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Trial By Narcissist – How Narcissistic Abuse Alters Your Brain

Written by: Catherine Cabrera, Executive Contributor

Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise.

 
Executive Contributor Catherine Cabrera

Narcissism has been known about for a long time, yet it’s recently becoming more understood and talked about amongst the population and on various social media platforms. As awareness is growing around this topic, it’s important to know what narcissism is, and how being in a relationship with a narcissist impacts your mental and physical health long-term.

A photo of a man pointing finger in the camera.

What is narcissism?


Simply put, narcissism is excessive self-love or egocentrism, as defined by the APA Dictionary of Psychology. But, this is not necessarily the same definition that’s being used when talking about narcissistic abuse or narcissistic relationships. In the context of narcissistic abuse or narcissistic relationships, it is defined as someone having an excessive or erotic interest in oneself and physical appearance, or an inflated sense of self-importance and extreme self-involvement everything revolves around them and they believe their needs, desires, feelings, etc. are more important than anyone else’s.


You may be thinking “I know a couple people like that…” this doesn’t necessarily mean they are narcissists, but they may have specific traits that align with it. This is the difference between someone who is narcissistic and someone who is a narcissist or has Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD).


To help differentiate, here’s a basic example: you may know someone who’s really good at playing basketball, but that same person is probably not a professional in the NBA. It’s important to understand this distinction when referring to someone, as they mean very different things.


Signs of narcissism


As mentioned, it’s important to understand the difference between someone with narcissistic traits and someone who can be identified as a narcissist. With that said, here are several common signs that you may be dealing with a narcissist:


Love-bombing & breadcrumbing


Love-bombing is one of the more talked about tactics narcissists will use. If they came right out of the gate gaslighting you and criticizing you, you’d likely run out the door before the waiter can take your drink order. What a narcissist will do is quite the opposite in the beginning stages of the relationship they’ll shower you with compliments, make you feel like the greatest thing since sliced bread, and even express feelings of love very quickly. In doing this, they paint themselves as a nice and loving person, someone you can be vulnerable with. For some, this comes with breadcrumbing demonstrating interest in you when they’re not, with the intention of getting something from you but breadcrumbing is not present in every case.


Criticism


Narcissists will often try to diminish you and make you feel insignificant to help themselves feel better about themselves. This can include harsh criticism and aiming at what will hit you the hardest. Their responses to things are typically disproportionate to the situation let’s say you’re not feeling well and ask your partner to care for the kids so you can rest. The narcissist will tell you you’re being lazy, just want to burden them, and you’re a terrible parent, all while ignoring the fact that you have a high-grade fever and can barely get out of bed, let alone take care of your children.


Avoids taking responsibility


A classic narcissist will do ANYTHING to avoid taking responsibility. They’ll shift the blame to anyone and everyone else before acknowledging their behaviors. A lot of times they’ll twist your words and flip the script so that not only are they not responsible, you’re somehow apologizing to them after they did something to hurt you. Doing this, gives them several advantages:


  • They don’t have to take accountability for their actions

  • They get to be the victim and use that against you for however long they want to

  • They can pretend not to understand your perspective so they can continue whatever it is they’re doing


All of these behaviors will have you questioning yourself and reality, while also pushing you to gradually believe their version of the story because they’ve made you feel like you can’t trust yourself or your judgment. What is their narrative? It’s always going to be your fault, one way or another, because they can do no wrong in their eyes.


Gaslighting


Gaslighting is arguably the most discussed tactic used by the narcissist. Simply put, as defined by the National Domestic Violence Hotline, gaslighting is when someone causes you to question your own reality, perception, and/or mental stability. Common examples include invalidating your emotional experience (“you’re just being crazy/overreacting/sensitive”), dismissing the issue (“it’s always something with you”), denying or ‘forgetting’ (“I don’t know what you’re talking about”), or even directly calling into question your memory/perception (“you’re remembering things wrong. You must be confused again”).


Over time, statements like this are internalized and cause you to question yourself “maybe I am crazy/overreacting”. This is exactly what the narcissist wants, as it allows for the continuation of harmful, deceitful, and abusive behaviors without accountability.


Lack of empathy


This one may be obvious by now, but narcissists often completely lack empathy. When you’re going through something traumatic, it’s like everything is perfectly fine in their world, or they get angry with you because you’re taking the attention away from them. Positive attention and admiration are absolutely vital to the narcissist they want to be perceived as charismatic and wonderful, but they are vengeful and demeaning toward the ones they claim to love without remorse for doing so.


Projecting through accusations


Narcissists know what they’re doing they tend to be very calculated individuals and know how to get what they want with no regard for anyone else in the process. This includes infidelity, various forms of abuse, invalidating you into submission, etc., all in the name of getting what they want. However, narcissists will indirectly out themselves. They will start accusing you of things without any proof. One, it gives them the upper hand because they’ve already caused you to question yourself and adjust to “always being in the wrong”, but two, they will accuse you of the very things they’re doing behind your back. For some, it can be out of shame, while for others, it’s a way to dangle it in front of your face and make you feel worse about yourself. A few examples may be accusing you of lying, cheating in your relationship, twisting their words, etc. typically if the narcissist is accusing you of these things, it’s likely it’s exactly what they’re doing to you.


Silent treatment & narcissistic tantrums


If you’ve ever experienced a narcissist not getting what they want, you know where this is going. If you don’t, strap in! As I mentioned previously, narcissists will behave in a way to get what they want in every situation. This is especially so when it comes to celebrations or tragedies that aren’t about them. Birthdays, anniversaries, funerals, graduations, you name it it will be shifted to being about them, and if it doesn’t work, they will throw a narcissistic tantrum to draw your attention to them. They will intentionally ruin it for you because if they can’t have the attention, you can’t either, and they will show zero remorse. These tantrums can come in the form of physical or verbal aggression, or as the silent treatment. These tactics are used to manipulate you and regain control over you through fear and intimidation with the intention of ensuring they get what they want in the future.


Common impacts on mental & physical health


Reflecting on the list above, it may be clear that there’s a variety of mental and physical implications a relationship platonic, familial, or romantic with a narcissist can have on you. Not all of the examples below may be applicable to you, as they are dependent on how the narcissist in your life behaves and the tactics that are used; however, they are among the most common:


Emotional & behavioral changes


When on the receiving end of narcissistic behaviors, you’re likely to experience emotional changes, and more often than not, they happen pretty quickly. Once the love-bombing ends and you’re strapped-in to the relationship, the narcissistic tendencies will start to come in full swing. You’re likely to shrug it off and attribute it to a bad day or a rough patch, but it’s only the beginning.


The longer you’re in a relationship with a narcissist, the more ingrained and internalized the behaviors and messaging will get. You’ll probably notice you’re not as confident as you once were you used to be so full of life and motivated to shoot for the stars in several aspects of your life, but lately, you’ve been more complacent and unmotivated. Your self-esteem has declined and it gets worse with every ounce of criticism, yet you feel ashamed and guilty for the way you feel.


You’ve probably noticed you feel on-edge or tense around your partner, even when they’re in a good mood. You’re walking on eggshells, hoping you don’t do or say anything to trigger their rage or silent treatment, but at the same time, you never really know what will trigger those reactions, so you question everything you say or do. Everything is calculated with the hope that you can avoid every possible scenario where you’re treated poorly, even if it means diminishing yourself in the process.


For many who have left the narcissistic relationship, they often experience emotional flashbacks moments when something reminds them of how they once felt, or if someone around them gets angry, they emotionally go back to their time with the narcissist. It can result in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD), and in cases where infidelity is involved, post-infidelity stress disorder (PISD). All of these can come with a variety of symptoms, including anxiety, panic attacks, inability to trust others or be vulnerable, fear, isolation, depression, self-destructive behaviors (substance misuse, restriction of food, self-harm, etc.), suicidality, and many more.


Physical changes


When thinking about trauma and narcissism, we don’t often think about the physical changes that can occur, unless there’s physical violence or aggression in the relationship*. In narcissistic relationships, the person who endures the abuse goes through major, yet quiet changes. For example, because of the anxiety and chronic stress of not wanting to trigger the narcissist, you may notice gastrointestinal issues, hair loss, changes in your food intake leading to weight changes, frequent headaches or migraines, muscle tension, chronic fatigue the list goes on.


On top of these, your brain chemistry changes too. Your amygdala the part of your brain that’s responsible for emotional regulation and your fight-or-flight response is constantly activated. You’re in a constant state of hyperarousal and scanning your surroundings you have to monitor the narcissist in your life so you know how to ‘properly’ behave to avoid the result of triggering them. As the amygdala is constantly activated, it actually expands because your brain learns that those processes are of increased importance brain plasticity at its finest! At the same time, the part of your brain responsible for memory storage, recall, and transferring memories from short- to long-term storage the hippocampus actually shrinks, making it more difficult for you to remember the details of circumstances. Why? Because when you’re in survival mode, the details aren’t deemed important what’s important is your survival. Enter the amygdala! This is why the narcissists claims that you’re ‘remembering wrong’ or ‘overreacting’ are believable to you your brain has literally changed to help you survive what you’re going through.


What can I do?


Therapy


I feel it’s safe to say that no matter if you’re currently in a relationship with a narcissist, or you were previously, you’re likely going to benefit from speaking to a mental health professional (I may be a little biased, but it’s the truth!). There are a multitude of benefits to therapy that can be helpful during and after a relationship with the narcissist.


You’re likely to experience several forms of grief grieving the life you thought you’d have with this person, the time, opportunities, and relationships that dwindled, pieces of yourself you’ve disconnected with, and so many more. It can be difficult to accept the situation for what it is, but the relationship changed you. That doesn’t mean you have to stay feeling this way though you get to decide who you want to be and how you go about the world but it will require hard work and healing.


Therapy is also a space where you can express yourself freely, and I mean freely. When I hold sessions with my clients, they’re free to curse, cry, yell, play with fidget toys, whatever they need to do to let their emotional energy out while we find the words to describe their experience.


Therapy is a truly judgment-free zone where you’re encouraged to be vulnerable and authentic, knowing your therapist genuinely wants to help you. With communication and emotional expression comes what is so often broken in relationships with a narcissist: boundaries.


Boundaries with yourself, with others, your emotions, how you communicate, etc. they’re vital for building and maintaining healthy relationships with yourself and others, especially when healing from the narcissist’s behavior.


Avoid feeding into the narcissist


I’ll admit, this one can be extremely difficult. Narcissists know exactly how to push your buttons and when to push them to get a reaction out of you. So why shouldn’t I just argue/fight with them/try to get them to understand? The narcissist understands they really do but their intention is to get you to react so they can paint themselves as the victim, especially when the relationship ends. Their image is at stake, meaning they have to find a way to demonstrate that you’re the ‘crazy one’ and they’re the loving, charming person they claimed to be the whole time. By learning how to emotionally regulate and not react to the narcissist, you’re stripping them of their power over you and forcing them to face their own reflection.


Forgive yourself


As with any healing journey, it’s important to practice compassion, empathy, patience, and forgiveness with yourself. Forgive yourself for staying even though you weren’t happy. Forgive yourself for believing their lies. Forgive yourself for reacting to their bullshit. What you went through is absolutely terrible and no one should have to endure the pain that you have, but it’s also not your fault. You did what you thought you had to to make the relationship work because you see the best in people and you’re willing to put in the work to better yourself. Narcissists choose partners who are strong, capable, and well-liked because they’re jealous and want those things for themselves, opting to break you down to build themselves up.


Conclusion


If you or someone you know is in a relationship with a narcissist, or has been previously, you may notice a variety of changes in behavior, emotionality, and personality, but these are natural shifts your mind and body will make in order to survive. It doesn’t have to be this way forever, and you can find yourself again with patience, hard work, and support through the healing process.


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Catherine Cabrera Brainz Magazine
 

Catherine Cabrera, Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine

Catherine Cabrera is a therapist who specializes in treating anxiety, eating disorders, obsessive thinking, and related mental health challenges. After years of living with anxiety and feeling like there was no hope for change, Cabrera explored the underlying purpose of emotions and their interaction with thoughts and behaviors. She has since been passionate about helping others better understand their emotions and use compassion to build a more positive relationship with their thoughts and feelings. She is the owner and founder of Inner Strength Counseling, providing professional mental health care in Virginia.


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