You’ve heard of the term narcissist, but what does it actually mean?
And what is this unique type of abuse a narcissist inflicts on people?
Hi I’m Mel, I am a therapist in the UK and I specialise in helping my clients identify and recover from toxic relationships and narcissistic abuse. I’ve written this blog to support World Narcissistic Abuse Awareness Day on 1st June because I want to help raise awareness about this insidious and silent abuse because it is affecting literally millions of people around the world, yet it’s still not common knowledge or talked about.
So what is a narcissist?
Some people think a narcissist is just someone that loves themselves or takes lots of selfies. But actually a narcissist is a person that has very specific character traits, and the three main traits are: having a sense of entitlement, being exploitative, and being empathy impaired, or having a complete lack of empathy for others. We call these the 3 E’s.
But what does all that really mean and how would you recognise it in someone?
Let me break it down.
Sense of entitlement:
A narcissist views themselves as superior and special and better than everyone else, and because of this they think they should be treated that way. They have delusions of grandeur and a sense of omnipotence and grandiosity and this is why they believe they are entitled to have whatever they want, and that they should be given things without working for them.
They see their needs and desires as a priority and more important than anyone else’s, including the needs of their children, and they are ruthless in getting their needs met. They crave admiration and adoration and will demand your attention, but they will be too busy to give you anything in return. They feel envious of others and they don’t like it when they see others succeed or have more than them. They are very judgemental and have double standards and they punish others if they don’t get their way.
Examples of entitlement could be anything from believing they shouldn’t have to wait in line or wait in traffic, taking things that don’t belong to them or they didn’t work for, cheating on their partner or even breaking the law. They don’t care about the consequences because they don’t believe consequences apply to them, and they think they are above reproach.
A lot of narcissists go on to become successful in their pursuits in life because of their sense of entitlement: they believe they deserve the high flying job or the raise or to run the country or the world, and they go out and get it.
Because of their sense of entitlement, the narcissist needs to exploit and use others to get what they want. Exploitative behaviour includes: intimidation, manipulation, control, plotting, conspiring, strategizing, teasing, bullying, threats, being aggressive and passive-aggressive. They take advantage and treat people unfairly and do only what is best for them in order to benefit in some way and achieve their own goals, even if its unethical or illegal.
Due to their lack of conscience they will not feel any remorse or concern for the person they use and exploit. Instead they will just feel excitement and pleasure at having gained what they believe is rightfully theirs.
Examples of exploitative behaviour might include: putting pressure on someone, using them or taking advantage of their ignorance or misfortune in order to gain from it, whether that be labour, financial gain, property, improving their rank or status, or even sexual gratification. Victims of the narcissists exploitation will usually be the people close to them because the narc can be very manipulative and use love and charm and other diversionary tactics to persuade and gain control. Also at risk are vulnerable people and children because they might be oblivious to the situation and unable to seek help or raise the alarm.
Lack of empathy:
Empathy is the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, imagine how they are feeling, and understand and be attuned to their feelings. Narcissists lack this ability to empathise, and because of this they do not concern themselves with other peoples feelings and they have little compassion for others. This lack of empathy means they have no problem taking advantage of people or hurting them when they exploit or degrade them for their own means, and they have no conscience or awareness about the pain they cause others.
Perhaps you have experienced a boss, partner, friend, family member or even a parent respond in a cold uncaring way towards you, even when it is clear that you are upset and crying by something they have done to hurt you.
Also due to the lack of empathy, they will not be able to offer comfort or reassurance when you are injured and in pain after having an accident, because they will not be able to imagine or connect with how you are feeling.
Another big sign that someone might be a narcissist is if they have trouble being told ‘No’. Narcissists lack boundaries and they don’t care about other people’s boundaries, so if you try to set a boundary simply by saying no to them, they might have a very strong reaction.
Try saying ‘no’ to them and see what happens.
What is narcissistic abuse?
The term narcissistic abuse refers to a unique form of emotional abuse someone inflicts on others by people that have either narcissistic personality disorder or narcissistic traits.
A narcissist feels the need to gain control over others and assert their superiority at all times, and they expect everyone to be ok with that.
The trouble comes when others doubt or question them, leading to the narcissist experiencing a narcissistic injury. Narcissistic injury occurs when they think there is a threat to their view of themselves as no longer being seen as perfect or omnipotent. This narcissistic injury leads to narcissistic rage, and they become extremely angry and defensive because the feelings of being seen as less than perfect are too uncomfortable to bear.
The only way for them to regain their status in their eyes and start to feel superior again is to tear down the person that has slighted them, and this is usually achieved by verbally abusing them, humiliating them, and attempting to destroy their sense of self. This abuse can occur in all relationships including friendships, between partners and work colleagues, and even between parents and their children.
What are the signs or symptoms of narcissistic abuse?
Tactics narcissists use to abuse others include: verbal abuse, emotional abuse, projection, gaslighting, rage, word salad, stonewalling, silent treatment, smear campaigns, exploitation, love bombing, discarding, hoovering, de-valuation, triangulation, flying monkeys, shaming, trauma bonding, and many forms of coercion and control (I would encourage anyone to research all of these tactics separately to learn more).
They will outright deny any wrongdoing and manage to turn things around to look like the victim is the one at fault. They deny any hurt they have caused the victim and minimise and disregard their feelings. They will deliberately try to convince the victim that their sense of reality is broken. They treat people as though they are objects, and they exploit and discard them, even their own children.
All of this treatment will leave the victim feeling very confused and disorientated, but not really knowing why. The damaging part is that the victim will know that something is wrong but they will not be able to explain it or describe it. They will just have a sense that something is wrong. This is because covert abuse is so sneaky, and the narcissist can be so nice at other times, that the victim may not realise that the reason they feel this way is because their mum, dad, lover, friend, boss, is subtly abusing them.
A victim of narcissistic abuse may have: anxiety, depression, doubt their perceptions of events, feel confused, second guess themselves, struggle to make decisions, have difficulty trusting their gut instinct or intuition, feel like whatever they do is never good enough, worry that they are too sensitive, have a very low self esteem and low self worth, be an under achiever, and they may experience PTSD and C-PTSD type symptoms including toxic shame, emotional flashbacks, have a strong inner critic, and many other symptoms.
A narcissist can be a loving and kind generous person some of the time and there will be times when they treat others very well, and this is why they are so difficult to spot. Unfortunately this is usually all an act and part of wearing a mask in order to fit in with society, and so their behaviour can go under the radar. The abusive tactics may only be used when you slight them or if they think you need taking down a peg or two.
The moment you gain insight into their true competitive, envious, greedy and selfish nature, you will realise why they behave the way they do and why they lack boundaries for their behaviour.
Try putting yourself in their shoes for a moment. Imagine you were fixated on power, appearance, feeling entitled, wanting supply, wanting drama and reaction, needing to be right and in control, needing to silence your self-hatred, having no empathy for anyone. Do this exercise and you will get a sense of what it is like to be them. Think about how they would treat people, and how their world works.
So why don’t we know about it and why we don’t speak out
Narcissistic abuse is difficult to understand and explain because it is hidden, sneaky and covert, and it’s carried out in secret behind closed doors, often by a parent or partner.
We have probably all known someone that we might describe as being: mean, controlling, manipulative, greedy, bossy, selfish, a gossip, or just generally not a nice person to be around. Not everyone with those traits will be a narcissist and I guess we can all be a little like that sometimes, especially on a bad day.
You may have tried to talk to someone about your relationship or seek help before, but found that you couldn’t describe what was going on, or you worried that no one would believe you. This is especially true if the narcissist has worked hard on their image, and people on the outside only see what they want them to see, which is that they are a great person who is an upstanding member of the community.
People don’t speak out because they think no one would believe them if they tried to explain what this person is really like and what they have put them through.
Imagine going to your teacher, doctor, relative or friend and saying ‘My mum laughs at me when I am upset’ ‘My husband tells me I’m being silly’ ‘My ex used to cancel our dates at the last minute’ ‘I always feel confused after talking to my boss’ ‘My dad seems to enjoy putting me down’ ‘My wife isn’t the fun loving person she was when we first met’ ‘I think my mum enjoys being mean to me’ ‘My girlfriend seems to twist everything I say’.
Each of those statements on their own don’t sound abusive, but you probably thought you would be told that you were imagining things, or were being silly or dramatic, so you just didn’t bother.
The narcissist does a really good job of subtly brainwashing their victim into believing that no one would believe them if they did try to speak out. This tactic is used to keep the narcissist safe. They want to isolate the victim and make them feel isolated, because they don’t want them to get help and they don’t want an outsider to see the abuse. This is part of the abuse: keeping the victim trapped and sounding crazy if they try to speak out.
You may have been repeatedly told ‘No one believes a word you say’ ‘Stop making a fuss’ ‘Get over it’ ‘Everyone thinks you are a drama queen so there’s no point telling anyone’.
So, the inability to be able to describe or articulate what is happening, coupled with the narcissist brainwashing us into believing that no one would believe us, is what keeps us silent, and enables the abuse to continue.
In short: they want the abuse to continue and they want to get away with it, so they gaslight and confuse us into believing its not really happening, and all this weird horrible stuff in our relationship is our fault.
It’s important to raise awareness and teach people how to spot a true narcissist, so their victims can know there is a reason some people behave the way they do, and that there is a terminology and descriptions for their behaviour. Victims need to know what’s really going on and that the way they are being treated is not their fault. Millions of people are living under the cloud of narcissistic abuse and their lives could be different once they learn the truth.
The medical and psychological profession have known about narcissists for a long time but all of this information and awareness about narcissists and their behaviour has only been studied and taught in recent years. Narcissists look normal and in fact they can be intelligent, charming and attractive, so we would never suspect them of being abusive. We know about psychopaths and sociopaths because they are in films and the media, and we know there are some horrible people out there that enjoy hurting people and making others feel bad. But we try and separate ourselves from that world because it doesn’t feel nice.
It’s hard to think that someone we might know and love could be plotting and strategizing to deliberately try to confuse us and break our spirit, to alter our sense of reality and target our sense of self worth and self esteem, all in order to inflict their will on us, make themselves feel better, and get their needs met. It’s even harder to acknowledge or understand if it is a parent doing this to their child.
Thankfully more people are coming forward and telling their stories, and survivors are writing blogs and books and articles and sharing YouTube videos, and therapists are specialising in narcissistic abuse. There are a lot of online support groups and Facebook groups offering support and education.
If you think you might be in an abusive relationship, know that you are not alone. The first step is becoming aware of the situation and getting help. Speak your truth to a trusted friend or professional. Begin by becoming well informed and educated about narcissism in order to understand that the problem is not your fault.
Check out the many support groups online and websites devoted to narcissistic abuse.
How can I help
A victim of narcissistic abuse may seek therapy believing that their difficulties are about them and their failures and inadequacies, not realising that the narcissist has convinced them that they are the one with the problem and they need to fix their flaws. Victims are unaware that their issues are actually as a result of the different tactics being used by a narcissist to deliberately bring them down and break their spirit in order to impose their will on them.
Talking to a therapist that understands this type of abuse can give the victim a huge sense of relief and guide them on their path to recovery.
Realising that someone we love might have abused us can come as a shock and it can be very painful.
I know, because I’ve been there myself.
I know what its like to be in a toxic relationship with a narcissist. I am so grateful I came across a blog like this one that taught me about narcissism and narcissistic abuse.
That was the day my life changed forever.
I went on a journey of recovery from narcissistic abuse and now I specialise in helping others do the same. I love to teach others the truth about their situation, and it brings me so much joy when I get to witness my clients go on the same journey and the freedom it brings.