'I study narcissists for a living. Here's exactly how to spot one.'

Content warning: This story includes descriptions of sexual abuse and domestic violence that may be distressing to some readers.

In Olivia Rodrigo's stellar single 'Vampire', she sings about an ex (maybe?) who only comes out at night, bleeds her dry and "builds a castle of people you pretend to care about". 

She tells of six months of torture sold as a forbidden paradise, and asks, "How do you lie without flinching? I used to think I was smart, but you've made me look so naïve," belts the Grammy Award-winning prodigy. Listen to the song if you haven't already... we'll wait.

Rodrigo could well be describing a narcissist: someone who's incapable of empathy and selflessness with a sense of entitlement and self-importance. They crave excessive admiration and attention and deplete their victims' confidence to feed their own egos. Inherently insecure, they envy others while believing others must be envious of them. And behind closed doors in relationships, narcissists can be emotionally abusive.

"There is this societal misconception that all narcissists are overt – looking in mirrors all the time, being loud and arrogant," reveals Nova Gibson, founder of Brighter Outlook Narcissistic Abuse Counselling Service

Watch: The signs you are dating a narcissist. Post continues below.

Video via Psych2Go.

"I've found that most narcissistic loved ones – such intimate partners or parents – are covert. They infiltrate your life very easily and are just so nice in the beginning. Sometimes even quite shy and introverted. Typically, the last person you'd pick to be abusive."

When she launched her counselling business in 2012, Brisbane-based Gibson worked with people in all facets. She soon realised that most of her clients were narcissistic abuse victims, so decided to specialise in it. 

Having also been in a relationship with a narcissist, Nova "gets it". The former social worker has helped more than 4,000 people – including through free Instagram live streams – and hopes to reach thousands more via Fake Love, a handbook for anyone who's languishing in or is recovering from, narcissistic abuse.

Narcissism is more than a buzzword.

Narcissistic abuse is a form of emotional abuse, which, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, affects 23 per cent of women and 16 per cent of men in intimate relationships. Emotional abuse is behaviours intending to manipulate, control, isolate or intimidate a person. These are generally repeated behaviours including psychological, social, financial and verbal abuse

Specifically, narcissists might ignore ('stonewall') their partners, gaslight them – distorting their reality or making them think they're in the wrong – incite drama at happy events and find fault in everything the victim does, says Gibson. 


"The silent treatment will start. They'll leave for a few hours and not be contactable, for example," she explains. 

The abuser may start criticising things they claim to have loved about their partner in the beginning. The goal? To undermine and dismantle their partner's personality and confidence. Because it's insidious, confusing and hard to describe, victims often don't realise they're being abused until they're a shell of their former selves. 

While not all narcissists are physically abusive, narcissism is a risk factor for physical violence, adds Gibson.

Narcissism red flags – and what is love bombing?

Spotting a narcissist is tricky. It sounds counterintuitive but in an intimate relationship, the narcissist will ensnare their victim by showering them with love and attention. 

"A psychological and physical dependence develops due to the rush of feel-good hormones such as oxytocin," writes Gibson. "It's these feelings you will literally crave, like a drug addict chasing that initial high." 

She refers to this whirlwind phase as 'love bombing'.

But it's normal for a new relationship to be intensely romantic and then peter out, right (the 'honeymoon phase')? What's the difference between love bombing and falling in love


"Unfortunately, narcissists don't come with a sign on their forehead, but a red flag is if someone is grandiose in all their gestures and tries to enmesh with you very quickly," explains Gibson. "Victims become hooked on that euphoric feeling and yes, the 'flowers and chocolates' stage declines naturally in all relationships, but it shouldn't come to a screeching halt."

Narcissists are wolves in sheep's clothing.

Once they've hooked the person, the narcissist can drop the act, claims Gibson. Partly because it's unsustainable (and exhausting!) to pretend to be someone else, partly because they need to manipulate their partner and distort their reality. Narcissists want their victims to be completely confused and helpless – and dependent on them. There may be intermittent periods of 'kindness'. 

"But the nice treatment isn't really nice at all; it just provides relief from the abuse, which feels like gold to the victim."

Gibson believes that pathological narcissism is incurable since the perpetrator doesn't think there's anything wrong with them. To admit that would be admitting they're flawed. 

"You will never hear of a narcissist walking into a therapist's office and asking to be treated for their narcissism," she says. "They'll never accept responsibility."

The only thing to do, she asserts, is to end the relationship. "You can't have a healthy relationship with a narcissist because you cannot have any needs. They're incapable of love. Any kind of enjoyment in your life will be sabotaged," she says. "Once you recognise that your partner is demonstrating consistent and repeated patterns of abusive behaviour over time… not isolated incidents, your job is not to stay and try to fix them. Your job is to leave."


Real-life read.

Simone* endured a relationship with an abusive narcissist for more than a decade.

"Before I met Phil*, life was great. I owned a house and had a full-time job and 50/50 shared custody of my two children. Then along came this gorgeous guy. I thought I was punching above my weight. He said things like, 'No one gets me like you do'. He made himself likeable to my ex-husband. Within six months I was pregnant, he moved in, and everything changed. He would ignore me for days, and gaslight and confuse me. Things would get moved around the house so I couldn't find them. I thought I was going crazy. I'd ask him, 'What do I need to do to change? How can I make you feel better?'

"I went into labour a month early. He was angry because it upset his plans. En route to the hospital, there was complete silence in the car, and I walked in with my suitcase on my own. When he finally came to the room he said, 'What do you want from me?' And I'm like, 'I'm about to have your baby. I just want you to love us.' He couldn't handle my attention being taken away. I became pregnant again a few months later.

"Phil was addicted to porn and would also slip speed into my coffees so he could have sex with me for hours. I cried on so many occasions through it. Then he'd ignore me because he was embarrassed, maybe. Because I still had my ex's surname, he made me change my name – including my first name – even though we weren't married. He made me put his name on the deed of my house. Eventually, he moved me and our kids to another country, geographically cutting me off from my older children. 


By the time I ended the relationship, I was jobless, penniless and homeless. He minimised me as a person. My advice to other women is to document the abusive behaviour and plan to leave. You can do this at your GP – it's easier to say that you're going to the doctor than to a counsellor. It's really tough to start again but I feel safer. I am happy. Don't be afraid to connect with your local domestic violence service; they will believe you."

Listen to The Quicky we hear from someone who, to save her own sanity, had to make the difficult decision to break off one of the most important relationships in her life. Post continues after audio.

Are you a victim? 

Common symptoms of narcissistic abuse, according to Nova Gibson.

  • Being hypervigilant or on constant alert ('walking on eggshells').
  • Feeling unable to trust your own judgement or make simple decisions.
  • Being unable to trust others.
  • Fear that any success will be sabotaged.
  • Feelings of numbness or shock.
  • Anxiety or symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
  • Physical symptoms such as headaches or insomnia.

Gibson's 5 golden rules for dealing with an abusive narcissist.

1. Never tell them they're a narcissist. 

If you share any research on narcissistic personality disorder with the person, even if it is helpful, they may 'turn the tables' and accuse you of being the narcissist.

Never go to counselling with a narcissist.

Narcissists only go to counselling to manipulate the counsellor, to seek someone's undivided attention, and to use the counsellor's office to further abuse you. They will portray themselves as your victim, baiting you into a reaction to support their claims.


Maintain a support system, even if you must hide it.

Narcissists can isolate you from your friends and family members. Without that support network, you may try even harder to make your relationship with the narcissist work, since they're 'all you have'.

You are allowed to forget to do something or change your mind. 

A narcissist may 'punish' you if they perceive you to lying or failing to live up to their expectations - even when they lie to you.

Open a 'running away' account in preparation for leaving the relationship. 

If it's safe for you to do so, start depositing small amounts of money that your abuser won't miss into a secret bank account.

*Names have been changed for privacy.

If this has raised any issues for you, or if you just feel like you need to speak to someone, please call 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) – the national sexual assault, domestic and family violence counselling service. 

Mamamia is a charity partner of RizeUp Australia, a Queensland-based organisation that helps women and families move on after the devastation of domestic violence. If you would like to support their mission to deliver life-changing and practical support to these families when they need it most, you can donate here.

Feature Image: Getty.

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