“When I look at narcissism through the vulnerability lens, I see the shame-based fear of being ordinary. I see the fear of never feeling extraordinary enough to be noticed, to be lovable, to belong, or to cultivate a sense of purpose.” Brene Brown
We, in the mental health field, who work with survivors of psychological abuse generally are versed in the subtle nuances of personality disorders. As a strengths-focused therapist, I have always been loathe to assign labels to human beings. However, as relates to healing in the aftermath of psychological abuse, my clients often find relief in understanding the specific type of abuse they have sustained. In many circumstances, the clients I work with have been impacted by narcissistic abuse, whether in family, romance or work settings. Psycho-education empowers my clients to heal, as they work through cognitive dissonance after experiencing a multitude of emotional abuse tactics by their abuser (Louis de Canonville, 2017).
Survivors of psychological abuse often hold onto shame and self-blame, feeling that they deserved the abuse they sustained over time. In reality, by challenging cognitive distortions and other interventions, survivors heal and work through relational trauma as they realize that often (but not always) the abuser fit the profile of of extreme NPD (Narcissistic Personality Disorder) (Thomas, 2016). As a caveat, not all people with narcissistic traits are abusive, but those on the extreme end of the spectrum of NPD do manifest difficulty with interpersonal relationships where lack of empathy, power and control dynamics, and psychological abuse become part and parcel of interactions (DSM-5, 2013).
There is no excuse for narcissistic (or any form of ) abuse. Even so, many clients want to understand how their abuser could move through life with a diagnostic label of NPD. Much has been written about Narcissistic Personality Disorder, which I will not cover in this article but refer the reader to additional resources for further illumination (Schneider, 2016).
Therapists trained in understanding personality disorders may also see some components of BPD (Borderline Personality Disorder) blending in with the NPD individual, specifically the “vulnerable” NPD (Kreger, 2017). As an adult, the person with NPD is terrified of rejection, abandonment, and criticism. Their childhood was fraught with rejecting and abandoning behaviors by their primary attachment figure(s). Thus, the NPD individual subconsciously seeks to resolve this dynamic in future adult relationships, and consistently replicates the toxic dynamic in romantic relationships with significant others (Zayn, 2007).
Interestingly enough, individuals with NPD demonstrate a core psychic wounding which stems from the experience of shame (Louis de Canonville, 2017). Given a childhood in which the “vulnerable” narcissist was devalued and discarded by primary attachment figure(s), the NPD individual grows up associating pain with love. Therefore, a significant and profound fear of abandonment resides at the core of the narcissistic abuser’s inner psyche. Of course, this trepidation is well buried and covered up with the thick and high walls of the defense mechanisms of projection, denial, and acting out (Ronningstam, 2013). The outer false self may be more indicative of grandiosity, further protecting a vulnerable inner core.
Sadly, the individual manifesting extreme narcissism does not possess empathy, accountability, or the capacity to self-reflect on a deep level that would allow sustained and maintained change over time. Not all individuals with NPD are abusers, but those that fall on the more extreme end of NPD follow the cycles of idealize/devalue/discard/hoover in their relationships (Payson, 2009). Furthermore, survivors of narcissistic abuse often have internalized the projections of the NPD abuser. Much of the initial work for survivors in healing relational trauma involves lowering the cognitive dissonance inherent in this form of psychological abuse. Future articles will address healing in the aftermath of narcissistic abuse.
American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders. 5th ed. Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing. 2013. Pages 669-672.
Louis de Canonville, Christine. Narcissistic Behavior-Working With Victims Of Narcissistic … (n.d.). Retrieved November 13, 2017, from http://www.narcissisticbehavior.net/what-exactly-is-narcissism
Kreger, R. Is Your Narcissist The “Vulnerable” or “Grandiose” Type. Retrieved November 13, 2017 from https: http://www.bpdcentral.com/blog/?Is-Your-Narcissist-the-Vulnerable-or-Grandiose-Type-22
Payson, E. D. (2009). The Wizard of Oz and other narcissists: coping with the one-way relationship in work, love, and family. Royal Oak, MI: Julian Day Publications.
Ronningstam, E., & Baskin-Sommers, A. R. (2013). Fear and decision-making in narcissistic personality disorder—a link between psychoanalysis and neuroscience. Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience, 15(2), 191–201.
Schneider, Andrea. What Is a Narcissist?: A Primer for the Layperson…(2016). Retrieved November 13, 2017 from https://themindsjournal.com/what-is-a-narcissist/
Thomas, S., & Choi, C. (2016). Healing from hidden abuse: a journey through the stages of recovery from psychological abuse,Place of publication not identified: MAST Publishing House.
Zayn, C., & Dibble, K. (2007). Narcissistic lovers: how to cope, recover and move on. Far Hills, NJ: New Horizon Press.