Narcissistic abuse can be an incredibly damaging experience for someone on the receiving end. You’ve probably heard the phrase: “Hurt people hurt people.” That statement is especially true when we look at the ways narcissists approach relationships. Narcissists are damaged souls, and because they lack the willingness to self reflect, they tend to turn their pain outward, which is where you come in.
When differences arise between you and the narcissist, they blame. If mistakes occur, they shame. When caught doing wrong, they look for scapegoats. When you refuse to fall in line with their program, they come after you with an arsenal of psychological weapons, seeking to bring you into submission. You cannot count on them to be fair, to take responsibility for their improprieties, or to talk with you in a collaborative fashion. It is simply not in their nature to do so. This is the world of narcissistic abuse.
Sometimes the insensitivities of narcissists become so severe that they are not just obnoxious boors, but they are abusers. The primary features of the narcissistic abuse pattern are: High control, low empathy, manipulative behavior, an attitude of entitlement, an inability to receive input, the need for superiority, and an alternate view of reality. Narcissistic abusers have these traits, but more.
Narcissism is a pattern on a spectrum, so you have probably encountered several people who are at varying levels of dysfunction. But when the narcissist becomes so full of oneself that the behavior is destructive, it crosses the line into malignant narcissism. It is the malignant narcissists who become abusers.
To get an idea of the nature of malignant narcissism, consider the following defining features:
- Very strong tendency toward black/white thinking. Every person is unique, meaning no two people can be expected to fit into a preordained mold. Healthy people understand this idea, and successfully engage with others as they are. Malignant narcissists, however, are unable to accept individuals who deviate from their tight requirements. They are highly authoritarian in their relationship style, meaning they often communicate with force and dominance. Uniqueness is not tolerated. In their world, you’re either for me or against me. You’re either right or you’re wrong. There is no room for nuance. This can make narcissistic abuse very challenging for the victim on the receiving end.
- Greatly exaggerated belief in their superior status. Self-absorption is central to the narcissistic pattern, but malignant narcissists take this quality to an exaggerated extreme. As they reveal their innermost thoughts, it becomes apparent that they think of themselves as anointed. They truly believe they are enlightened and therefore more capable of setting the rules for how life is supposed to unfold. They are not shy about telling people how their ways are better. Communication, to them, is an opportunity to play the one-up game.
- Consummate user of people. Not only do malignant narcissists crave control, they seek power and status over others. To them, individuals are useful only in the sense that they feed the narcissist’s immediate need to be serviced. They do not cultivate relationships. Instead, to them, you are a transaction. As long as you fulfill your “function” you can be spared from their wrath. But if you do not live into your usefulness, you are to be punished.
- Low empathy, but more. Narcissists lack the ability to understand the emotions and perceptions of others, but with malignant narcissists, it goes further. They barely see your humanity. If you expose your needs, if you express separate desires, or if you interpret events differently, malignant narcissists offer no appreciation for your uniqueness. They feel threatened by your independence so they insist upon tight conformity. In their efforts to coerce compliance, they feel compelled to eliminate any hint of distinction that resides inside you. You are not a human who deserves dignity, you are merely a nuisance.
- A general attitude of meanness. Malignant narcissists commonly take pride in being tough or rugged or sharply opinionated. They are aware that others think of them as rude, but they rationalize how that blunt attitude is a good thing. In fact, they take pride in being overbearing. They deride those who dare to request tender exchanges. Their anger is so deeply entrenched that it is triggered quickly, and its expression is not constructive. Insults and harshness are natural byproducts.
- A non-trusting attitude. Because malignant narcissists operate with a very dogmatic belief system, they are rarely satisfied with others. (Who can compete with their exacting demands?) When others do not conform, they interpret it as defiance. They see independent people as challenges to their authority. So deep is their belief in the stupidity of others that they can seem shocked that others would disagree. This shock can turn into paranoia as they conclude that that others are deliberating choosing to make their life miserable. This leads them to claim the victim’s role easily. (“Look at how you are mistreating me.”)
- Truth is expedient. Their commitment to being perpetually correct leaves malignant narcissists vulnerable to making up the facts as they go along. They routinely invalidate the perspectives of others. And since they have to have the final word, they easily distort their own memories to fit their narrative. It is common that they will lie overtly or conveniently remain silent about facts that do not advance their immediate desires.
- Outward appearance is everything. Being self-impressed, malignant narcissists like to be known as the smartest or strongest or the most charming people in any group. They desperately do not want anyone to know when they struggle inwardly, so they work overtime to maintain appearances of smug accomplishment. They crave admiration. Therefore, if you seem unimpressed by them, you must be taught a lesson about their clear-cut superiority.
Looking over these eight identifiers of malignant narcissism, it is not surprising to learn that these are the ones who most readily become abusers. Simply put, being connected to them is miserable. The emotion they display most commonly is aggressive anger, and as a side feature, this leads to stubbornness, forcefulness, and an overwhelming manner of communication.
- Shouting, abrasive speech
- Finger pointing and other dominant gestures
- Strongly insistent communication, threats
- Shame, blame, and accusations
- Physical violence like shoving, hitting, or worse
- Shunning, treating you as a nobody
- Speaking poorly about you toward others
- Isolating you, inhibiting you from your preferred activities
- Being surly in general, being moody and petulant
Over time, malignant narcissists can be so persistently overwhelming that you lose your will power. You can feel like a shell of your real self. The abuser has become a thief, robbing you of your identity, your self-respect, your dignity. The abuser wants you to feel confused about your core principles and values (we call this gaslighting) so that person can remain the ultimate authority.
Common Reactions Toward Narcissistic Abuse
Naturally, when you receive the wrath of the narcissistic abuse, it triggers all sorts of feelings and thoughts within yourself. Your task it to be cautious so you do not make a bad situation worse. Ultimately, it is usually best to remove yourself from that person’s presence (permanently, if possible). But sometimes that option is not immediately available.
Even so, when a narcissist becomes abusive, you have options, some good and some not so good. Let’s take a look at how you might respond:
Option #1. You can enter into the power play. Perhaps one of the most instinctive responses to the malignant narcissist is to fight fire with fire. You are insulted, you insult right back. You are pushed, you want to push back. Anger is displayed toward you, so you become angry in reverse.
Unfortunately, malignant narcissists love to tussle, so it is highly predictable that they will not cease their attacks, but will increase their efforts. And that could prove disastrous for you. These narcissists are bullies who lack any sense of fair play, so an open challenge is interpreted as an opportunity to flex their anger muscles.
Option # 2. You can collapse in defeat. It may seem odd to suggest that collapsing is a choice, since no one would want to choose such a fate. But over time, after repetitive exposures to the abusive, malignant narcissist, you might tell yourself to keep quiet and make no waves. You can succumb to their dominance, learning what to say and what not to say. Some individuals decide that abuse is their fate, and they must learn to live with it.
When you find yourself seemingly stuck inside this option, your mood can go dark. You can feel chronically depressed, anxious, or numb. It will be of utmost importance that you recognize how this does not have to be your fate, and that you have other options.
Option #3. You can become a rebel. Some recipients of abuse determine to preserve their independence by taking a stand of defiance. This may come in the form of secretive behaviors or it may be overt. Those who rebel against the malignant narcissist can be vulnerable, for instance, to affairs, excessive alcohol or drug consumption, reckless spending, or joining groups who encourage general irresponsibility.
In the short term, this rebellious reaction can give you a surge of power since you are claiming a form of independence from the abuser’s dominance. But it ultimately fails since it leads you down a path toward self-destruction. You would need to ask: Is irresponsibility the best way for me to show I can be my own separate self?
Option # 4. You can bring responsible individuals into your sphere of influence. Abusers want your silence and compliance. You are not “allowed” to speak of your problems with others. At least that is what they tell you. But as you seek freedom from the patterns of abuse, you can determine that you are under zero obligation to protect the abuser’s reputation. In fact, it is an act of responsibility when you tell your story to those positioned to assist you.
Abusers do not want accountability, but healthy individuals recognize that every person does better when accountability is in place. Therefore, your devotion to goodness and truth can lead you to speak up. Despite the abuser’s insistence otherwise, you can seek counseling, speak to authorities who can help establish boundaries, and discuss matters with close friends or relatives. This is the beginning of establishing appropriate lifestyle boundaries.
Silence is not a good strategy.
Option # 5. Look for the exit. While you may have many reasons to stay in an abusive relationship (kids, money, job circumstances, your reputation), the abuse can be such that a change is mandatory. Once you speak up and let it become known that you are no longer willing to play the abuser’s game, it is your way of saying: “No more.”
Predictably the malignant narcissist will assume the victim’s position, blaming you for the problems. So you will need to remind yourself that your life choices are no longer going to be filtered through that person. You have the final vote. It is your life. You get you be you.
As you educate yourself about narcissistic abuse, you can not only learn to identify the pitiable patterns of life championed by the abuser, but you can acknowledge fully how deranged their thinking is.
Think carefully about these questions:
If a person has to repeatedly insult, coerce, and demean you in order to build oneself up, what does that say about that person’s inner confidence?
What does that tell you about their guiding values?
What awful influences did that narcissist have that prompted him/her to presume that meanness is a reasonable way to do life?
Does that person have even a slight recognition of the supremacy of love?
Realistically, you will need to possess a healthy fear of the malignant narcissist since they operate outside the norms of decency. But you owe it to yourself to become educated in the ways of narcissistic abuse, not for the purpose of winning, but for the purpose of reclaiming your soul.
Simply put, no one has the right to rob you of your dignity.
Dr. Les Carter
Are you dealing with a malignant narcissist? Take our assessment and find out.