Cycle of Narcissistic Abuse

Have you ever felt confused, insecure, and frightened in your relationship? Do you often feel like you’re walking on eggshells, always trying to figure out what might set your partner off? How they treat you might cause you to doubt your worth or question if you deserve love and happiness. It’s like being on an emotional roller coaster, where one moment your partner is charming and loving, and the next they’re cold, distant, or even hostile. These constant self-doubt and unpredictability are draining.

This is how a relationship with a narcissist typically looks. But you’re not alone in feeling isolated and trapped in a cycle of narcissistic abuse that seems impossible to break. Recognizing these patterns is the first step toward breaking free and reclaiming your life.

A Relationship with a Narcissist

When you are in a relationship with a narcissist, whether this person is your romantic partner, parent, friend, or coworker, the way you look at yourself and the world may change. Relationships with narcissists are never healthy or reciprocal. They can significantly impact your self-esteem, trust in others, sense of security, and overall well-being, leaving lasting scars on your emotional and mental health.

For instance, if you grow up with a narcissistic parent who is self-centered, controlling, and incapable of developing healthy, meaningful connections, this can impact your well-being and adult relationships.

However, the challenge with narcissistic abuse is that it can be subtle and last for years before the victim recognizes the emotional abuse and its influence on their well-being. When you first start dating a narcissist, they are typically charming, great to be around, and really into you. They shower you with attention, gifts, and affection, making you feel unique and truly blessed. However, you may discover certain personality traits and behaviors that cause concern over time. You may start thinking, “How this happened?” “How has my once caring and fun partner turned into this manipulative, possessive, and self-centered person?”

Narcissists are brilliant actors and manipulators who use their charm to lure people and obtain a constant flow of narcissistic supply. But how can you determine whether someone has narcissistic tendencies or narcissistic personality disorder?

Understanding Narcissism

The term “narcissist” is widely used to describe someone who is self-absorbed and arrogant. However, narcissism occurs on a spectrum, with narcissistic traits normally distributed in the population, with most people scoring somewhere in the center and a few at each extreme.

People whose personalities are generally healthy but score a little higher may have some difficulties in social interactions, struggling to deeply connect with others. They may seem very charming initially, but as get to know them better, they usually come across self-centered and vain.

Individuals with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) often have an inflated sense of self-importance and entitlement with a false sense of superiority to others. They typically appear arrogant and pretentious, believing they deserve special treatment. They usually exaggerate their achievements and talents, always putting their needs first and blaming others for their mistakes and failures. Because they lack empathy and care for others, narcissists are comfortable taking advantage of people to attain their goals, using various manipulative methods to gain dominance and control over others.

Psychology Behind Narcissistic Behavior

Adverse childhood experiences, such as trauma or insecure attachment with significant figures, contribute to developing narcissistic traits or personality disorder. Children who are neglected, rejected, or abused may develop a deep-seated fear of rejection and fragile self-esteem disguised under a mask of great confidence.

A person may have grown up believing they were not good enough or deserving enough if their parents or other caregivers did not meet their needs for love, safety, and protection, which could have resulted in intense feelings of shame and failure. Children who have experienced early attachment trauma may begin to believe they are better than others in order to deal with having a negative perception of themselves and compensate for their emotions of loneliness, unhappiness, and poor self-esteem. So, as adults, they constantly seek attention and admiration from others and need a constant narcissistic supply to feed their ego.

Understanding Narcissistic Supply

Narcissists use narcissistic supply, a form of manipulation, to satisfy their excessive need for attention and admiration. In their relationships, narcissists need someone to keep feeding their ego. Since they typically cannot connect with other people in healthy and mutually satisfying ways, narcissists need a narcissistic supply – someone to admire them and feed their self-perception of superiority and entitlement.

Therefore, a narcissist will typically go after people who are attracted to their superficial charm and charisma, vulnerable, and easy to control. These people are then drawn into a cycle of narcissistic abuse, often without even realizing it.

What is a Cycle of Narcissistic Abuse?

Narcissistic abuse usually happens in a cycle of highs and lows in which the narcissist alternates between periods of idealization, devaluation, and discarding their partner or victim. This cycle of narcissistic abuse is repeated over and over, exhausting the victim and diminishing their confidence and self-esteem.

The Stages of Narcissistic Abuse Cycle

The main phases of this cycle of abuse involve:

  • Idealization: The narcissist shovers the victim with attention and affection.
  • Devaluation: The narcissist starts criticizing, belittling, and abusing the victim
  • Discard: The narcissist abandons or distances themselves from the victim, often for a new source of supply.


At the start of a romantic relationship with a narcissist, they may seem deeply in love with you, showering you with compliments, presents, love calls and texts, and undivided attention. You may feel like the center of their universe, which may be pretty enjoyable. They will tell you that you are their soulmate and love of their life. These behaviors may be signs of love bombing, a common narcissistic manipulation strategy. However, these red flags are easy to miss because their behavior makes you feel wonderful.

Love bombing is an emotional manipulation tactic where your partner overwhelms you with excessive affection, admiration, and attention to gain control. Although this may initially feel great, it is often linked to narcissistic behavior. The cycle of narcissistic abuse usually starts with a phase of idealization. These grand gestures are intended to make you feel like you owe them something. This creates a sense of obligation towards the narcissist, setting the stage for them to exert power over you.

This stage of an emotional high might last several days, weeks, or months. However, the red flags will appear at some point – your partner’s behavior may become inconsistent, emotionally distant, or even hostile. They will fluctuate between affection and care to being neglectful, emotionally unavailable, rude, or cruel. This inconsistency can leave you feeling confused and exhausted.


The second stage of the cycle of narcissistic abuse begin when the narcissist perceives a threat from something that challenges their ego. This can be your refusal to fulfill their demands or your attempt to set boundaries. The narcissist then engages in abusive behaviors that may start with verbal or emotional abuse and escalate to physical violence. However, the narcissist will then twist the situation and, causing the victim to feel guilty and accept responsibility.

Narcissists use various manipulation strategies, such as gaslighting, triangulation, or hoovering, to twist reality, exert control, and keep the victim in the relationship. This allows them to feel empowered and superior. Once the victim goes along with the narcissist’s distorted perception, peace is temporarily restored. However, the cycle of abuse will continue when the narcissist senses any threat to their ego.

You may worry if you are overreacting or being overly sensitive. The blame and guilt they project onto you can make you feel like you’re the one at fault, even when, deep down, you know that’s not true. However, they will pile guilt on you until you completely surrender and succumb to their control.


When victims of narcissistic abuse decide to stand up for themselves, asking for empathy, integrity, reciprocity, and boundaries, or once they don’t feed the narcissist’s ego anymore, the narcissist will discard and abandon them. When a narcissist decides to leave you, there will be no regrets, apologies, or empathy.

The discarding stage doesn’t necessarily mean they are done with you, as narcissists tend to repeat this cycle of manipulation and abuse as long as they don’t find another supply. However, if you choose to exit the toxic relationship, the narcissist will most likely argue, plead, or negotiate since they are not done with you yet.

How Can I Tell If I am in a Cycle of Narcissistic Abuse?

Am i in a cycle of narcissistic abuse?

Recognizing the signs of narcissistic abuse can be challenging, especially when you’re deeply involved in the relationship. Still, warning signs recognizing and understanding this cycle can help you establish boundaries, break the cycle, and seek help.

Here are some red flags to help you identify narcissistic behaviors and break free from the cycle of narcissistic abuse.

They are excessively charming and into you: Initially, narcissists often appear charming and may bombard you with excessive attention and compliments.

Love bombing, then devaluation: They initially love-bomb (overwhelm you with love and affection) and later devalue you, creating a cycle of highs and lows.

They don’t respect your boundaries: Narcissists believe they deserve to be in charge of other people’s time, attention, and private lives. They don’t respect your requests for alone time, appreciation, personal interest, growth, and social connections outside of your relationship.

Lack of empathy: They show little to no genuine concern for your feelings and regularly disregard or degrade them.

Exploitive behavior: When you’re in a relationship with a narcissist, there is no reciprocity. These people love to control people, using them to get what they want, like power and money, or to boost their ego. At the same time, they don’t care about how the other person feels or what they need.

They project guilt: The narcissist may regularly use guilt to get what they want. Their manipulation could cause you to reconsider your judgments and put their wants ahead of yours.

Gaslighting: They may make you question your reality and common sense by telling you your thoughts, perceptions, memories, and feelings are incorrect, leading you to question your sanity, recollections, and knowledge.

Grandiosity and entitlement: Narcissists have an inflated sense of their importance and believe they are superior to others, so they expect special treatment and think the rules do not apply to them.

Inconsistent behavior: They display unpredictable feelings and behaviors, throwing you off guard.

They are jealous and possessive: They are often overly jealous and possessive, wanting to control all aspects of your life.

They isolate you: They may isolate you from friends and family to gain more control over you.

Emotional abuse: They may frequently criticize or belittle you and make demeaning comments about your skills, knowledge, or appearance.

Breaking Free from the Cycle of Narcissistic Abuse - 9 Tips

Acknowledge the Abuse

The first step towards breaking free from the cycle of narcissistic abuse and healing is to recognize and accept that you are in an abusive relationship. This allows you to understand your situation and validate your feelings.

Educate yourself

Learn about narcissistic personality disorder and the common traits and tactics of narcissists, such as gaslighting, manipulation, and emotional abuse. Reflect on your relationship and identify patterns of abuse. Acknowledge that the behavior is abusive and not your fault.

Build a Support System

Seek support from people you trust and consider counseling to help you heal from abuse. Surround yourself with friends, family, and professional help who can offer empathy, encouragement, and practical advice during your recovery journey.

Set Boundaries

Learn to say no and establish firm boundaries to protect yourself from further manipulation and abuse, reinforcing your autonomy and self-respect. The narcissist will most likely try to violate your boundaries by hoovering you, either by pleading or threatening to suck you back into a toxic relationship but stay firm and consistent. Limit or cut off communication with the narcissist, particularly if they continue to manipulate and injure you.

Depersonalize their behavior

Narcissists often engage in hurtful or abusive behavior as a way to meet their own needs for attention, control, or validation. It’s important to recognize that their behavior is a reflection of their own issues, rather than taking it personally or internalizing their criticisms.

Rebuild your identity

Narcissistic abuse often involves systematic attempts to tear down the victim’s sense of self-worth, individuality, and personal identity. The narcissist may belittle your interests, dismiss your values, and erode your confidence through manipulation and emotional abuse. As you break free from this toxic situation, it’s essential to reclaim and rebuild your identity.

Start by reconnecting with the activities, hobbies, and passions that once brought you joy and fulfillment before the narcissist attempted to diminish them. Rediscover your core values and beliefs that make you who you are, independent of the narcissist’s controlling influences. Set personal goals that are meaningful to you, not just aimed at pleasing the narcissist. Explore new experiences, make new connections, and allow yourself to evolve and grow in a supportive environment. The process of rebuilding your identity takes time and courage, but it’s a vital step in healing from narcissistic abuse and re-embracing your authentic self.

Practice Self-Care Strategies

Engage in regular exercise, mindfulness, and journaling to promote self-healing and regain confidence and emotional stability.

When to leave

While every situation is unique, there are some major red flags that signal it may be time to leave a relationship with a narcissist. If the abuse – whether emotional, verbal, financial or physical – is escalating and creating an increasingly unsafe environment, this is an immediate cause for concern.

A complete lack of accountability, remorse or willingness to change on the part of the narcissist indicates the relationship cannot be repaired. When the narcissist’s manipulation, gaslighting and emotional abuse begin taking an overwhelming toll on your mental health and self-esteem, leaving may be necessary for your own well-being. Isolation from your support system, financial control and exploitation, and an unsafe environment for children are also strong signs that it is time to prioritize your safety and remove yourself from the narcissist’s abusive sphere of influence.

Seek Support

If you’re struggling to cope with a narcissist’s behavior or experiencing emotional or psychological abuse, don’t hesitate to seek help from a qualified mental health professional. They can provide valuable support, guidance, and strategies for dealing with the situation

We can help you heal from narcissistic abuse.

Schedule a consultation with our vetted therapists to get support.

Dealing with a Narcissist: How Can You Interact with a Narcissist to Minimize Harm? (14 Strategies)

Setting Boundaries with a Narcissist

Setting boundaries is crucial for self-care, especially when dealing with a narcissist. Narcissists often push boundaries through manipulative behaviors like love bombing, gaslighting, and guilt-tripping, making interactions emotionally exhausting. To protect your well-being, it’s essential to establish and enforce clear limits in your interactions with them, regardless of the relationship type.

Insist on Clear and Assertive Communication

Communicate your boundaries calmly and assertively without apologizing. Use “I” statements to express your needs and concerns.

Define Consequences

Clearly define and stick to consequences for boundary violations, ensuring that the narcissist understands the rules that apply to them.

Stay Consistent

Remain consistent and determined in reinforcing your boundaries despite the narcissist’s attempts to push your limits. Stay calm and respectful but firm.

Avoid feeding their ego

Narcissists thrive on attention, admiration, and validation. While it’s tempting to confront or argue with them, it’s often better to avoid engaging in their games or feeding their need for superiority. Respond with minimal emotion and avoid getting defensive or reactive.

Manage your expectations

Narcissists are unlikely to change or acknowledge their behavior. It’s important to manage your expectations and avoid expecting empathy, accountability, or genuine remorse from them. Focus on protecting yourself rather than trying to change them.

Limit contact if necessary

If the narcissist in your life is causing significant harm or distress, it may be necessary to limit or even cut off contact altogether. This can be challenging, especially if the person is a family member or colleague, but prioritizing your well-being is essential.

Create an exit strategy for anticipated interactions

Before any anticipated interaction with a narcissist, create an exit strategy to protect your well-being. Set a predetermined time limit for the interaction and use a timer or pre-arranged excuse to leave once that time is up. Choose safe, public locations where the narcissist is less likely to create a scene or behave abusively. If you have a supportive person with you, develop a signal that indicates you need to leave immediately. Prepare a set of polite excuses in advance, such as needing to attend another appointment or handling an urgent matter. You can even pre-arrange for a friend to call you at a specific time, providing a natural break or excuse to end the interaction.

In addition to an exit strategy, set clear boundaries beforehand. Communicate your limits to the narcissist upfront, such as topics you won’t discuss or behaviors you won’t tolerate. Be firm and consistent in enforcing these boundaries during the interaction. If the narcissist violates your boundaries, follow through on your pre-determined exit plan without negotiation. Maintaining healthy boundaries and having a solid exit strategy in place can help minimize the potential for abuse and protect your mental well-being when dealing with a narcissist.

Don’t take the bait

Narcissists often use provocative language, insults, or manipulation tactics to elicit a strong emotional reaction from you. It’s crucial to resist the urge to engage or defend yourself, as this only feeds their need for control and attention.

Maintain composure

Narcissists may try to push your buttons or provoke you into losing your temper. Maintaining a calm and composed demeanor can be challenging, but it helps prevent them from gaining the upper hand and prevents you from escalating the situation.

Avoid sharing personal information

Narcissists may use personal information or vulnerabilities against you. It’s wise to limit the amount of personal details you share with them to avoid giving them ammunition for manipulation or exploitation.

Gray rock technique

When dealing with a narcissist, the “gray rock” technique can be effective. This involves responding in an unemotional, monotonous, and uninteresting manner, which can help discourage their need for drama and attention. Essentially, you become as unresponsive and uninteresting as a gray rock.

Medium chill technique

This is similar to the “gray rock” method, but involves responding with a neutral, mildly positive attitude, rather than being completely flat and unengaged. The goal is to avoid rewarding the narcissist’s behavior with excessive attention or emotional reactions, while still maintaining a level of civility.

Broken record technique

This involves calmly and consistently repeating your boundaries or requests, without getting drawn into arguments or justifications. For example, if a narcissist demands something unreasonable, you can simply repeat “I’m not comfortable with that” or “That doesn’t work for me” in a calm, measured tone.

Long-Term Recovery and Healing

Recovery from narcissistic abuse involves rebuilding your self-esteem and sense of safety. Seek professional help from a therapist experienced in narcissistic abuse to navigate the emotional turmoil and develop coping strategies. Surround yourself with supportive friends and family who understand your situation and can offer empathy and encouragement.

To restore physical and mental health, engage in self-care practices, such as regular exercise, healthy eating, and mindfulness activities. Journaling can help you process your emotions and track your healing progress.

Joining support groups, either online or in-person, can connect you with others who have experienced similar abuse, providing a sense of community and shared understanding.

Professional guidance is vital for addressing deep-seated trauma, helping you understand that you are not alone on your journey to healing.


Priscilla is a therapist, psychoanalyst, and the practice owner of Imagine Emotional Wellness, a culturally responsive online therapy practice in New York, New Jersey, and Washington DC. 

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