Updated: Apr 12
BY JEN MAKIN CMHC
Differentiating between PTSD and Narcissistic Abuse Syndrome can be a tightrope walk. For starters, Narcissistic Abuse Syndrome is not in the DSMV which is the manual used by doctors and counselors to diagnose. PTSD is recognized. Many women get diagnosed with PTSD when in fact they have Narcissistic Abuse Syndrome.
This is just my version of PTSD. There are a number of articles, if not thousands, that help educate about PTSD. Educate yourself.
Some say that they have flashbacks, nightmares or depression due to being in a relationship with a narcissist. This makes sense because you have to sacrifice pieces of yourself, if not all of you, to be with them. Other tell tales signs of PTSD include anxiety, avoiding places you used to enjoy, tearfulness, isolation or low motivation.
Breaking it down, the overall symptoms include:
Avoidance of the situation that caused the trauma
Triggers or Foggy brain
Acting out the abuse in some way
I bet that many of you have many of these symptoms, especially after COVID and its effects. Our world was turned on its head and my guess is that it will never go rightside up again. But other things can also cause PTSD such as experiencing a traumatic event.
Narcissistic Abuse Syndrome, or NAS, is similar to PTSD but it has other features that are defined only by being in a relationship with a manipulative narcissist.
Some symptoms of PTSD
On edge, constantly thinking that you’ve messed up in some way or are in trouble
Trauma response: fight, flight, freeze or fawn
Feeling like you’re walking on eggshells continually
When in a relationship with a narcissist, you are constantly second guessing yourself with not only your relationship with the narcissist in your life but also with others. Even when people try to get close to you, the narcissist says they aren’t good for you or put ideas in your head or pull you away from them.
PROTECTION VS CONTROL
Sometimes narcissistic men can seem protective. You may feel like a princess at the beginning; he’s doting on you, saving you from your tower. Checking your location. Making sure he knows where you are all the time. Then it becomes suffocating.
Scenario: You want to go walk the canyon at 8pm
You: I am going to go on a walk.
You: Right now.
Narcissist: Hmm…you just walked in the door from work.
You: Yeah, and I need to go walk. It’s a New Years Resolution.
Narcissist: What about home? You have your priorities mixed up.
You: I know my priorities but I am going to take a quick few laps.
Narcissist: Not tonight. (He turns to your 2-year-old) Mommy is so silly … thinking she can work all day then go on a walk and neglect us. Good try.
Scenario: You want to go walk the canyon at 8pm
You: I am going to go on a walk.
Non-Narcissist: Right now?
Non-Narcissist: Hmm…that makes me a bit nervous.
You: Nervous, why?
Non-Narcissist: Honey, it’s getting dark out and I prefer when you walk in the light or at least have a friend with you.
You: I can go quick and as soon as the sun starts to go down, I will sprint home. Promise.
Non-Narcissist: OK, I trust you. (He turns to your 2-year-old) Mommy has to be careful. She is our whole world. Get going momma and hurry home!
In these two scenarios, negotiations are attempted to be made. In the Control scenario, it is about the comfort of the Narcissist. He is putting his own needs first and using the child as a way to manipulate the situation. The Non-Narcissist is still concerned about the walk, but it’s about her safety. He sets boundaries without choosing for her. He allows her to know she can choose for herself but out of protection for her, there can be limits for safety.
When you are in a relationship with a narcissist, you start to confuse control with protection. In fact, you start to drink the Kool-Aid and make excuses for him.
It gets to a point where you just don’t even ask. Especially when it has something to do with self-care or something primarily for you. If it is not on his timeline or his idea, you have to really prepare him.
Excuses Look Like:
“You know how he is … “
“He just gets like this sometimes. He’s in a bad mood. I will wait until he’s in a better mood before I ask.”
“He’s an asshole. But he’s my asshole."
When friends or loved ones try to confront you about things, even gently, you tend to get defensive. And then … after time … you pull back from your friends all together, leaving you even more isolated from any kind of help or support.
When, or if, you leave the narcissistic, it is a hard situation for loved ones. Friends and family may say something like, “Why didn’t you tell me?” The best thing to say would be: “You know I have always loved you. Always. And now that you are ready to hear the truth, I am telling you.”
With Narcissistic Abuse Syndrome, it’s important to get educated about the symptoms. Whether you are considering getting out of a narcissistic relationship or believe you may be in one, knowing the symptoms is key. Trying to teach a narcissist about Narcissistic Abuse Syndrome will most likely backfire.
They will want “examples” of when they keep you from things because “you spend more time with friends then” he does.
They will say you aren’t abused, they are.
They may twist things back onto you and tell you to read a different blog post, like about cleaning, because that could actually help you.
Bottom line: you will hit a roadblock if not dead end.
NARCISSISTIC ABUSE SYNDROME: SYMPTOMS BROKEN DOWN
This is a big tell tale sign that someone has been trained by a narcissist. Their needs come dead last. Most of the time they even see putting their own needs as selfish or self-centered. When the non-narcissist is put on the spot about ordering appetizers for the table, they can become flustered and let others decide, even if it’s something they dislike.
On Edge, Constantly Thinking That You’ve Messed Up In Some Way (In Trouble)
Narcissists put you on edge. You constantly have to make sure that their needs are met, they are comfortable and their bellies are full, even if you are starving. And if you speak up, they make you feel selfish or dramatic or clingy or childish. So you stop speaking up but then are hypervigilant (symptom of PTSD) about upsetting them in some way.
Decision making is usually hard for individuals in a relationship with a narcissist. And that is one of the reasons that the narcissist picked you as a partner, because they are able to make all the decisions and keep themselves happy - all in the name of love. Even when you would want to say no, your body betrays you and your lips say yes.
Trauma Response: Fight, Flight, Freeze or Fawn
Fight: you get passive aggressive or sometimes aggressive (BEAR)
Flight: you go for drives, walks, or just breaks as a way to deal with the trauma (CHEETAH)
Freeze: you freeze, unable to move or speak (DEER)
Fawn: you comply with whatever they ask you to do, even getting submissive in abusive situations (DOG)
Feeling Like You’re Walking on Eggshells Continually
This one goes hand in hand with people pleasing. You are always on the lookout to make sure that you are saying and doing the right things. If your narcissist goes up the ladder (white collar or wealth) it’s about what the neighbors will think. Or, if they down the ladder (blue collar or poverty) it’s about neglecting your needs and seeing themself as the victim in the process.
You have the instinct to defend him, apologize for him and feel badly about talking badly about him. Then, you constantly seek assurance about if your way of thinking is good or bad. You have been trained to turn to the narcissist to check in and ensure your line of thinking is correct. Thise type of behavior may bleed into other relationships too. It can be draining to be around someone in a relationship with a narcissist.
Always Distrusting Others
Because you can’t trust your narcissist, you struggle to trust others. This could be the case especially when people are trying to get close to you outside of the narcissist’s circle. It has to be his idea, not yours. And if you do trust someone, and something goes wrong, you feel silly for trusting the wrong people and he never lets you hear the end of it.
Pulling away from loved ones is quite typical when you’re in a relationship with a narcissist. Or, if the narcissist wants you to be close to someone, they will shame you into not being close to them and push you into spending time with that hand selected person by the narcissist. One example could be their mother. You will find yourself pulling away from loved ones that you used to be close to in an effort to please him and his people.
This one is a tough habit to break. “I’m sorry” is how you get through your relationship with the narcissist. Apologizing for their choices, abuse and overall poor treatment is how you survived. And now, through healing, your biggest tool has been taken away. If anything, you are being told to not only put it away, but stop using it. At least for a season.
FOOD FOR THOUGHT
Being a significant other of a narcissist is an uphill battle from the start.
The trick is: they make you think you are the reason for the uphill battle. Whether it’s your weight gain. Job loss. Inability to make friends or just about any other excuse they have for why the relationship is hard, it always points back to you. He is never ever accountable.
And nothing that you can do will ever change that. ONLY HE CAN CHANGE.
Being in a romantic relationship with a narcissist is not your fault. If you knew what you knew now, you would have never gotten in the car.
But once you are educated, it IS your responsibility to do something about it. BE THE CHANGE.
Whether taking time for space, and even leaving, is now up to you. You have had to live with this daily abuse and then be told that it’s your fault. Break that cycle now.
I remember years and years ago of hearing about a tragic domestic violence situation. The husband had come home from work. His wife had his meal and a cold beer prepared. She slid his tray in front of him while he perched on his spot and gorged himself with homemade delights. In an instant, she was back in the room to ask him a question. He threw the unopened beer can at her head nailing her on the upper part of her right eye.
In the Emergency Room, she could be heard saying, “I know just to leave him alone when he first gets home. I need to let him have his cold beer and get settled.”
Although this situation is extreme, it’s too common and it’s tragic.
Narcissistic Abuse Syndrome makes you feel isolated, depressed and absolutely insane. It's not until you get distance from the situation that you realize you have been looking in the wrong mirror all along. You turn around and start looking in your own mirror, seeing your unconditional worth.
If you know someone who is in an abusive relationship with a narcissist, the best thing to do is slowly give them information and education. Go slow because they will reject and protect their narcissist at all cost. It’s not best to give them advice or tell them to leave as you don’t know the total situation. It could do more harm than good to extract them out of a situation before they are ready.
Find your voice and never lose it.