We know that “narcissist” has become a bit of a buzzword recently, and some folks are quick to apply it to an ex-lover or family member or friend. While awareness of this concept is healthy, so is remembering that it is, in a mental health context, a serious condition that shouldn’t be applied to someone you’re mad at. ~ ed.
Society assumes that everyone has a conscience and the ability to empathize.
In fact, 1 in 25 people in the United States are estimated to be sociopaths, according to Harvard psychologist Martha Stout. Narcissists (those who meet the criteria for Narcissistic Personality Disorder), sociopaths and psychopaths, speak in the language of crazy-making, of projection, of word salad, of gaslighting and of pathological envy.
While I will be focusing on narcissistic abusers in this post, keep in mind that all three are unable to empathize with others and frequently exploit others for their own agenda. If you encounter someone with narcissistic traits, they could very well fall towards the extreme end of the psychopathy spectrum and be a sociopath or psychopath.
Narcissistic and partners with Antisocial Personality Disorder engage in chronic manipulation and devaluation of their victims, leaving victims feeling worthless, anxious and even suicidal. This type of continual manipulation, which includes an idealization-devaluation-discard abuse cycle where they “lovebomb” their partners, devalue them through stonewalling, gaslighting, smear campaigns, verbal and emotional abuse, then discard them until the trauma begins again, also known as narcissistic abuse—abuse by a partner with NPD or on the far end of the narcissistic spectrum.
Their manipulation is psychological and emotionally devastating and very dangerous, especially considering the brain circuitry for emotional and physical pain are one and the same. What a victim feels when they are punched in the stomach can be similar to the pain a victim feels when they are verbally and emotionally abused, and the effects of narcissistic abuse can be crippling and long-lasting, even resulting in symptoms of PTSD or Complex PTSD. Needless to say, this type of abuse can leave psychological and emotional scars that can last a lifetime.
Yet what makes narcissistic abuse so dangerous is that it is often not recognized as abuse.
Mental health professionals are only now beginning to research and understand what Narcissist Victim Syndrome is, although survivors have been speaking about it for years. Narcissistic abuse is primarily psychological and emotional (though victims can suffer physical abuse as well) and since these abusers employ very covert and insidious methods to abuse their partners, they are able to escape accountability for the abuse because of the false persona they present to the outside world which is usually a charming mask that hides their cruelty.
Survivors often blame themselves for the abuse, not being able to put into words what they’ve experienced. Once they learn the vocabulary of narcissistic abuse, they are armed with the tools, the insights, and the resources to heal. Learning the language and techniques of these predators means that we are better prepared to identify the red flags when interacting with people who display malignant narcissism or antisocial traits and that we can better protect ourselves from exploitation and abuse. It means we can set appropriate boundaries with others, and make informed decisions about who we keep in our lives.
Understanding the nature of these toxic interactions and how they affect us has an enormous impact on our ability to engage in self-care. I personally know how devastating this type of abuse can be, especially when survivors are not able to speak of their experiences in the traditional discourse about what abuse entails and are often alienated and invalidated by friends, family members, and even mental health professionals who are not trained in this type of abuse. As a survivor, author, coach and a researcher, I’ve made it my mission to continue educating the public about the effects of narcissistic abuse, the techniques of narcissistic abusers, and the fact that healing from this type of abuse is possible.
These pathological individuals walk among us every day in their false masks, often unseen and unnoticed because of how eerily normal they are. They can be of any gender, background, and socioeconomic status. Often times, they are charming, charismatic, the life of the party, able to hook their victims in and dupe the public effortlessly. It’s very possible you’ve dated, worked with, had a family member or friend with Narcissistic Personality Disorder or Antisocial Personality Disorder in your lifetime.
Learning their emotional language means acknowledging that their cruelty is not only explicit but implicit, deeply ingrained in nuances in their facial expressions, gestures, tones, and most importantly, the contradictory mismatch between their words and actions. Their cruelty is deliberate and designed to control and ultimately destroy their victims.
These types of abusers are fluent in manipulation, well-versed in sadism, in control and in rage. It is akin to psychological and emotional rape—a sordid violation of boundaries and of the trust the victim has given his or her abuser.
Narcissistic abusers can attack at any given moment, using their choice weapons of sarcasm, condescending remarks, name-calling, and blame-shifting whenever they perceive you as a threat or whenever they need entertainment in the form of an emotional reaction. They can also use their nonverbal language in the form of a sadistic smirk, the cold deadness in their eyes while professing their to love you, their bored, sulky looks or their cruel laughter to bully you into believing that you are inferior to them.
Survivors spend much of the devaluation phase of an abusive cycle (the phase where they are thrust off the pedestal, only to be demeaned and degraded) constantly on their toes, careful not to make a sound lest they incur the wrath of their narcissist. Yet walking on eggshells doesn’t help, as the narcissist can and will use anything and everything you’ve said or done against you.
There are three key pieces of information that narcissists frequently collect in the idealization phase of the relationship where they are first lovebombing and grooming you with excessive attention, that they later wield against you in the devaluation and discard phases in their special language of depravity:
1. The flaws, shortcomings, insecurities and secrets you’ve confided in the narcissist about.
The narcissistic abuser rejoices when you share your wounds, your struggles, and your triggers early on. It is then that much easier for them to get underneath your skin and inside of your mind. During the early stages of the relationship, you are likely to feel so trusting and open with a narcissist that you share everything with them: your past, your heartbreaks and what you perceive to be your flaws.
You may see this as a way of establishing rapport, a connection with your partner, a way of being vulnerable and intimate. A narcissistic abuser sees it as dinner laying itself on the table. They will pretend to support you and empathize with you when you reveal these to them initially, but will later use these to provoke you, belittle you and demean you during the devaluation phase.
Remember: The narcissist has no limits as to what he or she will use, they thrive on the fact that you are being retraumatized. Their ability to make you regress right back into the original trauma with just one turn of phrase makes them feel powerful. And they live for that power, because it is the only power they have. To a narcissist, any open wound is an invitation to cut deeper and the narcissist can and always will cut a wound even deeper than the first.
2. Your strengths and accomplishments, especially the ones they are pathologically envious of.
Initially when you were on the pedestal, the narcissist couldn’t get enough of your strengths and accomplishments. They couldn’t stop raving about you to family and friends, showing you off, treating you like a trophy, an essential part of them. Their association with you inevitably made them feel superior and important. It bolstered their false image of being a normal human being who could get a “prize” like you.
In the devaluation phase, a narcissist will literally translate your strengths into perceived flaws. Once you were “confident and sexy,” but now you’re “cocky and vain.” Before, you were “intelligent and driven,” and now you’re just a “know-it-all” or a “a smartass.”
They gaslight you into believing that your value and worth are not real, all while projecting their own sense of inferiority onto you. They will degrade, minimize, and ignore what you accomplish, now acting as if it means nothing to them and as if it is of little importance or value to the world. They will feed you falsehoods about your lack of competence and ability. They will claim to be better at you, all the while stealing your ideas. They will taunt you into believing that you’re not capable of the smallest of tasks, even if you are out of their league professionally and personally. They will threaten to ruin your reputation and they will often sabotage major events as well as support networks you may have, attempting to turn everyone against you. They will trample upon your dreams, your aspirations, your beliefs, your personality, your goals, your profession, your talents, your appearance, your lifestyle – all the while extolling their own.
Their sudden turn of language takes a toll; it is traumatizing, shocking and unexpectedly vicious. Everything they once praised will inevitably be turned and twisted into a weakness. This is because they cannot stand you “winning” and being better than them at something. To them, everything is a competition and a game that they must win at all costs. They seek to destroy you in every way possible so that you, in turn, destroy and sabotage yourself—all the while they sit back, relax and watch the unraveling of everything you’ve worked hard for.
3. Your need to please them and their need to be perpetually dissatisfied.
The narcissist cultivated your need for his or her validation and approval early on in the idealization phase. By making you dependent on his or her praise, they conditioned you to seek the excessive admiration that only they could dole out. Now, as they devalue you, they use your need for validation to their advantage by withdrawing frequently, appearing sullen at every opportunity, and converting every generous thing you do for them as a failure on your part that falls short of their ludicrous expectations. Nothing can meet their high standards and everything wrong will be pointed out. In fact, even the things they do wrong shall be pinned on you.
Their blame-shifting language, passive-aggressive sulky behavior and narcissistic rage at the slightest injury becomes all-consuming for the victim, as the victim attempts to strengthen his or her efforts to meet the standards of the narcissist —standards which inevitably set the victim up for failure. For this, the victim is met with verbal assault, accusations and unfair comparisons which instill in him or her a pervasive sense of worthlessness and never being “enough.”
If the victim ever attempts to make the narcissistic abuser accountable for being a decent human being, they will lash out in rage, blaming them for the abuse and stonewalling the victim into silence. They love to have the last word, especially for the language they’ve created.
Taking back our control and power from a narcissistic abuser means going to war with the language they use against us. This means seeking validating, professional help for the abuse we’ve suffered, detaching from these people in our lives, learning more about the techniques of abusers, finding support networks, sharing our story to raise awareness and finding the appropriate healing modalities that can enable us to transcend and thrive after their abuse.
We can channel this experience of abuse for our highest good and for the greater good. We just have to be willing create in its place what I call a “reverse discourse”—a new language and a rewriting of the narrative that instead lifts us, motivates us, inspires us and revives us by replacing the narcissist’s cutting words with our own powerful truth.
Author: Shahida Arabi
Editor: Katarina Tavčar
Photo: Stephanie Overton/Flickr