The lists of narcissistic personality traits are long and readily available with a simple Google search, and you can easily pore over those lists and note whether or not your narcissist has all or some of those qualities. The DSM-5 has more detailed diagnostic criteria for professionals to utilize when making an assessment or diagnosis. Unfortunately, the very nature of narcissism means that those with the disorder rarely seek help because they don’t believe anything is wrong with them. If you’re not a professional, you are left trying to make an informal diagnosis on your own for the purpose of resetting expectations and generating some form of understanding. There are several PDF copies of the diagnostic standards implemented by the DSM-5 for your reference, and they’re free to look at. The DSM-5 is also usually available at public libraries and bookstores.
You can compare your narcissist to the criteria in the DSM-5, but that doesn’t address what you are/were going through personally and your feelings associated with it. Sure, you will be able to glean that narcissists are marked by a complete lack of empathy, but what does that mean for YOU? How will it affect you? How will that behavior make you feel? What are you going to change about the way you approach your narcissist? How will you implement a total paradigm shift to address what is really happening in the mind of your narcissist and make your life easier?
Let’s look at diagnosis from a different (non-clinical) mindset, evaluate it from your perspective, and focus on your feelings about your narcissist’s behavior. It shouldn’t be surprising that victims of narcissists have a lot in common. We can start with the fact that most victims are highly empathetic people and have a selfless nature. That’s a requirement for narcissists, and a quality that they’ll immediately recognize and take advantage of. Over time, victims of narcissists start having thoughts and feelings that they otherwise wouldn’t. The following list was made with Andrew, who, during his marriage to a narcissist, experienced each of these feelings. If you’re experiencing these symptoms during a relationship, you may be involved with a narcissist:
1. You’re exhausted. Physical, mental, and emotional fatigue is one of the most prevalent occurrences that victims share. You’re on an emotional roller coaster every day while the narcissist acts like an insatiable leach, draining you of any sense of self or strength. You always have to think about what you’re going to say and do to prevent the disaster that would erupt if you are misunderstood. You’re constantly being built up, just to be torn down, and it is painfully tiring.
Andrew explained that he always felt like he was walking on eggshells, and never knew if he was doing enough. Some of the things he did that were enough at one time were not enough at another time. He was regularly in a state of fatigue from trying to make the differentiation and ensure the things he did were adequately satisfying.
2. You’re often confused. As master manipulators, narcissists are skilled at twisting your words, facts, or interpretations in a way that will suit them and make them appear righteous. You start questioning your memory, as they regularly engage in gaslighting, projecting their attributes onto you, and what is referred to as a manipulative “word salad.” This includes irrelevant facts, circular conversation, a lack of logic or direction, evasiveness, vagueness, and a refusal to see anything from another perspective.
During their divorce, Andrew’s mother had an altercation with his ex’s mother about the inappropriate conduct of his soon-to-be ex. Later that day, his ex actually called his mom. Over an hour had passed before they got off the phone, and his mother barely got a word in. When they hung up, Andrew’s dad asked what that was about. Her reply? “I have absolutely no idea.” She talked constantly, usually in circles, made no sense, and by the end, it was such a confusing mess that his mother never was able to figure out what she was even talking about or why she called.
Additionally, we tend to share emails from her with our friends and family, because they’re usually ridiculous rants that go off-topic and are full of what’s called “narcissistic rage.” My mother recently told me that there’s no point in forwarding them to her anymore, because she can’t understand a bit of anything they say. It’s always a hostile, angry tantrum in response to anything he says that she doesn’t like (which is basically everything). He keeps his communication with her matter-of-fact and emotionless, as brief as possible, and doesn’t get personal. Despite this, her replies are usually unintelligible, overreactive fits that go in every direction except for what the topic is supposed to be.
3. You feel stupid on multiple levels. The way a narcissist talks down to you can be especially degrading. Additionally, as previously mentioned, they aim to confuse. They will often tell you things you have said or done that you don’t remember. The reason you don’t remember is likely because they either never happened or they were different enough that compared to what the narcissist says, makes you question your own memory. Chances are that your memory is correct and it is all direct manipulation. At some point, you might feel stupid for falling for their stories in the first place. It’s important to remember that you’ve been dealing with somebody who is exceptionally skilled at manipulation, and they’re often able to hoodwink even the smartest person. Remember why they chose you: you have positive qualities that they desired.
4. You feel depressed and anxious. You don’t know when the next meltdown will be, or what will trigger it. Trying to fulfill needs and regularly being told you’re not doing it adequately is enough to bring down even the strongest person.
5. You worry that you might be crazy, or that something is wrong with you. The gaslighting, the regular attacks on you under the guise of “concern,” and the way you’re dismissed and invalidated make you start questioning your own sanity. Depending on the degree of narcissism and how far the narcissist is willing to go, they may also contact your friends and family feigning concern about your mental health. They will share stories to back up their concerns, but they are either twisted completely out of context, or downright lies.
Andrew’s ex would regularly call his mother during their marriage, pretending to be concerned or hurt by his behavior and state that she’s afraid he may be mentally ill. She’d spin things he had said or done in a way that made him seem unstable, and for a while his mother actually believed he may have a problem. He never talked to his mom about his marriage, so she never heard the truth until they were divorced.
6. You feel alone, isolated, and unheard. You’re in what is supposed to be a partnership. The problem is, you have no partner. Your concerns appear to fall on deaf ears, your needs are discarded, and you’re worthless to the narcissist if you’re not providing a source of supply. It’s also common for a narcissist to attempt to isolate you from friends and family, by either engaging in malicious gossip about you or preventing you from contacting them.
7. You worry that you’ve lost your identity. The narcissist doesn’t treat you like an autonomous person. You are their property, an extension of them, and only exist to serve them. Because they project their shortcomings onto you, you are constantly in emotional turmoil and the person you really are takes a backseat.
8. You consistently feel violated. Narcissists are offended and threatened by boundaries, and will trample all over them as soon as they’re set. Because of that, paired with their own lack of personal boundaries, you regularly feel violated and a sense of shame for no apparent reason. They’ll take your money, take your belongings, walk all over you, and pout or throw tantrums if they don’t get their way. All the while, they’ll feel entitled, and somehow will make you feel guilty for denying them in the first place.
Andrew took his ex out for an afternoon of wine tasting. She wanted a bottle of wine that was smaller than the rest, and it also happened to be $100. Andrew said that was a little steep and they should probably pass. As soon as they got in the car, she threw a fit, asking “why did you even take me out in the first place if you weren’t going to buy me anything?” She fussed and gave him the silent treatment, and finally he turned around to get the damn bottle of wine so she’d quit mistreating him over it. He figured $100 was a fine price to pay if it bought him some peace.
I actually have experienced the feeling of being violated by Andrew’s ex. She frequently interrogates the kids about me, at one point asking for my work schedule and actually showing up during one of my shifts and staying for hours. She has gone as far as to demand my medical records, openly slandered me at a school event, and attacks me on a personal level every chance she gets while exchanging emails with Andrew. At one point we were getting ready to move, made an offer on a house in a nearby city, and were waiting to hear if it was accepted. She caught wind of this, and took it upon herself to go to the kids’ school administration building and report it. She then contacted Andrew, told him what she had done (presenting it in a way that indicated he should be grateful) and followed up with “so are you moving there?” which was clearly a question she should’ve asked prior to taking our personal business up with the school.
9. You’re paranoid. You don’t know what is being said about you, if what you say or do will be taken out of context and used against you, or when you will inadvertently (but inevitably) do something that will trigger another emotional outburst. Chances are you’ve heard your narcissist speak poorly of everyone you know. Someone might also let slip something they were told about you. This is one of the few ways a narcissist is consistent. They will speak ill of anyone and everyone. You are not paranoid, because they are actually saying these things about you.
Andrew would often hear his ex-wife speaking badly about everyone they knew. One a vacation in California, he witnessed her engage in gossip with one family member about another. That same day she gossiped with the second family about the first. In both instances, she wouldn’t just actively listen to each of them, but actually participated in the criticisms leveled at the other.
Additionally, after the divorce, some familiy friends revealed how much she used to encourage discourse within their family. Every family has fights, but they have shared how much she helped exacerbate their disagreements. She seemed to revel in causing problems between people around her.
Ultimately, during and after his divorce, many people told him that his ex was saying such terrible things about him during their marriage that they actually believed he was the monster she portrayed him to be. Over time, of course, it came to light that he wasn’t at all the monster, and in fact, she was.
10. You’re unfulfilled and feel empty. You’re alone in your relationship, your needs aren’t being considered, your dreams take a back burner, and your narcissist is sucking the life out of you.
You’ll notice that many of these signs and symptoms resemble depression, and could easily be so. Depression can be situational or have a cause outside of genetic predisposition, and it can also be temporary. The life someone endures with a narcissist is incredibly depressing, and an otherwise strong, smart person can be left questioning who they are and feeling low. When the narcissist gets out of your life and you begin nurturing healthy relationships, you’ll start to get yourself back. Complete recovery takes time, but having survived a narcissist will make you feel much stronger than you would’ve previously thought yourself to be. Look for my next post, which will cover how a victim feels when finally rid of the narcissist.