Emotional abuse and covert narcissism

Covert narcissism (or any covert, cluster B personality disorder) is very difficult to put your finger on. Many people waste years of their lives with covert narcissists trying to figure out what the heck is going on. Once they discover that it could be covert narcissism, they waste further time questioning if it’s really the case or not.

The reason for this is that many of us do not have clear in our minds what abuse is. We often think of abuse as only being physical and don’t clearly define what emotional abuse is. On top of this, covert narcissists are very good at covering up emotional abuse, denying that they are being emotionally abusive and actually projecting it on to you to the point where you doubt your own instincts and start to believe that it is you who has the problem.

Covert emotional abuse is very real and once you have identified it you must treat it with the same severity as you would physical abuse.

We may not clearly recognize emotional abuse for many reasons. These reasons include not having a strong sense of self, which is common in empaths and highly intelligent self-taught people, growing up to put another person first, being covertly emotionally abused as a child or simply not having your unique abilities nurtured and valued. There are as many reasons as there are people that make us vulnerable to emotional abuse, but all of the reasons have the same result. Having no boundaries or having flexible boundaries and a tendency to put other peoples’ needs first.

Highly intelligent and successful people often fall victim to covert abuse because of flexible boundaries.  Flexible boundaries are common in intelligent people who like to keep an open mind and not be judgmental and who often learn and grow by doubting and questioning themselves and the environment around them.

In addition to this, covert abusers are experts at probing, testing and reducing personal boundaries little by little over large periods of time.

Following, I will cover how we develop boundaries and give some examples of techniques used by covert emotional abusers to test and reduce boundaries and examples of emotional abuse.

Boundaries and emotional abuse

Let’s start by looking at what personal boundaries are. Personal boundaries are normally established when we are children.  We learn by the examples set around us of what type of behavior is acceptable and just how much we should tolerate in given situations.

Instead of being taught to have very strong personal boundaries, we are often taught that it is better to forgive, to give people the benefit of the doubt, to be understanding, to help others as much as possible and to accept that everyone makes mistakes. These are all valuable and important qualities and should always be employed with other people who share the same values. However, something that we are not taught is the very sad fact that there exists a growing number of people in society who cannot feel love, do not have empathy and use these qualities in other people to their advantage. This of course does not mean that we should not continue to have these human values and qualities, but it does mean that we have to start being taught the importance of personal boundaries in conjunction with these valuable qualities and to realize immediately when these boundaries are being crossed. Putting boundaries in place and not allowing people to cross them is the development of self-respect. This starts by recognizing that your qualities are valuable and are not to be squandered on people who will not value them and then to recognize very early on when you are being abused.

Narcissists, sociopaths, histrionics and psychopaths will, without exception, push people’s boundaries to the limit, break them, extract what they need from the person, then leave them feeling as they have no self-worth and obsessing about the person who did it to them. If they come across a person who has strong boundaries they will either have nothing to do with them, as they cannot extract what they need from them, or they will see it as their greatest challenge and set to work at chipping them away, thus providing them with the buzz of a lifetime when they succeed.

Breaking down a confident, successful person with strong boundaries is the ultimate in narcissistic supply.  It is, however, quite hard work and so they will have be working on an easier target simultaneously or on targets who are at different stages of being broken down.

Once a person is completely broken down, they will abuse them until they have nothing left to give or offer, then leave. They will then return when their target has begun to heal and/or has something further to give or something further to break down.

You should not underestimate the danger of having one of these types of disordered person in your life and the damage that they can cause. It is important to recognize them, name them and keep them away from yourself and the people that you love.

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  1. Nan

    I’m in the middle of a divorce with one of these. I I just recently came to the conclusion that he is a covert emotional abuser. He doesn’t fit neatly into the frame of abuser. He’s slick about it and most likely has no real awareness of his actions or motives. I wasted so much time trying to understand him when I should have been more focused on myself and protecting our son from his influence.

    Multiple affairs, virtually ignored me except when he needed something. I was his woobie blanket for when he eventually did something self destructive that caused blow back. We have an adult son who lives with him and idolizes his dad but without me around to temper his father’s behavior he’s starting to see the destructive nonsensical behavior. His father lies without much thought and is a hypocrital ass (kind of ironic since stbx loves to point out other people’s hypocrisy).

    Recently, my stbx learned that his girlfriend of two years (who was his side piece) is pregnant. He was also just recently fired and I think there is more to the story than what was told (there always is). Who did he call when he needed a friend to lean on – me. I started to get sucked into his crazymaking vortex again but I’ve been working on my boundaries and eventually put them back into place.

    It’s frustrating and I feel shame that even knowing everything I know, everything I’ve experienced that I still feel a love attachment, it still hurts.

    My own crappy childhood issues make me an easy target for his type (I won’t be dating until I can get more attuned to my own needs). So I’m doing all I can to fix me…therapy, reading, writing, getting a better understanding of my actions, feelings, and motivation.

    It’s going to take a long time to recover but better to work toward recovery than to continue living in his alternate universe.

  2. Katherine

    Covert is the operative word here. Their crazy making is unreal. I have Masters degree and was trying to prove myself to a person who thought he was successful because he had a place to stay, a car, and a gym membership. Any attempts I made to improve myself freaked him out. These people are afraid of everything, needing someone else to practically nurse them through life. The sugar tit was removed, within 5 months he is engaged. He was hell bend on making me miserable and doubt myself so that I could be controlled into the ground. It’s not working.

    1. Kim Saeed

      Glad to learn you’ve taken control of your life, Katherine! Wishing you all the best!

      Kim XoXo

  3. J

    I am currently trapped in our apartment, trying to find a way to leave the state he brought us to 5 years ago. He left with our only car last night and I locked him out. He has started making disparaging remarks, not just to and about me, but our son now as well. He is getting scarier and angrier because I confronted him with covert narcissism a couple of months ago. He said he’d get help, then didn’t. Now he says he won’t get help from anyone licensed. He has kept me isolated for a decade. I have no job, very little money (enough to leave, but not enough to live anywhere), no friends, and no family. I have no idea what to do. I’m terrified.

    1. Anonymous

      You need to get away from him. Take your son and both of you go to a domestic violence shelter. Be sure your GPS is not tracking your cell phone. If you are not sure, power it off. The hardest and best decision you can make is to leave him and never go back. The shelter will help you with everything you need. The most important thing is your safety and well-being right now. You can do it!

  4. kelly

    My ex was a covert narc, and it seems like I was his only “victim”. He has friends and kids, neither of whom he was abusive with. Maybe because I attempted to set boundaries with him? Actually, as I write this, I guess his kids offer pretty steady supply because he rarely says no to them, so they don’t have much to respond angrily to.

    1. Nan

      My stbx loves having our 20 year old son around as a narc supply. I think he’s holding our son back from growing and prospering because he knows he’ll lose the supply.

  5. S

    I am trying to come to terms with my partner treating me this way. I have given in so many times…who wants to believe it?! Everything is good when I bolster his frail ego. If I dig my heels in, everything turns to sh!t. He gaslights me, everything is my (or someone else’s) fault. He has no shame in being a massive hypocrite. He treats my emotions like dirt and justifies his actions. He turns disagreements into character assassinations. I have had several very traumatic life events in the past few years before we got together, yet he uses me as an emotional dumping ground. I unconditionally gave him everything I had and he took me for granted. I have lived in hope that he will change his ways. I don’t want to accept that he won’t, even though deep down I know this is true. It destroys me that he can treat me this way. He says he loves and needs me and wins me round. I have never come across anyone so selfish and immature. I truly wish that I had never met him as I struggle to see a way out.

    1. Anonymous

      I really feel for you and hope you recover. Am going through the same thing right now. Best and only thing to do is to get out. Everything says that. It will do you no good to stay and hope for him to change back to his old self. That person does not exist.

    2. Becky

      I so completely understand every bit of your comment. 🙁 To face the reality that this person you at one time fell so in love with and thought loved you really doesn’t and won’t and can treat you with unbelievable disrespect without giving a damn at all hurts beyond words can describe. Even knowing the facts and reading all the descriptions of who they in reality are , I still find myself allowing him back in and close enough to hurt me over and over. Why even when we know what they are doing and who they are do we not run like hell and why can’t I let go of being sad about not being able to make it work . For God sakes the horrible things he says and does to me and other women he uses for supply when I try to be strong and not give in , I can’t stand that I would so anything other than spit in his face and never look back but for some reason It not easy like that. I keep trying to research info and find strength within myself to get back my self worth I know I should have to not allow him a part in my life at all ever again but so far I have not succeeded at this and it just makes me lose more respect for myself for allowing him to continue this abusive cycle that destroys me. He hates me having any friends or family that may be supportive of me so he works hard to destroy any and keep me isolated and alone without him. He disgusts me yet I fight to try and win his love and approval even if it for a day before he treats me like unwanted trash he cares nothing about. I don’t understand myself anymore or why I can’t turn my back on him for good. So frustrating and shameful feeling to battle. I am grateful to read others go through similar things cuz I have read some useful info or knowledge but really I hate anyone else goes through it at all. I just desperately want the strength to get on with my life and never look back at the memory of him again . I will succeed one day if it the last thing I do. I wish you the same and hope you know your not alone ……

  6. Pingback: Dealing With the Fallout of Emotional Abuse | Unrevandalized

  7. irene

    This was really helpful. I’ve been a long time member of a group that has been meant a lot to me . A few years back the leadership changed and gradually things started to go down hill. It took a while but I finally began to “see” some of what was happening. The new leader seemed really nice but had a hidden, ugly side…drove me crazy cause i kept questioning myself and what I was seeing.many friends have left and I’m angry at his actions..wondering if I’m being stupid, but I want to hold him accountable for what he’s doing..we have a group that handles complaints/evaluates people in leadership…wondering if it’s worth the ugliness, but frustrated that he’s getting away with psychologically hurting/messing with so many people.

  8. Anna

    I went no contact 6 and a half months ago. I made sure my abusive ex would have no way to contact me. However, everyday I have this deep fear of him coming back around, of him finding a way to contact me or find me. We were never married and have no children together. But literally everyday I still live in fear that it isnt over, that he isnt truly gone.. One of the last things he said to me was. “You don’t decide when this relationship is over, I do!!” When do you know that you are truly free and can stop living in fear everyday?? I know there may not be an answer to that but it plagues me on a daily basis.

    1. Danita

      Hi, three days ago I did the no contact with my ex. We were married but no children. I also live in fear that he will hunt me down. My ex raped me after he walked out for the 8th time during our time together. I tried to keep an emotional distance from him, thought I was looking at him with eyes wide open. But he still wore me down emotionally. I have put my story put there to let other woman know the are not alone. Its a struggle everyday not to fall into old patterns. I have to remind myself that I am worth it, my feelings do matter, I deserved to be loved. Your not alone and one day you will realize there is no more fear. DLM

      1. soria

        Lawyer up and fuIle a rape report. He will pee in his pants when you take all of his moneyvin the divorce while he gets to warm up Bubbas bed.

  9. Lisa G.

    Excellent post and so informative and true. Thank you Kim ~

    1. Kim Saeed

      Thank you, Lisa! I’m glad it resonated with you…

  10. anonymous

    I totally resonate with this post. They also use others to gain information. Trust few… even those you thought you could trust are often turned and play into their game.. only those that have mistreated someone will continue behind your back to find out information when there is none, to make you appear the disordered one….

  11. Angie

    After 28 years, I am just now discovering and realizing that is what I have been living with for 28 years. I have three beautiful children whom are sadly being emotionally abused by my covert Narcissisist. I am so sad for them, they didn’t have a choice, I did. Hopefully my learning will help prevent a repeat generation of this chaotic mess!

    1. Mary

      I hope someday there is a way to either treat this disorder or better yet, make this a criminal offense. The damage that is done is mind boggling.

    2. Hi Angie, I am about to seperate from my N. after been married 19 years. As Mothers we have the responsibility to protect our children from abuse, also the emotinal one. We had 5 children. 2 of them did suicide. He thinks he has nothing to do with that, says it was there own choice. But that they have been emotinaly damaged through toxic thinking, his toxic behaving,…I will not close my eyes from this anymore. Finally I woke up and now I can see clearly what is EVIL. I will not spent the rest of my life with him cause he takes no responsibility. Just demands that we would forgive and forget. No remorse ever. I understood about N. to late, thought I could fix things. They were already screwed up and his sister got mental ill. I will not be an enabler anymore. Wish you the best.

      1. M.C.

        I’m just trying to admit to myself that I married a narcissist 15 years ago and had 5 children with him. I’m so scared to walk away, and I don’t really know where to start. I have felt crazy for years, been on depression meds, and now my thyroid and adrenals are not functioning healthily. I know my husband wants the world to believe I’m evil, crazy, ungreatful, spoiled, and a terrible mother. And sometimes I believe him. I’m scared to face divorce and famity court, as he will sabatage me. How do I get out and get free? I am emotionally and psychologically drained, but even scarier, I am completely financially dependant on him, as I have been a stay @ home mom for almost 14 years.

    3. Robbie

      Oh the pain to watch my 2 grown children be emotionally abused by my ex. 22 years I protected them without knowing that was what I was doing. They sort of “get it”.

  12. Deb

    I am still married to mine. I wish I had known this information years ago. Things would be very different now.

  13. *Shudders* So insidious and incredibly difficult for a normal, compassionate person to identify, let alone comprehend. NC is the only way and to allow oneself the full measure of the grieving process. For me, it was for both men, the one I knew and the one I thought I did. Life does go on.

  14. K


    This is another one of your awesome, therapeutic, and relevant ” works of art”. It is so spot on technically that it should be a PSA! Please keep your blessings flowing to us out here that you are touching every day. May you receive double in return!

  15. JR

    I am currently 1 week NC. So many silent treatments ,push and pull,putdowns and lies. I literally can not understand how someone can pretend to love you so convincingly and fool a person into giving the most sacred part of themselves knowing it’s all a fraud. Thank you for these blogs Kim, you are a gifted writer and you are helping so many people that have gone through this insidious abuse. As usual the timing of this piece was perfect.

  16. Mary

    Better late to learn this than never. No matter how much love you have for them. As I stated a long time ago in an email to my ex narc, “abuse is abuse whatever form it takes, and I cannot tolerate it ever”. I unfortunately let him suck me back in, and he went for the jugular, with a smirk on his face, and the onslaught was amazing. I never knew anyone so ruthless, even my ex husband who would beat the liver out of me on any given occasion. The ex narc, who never physically abused me, played mind twisting games that literally blew my mind. I’m still struggling with this, it’s hard to get away but after over 6 months NC it’s easier to realize what a devil spawn this guy really is. I feel for his new victim(s) but I suppose it’s their turn to begin to learn this very hard lesson.

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