- Years spent in legal chivvying, answering motion after motion, false accusations, thousands upon thousands of dollars paid to attorneys, bankrupting a former spouse emotionally and financially, with no end in sight. It’s a game of winner-take-all.
- Even worse, years of custodial battles, back and forth to court, rife with abusive and manipulative tactics, children hurt and their lives disrupted, with litigation and upset becoming part of the fabric of their lives.
- The adult daughter or son who finally confronts a narcissistic parent, sick and tired of being manipulated and marginalized, and becomes the unwitting victim of vicious gossip and innuendo, ostracized by family and friends alike, labeled a crazy person or unstable. Sometimes, that parent isn’t content to just wreak social damage but seeks to involve spouses, offspring, and employers in the fray. It is a highly personal vendetta.
- The co-worker, perhaps even someone you used to be pretty friendly with, who turns on you when you get a bigger office, a promotion, or succeed in some way that he or she hasn’t. That person goes after you tooth-and-nail, complaining about your unprofessional behavior, your lack of commitment, or perhaps insinuating that there’s something really unsavory about you and your life to anyone who will listen. You’re blindsided at first, then dumbfounded, and suddenly find yourself in the fight of your life, trying to hold onto your job.
These are all hallmark behaviors of a vindictive narcissist. The term is drawn from Joseph Burgo’s book, The Narcissist You Know, and the title of the chapter in which it’s discussed is incredibly apt: “Challenge me and I’ll Hurt You.” Sometimes, the drama the vindictive narcissist creates seems to come up out of nowhere. Dr. Burgo notes that this narcissist is so thin-skinned, so quick to react to perceived slights even when none is intended, that the retaliation—which appears to come out nowhere—is utterly bewildering to the narcissist’s target. Always, though, the response to perceived threat—the narcissist’s version of truth and self which must be defended—is hugely disproportionate.
The drive behind the vindictive narcissist’s drama
In Dr. Burgo’s view, all Extreme Narcissists “create and consciously defend a false self-image to escape from shame,” and they are thus prone to refute facts that don’t support their self-image, distort events and experiences, and tell all manner of lies. The vindictive narcissist has the same core impulse—defending him or herself against shame—but the need to triumph makes truth irrelevant. As Dr. Burgo puts it, the vindictive narcissist has a “distorted, defensive view of reality” and believes the lies he tells. Winning is all that matters.
His insight permitted me to see that I had been dealing with a vindictive narcissist during protracted and completely unnecessary litigation to obtain a divorce. I now realize in hindsight that you have to be prepared—if you find yourself facing off against one of these people— because there will be no middle ground, no reasonableness, no mediation, and no negotiation. It will be hand-to-hand combat whether you want it or not and you must be prepared. The only other choice is to fold your tents and disappear.
Advice on dealing with vengeance
Needless to say, Dr. Burgo counsels us to try to avoid direct conflict with the vindictive narcissist if possible but he also rightly points out that we’re not likely to recognize him or her until after conflict has already begun. (Yes, this is very true.) If you aren’t able to avoid further communication, he suggests a legalistic approach. Following are suggestions drawn from his book:
- Keep written records of all your interactions. Dr. Burgo suggests that a diary-style log of those interactions can be very helpful, especially in court proceedings.
- Be prepared to “find yourself painted a villain.” Dr. Burgo counsels that you not retaliate in kind but continue to hew to the truth. In time, the vindictive narcissist’s consistent behaviors will betray him or her.
- Rather than responding to taunts or smear campaigns, picture the narcissist as he or she really is: a scared, defensive, shameless bully.
Based on my own experience, I offer this personal advice to all of you who find yourselves in proceedings with a narcissist:
- Make sure that your attorney understands who the person is on the other side. He or she may be successful and seem highly polished and is capable of fooling other people with a certain amount of ease. It’s vital that your attorney really gets it.
- Work hard at not being drawn into the vindictive narcissist’s game. Don’t blame yourself for getting involved with him or her in the first place; it’s counterproductive. You can worry about how you will choose differently in the future when this is over.
- Recognize that when it’s over, you will need time to recover. Being treated in this way by someone you were once connected to, perhaps intimately, is a terrific blow.
- If you’re in a custody battle, protect your children first. Keep careful, organized records. Stay off the phone; put it in writing. And keep your frustrations and anger out of your children’s earshot.
And good luck.
Photograph by Patrick B. Copyright Free. Unsplash.com
Burgo, Joseph. The Narcissist You Know: Defending Yourself against Extreme Narcissists in an All About Me Age. New York: Touchstone, 2016.