raised voices because they’re used to being yelled at. They may have difficulty relaxing because they’re constantly waiting for the inevitable abuse.
Anxiety like this is pretty much an ever-present fear. It’ll often creep into other aspects of a person’s life – not just their relationship. For example, they may have a constant, low-grade fear of “something bad” happening at any point in time.
When you never know what to expect from a partner or parent and are constantly on your guard, it’s difficult to shift direction when you aren’t in their company. Intrusive thoughts may sideline you when you’re doing different tasks, and you may get jumpy whenever something unexpected happens.
Some victims of narcissistic abuse have difficulty driving because they worry every time someone else on the road does something they don’t expect. Their reactions overwhelm them, and instead of just responding to someone braking suddenly, they’ll develop full-on panic attacks to anything unexpected.
This makes daily life very difficult to navigate. Life is uncertain, and when you’re fearful about literally anything and everything that may happen, daily existence becomes pretty debilitating.
Additionally, this type of constant anxiety can cause physical symptoms such as persistent headaches, heartbeat irregularities, and gastrointestinal issues like heartburn, ulcers, and IBS.
It’s hard not to be depressed when every single day brings the promise of abuse and emotional distress. Things get even worse when there doesn’t seem to be any option to escape these circumstances.
People who have experienced (or still are experiencing) narcissistic abuse may feel hopeless. They may believe that cruelty and not having the freedom to do what they want, when they want, is all they get to look forward to for the rest of their lives.
They often feel like trapped slaves, living lives that they don’t want, but have no choice about.
In extreme cases, when someone has been a victim of narcissistic abuse for a long time and they feel like there’s no escaping their torture, they may even attempt suicide.
Not only is this behavior destructive to the victim and devastating to their close friends and family, it can make their lives even more difficult if they survive.
If their suicide attempt is unsuccessful, they risk incurring even further wrath from their abuser. Their narcissist will guilt trip them for attempting to abandon them, or mock them that they’re so pathetic that they can’t even kill themselves properly.
Furthermore, the narcissist may tell healthcare providers stories about mental instability, then insist on sitting in on therapy sessions (for their prey’s own good, of course), and gaslighting any attempt on their part to tell their own story.
Narcissists are so good at manipulating their partners and children that they know exactly which buttons to push in front of therapists. They’ll make their victims seem unstable, and paint themselves as long-suffering saints who have had to deal with these “difficult” creatures in their lives.
This is one of the many reasons why relationships with narcissists are so damaging. They really do make life a living hell for those around them.
3. Difficulty Trusting
When a person who’s supposed to love you ends up hurting, betraying, and gaslighting you on a constant basis, they make it very difficult for you to trust anyone else.
After all, if this person was able to fool you into believing that they were wonderful, only to turn out to be a complete monster later, how could you ever trust anyone again?
Once someone has been manipulated by a narcissist, they often see just about anyone else as a potential threat. They’ll assume that the people they meet are wearing masks and will push them away eventually. They’ll also worry about being lied to, and won’t be able to let their guard down just in case they’re betrayed or hurt again.
They might have trouble feeling safe and secure pretty much anywhere. This can lead to anxiety and difficulty concentrating at work, and then insomnia and hypervigilance at home.
Sadly, their insomnia and hypervigilance may stick around for years after their relationship ends. This tends to happen more often with people who were raised by a narcissistic parent, especially one who would wake them up at night, or have tantrums and fits when they were trying to sleep.
4. Obsessive Perfectionism Or Overachievement
You may feel like nothing you do is ever good enough. Or “enough” in general. Narcissists are so incredibly critical that their victims tend to get obsessive and perfectionist in an attempt to avoid being raged at.
If your narcissist was a neat freak and berated you if there was so much as a stray crumb on a corner, you may have developed some serious OCD when it comes to cleaning. Have you ever stayed up all night scrubbing the bathroom with a toothbrush, or bleaching all the kitchen counters so there’s no ammunition to potentially attack you with?
Other people’s perfectionism might manifest in different ways, depending on the dynamic they have with their narcissist.
For example, a teenager with a narcissist for a parent might obsess about getting perfect scores on essays and exams. A 20-something with a narcissist for a partner may be incredibly focused on their appearance, diligently plucking every stray hair, or ensuring that their clothes are pristine.
Basically, they do their best to avoid giving their abuser any reason to attack them. Sadly, their narcissist will always find something new to berate them for, despite their best efforts.
If you have a narcissist for a parent, you could have an honors PhD degree, be an award-winning triathlete, and have a successful career and wonderful children, and they would mock you for your degree choice, tell you that your body is the wrong shape, and that you’re a bad parent.
Nothing you do will ever be good enough in their eyes.
5. Eating Disorder(s)
Many victims of narcissistic abuse develop eating disorders of one kind or another. This goes along with the previous obsessive perfectionism, but also ties in with many other symptoms on this list.
When people feel helpless, or trapped, or unable to control various other aspects of their daily lives, they often seek to retain sovereignty over the one thing they can control: their own food intake.
As an example, a person who constantly feels on edge because they’re afraid of how their abuser will attack them might go for long periods of time without eating. This type of anorexia actually soothes them. They feel empowered by their ability to master their own hunger.
Furthermore, many narcissists are very domineering and insulting about other people’s behaviors, as well as their physical appearance. A narcissist who’s obsessed with body perfection can’t very well insult someone for eating too much and getting fat if that person barely eats, and/or is underweight.
For others, they might develop bulimia instead. This often happens to people who are comfort eaters; namely those who soothe themselves by eating. When they’re hurting, they turn to favorite foods to bring them joy in order to mitigate their emotional pain.
Then, when they force themselves to vomit, they’re not only counteracting potential weight gain – they’re purging themselves of the emotions they didn’t want to feel to begin with. Many even feel a sense of euphoria when this happens. It creates a really vicious, unhealthy cycle that can result in long-lasting physical as well as emotional illness.
6. Obsessive Behaviors
If you had a relationship with a narcissist who kept you in a constant state of instability, you may have developed a tendency to self-sooth with certain behaviors.
For example, some people clean their houses obsessively when they feel stressed or anxious. This is often the case when someone has lived with a narcissistic parent or partner who was very meticulous about household cleanliness.
You may have gotten into the habit of scrubbing things as perfectly as possible in the hope that they might not have something to criticize you or be horrible to you about that day.
Alternatively, you may have developed a nervous habit of pulling at your hair or biting your nails due to anxiety. You may obsess over all of your belongings being symmetrically aligned, or you may feel the need to double check things like making sure the oven is off.
This is especially common if your narcissist ever lost it on you for making a mistake, and you’re trying to avoid incurring their wrath again.
Did you leave the door unlocked one time and they gave you hell about it for months/years? Then it’s very likely you’ll check that door a dozen times before you can sleep to make absolutely sure it’s locked this time.
These tendencies can stick around long after the relationship ends. We can get into traumatic behavior cycles that are very difficult to break free from, especially without help.
In many narcissistic relationships, the two individuals have a strange codependency on one another. Basically, they enable one another’s behaviors because, on some level, things “work” for them.
Here’s an example: a person who was raised by a narcissist might feel safe and comfortable in a relationship where they’re constantly being criticized and put down. They know it isn’t healthy for them, but those behaviors are so familiar to them that they’re oddly comfortable.
The victim knows how to navigate the narcissist’s rollercoaster, and may actually feel validated and empowered when and if they get their abuser to be nice to them. Because they’ve won that round.
In turn, the narcissist has a victim who’s willing to play along with their games. They have a dance partner who knows their steps and won’t make real attempts to break free from their control. Even worse, their partner will keep trying to make them happy and help them because they sincerely love them.
This often happens between narcissists and empaths, and creates a very unhealthy dynamic. When this occurs, the narcissist inevitably leaves once they get bored or disenchanted, leaving a very hurt, damaged empath in their wake.
8. Doubting Your Own Abilities
Narcissists are renowned for their gaslighting abilities, and their skills at undermining other people’s self-esteem.
One of the main ways they do this is by questioning the other person’s competence in pretty much everything they do. The narcissist does this so they have greater control over their victim’s life, and also to wear down their prey’s self-esteem.
After all, if they’re confident in their own thoughts, opinions, and abilities, then they might leave, right?
As a result, you may find that you second-guess any opinions or decisions you make. You may have been questioned, interrogated, or mocked for various things that you’ve chosen to do. Even your preferences for foods, TV shows, books, and hobbies may have been made fun of or called into question.
You may find yourself turning to other people to validate your life choices, as well as even basic decisions. Do you ask your friends for their opinion when you go out to eat with them? Are you constantly asking people if what you say “makes sense” or “sounds crazy”?
You’ve been taught that you can’t trust your own instincts and decisions, and that only someone else’s opinion matters when it comes to your own life. That’s devastating, but you can regain your self-esteem and faith in yourself. It just takes time, and little steps forward.
Considering how narcissists can lash out and be horrible in various ways, most narcissistic abuse victims have learned to be hypervigilant. They’re ever watchful for the slightest shift in verbal tone, body language, and energy for cues as to how their narcissist will react next.
If this is something you’ve been doing, chances are you feel a wave of anxiety or panic if and when you feel that their energy is shifting.
You’re likely extremely aware of your every word, every physical action, because you know how badly they might react to the “wrong” phrase or movement you make.
You’ve learned how to dance upon the eggshells they’ve scattered everywhere so as to lessen the attacks toward you.
10. Managing Other People’s Emotions By Modifying Your Own
When you’ve had to deal with a narcissist for a long period of time, you’ve likely been very acutely attuned to their mood shifts.
When and if you sense that their mood is changing – either because of something you’ve said or done, or because something else in their world has set them off – you’ll undoubtedly have coping strategies at hand to deal with them.
You may choose your verbal tone very carefully to make sure you don’t trigger an outburst, for example. Furthermore, you may have a number of methods for turning the conversation around to calm their rage or cruelty toward you.
As a result, you’re never able to truly express your own thoughts and emotions.
11. Feelings Of Intense Loneliness Or Isolation
One of the many ways that narcissists abuse their victims is by isolating them. They’ll guilt trip their prey every time they socialize with others so they’ll stop. They’ll also start smear campaigns about them so their friends and family members turn against them.
This can cause their victim to feel a tremendous sense of loneliness and isolation. It gets even worse when the people in their social circles don’t believe them when and if they’re turned to for help.
Narcissists are often very charming and can convince their victim’s entire social network that their prey is a horrible person. They’ll spin webs of lies about their prey so they won’t be believed when and if they reach out to anyone.
Then of course, those social circle members become good little “flying monkeys” and report back to the narcissist if the victim says anything remotely bad about them.
This leaves the victim with only one main person in their lives: their tormentor. It’s one of the many reasons why victims of narcissistic abuse end up with so much mental and emotional damage. They live in a hellish prison, being constantly tortured by the very person upon whom they depend.
Things get even worse when and if the narcissist has also made them financially dependent upon them. Then, not only do they have to depend on the narcissist for any/all of their socialization, they have to stay with them for their very survival. And they can’t reach out to their social group because they can’t trust anyone, and their circle has been poisoned toward them.
It’s an insidious trap that’s very difficult to break out of, and even more painstaking to heal from.
Many of these symptoms fall under the umbrella of complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD).
Unlike regular PTSD, which is caused by a singular traumatic event, complex PTSD occurs when people have experienced stressful, torturous circumstances over a long period of time.
People with this condition will often self-isolate because they’re afraid of trusting others, and because they expect to be mistreated or abused by the people they get close to.
They might experience difficulties with speaking, such as stuttering, stammering, or muttering beneath their breath, and be prone to constantly apologizing.
If you feel that you experience most of the things on this list, please seek help.
Please don’t ever think that seeking help in order to heal from the abuse you experienced means that you aren’t strong enough or brave enough.
You’ve been through hell with this person and have survived everything they’ve thrown at you. That’s something to be proud of. Now, you may need a hand to help pull you out of the darkness you’ve been in, back into the light.
If you’ve been on the receiving end of narcissistic abuse, you undoubtedly have a long healing process ahead of you.
Remember that words have power.
When we refer to ourselves as “victims,” we reinforce that narrative. This can delay the healing process exponentially.
In contrast, someone who calls themselves a survivor instead is a person who is choosing to step into their own power.
You’re amazing, and you can get through this.
If you are ready to get help to heal from the narcissistic abuse you have suffered, we highly recommend the online programs from Kim Saeed. Here at A Conscious Rethink, we’ve been referring people to Kim’s programs for a number of years. She is one of the most experienced teachers in the narcissistic abuse recovery space. Enroll in one of her two programs: Beyond No Contact and The Essential Break Free Bootcamp. They will change your life.
You may also like:
- 8 Things That Are Essential To Recovery From Narcissistic Abuse
- How To Communicate Effectively After A Narcissistic Relationship
- How To Leave A Narcissist + Coping Mechanisms To Move Forward
- The Rollercoaster Of Recovery From Narcissistic Abuse
- 5 Twisted Things Narcissists Say And Do To Get You Back