I am pleased to introduce my colleague, Dr. Erin Watson, who is serving as this month’s guest blog author. Dr. Watson is a clinically-trained recovery coach and educator helping people rebuild their energy, identities and confidence after experiencing severe attachment wounds. She has a Doctorate in Family Relationships and Human Development and a clinical background in trauma therapy and family therapy. She has 15+ years of experience supporting survivors of family dysfunction, childhood abuse, and toxic relationships and has taught university courses on family theory and human relationships for over a decade at the undergraduate and graduate levels. She currently specializes in helping people rebuild after the damaging effects of Family Scapegoating Abuse (FSA) and Abusive Narcissism and is currently pursuing certification in FSA Recovery Coaching. Her research has been published academically and in the popular press.You can connect with Dr. Watson via her Instagram: @drerinwatson
Narcissism is trending these days. What I mean by that is everywhere you look on social media, there are posts and influencers talking about the “evilness” of narcissistic people. Whether it’s a lover, a parent, or even a boss, the message we are being inundated with is that any contact with a narcissist will leave you depleted, damaged, or destroyed.
And that’s scary. Especially when you consider that we all possess narcissistic traits to some degree.
These messages are deeply problematic for a few reasons: For one, much of the information circulating about narcissism is not rooted in clinical or scientific evidence. As such, a large population of people are being unfairly “diagnosed” as having a severe (and very stigmatizing) personality disorder.
Currently, social media seems to be feeding the notion that any indication of emotional immaturity, poor communication, or even emotional dysregulation is a sign of “deliberate toxicity,” and that people with higher narcissistic traits seek to cause harm and enjoy causing pain and suffering.
The stigma of being labeled “narcissistic” may prevent people with strong narcissistic traits from seeking the types of professional support that could stop them from becoming abusive. Alternatively, it has been my experience as a Mental Health practitioner that those who do reach out for help with what they fear is narcissism are often the “identified patient” or the “scapegoat” in their family of origin who have been brainwashed into thinking that they are the narcissist and the ‘problem’ in their family. When they show up in the office of a misinformed clinician, their trauma can be exacerbated.
Narcissistic Personality Disorder and Covert Narcissism
The most well known manifestation of narcissism is Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD). NPD is simply a collection of personality traits grounded in poor self-esteem, intense rejection sensitivity, and lack of self-awareness.
The behaviors we associate with NPD are actually unconscious coping mechanisms and strategies for seeking out and maintaining attention and a sense of belonging – and also, at times, a sense of control. Many people with NPD do not believe they are necessarily better than anyone else; instead, it is often the case that they don’t even think about or consider anyone else because their fragile ego’s need for attention and belonging is so very intense.
To the narcissist, people are objectified and transformed intrapsychically into tools, mirrors, or extensions of their needs in an attempt to turn them into sources or resources they can draw from to feel emotionally safe, regulated, and loved. And yes, these coping strategies and lack of empathy can absolutely be harmful to others. Especially in the case of Covert Narcissism (which is not a diagnosable disorder) because covert narcissists have such insatiable needs that filling their empty inner well is literally impossible. This is why they will resort to whatever tactics they need to create emotional and social safety.
We all need to feel like we belong. We all need attention. People high on the narcissism spectrum (such as those with NPD or covert narcissism), however, have a much higher threshold for these types of social recognition and support. Their self-loathing and toxic shame is so high that they need to feel extra-special or even revered in order to experience even a semblance of inner security. Their rejection sensitivity is so high that they force others to work overtime to “prove” to them they are wanted. And yet the target keeps moving, resulting in their feeling continuously unsatisfied and searching for new ‘narcissistic supply’.
While this can be a challenging interpersonal dynamic to navigate and can leave you feeling emotionally exhausted, your interactions with narcissists or people with strong narcissistic traits will not necessarily cause outcomes like complex trauma (C-PTSD), severe attachment wounding, betrayal trauma, and all the social, emotional and psychological outcomes associated with these traumas. While it can be difficult to hold this understanding, it is critical to make clear that narcissism, and even those diagnosed with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (as classified in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual) are not inherently abusive.
It is true that narcissism and trauma are very closely tied. Research on narcissism suggests that those with strong narcissistic traits or full-blown NPD likely suffered from severe trauma as children. However, it is important we make a distinction between the spectrum of narcissistic traits that we all possess as humans, how narcissism and trauma are linked, and the very harmful and damaging effects of what I call Abusive Narcissism.
What Is Abusive Narcissism?
Abusive Narcissism is a term I coined after many years of research exploring family systems, attachment theory, and human development, as well as from years I spent working clinically with dysfunctional families and individuals experiencing severe attachment wounds due to toxic relationships. The term Abusive Narcissism refers to the maladaptive and harmful strategies used by some narcissists to manage the experience of having unresolvable emotional needs and experiences.
Strategies associated with Abusive Narcissism include triangulation, gaslighting, guilt trips, smear campaigns, manipulation, DARVO, character assassinations, twisting narratives, psychological and emotional control, scapegoating, boundary violations, projections, and deliberate prodding for reactions in their victims in order to control and feel superior to them. Victims of narcissistic abuse will have experienced abusive narcissism, not just narcissism. This is not a subtle or meaningless distinction; interacting with someone who has NPD or possesses high narcissistic traits doesn’t necessarily result in any harm. It is when the narcissistic person employs the above-mentioned strategies (over other more adaptive choices) to get their needs met that the criteria of abusive narcissism is met.
This is why distinguishing between narcissism and abusive narcissism is so critical. Accountability can only happen when we clearly distinguish between narcissistic traits and experiences, and the behaviors of abusive narcissists.
The Influence of Our Collective Anger and Trauma on Social Media Messaging
So why is there so much misinformation on narcissism permeating social media these days? In my professional opinion, it is because those who have been hurt by someone displaying narcissistic traits are justifiably angry. Those who have been harmed by abusive narcissism are seeking to make sense of their experience, demand accountability and reform, and reclaim their lives and identities. Anger is a very productive place to start out and I see social media capitalizing on this. And the reality is, it is a natural part of grieving and recovery to lump together all narcissists so as to create a united front against toxicity. Anger creates community.
Seeing some narcissists as possibly not even aware of the harm they have caused can feel confusing and/or threatening because it makes it feel like the narcissistic person is “getting away with it” or does not have to be made accountable. It makes us question our perceptions and experiences; something family scapegoating abuse (FSA) survivors and other psycho-emotional abuse victims have been trained to do their entire lives: ”Did I get it all wrong? Did I blow it out of proportion? Did they actually love and support me and I just didn’t see it?” are not uncommon questions one asks themselves when they have engaged with an abusive narcissist.
Deeper healing, however, can only come from correctly identifying your experience, as this can serve as an empowering way to trust your gut and your perceptions. Knowing what Abusive Narcissism is prevents us from internalizing the harm done and carrying the burden of the family dysfunction on our shoulders. Putting a name to Abusive Narcissism can lift a weight that someone has been carrying for years in painful silence and confusion.
- All humans possess narcissistic traits. Narcissistic Personality Disorder is woven into the fabric of who a person is based on genetics, trauma (or objectification) they may have experienced in childhood, and how they were raised. You cannot detach someone from their deep attachment wounds. However, not everyone with NPD is abusive.
- Currently, any narcissistic behavior is incorrectly being housed under the umbrella of “narcissistic abuse”. This prevents people who do possess significant levels of narcissism from seeking targeted, empathetic, and effective therapeutic support for fear of being labeled and socially stigmatized.
- There is a misunderstanding that narcissism itself is “evil” and that narcissistic people deliberately cause harm and receive satisfaction from causing harm. Although this can be true when dealing with a malignant narcissist or a narcissistic sociopath or psychopath, the typical narcissist is not necessarily intentionally and knowingly inflicting harm. With that said, this doesn’t mean that you should tolerate harmful/abusive behaviors!
- Abusive Narcissism makes the critical distinction between the spectrum of narcissistic traits we all possess (some higher or lower than others) and the abusive behaviors that are used as coping or ‘control’ strategies.
- Seeking qualified, informed, professional support can literally be the difference between someone who has narcissism, and someone who becomes abusive because of it.
- ONLY a licensed psychologist or psychiatrist has the ability to diagnose any mental health or personality disorder. The information in this article is for reference and self-education only.
Find something of value in this article? Share it with others via the social media icons, below. You can also check out Rebecca’s latest video on the Narcissistic Martyr Parent Ploy and the Scapegoat Child.
Copyright 2023 | Dr. Erin Watson | All Rights Reserved
Rebecca C. Mandeville, LMFT, CCTP
Rebecca C. Mandeville is a thought leader in understanding the consequences of child psycho-emotional abuse and family scapegoating. She is a licensed Psychotherapist; Certified Clinical Trauma Professional; and Family Systems expert. Rebecca’s book, Rejected, Shamed, and Blamed, is the first book ever written on “Family Scapegoating Abuse” or “FSA” (a term she coined during the course of her Family Systems research). She is also a YouTube Health Partner serving as a recognized Family Systems and Complex Trauma expert via her channel Beyond Family Scapegoating Abuse.