How Narcissists Turn Emotional Responses into Emotional Abuse
Connecting emotionally with someone is usually the highlight of any meaningful relationship. That’s why we are with our partner in the first place. However, when one individual demonstrates the presence of a narcissistic personality disorder or psychopathy, the ‘well’ of emotional connection becomes poisoned with manipulation and deceit. The situation becomes even more precarious when this individual weaponizes your perfectly normal reactions against you, twisting your emotions into a form of abuse that can break even the strongest will.
In this article, we’ll explore how individuals with pathological narcissism exploit your emotional responses to their behavior. The 'Normal' Response to Betrayal
Betrayal is an emotional wrecking ball. Whether it’s infidelity, financial deception, or emotional manipulation, finding out that someone you trusted has betrayed you is an emotionally shattering experience. For any normal, empathetic person, this would be a time for remorse, accountability, and attempts to repair the relationship. A caring partner who had hurt you so deeply would be filled with regret and guilt, willing to do whatever it takes to rebuild broken trust. It provides a foundation for the hurt partner to rebuild trust, whether within the relationship or as a part of their own healing after the relationship ends. However, survivors of narcissistic partners are not afforded this experience. In the moment you discover the betrayal, rather than apologizing, they often go on the attack.
Fragile Egos, Volatile Reactions
A narcissistic partner operates on an entirely different emotional plane. Those with a narcissistic personality disorder or psychopathy exhibit an extreme intolerance for what they perceive as ego-threats. This hypersensitive ego could be activated by a number of situations, such as: engaging in direct criticisms of them, questioning their decisions, or confronting their lies – all behaviors that should be safe to do with our partner. However, that is not so with individuals on the pathological narcissism spectrum. It can be frightening to be on the receiving end of their rageful response. Even when caught red-handed, your emotional turmoil—your anger, your tears, your betrayal—is not met with empathy but rather viewed as an insult to them. Narcissists have an excessive sense of entitlement along with an intense need for control, praise, and special treatment, even in the midst of hurting you. Anything that challenges this delusional self-image threatens their fragile egos and can provoke rage.
Most pathological narcissists believe themselves above reproach. How dare you react emotionally to their behavior! Your reaction – not their actions – becomes the problem. To maintain their facade of perfection, you must submit to their narrative. Any deviation provokes more severe punishment through personal attacks meant to obliterate your reality.
Pathological Narcissism, Neuroscience, & Empathy
When we look at one component of the neural mechanics behind these disorders, the absence of empathy becomes glaringly clear. Your anguish is unimportant to them beyond its potential usefulness. The value in your reaction often only lies in how they can exploit it against you moving forward.
Neuroimaging studies have indicated that individuals with narcissistic and psychopathic disorders often have anomalies associated with processing empathy, emotional regulation, and moral decision-making. This is not to absolve them of their actions but to provide a neurological context for their emotional deficiencies. There is never an excuse for aggressive, threatening behavior. No matter the cause, they are responsible.
Twisting Reactions into Weapons
Here is where the abuse becomes intricate and dangerous. Your emotional response, which would be a call for emotional closeness, compassion, and resolution in a normal relationship, is instead used as a weapon against you. The narcissist might accuse you of being the real problem, citing your ‘overreactions’ or any reaction as proof of your emotional instability.
Controlling and Taunting
This form of abuse often takes a more sinister turn when the individual with pathological narcissism begins to control or dictate your emotional responses. This can manifest as belittling comments, taunting, or even outright emotional blackmail. The aim is to gaslight you into believing that your feelings are not only invalid but are, in fact, a form of abuse against them.
Gaslighting and Labeling
Gaslighting can escalate into another harmful tactic: labeling. A narcissistic partner can falsely label you as ‘abusive,’ ‘unstable,’ ‘selfish’, or ‘irrational,’ sometimes even in public or among mutual friends, thereby manipulating the narrative to paint themselves as your victim. They are skilled at selectively omitting their own abusive actions, projecting a one-sided story that can have devastating effects on your reputation and emotional well-being.
The Wider Impact
The ripple effect of this narcissistic manipulation can be catastrophic. People have lost their careers, lost opportunities, and other relationships because of lies and rumors created simply because the narcissist needs to frame you as an abuser. All done to protect a fragile ego and a distorted self-image, which they believe has been threatened by your response.
Many survivors on the receiving end of this behavior (e.g., smear campaigns) may even experience their self-esteem erode. It may appear to be the mission of the narcissistic individual to paint the survivor as a horrible, bad person. Many narcissists may go to alarming lengths to spread their fabricated stories, reaching out to your friends, family, the public (if you are famous), or even your employer to discredit you. The consequences of this manipulation can extend far beyond the immediate emotional harm, infiltrating various aspects of your life and well-being. There are often many perks in the villainization of you. Sadly, many narcissists are successful, as this multilayered manipulation is natural for them.
Humans React to Threats, Abuse and Betrayal
Please understand this above all else: your feelings are valid. Reacting emotionally to cruelty, manipulation, betrayal, and other narcissistic abuse is normal and human. Anger, hurt, grief – these are all justified responses. You should never be shamed for having emotions, even intense ones. What matters most when it comes to your responses in these situations are your behaviors—how you conduct yourself in response to strong feelings. Refrain from toxic reactions like violence or revenge. But never apologize for the feelings themselves. Remember, you have every right to have feelings regarding mistreatment. Your emotional responses are valid and human. Holding onto this simple truth can be the lifeline that enables you to reclaim your emotional freedom when you find yourself trapped in the distorted reality a narcissistic partner has created.
Here is a reality that must be addressed. Yes, you absolutely have a right to your feelings, but safety must always take priority. Unfortunately, in many situations, survivors will have to manually override their natural reactions of anger, expressions of disbelief, and readiness for confrontation for safety reasons.
When a psychopath or narcissist is in a rage state associated with narcissistic injury, they are in the least control of themselves. This could potentially be dangerous. Even the usual emotional control they may display as their baseline with you will disappear. This is a time when many survivors will be at risk. Sadly, this is when some survivors (or the people / animals they love) are harmed. Our brain’s threat system has modes it can shift into for safety and survival reasons—for example, fight, flight, freeze, and appease. Although it may go against your personality style if you are a confident person who does not tolerate disrespect or betrayal, your brain may choose ‘appease’ as the best mode to keep you safe in that moment.
Do not look at the appease mode as a weakness. It is a state of survival; it has value. Often, the appease mode of survival will shift your focus away from engaging or escalating the argument with them. With that being said, a person cannot live in an appease mode long-term. That could quickly set the stage for a trauma-related condition, health problems, and further disconnect you from your authentic self (e.g., loss of sense of self).
To live in any of the survival modes full-time because of your partner is not only emotionally draining but also a serious red flag for long-term harm to your well-being. A few basics for safety
Fact-check their claims objectively before internalizing accusations (e.g., “You’re so selfish!” “Actually, you’re the abuser!” – all likely untrue.)
Refrain from defending yourself or explaining your emotional state.
Document all interactions to counter gaslighting attempts.
If they are actively in a state of rage, shift your focus toward de-escalation and safety. What are ways you can remove yourself from immediate potential harm or danger?
Keep your plans to yourself.
Keep your suspicions of their personality disorder to yourself.
If they offer an empty apology afterward (e.g., gifts or words such as, ‘I’ve changed’), try to avoid re-engaging in the initial explosive encounter if at all possible. Respond neutrally. Hopefully, you have other plans for your safety and future. Understand that a hyperactive ego-threat system (i.e., narcissistic rage) is not voluntarily under their control to simply get rid of, even if they try to convince you the rage will never happen again.
Navigating the intricate maze of a relationship with a narcissistic or psychopathic individual is a monumental challenge. The emotional and psychological toll can be crippling. However, understanding the tactics they employ can be the first step in reclaiming your life.
You deserved empathy that was denied. You deserved compassion that was never given. Now it is time to direct everything you wanted from your abuser – all that care and validation – inward. You are enough. You always were.
You are not the problem for having human reactions to betrayal or abuse; the narcissist is the problem for initiating this cycle of abuse to begin with.