Updated: May 27
We’ve all heard it before: someone responds in a less than demure or socially acceptable manner and is quickly called out as a narcissist. How accurate is that assessment, however? How often does a narcissistic statement equate to true narcissism? What distinguishes occasional acts of self-centeredness from valid, narcissistic wrongs against somebody else?
Defining Narcissistic Abuse
In order to pinpoint what qualifies as true narcissistic abuse, we need to differentiate between narcissistic traits (egoism) and actual narcissism. By learning what separates the two self-serving concepts, we inadvertently uncover the narcissist’s modes of abuse.
The notion that all narcissists insert abusive elements into their relationships stems from a continuum of very specific behaviors. If none of those behaviors are consistently present in any one person, they likely don’t harbor Narcissistic Personality Disorder (known as NPD).
Instead, they’d be categorized as conditionally egotistic. Egoism, though worse in some than others, is part of the human condition; something I’d argue all humans periodically succumb to.
It involves excessive self-glorification, but only in specific areas. In most cases, an object or talent is linked to boastful claims about one’s own status or skill set. An individual might pose an ability, item, or title as superior to that of others. For instance, professional accolades, like clout as a chef or success as an athlete. They don’t, however, view achievements as superior to all achievements, or hold a narcissist’s idealized sense of self in every area.
Alternately, narcissists make themselves the object worthy of all praise. Their self-absorption knows no bounds, resulting in their inability to empathize, or love authentically. Their unnatural, outward responses typically begin as dysfunctional coping mechanisms, originating after significant traumas aren’t properly addressed. Those responses then evolve into NPD.
NPD isn’t as common as stigmas would like us to believe. In genuine cases, affected adolescents - and sometimes young adults - will lose awareness of the inherent components that make up their true nature. Those components - honesty, sincerity, compassion, and unprovoked kindness - are usually shaped during phases of emotional development. When they’ve been incorrectly shaped, one’s healthier sense of identity shifts from self-aware to selfish. Self-reflection skills diminish, and the naturally objective conscience morphs into subjective bias.
This doesn't mean the narcissist is unaware of their wrongdoing, or unable to control their actions. Although the disorder results as a post-traumatic consequence, there are plenty of well-researched therapies that aid in confronting the NPD ego. They focus on addressing each core part of the disorder: childhood injustices, distorted coping mechanisms, and an empty sense of self. The trouble, however, with treatment is twofold: in order for successful rehabilitation, the person will need to surrender, then redefine, their sense of self.
This requires willingly submitting to honest appraisals by therapists and peers, which threaten their place on the pedestal they’ve worked so hard to raise. While most are aware their societal status comprises false perceptions and fabricated narratives, they feel their lies don’t matter as much as protecting mirages of grandeur and perfection.
The aforementioned stigmas surrounding the causes of narcissism make the narcissist afraid of the negative backlash. Collective admonishment for their behavior is their biggest nightmare and often holds them back.
Narcissistic Conventions That Foster Abuse
In order to determine if someone meets qualifications of a narcissistic syndrome, identifying certain traits present in their interactions is extremely crucial. Most narcissists implement some (if not all) of these toxic behaviors within their relationships:
Self-centeredness. Narcissists insert themselves in the center of issues that otherwise wouldn’t involve them. Their focus is always on how they’re affected by external circumstances, be it the death of a coworker’s loved one, or something as simple as passing a car crash. It’s commonplace to hear them reference extremely minute interactions, yet spin them as commendable or noteworthy ordeals. They’ll often complain about how inconvenienced or stressed out they are about third party mishaps. They’re rarely concerned with the feelings of those directly impacted, redirecting the attention and assuming the role of the wounded.
Outrageous self-perception. They praise themselves for dealing with routine parts of life, or fulfilling roles that come with universal expectations. Desires to be idolized, and or deemed important, are driving forces behind most (or all) of what they do. They demand recognition for things such as raising their children, or keeping a job. If they don’t consistently receive it, they’re quick to point it out, as though their target audience is ungrateful or rude. They won’t return the kudos, though; displaying a sense of entitlement is only permitted if they’re the ones doing so. If someone dares to celebrate actual accomplishments, the narcissist often attempts to discount them by pointing out they do much more, or do it even better.
Inability to own their shortcomings or flaws. Narcissists will justify all of their negative actions, shifting blame onto their targets whenever they’re confronted. They do this by mislabeling their target’s defense mechanisms, referring to protection methods as unjustified attacks. They expect to be pardoned for every cruel act they commit, unwilling to accept their own inherent fallibility. Apologies are rare and often inauthentic. If they do attempt to make them, they approach the situation with a “sorry, but” mentality, excusing their behavior by arguing why it was warranted. They chronically adopt a woe is me philosophy, painting themselves as the victim in every altercation.
Blatant disregard for boundaries. Respecting someone's privacy is rarely a consideration. They’ll read through private information and often conspire to get it. If left alone, they might attempt to read another’s texts or emails. They wouldn’t think twice about snatching a journal or intercepting phone calls; confidentiality isn’t a concept they practice.
Pathological dishonesty. They regularly contradict statements they made about personal views, details about their own lives, and claims about prior events. Since most of their stories are half truths or made up to cultivate sympathy, they often forget about scenes that they’ve set, and trip themselves up with their lies. They might declare serious illnesses, then deny them shortly after.
Flipping interests and allegiances also happens constantly, in order to stay in agreement with majority opinions. In order to discount their targets or stay in a circle’s good graces, they’ll firmly deny an occurrence. If confirming the same situation later works to their advantage, they’ll go back to acknowledging whatever they claimed was delusional. They commonly deny accounts about proposed abuse, or twist the truth until a larger audience disproves them. Then they’ll support the consensus to cover their deception.
Gross manipulation. They thrive on ultimatums, only giving options that laud them or vilify others. This is a tactic known as gaslighting and considered severe psychological abuse. It backs targets into a corner, often confusing their sense of reality by causing them to doubt their own emotions. If not responded to in ways that placate them or boost their egos, they attack the other person by slandering their character. Opinions of others, or alternate lifestyles, are only acceptable if they line up with their own thoughts or decisions.
Covert Aggressiveness. Digging up dirt or eliciting secrets about their target’s life is a common pastime. As soon as they find something “worthy” to share, they’ll do so with mutual friends. If confronted about the betrayal, they’ll often feign ignorance over the issue, as though they didn’t understand the “news” was confidential. They often use passive aggressiveness in order to punish their targets for publicly calling them out. They might forward emails or texts where their target has vented about someone else, then act surprised they did so and claim that it was an accident. Another tactic used is claiming disparaging comments were meant as genuine concern. They’ll insist their target misconstrued or misinterpreted intentions.
Compulsions with control. Narcissists try hard to gain total control of their targets. Ways they may try to obtain it vary by one’s circumstance, but they often hone in on a weakness or need to cloak their compulsion in chivalry. Examples include but aren’t limited to pushing consent forms that grant them full access to health records or bank accounts; attempting to be added as emergency contacts or alternate guardians; and even pursuing conservatorships, which would give them full control over all of their target’s decisions.
As shown in the above descriptions, the subsets of a narcissist’s abuse extend beyond one type. Emotional, verbal, financial, physical, spiritual, and sexual aspects can (but don’t have to) be present. Other behaviors include chronic complaining, belittling others, invalidating a target’s emotions, instigating arguments through gossip or deceit, attempting to isolate targets from outside support, withholding financial support of dependents, and threatening to withdraw love, despite its nonexistence. In extreme scenarios, they might resort to violence: restricting someone’s movement, pulling their hair, striking them in rage, throwing things at them, or destroying their belongings.
Tools for Survivors
Once it’s been determined that abuse has taken place, there are several things survivors (targets) can do to disengage. As a survivor myself, something I’ll discuss more in my post on narcissistic parenting, I can attest to the damage that NP abusers cause. I’ve been picked up by my hair, cornered in rooms without alternate exits, held down on couches and beds, watched as homemade gifts were broken or ripped up, had sentimental items thrown away without permission, and often had entire drawers or chests of toys dumped out, due to one item I failed to put back. Retractions of love were routine; I was regularly told my abuser regretted being my parent, and or that she was ashamed of me. I’ve even had bottles of cleaner and shoes thrown at me in arguments.
Growing up within a septic, unstable environment resulted in problems creating intimate connections, and difficulty recognizing abusive traits in others. Seeking out similar traits to those of my abuser, and confusing those with love, paved the way for more abuse, in romance and future platonic relationships.
It took several years of therapy, education on abuse, and building up my own self-love to reverse the adverse effects.
Luckily, dozens of resources composed by survivors, physicians, and experts exist to aid in healing. Amazon has an impressive collection of books and podcasts on all kinds of narcissistic relationships. I’ve also included some links for analysis and treatment of NP disorder, at the end of this article.
Recovery for the Abused
Once the narcissistic cycle of abuse is understood, abused individuals can begin their journey towards recovery. Most therapists agree that zero contact usually becomes the best solution. Some even feel NPD is incurable. Amongst the others, the consensus is the narcissist will not be cured enough to eliminate chances of relapse. Since by nature narcissists are very resistant to alter their image, they often deny that they need any help.
Suggestions for Severing Ties
Begin by coming up with plans for future altercations. Most narcissists refuse to honor boundaries their targets set. Having strategies in place when lines are tested, bent, or crossed can lessen anxiety over succumbing to new (or more inventive) abuse methods. It’s equally important to learn your limitations and have plans in place if those limits are stretched. Although relationships will cease and may cause a season of grieving, there’s hope in knowing NPD abuse does not have to continue.
Choices have consequences. Reparation only happens when grievances are recognized, and perpetrators dedicate themselves to the hard work of change. If attempting reconciliation, rather than full separation, be prepared for empty promises, continued refusal to cop to the truth, and often, continued abuse.
Remember that chances run out. No one has an obligation to remain in harmful situations, regardless of their relationship with the serial offender.
There’s a quote by Anne Lamott - a novelist I love - that urges, "Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write (or speak) warmly about them, they should have treated you better." Nothing could apply more when severing ties with a narcissist.
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