Who is the abuser & who is the abused? Identifying the narcissist

10 minute read

Questions abound from victims, survivors, those who care, bystanders, the curious, and indeed from narcissists themselves, as to who is the abuser & who is the abused in relationships where one of the parties is pathologically narcissistic*.

Recognising who is the abuser & who is the abused in a narcissistic relationship is critically important.

At a time when those who have been shattered by abuse are fighting to reclaim their lives, it is beyond shattering finding the courage to ask for help, only to not be believed.

Psychologically, doubting the reality of the abused amplifies the narcissist’s campaign of invalidation in effect causing abuse-by-proxy (see Narc Wise Glossary for term refreshers). Whether intentional or not, this exacerbates the damage caused.

For those who have blessedly not experienced narcissistic abuse, it is difficult to imagine how very disabling the abuse is.

Whilst how it feels on the inside cannot be fully understood from the outside, I urge you to read Narcissistic Abuse IS Domestic Violence to appreciate the seriousness of the danger faced by victims**.

This article is for those who have not directly experienced narcissistic abuse, and who know of two people who claim to have been abused by a narcissist, with each pointing the finger at the other.

who is the abused & who is the abuser

You’ll learn about the inevitability of this scenario being just one more of the predictable outcomes arising from pathological narcissism. And of course, how to spot the differences between who is the abused & who is the abuser.

More importantly, it gives you the opportunity to be there for a fellow human being in very deep need.

By being informed, you can make the choice to be that person who says: ‘I see you. I hear you. I believe you’.

Narcissistic Personality Disorder 101

The full definition of Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) as per the Diagnostic & Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders V (DSM-V) can be found in the Glossary.

Key points are:

  • Individuals with a personality disorder display persistent & pervasive behavioural patterns that reflect their thinking processes & how they perceive themselves & others.
  • Fundamental markers of NPD are self-importance, belief in their own uniqueness, superiority & omnipotence.
  • A natural consequence of these views are a high sense of entitlement & lack of accountability, since superlative beings are owed their whims; and for the flawless there is no basis for valid criticism.
  • This set of traits & beliefs, the narcissist’s ‘false-self’, is a fragile protective mechanism to stem the knowledge of their ‘true-self’ which includes opposing traits e.g.: being weak, flawed, ordinary (in other words…human just like the rest of us).
  • To keep the ‘true-self’ at bay, the pathological narcissist requires constant attention & reinforcement that confirms the factual nature of the ‘false-self’. This is known as supply and is integral to the psychological survival of the NPD’d.
  • This compulsive need coupled with additional markers of lack of empathy & interpersonal exploitativeness, is manifested through controlling others to secure supply (for more on this read How the narcissist hooks you: Hoovering & baiting)
  • In other words, the pathological narcissist has subsisted throughout life perfecting the art of manipulation to get their needs met. All actions, behaviours & choices are constructed to affirm their power, control and superiority…that they are ‘more than’ others…thereby securing supply from whomever they are playing. Whether this be the target. Or you, dear reader.

Why recognising who is the abuser & who is the abused can superficially appear tricky

The primary reason why superficially it may seem difficult to pick the true villain in the piece is hearing both parties make the same claims.

Samples of what muddies the waters may include: ‘they abused me’ ‘they are crazy’ ‘I’m frightened of what they might do’ ‘they lie all the time’ ‘they can’t be trusted’ ‘they are incredibly manipulative’ etc.

With both making these statements – who to believe?

It’s a he said/she said kinda deal, right?

No, dear reader. It isn’t.

The reasons why the abused makes these claims, is because it is true.

It is part of their story. Part of their experience. What they have endured & survived. And therefore, have every right to voice as part of their healing after being silenced by the narcissist for so long.

no more silence for the abused

The reasons why the abuser maintains the same, are below.

Why you can expect the narcissist to falsely cry foul

Their psychological survival depends on being ‘more than’

Let’s return to the concept of supply. To recap these are the external reinforcements that back-up the narcissist’s beliefs in their own superiority, perfection, power etc.

One way of securing supply is to manipulate others into feeling ‘less than’, so that they can feel ‘more than’.

In this way, when the narcissist succeeds in controlling circumstances so that the target feels inferior, they in turn, feel superior.

This is evidenced through a multitude of behaviours. Some examples are gaslighting where the reality of the abused is denied (e.g.: ‘that never happened’); relentless competition (e.g.: ‘my work is so much more demanding, how could their day have been hard?’); and the target must always be wrong (e.g.: ‘I know them better than they know themselves…that isn’t how they really feel’).

All of these manipulations are designed to invalidate the target. To be ‘more than’ the abused (for more on this read Invalidation and narcissism: Why they slowly erase you.)

The thing is, this compulsion doesn’t end when the relationship does. The narcissist will do everything in their power to ensure they do not risk exposure. At all costs, they must hide from their true-selves.

To not do so would mean entertaining accountability for their actions & behaviours. That they are flawed, indeed, that they are the ‘baddie’. That they are ‘less than’.  Ergo, to maintain their precarious belief system, they must flip the roles: they are the abused, and the victim is the abuser.

In this way, to the mind of the pathological narcissist, they can continue to perceive themselves as ‘more than’.

They need you to believe they are ‘more than’

The tricky thing for the pathological narcissist is that on some level, they are aware they are constantly hiding from their true-selves – else there would not be such desperate measures to keep the truth at bay.

After all, one does not run, from what one doesn’t fear.

As a result, it isn’t sufficient for them to cling to being ‘more than’, nor to bully the abused into considering they are ‘less than’.

the narcissist's need to be 'more than'

ALL possible risks of exposure must be mitigated. Strategies are consequently deployed for damage control purposes.

Enter the smear campaign: the intentional dissemination of false information to discredit and undermine the abused, and garner support for the abuser.

The ‘go to’ line of attack is to paint the abused as the disordered, cruel mind, and the narcissist as the long-suffering victim.

The pathological narcissist will stop at nothing to have others believe they are the abused. No avenue or relationship is out of bounds – both personal (including the victim’s family members & friends) & professional relationships are exploited.

Planting the seeds of rumours, stretching of truths shared in false intimacies, and outright lies are all nurtured.

This tactic bolsters the ‘more than/less than’ dichotomy, minimising the possibilities of being held to account by you or by others. For what they have done to the current victim, and what they have every intention of continuing to do with new victims (for more on this read Narcissists and smear campaigns: Why they do it).

Who is the abuser & who is the abused? Identifying the narcissist

To the guts of the matter…

You are now informed about how on the surface a blurring of lines may be apparent when reflecting similarities on claims made.

Let’s check out now how to spot differences between who is the abuser & who is the abused.


On starting again

More often than not, the abused must start again from ground zero.

When I say building from ground zero, we’re talking finding shelter, clothes, food, income, support/personal/professional networks. Often, relocating geographically is also needed….and sometimes, it goes so far as having to relinquish one’s own name.

All of this in the name of safety.

Whether the break occurs from being discarded or the victim leaves through choice, this is the reality they face.

Remember the narcissist’s need for control?

Isolating the victim and withholding of physical & financial resources are tactics used for this very purpose. Because embedding knowledge within the victim that they are dependent on the narcissist for basic survival needs increases compliance to hand over supply.

Let’s contemplate leaving by choice for a moment.

By virtue of these strategies (of which the abused is all too well aware), and threats of smear campaigns – this is the choice confronting the victim:

  1. stay in order to sustain shelter & food, and connections with family members, friends & other networks, knowing the abuse will continue & escalate; or
  2. leave in order to survive knowing they must gamble everything & possibly the loss of many people in their life.

Think about that for a moment, dear reader. Really think about it, and what this entails.

Can you imagine being in position where you are forced to choose between continuing to accept a life of abuse & unendurable pain, versus loss beyond measure?

Let me assure you. There is no hyperbole here.

The decision the victim faces is: ‘if my only potential avenue to ceasing this pain I can no longer survive means losing all I hold dear, then that is the choice I must make’.

Can you imagine the desperation that must drive one to make this choice?

Obviously, the disempowerment of the abused means the inverse for the narc. They are empowered in terms of resources. In externally visible ways, the abuser has ‘more than’.

Having said all this, a different type of ‘fresh start’ will take place.

That necessity for supply is ever present. As is the ongoing hunt for providers of said supply.

Sure as anything, a new source of supply, for example, a replacement love interest will surface STAT.

And ‘this new one’, will be lauded to the moon & back – oh how the narcissist will lax lyrical about the replacement (for a time anyway…til the whole thing cycles back through again)!

On sensemaking

A consequence of the psychological harm caused from narcissistic abuse, is the mind of the abused grappling to come to grips with the reality of their experience (read Why narcissistic abuse is so hard to admit to yourself).

Sensemaking, the human need to find meaning in our existence & experiences, is never more acute than in the face of trauma.

When the relationship ends, the suffering & cognitive dissonance felt by the abuser is quite simply indescribable.

This drives a powerful hunger to find explanations for what has been endured. This can, for a time be all-consuming.

sensemaking in recovering from narcissistic trauma

The need could be to understand the abuse alone. Or because the abused still deeply loves the abuser…or a combination of both hence the cognitive dissonance.

In any case, part of recovery includes trying to rationalise contradictory views. The abused is beset with a manic-like urgency to find causality & logic for the behaviour of the abuser to re-establish equilibrium.

Because, no order can be found within the disordered behaviour of the pathological narcissist, it is not until this is recognised & accepted this that the sensemaking can be let go.

Until this point is reached, the search can be described as somewhat frenzied.

I do not know of one victim of narcissistic abuse who has not confronted this stepping stone to freedom.

Conversely, the pathological narcissist experiences no drive to answer the question ‘why’.

Simply because, to the mind of the narcissist, they know the answer to all questions: they are ‘more than’.

In holding the belief of being superior to others, and especially so to the ditched source of supply, there is no further need to entertain past events or that person again (caveat – unless they are still offering supply).

Not so sure?

Heard of ghosting? The final phase of the cycle of narcissistic abuse: discard?

Uh-huh. Yup.

Once supply is exhausted that person who once provided it becomes irrelevant to the narcissist. No healing is needed.

On health

The severity of the effects of abuse on the target’s health are undeniably grave.

If you’ve not yet read Narcissistic Abuse IS Domestic Violence, please at the very least scan the data found in the article now.

The types of abuse sustained include physical, mental, emotional, verbal, sexual, financial, legal etc.

Irrespective of the nature of the abuse, psychological damage is caused.

And this dear reader, is less easily hidden from the observant witness.

Signs that you can detect include (but are not limited to): hypervigilance, anxiety, depression, paranoia, insomnia, panic attacks, perfectionism, weight loss or weight gain, fear, rage, mistrust, confusion, restlessness, social isolation. Potentially harder to identify is self-harm & suicidal ideation**.

The abused themselves frequently develop disorders in response to the abuse from the Narcissistic Personality Disordered individual. PTSD, C-PTSD, generalised anxiety disorder, adjustment disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, eating disorders, major depressive disorder, are some examples.

In contrast, not one of these devastating & disabling outcomes affect the abuser.

True to their Machiavellian ways, words to emulate these symptoms may be spoken.

If so, don’t be fooled. You are being played. Not sure?

Has professional help been sought? At all?

Of course, it hasn’t.


Because of the very same reason cited above: they are ‘more than’.

For those who genuinely want to know who is the abused & who is the abuser, this, right here, is your biggest defining contrast.

You have the power to support the victim on their healing journey by recognising their truth.

By accepting this, and in turn, the abused, you flick the switch on the narcissist’s invalidation & contribute to their healing.

Don’t turn from them. Please do not turn from them.

Be the catalyst for their faith & trust in humanity to start rebuilding instead.

For more tools & knowledge building pieces on the issues in this article read:

As always, please share your thoughts, experiences, and insights on the issues in this article in the comments below. The more we share, the more we teach & help others  ain reclaiming freedom.

With gratitude,

Maggie x


*A note for my gorgeous ones

Before going further, a note for my gorgeous ones, who have experienced narcissistic abuse:

Dear hearts, if you are reading this…allow me to share that I find the topic offensive. And I presume that if I do, you may also. The very idea of being confused with the perpetrator of such hateful & cruel acts, beggars belief. This, is indeed, part of the abuse by proxy.

This piece is for the purpose of education only, rather than suggesting that you are in any way comparable to the pathological narcissist. You are not. Never were. Never will be. Read How you know you’re not the narcissist: your proof & Am I in denial? Am I the narcissist?to remember these truths.

**Resources to Reach Out for Help

Threat of Imminent Danger to Safety

If at any point you fear that you or anyone else is in imminent danger, contact your local emergency services immediately.

Suicide Support Services

For support with self-harm or suicidality, please contact your local suicide prevention service. For services near you please refer to the resources provided by the International Association for Suicide Prevention.

As per previous point, contact your local emergency services immediately if you or anyone else is in imminent danger.

Domestic Violence Services

There are Domestic Violence services available globally at both national and local levels. These provide you with immediate services and referrals to help you with matters including (but not limited to) physical and mental health, safety, housing, financial, legal matters.

Google to find your local service. These links also provide listings for many countries:


American Psychiatric Association [APA]. (2013).  Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5th Ed.). Arlington, US: American Psychiatric Publishing. 

Devries, K.M., Mak, J.Y., Bacchus, L.J., Child, J.C., Falder, G., Petzold, M., Astbury, J., & Watts, C.H. (2013). Intimate partner violence and incident depressive symptoms and suicide attempts: A systematic review of longitudinal studies. PLoS Medicine, 10(5), 1-11.

Orsillo, S.M., & Batten, S. V. (2005). Acceptance and Commitment Therapy in the treatment of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder. Behavior Modification, 29(1), 95-129.

Othman, S., Goddard, C., & Piterman, L. (2014). Victims’ barriers to discussing domestic violence in clinical consultations: a qualitative enquiry. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 29(8), 1497-1513.

Rackovec-Felser, A. (2014). Domestic violence and abuse in intimate relationship from public health perspective. Health Psychology Research, 2(1821), 62-67.

Trevillion, K., Oram., S., Feder, G., & Howard, L.M. (2012). Experiences of Domestic Violence and Mental Disorders: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. PLoS ONE, 7(12), 1-12.Ross, J.R. (2012). Battered women of interpersonal violence: Psychological issues of shame, guilt and self-blame (Doctoral Dissertation). Capella University, Harold Abel School of Social and Behavioral Sciences. Retrieved from ProQuest Dissertations. (Order No. 3507579)

Walker, L.E. (2017). The Battered Woman Syndrome (4th ed.). New York: Springer Publishing Co.

4 thoughts

  1. Yes I had been there, since I let him go once I discovered him when I was pregnant with our daughter, anyway I’m completely free from him now so he is not longer around me our precious daughter, breaks my heart because she ask for daddy dayly, he used to visited her I used to bring her to him often but since he insulted yelled at me curse at me in front of our daughter I set the very strong boundary he can’t visit her at my house 🏡 so he walked away never look back

  2. 6 years of that narcissistic tornado ripping through my life and Im officially emotionally drained. The constant confusion and mind screwing had me questioning/blaming myself and had me wondering if I was the narcissistic/crazy one. For years I walked on egg shells and adhered to his ways of thinking, doing, and behaving. If I took up for myself or questioned his actions or treatment I’d only get verbally abused, kicked out, or get the silent treatment. He’d never portray himself in a negative way publicly and has all of his outside circles fooled into thinking he’s the ideal employee and friend. Never told anyone what I went through bc they wouldn’t believe me if I did. Had them all fooled.

    1. do you have resources for supporting the abused as well as bystanders that have also endured the abuse of the same narcissist? The married couple is the narcissist abuser and victim, but they are entangled in a super unhealthy entangled long-term “friendship” where the other two have also endured great abuse. do you have any resources that help navigate this kind of dynamic?

  3. Hi Maggie… I am all to familiar with being the abused by an narcicist from my past, but currently I am in the process of helping a group of 4 people who have been in a long-term entangled mess… Do you have any resources for when a narciss

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