In a previous blog Narcissist Victim Syndrome (October 2018), Katie Sanford discussed narcissistic tactics and the symptoms of this syndrome. Here, I would like to outline the cycle/phases of narcissistic abuse that lead to the syndrome. It is a very secret and deliberate game that you don’t even know you are playing. By the time you realize you’ve been playing, you may have been victimized by the narcissist. In the book, Emotional and Narcissistic Abuse by J. Vandeweghe, this cycle is described in detail. Having awareness of the game can help you to get out.
In this phase, the narcissist uplifts their partner with tons of love and affection while they make themselves appear better than they are. This phase is referred to as “love bombing.”
What you do not know is that they are studying you during this time. The narcissist is collecting data and providing security while you feel comfortable enough to unveil secrets that will be later used as ammo against you. You may feel intense feelings for this person quicker than in past relationships. The narcissist appears to be the perfect mate.
The data collected in the first stage is now being used against you. This happens very gradually to build your tolerance, like a frog in boiling water. If you turn up the heat gradually, the frog will stay in the pot. If the water is instantly hot, the frog would jump out.
In this stage, all of your good qualities have now been reframed as flaws. To ensure a gradual process, the narcissist will go back to the idealization stage through rewards and words of affirmation before going back into this phase. They will show just enough to remind you of the “good” parts of the relationship, only for those parts to be taken away.
The time spent in idealization becomes shorter and devaluation becomes longer. It creates opportunity for the narcissist to gaslight, invalidate, discourage, and fill you with doubt. The narcissist uses these abuse tactics for a number of different reasons, including putting you down so that they feel powerful, or making you feel “less than” so that they don’t feel so bad, etc. But either way, at this phase, you may find yourself willing to do anything to get back to the beginning stage of the relationship.
Now you may become desperate, and the narcissist knows it and starts to withdraw. They have a need to pull energy from those around them to feel better about themselves. It’s not uncommon for them to be acting out with others outside of the relationship during this time to keep their energy source up. Meanwhile, you are drained.
Whatever good you had, has now been scooped out by the narcissist. Blame shifting has you believe that the narcissist is the victim or that friends and loved ones no longer want to be around you because something is inherently wrong with you. The narcissist is the only one who would love a person as flawed as you, you’re lucky.
In reality, you are being emotionally abused and friends and family may have pulled away from you because they see the narcissist for who they are and hate to watch you be abused. You are so deep in the fog by this point that rationale isn’t rational and you have completely brought into the dynamic set up by the narcissist. You may threaten or attempt to leave, but this false narrative feels so real, it’s not feasible to sustain.
Devaluation is deepened. The narcissist will have you believe that no one loves you the way they do. You have nowhere to go if you leave. And if you have been isolated from your loved ones or separated from your finances, you may not have options to leave. Everything is used against you to exploit your insecurities. Your own painful memories are used against you so it is easy for emotions to be manipulated to appear they are right. You might seek their acceptance but withdrawal out of fear.
Feeling unworthy and unwanted, you are completely drained and tired. Your only options left are to apologize for things that never happened or leave to try to regain everything you lost. The narcissist is usually conducting this same cycle as they act out with others, and puts you in the hovering stage.
In this stage, it is likely that the narcissist and you will spend some time away from each other. You may have left or the narcissist may have temporarily abandoned you. As they go through this cycle with other acting out partners, you are kept as a backup.
You likely have difficulty fighting the need for validation. Most people in these situations return, because life feels empty without the narcissist. They have become conditioned to the abuse and crave the idealization stage. You tend to ignore all of the negative experiences, and romanticize “good” moments, while downplaying the abuse.
The narcissist makes attempts to reconnect, and you are eager for the adoration. This is where the most trauma happens because you have bought into the idea that you are not worthy of love. Also, for many of us, we feel safer with what we know, even if what we know is actually no longer safe. Self-sabotaging behaviors may appear or you might minimize your experience. Behaviors include: over- or under-eating, oversleeping, inactivity, anything that prevents you from moving back into a normal life.
Self-esteem and confidence are crushed. You become lonely and reach out to the narcissist. If not, they will be reaching out to you, especially if they have no one else to suck energy from. Small attempts of love bombing through messages will recreate the idealization stage. The belief is set that the narcissist will be better again if they are to let back in. Unfortunately, nothing will change, and the abuse continues until you gain enough support to leave permanently.
Keep in mind that this is not a linear process.
The narcissist may move back and forth between destroy to hover. This is where self-sabotaging behaviors may appear the strongest or you withdraw from loved ones because they may not understand the complicated abuse that you are suffering.
You may find it difficult to trust your own judgement. It is also difficult to justify to others the need to stay in this relationship, especially those loved ones that don’t understand what you’re going through. The narcissist can also bounce from discard to idealization to bring you back after an attempt to leave. You begin to idolize the narcissist. Once the narcissist’s cycle is complete, they may move through different phases to suit their needs. At this time, they become cocky because they know you will return, or they will threaten to punish.
Even if you truly leave, the abuser will hover to ensure that an energy source is close by. You may begin to romanticize the relationship when remembering how it was in the first phase and minimizing the abuse. It may feel impossible to get help. Hopefully, there are brief moments of clarity where you are able to get support so you can truly break the hold of the narcissist.
This process is not exclusive to romantic relationships.
This same cycle of abuse is also present in narcissistic caregivers. Since it is not linear and the cycle is repeated in various ways over many years, it is that much harder to identify. These victims may not notice the abuse until adulthood when they have left home. They also have the probability of becoming masters in performing this modeled behavior.
If you are suffering from Narcissistic Victim Syndrome, know that you are not alone. Contact a mental health specialist that is skilled to uplift and guide you out of the fog with empathy and care.
Vandeweghe, J. (2019) “Emotional and Narcissistic Abuse.” J. Vandeweghe