Narcissistic Abuse Part 1: heart of darkness

This post is not intended as a guide for diagnosing or labelling individuals, but instead highlights the detrimental effects narcissistic individuals (including sociopathic, psychopathic and other exploitative personalities) can have upon us.  Being able to recognise some of these effects can help us protect ourselves and seek effective help in recovering from the toxic relationships that narcissistic individuals create as a means of serving their interests.  Narcissism as a personality trait ranges from socially tolerated egocentric behaviour to extremely damaging exploitation and manipulation characteristic of psychiatric labels defining narcissistic, sociopathic and psychopathic personality disorders.  These characteristics are sometimes referred to as the Dark Triad.

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Narcissistic Traits and Diagnostic Criteria

These are the diagnostic criteria for Narcissistic Personality Disorder, according to the DSM-V*.  Five of the nine listed are required for a formal diagnosis:

  • Grandiosity with expectations of superior treatment from other people
  • Continually demeaning, bullying and belittling others
  • Exploiting others to achieve personal gain
  • Lack of empathy for the negative impact they have on the feelings, wishes, and needs of other people
  • Fixation on fantasies of power, success, intelligence, attractiveness, etc.
  • Self-perception of being unique, superior, and associated with high-status people and institutions
  • Need for continual admiration from others
  • Sense of entitlement to special treatment and to obedience from others (this is rooted in the accumulation of resentment)
  • Intense envy of others, and the belief that others are equally envious of them

*Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition

Whilst five of the above criteria are required for a diagnosis of Narcissistic Personality Disorder, these and similar traits are displayed by some individuals in society who go undiagnosed, and whose conduct towards others is nevertheless undermining, callous or antisocial.  Narcissistic individuals can be predatory, tending to seek positions of influence over others in order to better serve their own interests.

Normalisation of Narcissistic Behaviour

Whilst ordinary self-centred or egocentric behaviours might be irritating or obnoxious to most of us, predatory narcissists are extremely damaged individuals who have gained a foothold and greater and greater influence in our society by virtue of our normalisation of qualities that make forms of malignant narcissism harder to spot:

  • our culture of celebrity worship
  • styles of parenting that cultivate narcissistic traits e.g. child worship
  • styles of parenting that instil deep insecurities in children e.g. early abandonment, mixed emotional messages, profound disaffirmation, favouritism, approach-avoidance attachment styles
  • styles of parenting that disaffirm or erode a child’s sense of value e.g. neglect, abuse, blaming, scapegoating
  • education systems that reward unquestioned obedience to authority figures
  • our status obsessions and pre-occupation with appearances
  • the absence of rewards for people with depth of character and personal integrity
  • routine mistreatment of people who dare tell uncomfortable truths
  • erosion of shared morality and community cohesion
  • lack of interest in faith and genuine spiritual practices, which leaves a gap in our awareness of good and evil, right and wrong.

All of these and many more societal and cultural changes have opened the door to our camouflaging and normalising of the more extreme, harmful, sociopathic and narcissistic traits in a disintegrated, ‘anything goes’ society.  Within an egocentric, morally fragmented culture toxic narcissism becomes harder to recognise.

The fact that the word ‘narcissist’ has become a part of common discourse has allowed more of society to identify personality traits that are a blight on individual wellbeing both personally and culturally.  In the declining moral and frayed psychosocial fabric of our society many speak of the coming end of our period of civilisation as we have replaced our humility, gratitude and appreciation of life (what we used to call our ‘relationship to God’) with the worship of idols: celebrities, actors, musicians, politicians, the wealthy, even celebrity chefs and TV hosts.  Such a shift in our consciousness away from honouring the precious life we have been given as a unique expression of the vast context of life itself, to a vain adoration of the self results in our attempts to fill the emptiness that comes from disintegrated communities, inauthentic social media ‘friendships’, and a fixation with escapism and material goods and pleasures.  For these things do not feed our souls and our innate hunger for deeper meaning, connection and value at the existential level of our lives.  They are instead the cheeseburgers of spiritual nutrition – tasty, filling for a little while, but nutritionally empty.  Narcissism as a social phenomenon is, then, a symptom of a culture that is in serious existential trouble.

David had the misfortune to work under a narcissistic manager and described his experiences with him as ‘educational, devastating and a fundamental test of who he was as a person’. The relationship was ruinous to David’s physical and mental health at the time and his recovery of his sense of self took a long time following his disengagement with this person. Like many predatory narcissistic individuals attracted to positions of power over others, David’s manager occupied a place of perpetual ambition within a large organisation, systematically befriending, grooming, exploiting and discarding various staff members, friends and associates over the years, whilst courting admiration from a group of sycophantic followers in the staff team.  David – who started off with low self-esteem – ended up manipulated, harassed, undermined and exploited by his manager, resulting in his eventual breakdown.

Tools of Manipulation

The following are some, but by no means all, of the tools used by malignant narcissists to exploit others:

  • The use of reward and punishment to steer others and draw them in to the narcissist’s sphere of influence.  This can take the form of flattery and sudden aloofness, favouritism or disfavour as a means of pushing and pulling victims – particularly those with low self-esteem – into line.  But equally, as narcissists tend to seek positions of power and influence in compensation against their own inner inadequacies, they can offer promises and opportunities and other rewards as incentives for creating admirers out of those around them, particularly those with a need for recognition and acceptance.
  • Favouritism and disfavour are also effective means of using another time-worn method of control: divide and conquer.
  • Instilling fear and self-doubt in victims through the implicit threat of punishment, expectation or withdrawal of favour and hope.  This can have a particularly powerful effect upon victims who have low self-esteem that is further eroded by the process of narcissistic abuse, resulting in powerful fears of abandonment for some.
  • Relating to victims by passive-aggression, destructive envy and sadism.  Narcissistic individuals have little to no genuine empathy for others and often take pleasure from the struggles and suffering of others, particularly those who have failed to supply them with admiration or compliance.  They will take credit for the qualities and successes of others and assign blame to others for their own failings.
  • The misuse of positions of influence to serve as a vehicle for manipulating others into serving their needs.  Narcissists typically seek positions of authority and influence over others in order to 1. reinforce their belief that they are superior to others and entitled to special treatment; 2. afford them the power to reward or punish their subservients; 3. provide them with an environment that allows them to associate themselves with higher status individuals or institutions, thus further reinforcing the appearance that they themselves are superior.  Grandiosity, priviledge and self-entitlement are defining features of narcissists as they often possess inflated but distorted ideas of their own abilities.
  • The use of humiliation as a means of belittling others.  Many victims of narcissistic abuse complain of memorable instances of their being shamed or put down in public as punishment for failing to meet the narcissist’s demands for admiration and respect.  Arrogance is a common personality trait in narcissists, particularly predatory and malignant types.
  • Having no innate sense of respect for the other’s personal, physical or emotional space.  Lack of empathy is a characteristic of narcissists and imposing themselves upon others can be a common trait.  However, empathy and emotional sensitivity can be mimicked in words to some degree by narcissistic individuals.
  • The use of sexual aggression and exploitation.  Donald Trump’s now notorious commentary on grabbing women by the p****y is an example of the narcissist’s sense of entitlement to satisfy his sexual desires even where this can cause harm to the other person or their dignity.  This is in part due to the narcissistic individual only being able to relate to other human beings as objects serving his or her needs.  With no regard for personal boundaries, intrusive comments and physical contact are common.
  • With a lack of empathy and emotional depth, narcissistic individuals tend to relate to others in glib or shallow ways, being theatrical or showy as the roles they play more closely resemble characature or pantomime than personal depth or soulfulness.
  • Misappropriating desirable qualities in victims.  This can be a difficult one to understand, but narcissists frequently misappropriate qualities, credit and merit in others, claiming them as their own.  As the narcissist tends to have nothing original of his own within himself (due to a profound sense of inner emptiness that he loathes), so he must adopt and mimick the qualities and characteristics of other people to incorporate into his acting role via a process of destructive envy.
  • Instilling in his victims the narcissist’s unwanted qualities.  In tandem with misappropriating the good in others, is attempting to attribute the self-hatred and other features that belong to the narcissist into his victims.  Victims of narcissistic abuse typically end up with a destructive level of self-loathing, low self-esteem and anger that have detrimental effects upon them for years after contact.
  • Continually using a narrative that suggests that the narcissist is superior, better, or cleverer than others.  This is continuously reinforced in victims in subtle and crude ways and can take the form of usurping behaviours, outdoing and oneupmanship, in a steady stream of passive aggression.
  • Having an energetic draining effect upon victims.  The parasitic features of narcissists result in their victims feeling drained, exhausted or ‘tired but wired’.  This makes perfect sense when you consider that narcissists tend to live, not by creative energy arising in themselves, but by energy exploited from others via mimickry and taking credit for the creative achievements of others.  This ‘black hole effect’ is seen in the narcissistic individual’s maintainance of an audience in his orbit whilst draining targeted individuals of their energy, sense of self and self-worth.
  • Reactive Abuse: “Reactive abuse” occurs when a victim of narcissistic abuse reacts to the abuse they received and is then blamed and further punished for their reaction. It’s a technique used to shift responsibility for the original abuse, often resulting in a circular argument of blame that the perpetrator uses in an attempt to locate the problem in the victim.  All kinds of abusers+manipulators use this responsibility shifting technique, but narcissists use it as part of their stock repertoire, punishing victims for simply failing to supply sufficient admiration. It is an energy trap for victims who try to argue against it.

Jane grew up with a narcissistic mother, who continually criticised her, made her feel responsible for her mother’s depression and loss of opportunities, and who blamed Jane for ‘ruining her life’ when she was born. Jane’s school grades were never good enough; her artwork was described as “a wasted talent” because Jane had no interest in making money from her art; she was always blamed for her brother’s bad behaviour ‘because you’re older and you should know better’.  As an adult, Jane became a chronic ‘people pleaser’ in her efforts to seek the love and approval she never received from her mother.  She exhausted herself in this pursuit, making herself vulnerable to other narcissistic and exploitative individuals.  Poor health followed, with the need to take time off work to recover, losing one job after another due to her inability to cope with stress.  Jane was immensely angry inside, following decades of narcissistic abuse, which along with her need to please others, resulted in her being passive-aggressive and consequently failing to maintain close relationships.  With a fragile sense of self, Jane clung to her psychiatric diagnosis as a form of identity, which had the effect of keeping her stuck in the role of victim in a familiar vicious circle.

Recovery

In Part 2 I’ll discuss the all-important process of recovering yourself from the toxic behaviours you may have tolerated in relationship with a narcissist and the formation of new, effective boundaries against such behaviours.  In short, however, the best form of boundary and protection from any malignant, unchanging individual who demonstrates no remorse or willingness to make amends for the suffering they cause us is complete disengagement from them as soon as possible.  In workplaces, bringing such people to account via grievance procedures and other legalistic mechanisms can be a very arduous undertaking, particularly in environments where they may have influence and enjoy protection and support from their cohorts and superiors, and where narcissistic traits are often misinterpreted as ‘leadership skills’, ‘self-confidence’, ‘charisma’, ‘professional competence’ and ‘success’.

Photo credit: Sachin C Nair

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