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What is Narcissistic Abuse?

narcissistic abuseNarcissists 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, but not be a narcissist. Addicts and people with other mental illnesses, such as bipolar disorder, antisocial personality disorder (sociopathy) and borderline personality disorders also are abusive. So are many codependents without a mental illness. Abuse is abuse, no matter the abuser’s diagnosis.

If you’re a victim of abuse, the main challenges for you are:

  • Clearly identifying it;
  • Building a support system; and
  • Learning how to 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. 
    This 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 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, such as 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. Violence 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. 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. Doing the exercises in my books and e-workbooks, particularly Dealing with a Narcissist: 8 Steps to Raise Self-Esteem and Set Boundaries with Difficult People will help you make changes. If you feel in danger, don’t believe broken promises. Get immediate help, and read The Truth about Domestic Violence and Abusive Relationships.

© Darlene Lancer, 2016

Pleading man photo available from Shutterstock

What is Narcissistic Abuse?

Darlene Lancer, JD, MFT

Darlene Lancer is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and expert on relationships and codependency. She’s the author of Conquering Shame and Codependency: 8 Steps to Freeing the True You and Codependency for Dummies and six ebooks, including: 10 Steps to Self-Esteem, How To Speak Your Mind - Become Assertive and Set Limits, Dealing with a Narcissist: 8 Steps to Raise Self-Esteem and Set Boundaries with Difficult People, and Freedom from Guilt and Blame - Finding Self-Forgiveness, available on her website and Amazon. Ms. Lancer has counseled individuals and couples for 28 years and coaches internationally. She’s a sought-after speaker in media and at professional conferences. Her articles appear in professional journals and Internet mental health websites, including on her own, where you can get a free copy of “14 Tips for Letting Go.” Find her on Youtube.com, Soundcloud, Twitter @darlenelancer, and at www.Facebook.com/codependencyrecovery.

APA Reference
Lancer, D. (2016). What is Narcissistic Abuse?. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 18, 2018, from https://psychcentral.com/lib/what-is-narcissistic-abuse/

 

Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 23 Jul 2016
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 23 Jul 2016
Published on PsychCentral.com. All rights reserved.