What is Narcissistic Abuse?
Updated: Jun 29
Over the last several years the term "narcissist" has dramatically increased in popular culture. We might see it being used to describe anyone from a seemingly self-centered boss to an out-of-touch politician.
While its use and popularity has broadened in our everyday lives, narcissism has also become a hot topic in the research community in recent years. Social scientists are finding that although narcissism does involve core aspects of self-importance and entitlement that we can all find examples of everyday, it's actually a much more complex trait.
What exactly is narcissism and how can it escalate to the point of abuse?
What is Narcissism?
Narcissism can generally be defined as "a condition in which somebody is only interested in themselves and what they want, and has a strong need to be admired and a lack of understanding of peoples' feelings."
Like many other personality traits or psychological conditions, narcissism is best thought of as existing on a spectrum. Most of us will land in the middle of the normal distribution, whereas a small percentage of the population will land on the extreme ends where narcissistic behaviors can become challenging and get in the way of functioning.
Most of us possess a healthy level of this trait because it's an important factor for survival, it helps us take pride in our work, and it helps us to feel joy in our accomplishments. Folks with an unhealthy level of narcissism are more likely to have it be a dominant part of their personality.
Narcissism Spectrum Model
Dr. Zlatan Krizan, a personality researcher from Iowa State University, proposes a comprehensive model of narcissistic personality based on three dimensions: 1) core traits of self-importance and entitlement; 2) a measure of grandiosity; and 3) a measure of vulnerability.
Grandiosity and vulnerability are descriptions for how a narcissist may interact with the world around them:
A grandiose narcissist is characterized by boldness -- a distinct eagerness and strong motivation to approach something; they're constantly looking for the next opportunity to satisfy their personal needs.
A vulnerable narcissist is characterized by reactivity -- a tendency to avoid opportunities that could harm their self-image; their actions are stress- and anxiety-driven to fend off deeper feelings of inadequacy.
Because it's a spectrum, he proposes that if someone scores higher on the grandiosity dimension, their score on the vulnerability dimension will be noticeably lower, and vice versa.
You can start to see how complex just one personality trait can be!
What is Narcissistic Abuse?
Abuse is unfortunately perpetrated in many forms as a means to assert power or control over others, such as: physical, sexual, emotional, psychological, financial, or cultural. Narcissistic abuse most often involves emotional or psychological abuse; however, many form of abuse may be involved in any given situation and none of these are mutually exclusive.
Emotional abuse involves the consistent and patterned use of language to frighten or control someone. Examples could include putdowns, insults, shame-based comments, or even the threat of violence.
Psychological abuse is similar to emotional abuse, but perhaps more calculated and insidious. This type of abuse involves the consistent and patterned use of lies and gaslighting to manipulate someone's felt experience of reality, ultimately affecting their mental wellbeing.
Putting these together, narcissistic abuse in the most general sense is a form of emotional or psychological abuse that occurs in a relationship with someone who exhibits extreme traits of self-importance and entitlement.
Bold or Reactive?
Going back to Dr. Krizan's research above, you might notice subtle differences in abuse between grandiose and vulnerable narcissists:
Grandiose narcissists may behave in more direct, self-righteous, or power-hungry ways in their quest to conquer what they believe they deserve. This may look like someone exploiting their romantic partner purely to satisfy their own needs, or a parent that dictates their child's sports for their own glory.
Vulnerable narcissists may behave in a more reactionary, "fight-or-flight" manner based on the circumstances they encounter. This may look like like a romantic partner blaming you or giving you the silent treatment until they get what they want, or a parent withholding attention as a way to punish a child for something.
Signs of Narcissistic Abuse
As narcissistic abuse generally occurs in a relationship, the most common people you might experience these signs from are parents or romantic partners. Some of these signs might be unconscious responses acting as defenses against the narcissist's own pain, they might be fully deliberate, or perhaps somewhere in between.
Lack of empathy or validation: so much of their energy is devoted to supporting their own self image that your emotions and needs don't matter. Your successes may not be celebrated.
Lack of accountability: they may often use blame, guilt, or projection tactics to offload personal responsibility for their actions. A narcissistic abuser is too good to be at fault for something.
Competition: instead of offering or seeking connection within a conversation, they may one-up your comments to present themselves as superior. You're told that your problems don't matter because theirs are worse.
Twisting or downplaying: when feeling threatened, they may twist around your words, or the situation itself, to make it seem like you're at fault.
Gaslighting: denying your memory of events as a way to distort your view of reality. Hearing "I never said that, what are you talking about?" when you know for certain what had happened.
Acting as the victim: as another way of offloading blame or responsibility, they may portray themselves as the victim in the situation to gain sympathy while simultaneously invalidating your thoughts and feelings.
Treating others as objects: a narcissistic person may date their partner solely as a way for it to reflect positively on them, or a narcissistic parent may see their child as a way to advertise their parenting capabilities.
As mentioned alluded to above, more serious signs of narcissistic abuse may include other signs of abuse in general, such as controlling finances or friendships, emotional blackmail, sabotage, manipulation, or privacy invasion. This is by no means an exhaustive list.
Healing From Narcissistic Abuse
These are all horrendous things for any human to experience, and what cuts so deep is that they're all steeped in shame. If any of this resonates with you at this point, you may even be feeling that hot, visceral sensation of shame in your body right now.
What can be helpful to know is that abuse is never your fault. It's not a reflection of you.
Healing from narcissistic abuse is possible.
For immediate resources, feel free to visit the following sites: