What does the term ‘narcissistic abuse’ mean?

Narcissistic abuse is a term which refers not to a specific type of domestic abuse but to domestic abuse perpetrated by an abuser with narcissistic personality disorder or traits which resemble this. This might mean that the abuse manifests in specific ways, but most significantly, labelling abuse as ‘narcissistic’ is a way for us to identify motivations and patterns in perpetrator behaviour. 

While we tend to think of narcissists as people who love themselves excessively, that isn’t quite the case. Those with narcissistic personality disorder may have an inflated sense of their own worth and admirability, but this sense is often beset by turmoil and the need for affirmation. 

Narcissists tend to be highly sensitive and this can lead to them being highly insecure in themselves. In order to assuage this insecurity, many narcissists attempt to transfer feelings of guilt and shame to others. This is where abusive behaviours kick in. 

Not all abusers are narcissists – many might be. So how do we identify this abuse and the key traits underlying it?

narcissists self-aggrandisement
Firstly, how might narcissistic personality disorder manifest itself?

Those with narcissistic personality disorder can appear to have a hugely inflated sense of their self-worth. They may seem to think that only what they say is right, and yet appear to lack the assurance and confidence to accept challenges to their point of view.

Narcissists can also tend towards extremes of behaviour or judgement. They may be inclined to look down upon someone who admits to not knowing something as unintelligent. These sorts of judgements can lead narcissists to treat others with scorn or disdain remarkably soon after getting to know them. 

Narcissists often self-aggrandise, but this aggrandisement is sometimes partly achieved by putting others down. They are also more likely to do this in a public or humiliating way – something that can cause real pain to those they interact with. A narcissist’s self-aggrandisement can also lead to them feeling that they are entirely not at fault for negative events occurring to them and others – even when they are. If nothing is ever their fault, then it may well be YOUR fault – and this is something narcissists often make others feel. 

Above all, a narcissist is self-interested. Ultimately, they will act in ways that they feel will further their status, self-esteem or goal achievement without caring much for how their behaviours affect others. 

narcissists fault
How can these personality traits lead to abusive behaviours?

Well a huge part of how narcissism manifests itself is in belittling behaviours. A narcissist often feeds their self-esteem by breaking down others’. This is a key reason why narcissists so often perpetrate emotional abuse and why we regularly link the two concepts as ‘narcissistic abuse’. 

Additionally, for a narcissist, feeling superior and better than others can lead to them exerting controlling behaviours. An individual who believes they are better than everyone around them is also likely to want to have those people subordinate to them – and subordination often equals being controlled. Narcissists may use their inflated sense of self-worth to put down another person and convince that person that they are incapable of navigating life without the narcissist. This then means that the narcissist might gain control over another. 

Narcissists also like to take advantage of and exploit people for their own gratification. Narcissists like to feel that they compare favourably with others, and in order to do this they may feel they need to thwart another’s successes. Say for example, you have a really exciting job interview lined up. That narcissist may feel threatened by the prospect of you getting that job. So, they may offer to do  practice interview with you, and during the practice, they may be unreasonably harsh and ask difficult questions. This may then make you so nervous and jittery that you cannot perform well in the actual interview. This behaviour is classic sabotage from a narcissist, who is unable to be happy in another’s success. 

Gaslighting is also another significant facet of narcissistic abuse. Abusers tend to use manipulation to break down a victim’s mental state and make them feel as if they are losing their mind. By doing this, the narcissist can trick their victim into believing in their own weakness and incompetence when compared with the abuser. 

And because narcissists are unable to acknowledge their own mistakes, they will constantly make the victim feel like the abuse and any problems in the relationship are the victim’s fault. This makes it harder for a victim to realise that they are experiencing abuse and for a victim to realise that someone else is at fault for the situation they are in. 

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