Narcissistic abuse is a term that emerged in the late twentieth century, and became more prominent in the early 21st century in large part due to the late Alice Miller, a Polish psychologist and world renowned author. She used “narcissistic abuse” to refer to a specific form of emotional abuse of children by their narcissistic parent(s). These are parents who require the child to give up his or her own wants and feelings in order to serve the parents’ needs for esteem. However, more commonly it has also come to be used to refer to forms of abuse in adult or child relationships on the part of the narcissist.
Narcissistic abuse occurs in adult-to-adult relationships, where one or both partners are very narcissistic- the narcissistic couple. As a general rule, narcissists do not take responsibility for relationship difficulties; their relationships can often be characterized by a period of intense involvement and idealization of the partner, followed by devaluation, and rapid, often explosive, severing of the relationship.
Why Do Narcisists Abuse?
So why do narcissists, in particular, so frequently engage in emotionally abusive behavior? Typically, it is either because they experience “narcissistic injury” or because they feel the need to gain control over others.
Narcissists have an exaggerated, grandiose opinion of themselves and the narcissist expects that the world, and especially their partner, should accept that opinion. When others question or threaten that opinion, the narcissist experiences what is known as narcissistic injury. More specifically, this is when the narcissist perceives a threat to their self view of themselves as perfect, wise, kind, omnipotent, important, deserving of special treatment, etc. Narcissistic injury can happen rather frequently as a narcissist’s view of himself/herself is out of touch with reality.
When a narcissist experiences narcissistic injury, he or she typically becomes defensive, often to the point of being enraged. This is known as “narcissistic rage”. If someone makes a comment that the narcissist perceives as a threat or a slight, the narcissist will devalue the individual who made the comment, via verbal abuse, so that their comment loses credibility in the narcissist’s mind. That allows him or her to continue to hold their unrealistic perceptions of themselves.
It is important to note that narcissistic rage can take the form of emotional OR physical abuse. People with a narcissistic personality disorder can quickly go from verbal abuse to physical abuse. If the victim of verbal and emotional abuse notices increasingly more (or increasingly severe) abuse, they would be wise to leave the situation before it escalates to physical abuse.
Narcissistic abuse can also begin because the abuser needs to gain control over others. He or she may do this by belittling the victims and making them feel emotionally and mentally incompetent. For example, a narcissist might repeatedly tell his or her victims that they are worthless, or humiliate them in public. The narcissist believes that by withdrawing his or her approval, the victim will fall further under his or her power in the hopes of eventually achieving acceptance. Unfortunately, that is often the case.
The narcissistic abuser will use insults, embarrassment and punishment to destroy the victim’s self-esteem, which eventually results in the victim believing that he or she is indeed worthless. The repeated narcissistic abuse acts like brainwashing and exhausts the victim to the point of hopelessness. The narcissist then has his partner or victim under his or her complete control. Furthermore, the narcissist can become violent and will feel little remorse because he or she believes that this type of behavior is warranted. The abuser feels that his or her actions are justified because these are the actions of a superior being, despite whether it is harmful or illegal.
Types of Abuse
Physical abuse is self-explanatory although it is important to note that it might start out as mild (pinching, pushing) but more than likely will escalate if the victim does not leave the narcissistic abuser. Verbal and emotional abuse can be just as, if not more, damaging as physical abuse. The effects of verbal, emotional or physical abuse can be painful and long-term. The following are all behaviors a victim may experience from an emotionally and verbally abusive narcissist:
Withholding – Withholding love, affection, empathy, and intimacy.
Countering – This is when the partner expresses a thought and the abuser immediately counters that view with his/her own without listening to or considering it.
Discounting – When the abuser discounts the partner’s views or thoughts, telling the partner their ideas are insignificant, incorrect, or stupid. The abuser will often discount the partner’s memory about the abuse itself.
Verbal abuse disguised as jokes – These “jokes” can be very hurtful, especially if delivered in public.
Blocking and diverting – When the partner wants to discuss a concern, the abuser changes the subject and prevents any further discussion or resolution.
Accusing and blaming – The abuser will accuse the partner of an offense. The abuser may well know the partner is innocent of the supposed offense, but this tactic serves the purpose of putting the partner on the defensive rather than seeing the behavior of the abuser. Narcissists are known to use “projection”-where they project their own negative behavior or feelings onto the victim by accusing the victim of doing something that the abuser actually had done or felt.
Judging and criticizing – This serves to weaken the partner’s self-esteem and increases the victim’s need to look to the abuser for validation.
Trivializing – This is when the abuser minimizes something that is important to the partner, such as a concern about something the abuser has done.
Undermining – When the partner wants to do something positive in her/his life, the abuser becomes threatened and tries to stop the partner. It may be an overt command, subtly convincing the partner that it is a bad idea, or a covert action that would deter the partner from going.
Threatening – This can include threats of divorce, of leaving, of abuse, or other threats of actions that would hurt (psychologically or physically) the partner or someone the partner cares about.
Name-calling – This de-humanizes the partner and erodes the partner’s self-esteem.
Forgetting – This often includes the abuser ‘forgetting’ about incidents of abuse, which undermines the partner’s reality. The abuser may also ‘forget’ about things that he or she knows are very important to their partner.
Ordering – Treating the partner as a child or a slave; denying the independence of the partner.
Denial – the abuser relentlessly denies his/her actions. This discounts the reality of a partner (this is also known as “crazy making”).
Abusive Anger – When the abuser becomes enraged to the point of frightening the partner. This rage often is caused by incidents that a non-abuser would consider insignificant.
What to Do in an Abusive Relationship?
The emotional or mental deterioration of the victim is a sign that he or she needs help. There is a considerable recovery process available for victims of narcissistic abuse; it begins with self-education. The victim and the abuser should seek treatment separately, because the process is different for each. The partner (or other victim) can begin by becoming well informed about the disorder (Narcissistic Personality Disorder or NPD) that afflicts the narcissistic abuser, in order to understand that it is not their fault- despite what the abuser has repeatedly told them. They are victims. There are numerous recovery groups for victims of narcissistic abuse as well as individual therapy.
The variety of support and information available on narcissistic abuse is a good starting point because it assists the victim in regaining control over his or her own life. The support groups allow the abused to communicate with others who are undergoing similar trauma and can relieve the stress of feeling hopelessly alone. The sufferers of NPD should also seek counseling in order to better understand their disease and to evaluate the underlying problems that fuel the disorder.