The residual effects of any abuse can be devastating, however, when most people think about abuse – be it spousal, parental, etc. – they tend to focus on physical abuse. Mental and emotional abuse can be just as if not more damaging, especially when the abuser is someone close to the abused.
Perhaps the worst type of abuse comes from the hands of those who are so preoccupied with themselves that they fail to see or care about the results of their actions. This type of narcissistic abuse can be found in many different types of relationships including parent-child, spouse/significant other, and even friendships. Emotional abuse by a narcissistic parent can be especially insidious as it may damage the child’s ability to form stable relationships in the future. It has been proposed that due to a lack of an appropriate model of a healthy relationship, those who suffered emotional abuse as children tend to end up in similar abusive relationships as adults.
In the United States, the 1980s were viewed as a time when self-centeredness and egocentrism was not only acceptable, it was expected. The “Me Generation” had created new extremes of narcissism. Many were willing to disregard the well-being of others for their own sake.
Despite this inward focus, most of the individuals we think of when we think of this period in time were not true narcissists in the strictest sense. The term narcissism is derived from the Greek story of a Naissus, a hunter who was the son of the river god Cephissus and the nymph Liriope. He possessed such beauty that even he himself could not be free of the attraction. The god Nemesis tricked him into gazing into a pool whereupon he saw and fell in love with his own reflection, only to die there contemplating his own fair features.
Narcissism is defined as “inordinate fascination with oneself; excessive self-love; vanity” or in psychoanalytic terms as “erotic gratification derived from admiration of one’s own physical or mental attributes, being a normal condition at the infantile level of personality development.” This term is used for common self-absorption. In 1968, an extreme form was added to the psychological literature as a definable diagnosis.
The current Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM- V) of the American Psychiatric Association defines Narcissistic Personality Disorder as:
A pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration, and lack of empathy, beginning by early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts, as indicated by five (or more) of the following:
1. Has a grandiose sense of self-importance (e.g., exaggerates achievements and talents, expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements).
2. Is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love.
3. Believes that he or she is “special” and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high- status people (or institutions).
4. Requires excessive admiration.
5. Has a sense of entitlement, i.e., unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her expectations.
6. Is interpersonally exploitative, i.e., takes advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends.
7. Lacks empathy: is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others.
8. Is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of him or her.
9. Shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes.
In addition, the following criteria must be met to justify a diagnosis of Narcissistic Personality Disorder:
Significant impairments in personality functioning manifest by:
1. Impairments in self functioning (a or b):
a. Identity: Excessive reference to others for self-definition and self-esteem regulation; exaggerated self-appraisal may be inflated or deflated, or vacillate between extremes; emotional regulation mirrors fluctuations in self-esteem.
b. Self-direction: Goal-setting is based on gaining approval from others; personal standards are unreasonably high in order to see oneself as exceptional, or too low based on a sense of entitlement; often unaware of own motivations.
2. Impairments in interpersonal functioning (a or b):
a. Empathy: Impaired ability to recognize or identify with the
feelings and needs of others; excessively attuned to reactions of others, but only if perceived as relevant to self; over- or underestimate of own effect on others.
b. Intimacy: Relationships largely superficial and exist to serve self-esteem regulation; mutuality constrained by little genuine interest in others experiences and predominance of a need for personal gain
Pathological personality traits in the following domain:
1. Antagonism, characterized by:
a. Grandiosity: Feelings of entitlement, either overt or covert;
self-centeredness; firmly holding to the belief that one is better than others; condescending toward others.
b. Attention seeking: Excessive attempts to attract and be the focus of the attention of others; admiration seeking.
c. The impairments in personality functioning and the individual’ personality trait expression are relatively stable across time and consistent across situations.
d. The impairments in personality functioning and the individual’s personality trait expression are not better understood as normative for the individual’s developmental stage or socio-cultural environment.
e. The impairments in personality functioning and the individual’s personality trait expression are not solely due to the direct physiological effects of a substance (e.g., a drug of abuse, medication) or a general medical condition (e.g., severe head trauma).
While all of this may seem overwhelming, by focusing on a few key portions of the diagnosis we can see how a relationship with someone with Narcissistic Personality Disorder could easily become a living Hell. As stated in the first quote, individuals with Narcissistic Personality Disorder fell that they are more important than other people. Not only do they place themselves on a pedestal, they think that others do the same. A healthy relationship is not one in which one person lords over the other, but these narcissists can not form healthy relationships.
As we see in the second quote, there exists an inability to form proper attachments due to a lack of empathy for others or form intimate relationships. The fact that is especially telling “Relationships [are] largely superficial and exist to serve self-esteem regulation.” (emphasis added).
A relationship with someone with Narcissistic Personality Disorder is a one way street. All of the attention and emotional support flow from the individual to the narcissist. These relationships are characterized by verbal and mental abuse, belittling, complaining, and even physical abuse. Narcissists believe that they can do no wrong, so any problems with the relationship – and even problems which arise in day to day living – are the fault of the other partner. If a mistake is made, the partner is somehow the one to blame.
The narcissists’ need for attention and admiration lead them to constantly seek out those who will reinforce their inflated sense of self-worth. This translates to a series of short relationships and a long stream of discarded partners. If the narcissist is married, there is a high probability that he or she will not be faithful. Naturally, if infidelity is discovered, the partner will be to blame for not being pretty enough, caring enough, etc.
Victims of a narcissistic abuser often display similar characteristics. The most common is a poor sense of self-worth, often accompanied by an inability to make decisions for themselves. They spend years of being told that they are not good enough, not smart enough, not something enough. Over time they come to internalize these negative statements. They doubt their own abilities. This makes them more reliant upon the narcissistic abuser, creating a cycle of co-dependency.
This is one of the most troubling aspects of narcissistic abuse in terms of parental care. When children are constantly belittled, they grow up believing that they are not capable. When they are finally out from beneath the control of their narcissistic parent, they lack the coping skills required to survive on their own. Doubting their own decision making abilities and crippled by poor self-esteem, they gravitate towards someone who will accept them despite their self-perceived flaws and make decisions for them. In short, they enter into relationships with narcissistic abusers. They leave their parents only to end up with someone exactly like the very people who abused them in the first place.
Those who have suffered at the hands of a narcissist may display any number of emotional and physical symptoms which may be difficult to attribute to the relationship as they are a result of the stress they face daily. These include confusion, disassociation, poor eating and sleeping habits, and even signs of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
It is especially difficult for those in a relationship with a narcissist to get help as they have become conditioned to looking to their abuser for most if not all decision making activities. Their poor sense of self worth makes it easy for them to ignore the idea that they deserve better. Obviously, in their minds, no one else would have them. They should be happy with the relationship they have, despite the fact that they are unhappy. This is a theme which the abuser will reinforce as well.
While difficult, it is possible to escape the cycle of narcissistic abuse. The first step must be accepting that no one deserves the constant humiliation and demands of the narcissist. As the self image is restored to a healthy level, it becomes easier to make decisions without the abuser’s input. Naturally, this is an extremely difficult process which may require the help of outsiders including professionals. Unfortunately, it is common for narcissistic abusers to restrict their partners’ access to others, especially those who would express opinions which run contrary to their grandiose sense of self.