Is Narcissistic Abuse the Same Thing as Coercive Control?

Coercive Control

CONTENT WARNING. This material may cause distress. Reader discretion advised.

Coercive control is a pattern of behaviours, not a single event – just like narcissistic abuse. Both terms refer to one person using covert (persuasive) and sometimes, overt (aggressive) methods to control and maintain power over another person. That controlling person could be a colleague, parent, sibling, or more commonly, a romantic partner or boss.

People are only just starting to recognise that such a thing exists. Because it’s complicated, hard to prove and perpetrators use lies and plausible deniability to cover the fact of their offending against another person. Naturally enough, when it happens behind closed doors, it’s one person’s word against another’s and often the victim is mis-identified as the offender. Controllers can be very skilful at covering their tracks, appearing cool, calm, and collected when accused. Victims, meanwhile, can show up to a crisis being angry, disorientated, confused, and, well…..not making a whole lot of sense to anyone not trained in recognising this dynamic.

People high on the narcissism spectrum and coercive controllers tend to use similar techniques:

  • Words and actions that undermine the target’s self-worth, identity, confidence, and independence.
  • Narcissistic abusers and coercive controllers isolate the target from social supports, friends, colleagues, and family by:
    • Bad-mouthing the target behind their back – often disguised as ‘humour’ that depicts the target as crazy, abusive, incompetent, or lacking in virtue.
    • Convincing the target that friends are in fact enemies or on some way a threat to the target rather than a help.
  • Narcissistic abusers and coercive controllers use technology to harass, stalk, intimidate or do any of the above by:
    • Using fake profiles on social media
    • Tracking devices used by the target or a pet’s microchip
    • Excessive texting or calling
    • Installing camera devices in the home “for safety”
    • Accessing email, bank, and other accounts
    • Deleting important online accounts (such as websites or social media)
    • Posting photos that give the impression of a happy relationship
    • Doxing – posting without consent the target’s private and personal information or photos
  • Gaslighting – saying something happened that never happened or vice versa, so that the target questions their own memory and sanity.
  • Mocking, insulting or otherwise making it difficult for the target to engage in spiritual, religious, or cultural practices.
  • Using persuasion or threats to trap the target – such as deportation threats, persuading to give up jobs, stop studies, become dependent on the perpetrator.
  • Using emotional blackmail, especially shame to control a target.
  • Sabotaging important occasions, work output and events.
  • And the list goes on…..

Maybe the most complex and difficult trap used by controllers and narcissistic abusers is reversing the narrative. That is, spreading false rumours that the target is mentally unstable, abusive, a drunk and doing all the vile things the perpetrator is doing. This is the drip, drip, drip of invalidation, humiliation, and dehumanisation that targets grow to tolerate over time. Targets learn to ‘walk on eggshells’.

And now that awareness of these controlling narcissistic behaviours is rising, maybe the worst reversal of all is the perpetrator accusing the target of being a narcissist or coercive controller. This can keep therapists, police, lawyers, and everybody else very confused and forced to believe one or the other.

Socially, ignorant people mostly fall into the trap of claiming “there are two sides to every story”. Often (but not always), these abusers occupy positions of power, celebrity, or fame. It goes with the territory of being either narcissistic or obsessively controlling. They are skilled at ‘impression management’, and can appear altruistic, religious, or otherwise the best type of person.

For targets, not being believed when you are telling the truth is a deep moral injury. For targets who are sensitive, caring, honest and conscientious, the pain of this can be immense. They can find it hard to believe that someone who was so perfect at the start could become so nasty. Home Devil, Street Angel. They can question themselves and secretly think it must be them who is the crazy one. Recovery can be like recovering from a cult – brainwashing and all. Not easy. Not your average break-up.

If you think this is happening to you, and you don’t know who to trust any more, seek out some support from a therapist who understands narcissistic abuse. Or from services that understand coercive control and financial, sexual, or psychological abuse. Orange Door, 1800Respect. For more information about coercive control, go here:


Nicki Paull Counsellor

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