What is Narcissistic Abuse?
Narcissists don’t really love themselves. Actually, they’re driven by shame. It’s the idealized image of themselves, which they convince themselves they embody, that they admire. But deep down, narcissists feel the gap between the façade they show the world and their shame-based self. They work hard to avoid feeling that shame. This gap is true for other codependents, as well, but a narcissist uses defense mechanisms that are destructive to relationships and cause pain and damage to their loved ones’ self-esteem. (Learn the traits required to diagnose a narcissistic personality disorder, “NPD.”)
Many of the narcissist’s coping mechanisms are abusive–hence the term, “narcissistic abuse.” However, someone can be abusive and not be a narcissist. Abuse is abuse, no matter what is the abuser’s diagnosis. If you’re a victim of abuse, the main objectives for you are:
Clearly identify it.
Build a support system.
Strengthen and protect yourself.
Abuse may be emotional, mental, physical, financial, spiritual, or sexual. Here are a few examples of abuse you may not have identified:
Verbal abuse: Includes belittling, bullying, accusing, blaming, shaming, demanding, ordering, threatening, criticizing, sarcasm, raging, opposing, undermining, interrupting, blocking, and name-calling. Note that many people occasionally make demands, use sarcasm, interrupt, oppose, criticize, blame, or block you. Consider the context, malice, and frequency of the behavior before labeling it narcissistic abuse.
Manipulation: Generally, manipulation is an indirect influence on someone to behave in a way that furthers the goals of the manipulator. Often, it expresses covert aggression. Think of a “wolf in sheep’s clothing.” On the surface, the words seem harmless – even complimentary; but underneath you feel demeaned or sense a hostile intent. If you experienced manipulation growing up, you may not recognize it as such. See my blog on spotting manipulation.
Emotional blackmail: Emotional blackmail may include threats, anger, warnings, intimidation, or punishment. It’s a form of manipulation that provokes doubt in you. You feel fear, obligation, and or guilt, sometimes referred to as “FOG.”
Gaslighting: Intentionally making you distrust your perceptions of reality or believe that you’re mentally incompetent.
Competition: Competing and one-upping to always be on top, sometimes through unethical means. E.g. cheating in a game.
Negative contrasting: Unnecessarily making comparisons to negatively contrast you with the narcissist or other people.
Sabotage: Disruptive interference with your endeavors or relationships for the purpose of revenge or personal advantage.
Exploitation and objectification: Using or taking advantage of you for personal ends without regard for your feelings or needs.
Lying: Persistent deception to avoid responsibility or to achieve the narcissist’s own ends.
Withholding: Withholding such things as money, sex, communication, or affection from you.
Neglect: Ignoring the needs of a child for whom the abuser is responsible. Includes child endangerment; i.e., placing or leaving a child in a dangerous situation.
Privacy invasion: Ignoring your boundaries by looking through your things, phone, mail; denying your physical privacy or stalking or following you; ignoring privacy you’ve requested.
Character assassination or slander: Spreading malicious gossip or lies about you to other people.
Violence: This includes blocking your movement, pulling hair, throwing things, or destroying your property.
Financial abuse: Financial abuse might include controlling you through economic domination or draining your finances through extortion, theft, manipulation, or gambling, or by accruing debt in your name or selling your personal property.
Isolation: Isolating you from friends, family, or access to outside services and support through control, manipulation, verbal abuse, character assassination or other means of abuse.
Narcissism and the severity of abuse exist on a continuum. It may range from ignoring your feelings to violent aggression. Typically, narcissists don’t take responsibility for their behavior and shift the blame to you or others; however, some do and are capable of feeling guilt and self-reflection. Someone with more narcissistic traits who behaves in a malicious, hostile manner is considered to have “malignant narcissism.” Malignant narcissists aren’t bothered by guilt. They can be sadistic and take pleasure in inflicting pain. They can be so competitive and unprincipled that they engage in antisocial behavior. Paranoia puts them in a defensive-attack mode as a means of self-protection.
Malignant narcissism can resemble sociopathy. (Read here about the differences.) Sociopaths have malformed or damaged brains. They display narcissistic traits, but not all narcissists are sociopathic. Their motivations differ. Whereas narcissists prop up an ideal persona to be admired, sociopaths change who they are in order to achieve their self-serving agenda. They need to win at all costs and think nothing of breaking social norms and laws. They don’t attach to people as narcissists do. Narcissists don’t want to be abandoned. They’re codependent on others’ approval, but sociopaths can easily walk away from relationships that don’t serve them. Although some narcissists will occasionally plot to obtain their objectives, they’re usually more reactive than sociopaths, who coldly calculate their plans.
If you’re in a relationship with a narcissist, it’s important to get outside support to understand clearly what’s going on, to rebuild your self-esteem and confidence, and to learn to communicate effectively and set boundaries. There are common mistakes to avoid, such as appeasement.