Narcissistic Abuse - Inner Works Therapy

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Narcissistic abuse is a particularly insidious form of emotional, psychological and sometimes physical abuse – while targets of a narcissist often become aware of what is happening, they may not be aware of the depth and range of the damage inflicted.

Relationship with self and others, physical wellness, parenting, friendships, careers, big and small life decisions are all impacted.   

Healing from the trauma, sadness, anxiety, hopelessness, sense of betrayal and anger that results from this kind of abuse can be one of the challenges of a lifetime. But it can be done.

While the therapy is tailored to your unique impacts and prevailing issues, overall, my aim is to help you change your relationship with yourself – to a achieve a greater level of self-love and a more concrete self-concept, with greater degrees of self-compassion, self-acceptance and self-worth.  

There are a variety of expert views on the aetiology of this disorder so focusing on the narcissist’s back story will not help you to heal. The therapy will primarily focus on you, on what happened to you, and on clarifying the impacts before moving on to the healing work.  

This cannot be a comprehensive list, but the work will always include psycho-education to the degree that you develop a less personalised and triggering and more rational, detached view of what happened to you and how you were/are treated.  

Other work may include: trauma-focused work; addressing guilt, shame and anxiety; working through the grief cycle; addressing anger and using righteous anger for recovery; healing emotional triggers, developing emotional resilience; managing your ‘Parts’ and developing your sense of ‘Self’; identifying and changing your core beliefs about yourself, others and the world; developing your connection to your gut instincts; alleviating self-doubt; developing your ability to make decisions with greater ease; developing self-confidence; addressing trust issues of self and others; putting in place stronger boundaries; assertiveness; addressing procrastination and perfectionism; learning strategies for dealing with narcissists; and an enhanced ability to recognise and disrupt a pattern of ‘types’ of people you are drawn to.  

I don’t focus on the area of forgiveness, rather my view is that achieving an acceptance and a ‘letting go’ of what went on as an empowered survivor with a new life script is the ideal.

This is a journey back to self, fortified for a whole new future.

Narcissistic abuse is the most complex type of abuse to explain to someone who hasn’t experienced it. It can leave people feeling internally and externally lonely and unanchored. It often leaves them believing at a core level that they are, or may be, a ‘bad person’, and someone who can hurt or disturb others. For those brought up by narcissists, the self-concept will be undeveloped – the sense is ‘Who am I?’. Anxious attachment in all its forms and necessary self-abandonment of body and mind to hyperfocus on the narcissist leaves the target with lifelong anxiety and sense of a lack of safety.  

This is often a laser-targeted abuse; the narcissist, covert especially, is gifted in making sure their words and actions are unseen, and in persuading those around them to turn against their target. In this abuse we can witness the harsher realities of human nature – that those around the narcissist – family and friends – will often minimise and dismiss their actions, for a wide range of reasons.    

Again, this cannot be a comprehensive list, but here are some aspects of a narcissist that you may have experienced in your family, relationship or workplace:

EMPATHY DIFFERENCES: This is too complex and nuanced a disorder to say that the narcissist ‘lacks’ empathy.  Firstly, this is a disorder of delusion of perception – of self, others and the world and a failure to accurately self-appraise. Narcissist’s have a need to feel and be seen as the ‘good guy’; they believe they are empathic and will not take well to your telling them otherwise.

They have a range of empathy-associated behaviours: ‘performative’ (in front of others); ‘transactional’ (‘what can you do for me’/ ‘after all I have done for you’); ‘cognitive’ (to gather information and bond).

Narcissists do not have the full emotional spectrum at their disposal hence they are good at mimicking empathy, but this is ‘State empathy’ – it looks convincing and can be done at the right time in the right way; but it is not ‘Trait empathy’ which ‘sticks’ and is consistent and deep.  

It is difficult to retain a narcissist’s empathic attention for long – at some point your emotionality will trigger them into self-focus and the thought/feeling can be: ‘Your upset is making me feel anxious, inadequate and overwhelmed and I am annoyed with you because I don’t know how to respond to the burden placed on me’. That can lead to verbal outbursts, clear signs of discomfort such as their eyes focusing on another point in the room, dismissive and minimising behaviours and words and avoidance such as stonewalling.

At the most innocuous level, a comment or situation about yourself will quickly lead a narcissist to consider whether they have the same ailment/issue/emotion/situation. They will compete: If you have an illness, theirs will be worse. If they frequently refer to an illness it may be a ‘strategic ailment’ – they are known for inventing them.    

However, they can display extraordinary attentiveness and care in contexts where such engagement is associated with self-enhancement and possible benefits. For example, at a hospital bedside where medical staff are looking on, or in the family system they may be kindly to the scapegoat in front of other relatives, i.e. aren’t I good to the scapegoat and yet they give me a hard time.  

Not all of these behaviours are confined to narcissism, but here we see, for example, a narcissist whose spouse has a life-limiting illness will start to see them as a nuisance and openly ponder how they plan to decorate the house in the future. They experience grief but also anger that their life with the spouse ‘didn’t go to plan’ – a narcissist with an intact family system that works in their favour is loath to lose that set up.   

Narcissists will look empathic in different ways to different people, depending on the nature of the relationship.  

Reflecting the narcissist’s internal duality, their inner split between good and bad, in a family system they are often overtly empathic to their ‘golden child’, but the utterly self-absorbed narcissist is really aggrandising their own ‘good child’ part. To their scapegoat, despite occasional experiences to the contrary, empathy is dangerously low because the narcissist is reacting to their ‘bad child’ part.  

Generally, everything is in service to the narcissist’s ability to internally regulate their self-esteem and feel in control and superior – in order to do that they need supply (others’ upset, attention and admiration), and they often achieve that by saying or doing something shockingly cruel, without the empathy breaks to stop themselves.  

GASLIGHTING:  A huge and overarching phenomenon in narcissistic manipulation, often extremely subtle and unseeable, it is used to maintain the abuser’s sense of control and to redirect blame to the target.   

Their highly defended disorder means that narcissists cannot accept blame or responsibility – that would come too close to touching the shame, fear, low self-esteem and anxiety at their core. So part of their defence armoury includes the ability to self-gaslight – narcissists generally have intact reality testing but serious perceptual gaps, and can make the facts fit their emotions, hence disputes over what was said or took place. Telling a narcissist therefore that they are gaslighting you is a futile exercise. They will simply deny and turn to blame.  

Gaslighting is serious – it can reduce the target’s cognitive and psychological competency. The narcissist denying and distorting the target’s sense of reality can lead to the target denying their own experiences eventually, and even beyond that, can alter their memories. The narcissist becomes the primary/only source of truth. This forms part of why targets find it hard to think independently after a break-up – i.e. ‘What would the narcissist think/say/do?

Gaslighting can be used as part of a conscious goal that the narcissist does not want to reveal. Like a lot of other traits and abilities in this complex disorder, narcissists’ capacity to know their own and others needs can be switched on when necessary. Their manipulativeness allows them to be able to understand the target’s needs and to get their own needs met while playing on the target’s vulnerabilities.   

Even at the less serious end where the gaslighting is obvious, the person experiencing it will find it seriously disrupts intimacy and mature relating; the feeling will be one of constant irritation and the sad realisation that the narcissist is not able to be accountable for their behaviours and words and hence partake in relational problem solving.   

The depth and range of gaslighting is often outside of the awareness of the target and the narcissist – for example, the emotionally-allergic narcissistic parent will gaslight their child into believing that it is not normal to ask for their needs to be met. Or the narcissistic parent who has an eating disorder or poor relationship with food wants to pass it on to the child so that they feel normalised.  

TRIANGULATION:  A manipulation tactic and one of the most hurtful and damaging aspects of narcissistic abuse. Again, it is used for control and power and to gain supply. The concept is that a ‘third’ party is brought into the relationship to create a ‘triangle’ – this helps the narcissist to feel superior and aids the needed sense of ‘rightness’.  

In a partnership, narcissists will subtly or overtly compare their partner to someone or something else (e.g. an ex-partner, a pet); over time this can bring about or exacerbate deep and painful core beliefs of not being good enough.  

In the family system, for example, narcissists have an absolute drive to ‘divide and conquer’. Open communication is not encouraged and a toxic dynamic is common, with the golden child and enabler encouraged into family ‘mobbing’ and gaslighting of the scapegoat child.  

The golden child is often the narcissistic child, and they become a ‘flying monkey’ – used by the narcissist to attack the scapegoat by proxy, condescendingly and aggressively parroting the narcissist’s lies and twisted version of events without checking their validity. Any complaint that the sibling is favoured will have been denied by all involved.

Empathy deficits take many forms and impacts. I frequently hear accounts of a narcissistic parent (most commonly a mother) drawing a child from a very young age into her marital conflict. Once the relationship has ended, the father becomes the bad object and is smeared for years afterwards. Narcissistic parents will subtly encourage an adult child to stay with an abusive partner rather than have the ‘burden’ of support or a return home. Narcissistic in-laws will triangulate their child into turning against their spouse and can be relentless in their campaign to ‘get rid’ of that person. Grandchildren, especially one the narcissist senses can be a narcissistic ally, will be contacted directly if the couple refuse to be controlled.  

ENABLERS:   You may be experiencing a parent/caregiver who attempts to be loving but is ultimately loyal solely to the narcissist and often ends up being just as abusive. In a typical narcissistic family structure, the enabler revolves around the attention-hungry narcissist, all their efforts to soothe and manage are in that direction, and the children – despite appearances to the contrary – are sidelined psychologically and unprotected. Often the enabler elicits a great deal of ambivalence and confusion about their psychology and anger at their behaviour.  

SMEAR CAMPAIGN:  Aside from the constant smearing of the scapegoat, anything can trigger a narcissist into a retaliatory campaign of devaluation and more, which they use to maintain a sense of dominance. You may be experiencing a subtle distancing or even outright hostility from family, friends or colleagues without knowing why. Narcissists will take zero or five per cent of the truth and aim to make the target look unethical or immoral. In families this is commonly focused on financial or sexual arenas.   

Narcissists trade on the fact that most people will feel empathy for a person in distress and anger at the abuses they have suffered. Once in victim mode they are emotionally persuasive far beyond the ability of a non-personality disordered person. They seek people who will agree with their irrational beliefs using peripheral persuasion and negative stereotyping.  

NARCISSISTIC RAGE: Ultimately, narcissists’ experience of themselves is completely guided by how other people see them and value them. As a result they can be quite labile. Any perceived threat to the narcissist’s fragile ego – a well-intentioned compliment or a request for them to take the bins out – can elicit shame and anxiety. Then we see either overt or passive aggressive rage.  

After a rage event the entitled narcissist may, for example, expect an (undue) apology, or need to enact the silent treatment to re-regulate. The theory of the ‘shame/rage cycle’ is not something I have commonly witnessed. The literature on domestic abuse – Phases in The Abuse Cycle (Walker 1979) – fits better.  

In rage events we see the impulsivity, reactivity and inability to manage emotion, which can be shocking, partly because narcissists generally avoid and hide their emotions (because if they are ‘seen’ it penetrates the idea of the perfect self).

In terms of the expression of their rage, a grandiose narcissist can react overtly and then recover when they have internally recalibrated through new supply. A covert narcissist, already highly sensitive to insults real and imagined, will angrily ruminate and be drawn even further under the influence of their cognitive distortions (thoughts that don’t fit reality such as ‘all or nothing thinking’ e.g. ‘You are good today/bad tomorrow’ or ‘I am upset, I feel like a victim, so I must be’ (affective realism). Coverts tend to hide their rage, which then manifests as a long-term plot for revenge, e.g. disinheritance.  

Witnessing rage amnesia is astonishing. Especially where the narcissism is post-trauma related, their rage can be dissociated such that their recollection is disrupted or wiped out. Here we see carrying on as if nothing happened and expecting the target to comply. If they do remember, they will gaslight, minimise and dismiss.

LYING: Narcissists may chronically lie because their feelings override reason and morality. Perceptual gaps mean they fill in the story with inaccurate ‘facts’ – often as a consequence of their subterfuge. There are many forms of their lying, e.g. a covert narcissist psychopath/sociopath will keep a lie secret for years because it wouldn’t be in their best interests to reveal it. A narcissist with sadistic traits will lie ‘because they can’ and enjoy the pain the lie is causing or will cause in the future. Aside from outright lying, we see lying by omission; words and actions not matching and false promises that can cause serious consequences in the life of the target.  

ENVY: Grandiose narcissists have an inflated sense of superiority so tend not to feel much envy. Covert narcissists, while still believing they are special and entitled, have more of an inner world of fear, shame, anxiety, fluctuating low self-esteem and depression. Their vulnerability predicts envy and they experience it much more than the grandiose type. A narcissist with dark tetrad traits and festering with envy and anger, combined with their distorted take on the situation, can be very dangerous.  

In parenting, envy can manifest as soon as the narcissist views the target as a competitor, e.g. a pretty and pre-pubescent girl child will potentially be dressed in boyish clothing, encouraged to overeat, smeared regarding her mental health, or denied access to age-appropriate trends, in readiness for a time when the attention may be too much on her.  

In adulthood, and for children of narcissists especially, picking up even unconsciously on that envy can leave a sense of shame and a ‘shrunken self-sabotaging self’ not willing to shine on any stage in the future for fear of consequences.

HOOVERING: Contacting you when they are fully aware that you have set a boundary of ‘no contact’. Here we see the true extent of the narcissist’s boundaryless attitude and need for control.  

Even in the formal ending of a relationship, due to the nature of their disorder, narcissists find it difficult to let go of a source of ‘supply’. Their abandonment schema, combined with their strong sense of superiority and grandiosity (‘you don’t get to tell me what to do’) means that the situation is usually kept messy and difficult to say the least. The narcissist will do all they can (except invest in bringing closure) to ensure that the target remains available to manipulate, even decades down the line.  

Here we also see situations like ‘divorce terrorism’ as the legal arena presents narcissists with the perfect opportunity to try to exert their sense of control, superiority and hostility towards the target (usually for daring to leave). The distorted thinking is that they can outdo/outsmart the legal system, and here we see the narcissist representing themselves in court.  

In hoovering we see behaviours such as turning up to the target’s workplace for example. The idea is that they portray themselves as the victim of the target, and that ‘other people’ are aware of that. For more malignant narcissists where coercive control is involved, we can see stalking and harassing behaviours that are deliberately designed to scare, intimidate and dominate. For more histrionic or co-morbid BDP narcissists we can see turning up at the target’s front door and creating noise and drama that other people can witness. Hoovering can also be strategic – for example the target’s child is contacted on important dates, as a way of expressing the hatred that the narcissist retains for the target (and gaining supply).  

Hoovering can create ‘anticipatory anxiety’ and be traumatising for the brain. Some, very domineering and aggressive narcissists, who absolutely have the target in a set role, will be enraged at not having their own way; at the family system change, and at how the target’s leaving looks to others.  

The narcissist will cycle around the drama triangle using a range of tactics to return the target to their role; one minute sending long, distorted and vicious emails, the next expressing how much they love and miss them.  

After an unsuccessful hoovering campaign, at the other end of this we can see the narcissist’s ruthless discard of those close to them rather than take accountability or make amends.  

If the target returns, the narcissist has new information on the target’s boundaries and the only certainty here is that even greater punishments are in store.   

Newer psychiatric formulations are placing Antagonism as the bigger umbrella under which narcissistic personality disorder fits. It references traits related to immorality, combativeness, grandiosity, callousness and distrustfulness, suspiciousness, hostility, manipulativeness and attention seeking.

Antagonistic traits put a person at odds with other people and are relationally harmful because they translate into problematic behaviours.  

The common forms of the antagonistic dynamic in human relationships include predation, competition, parasitism:   

Types of narcissists
Narcissism is a spectrum disorder, with narcissistic personality disorder at the top end. In terms of the two distinct expressions of narcissism – grandiose and covert, the grandiose type is more easily identified (the disagreeable extravert) with the traits often on view. The covert/vulnerable type is much harder to spot since they are mask wearers: the same traits are there but display themselves in a subtler and different way. The vulnerable narcissist has a hostile attributional style and dispositional contempt. That often makes the covert more dangerous in my experience. (See the pdf attached)

There is a range of sub-types of narcissists, e.g. malignant, communal, neglectful, self-righteous, generational/cultural, and a narcissist can transmute into different types over their lifetime. The range of narcissistic behaviours is very wide - a sociopathic covert narcissist will behave very differently to a narcissist with co-morbid borderline personality disorder.

Entitlement is at the core of all models of narcissism: ‘I am special and more special than others.’  Here we see narcissists regarding themselves as superior to other cultures, races, sexual orientations etc. The truth too though is that narcissists live in a constant state of threat and find it difficult to co-regulate at a nervous system level with other people, especially those they perceive as very ‘different’ to them. The complexity of this disorder means that, while the person may be high-functioning and ‘normal’ in many areas of their life, when triggered, their narcissism’s innately delusional perspective means that narcissists are commonly conspiracy theorists.  

External environments can reflect their internal state. For example, narcissists often want things to be extremely tidy and clean (the soulless environment), in order to regulate their internal sense of dirtiness, shame and chaos. Alternately they may be hoarders to maintain their sense of superiority and control.

Narcissistic personality disorder can be co-morbid with other personality disorders and not infrequently narcissists are addicted to substances (drugs, alcohol) as a way of distancing from and taking control of feeling and mood states.

Self-esteem and emotion regulation
Narcissists’ self-esteem is variable and vulnerable and they attempt to internally regulate through gaining supply (attention/admiration/others upset). As much as they may try to hid it, this makes them quite dependent on the world, which fosters their deep sense of shame. Here we see behaviours such as acting out, dominating and devaluing others in order to seek that supply. Other ways to manage emotion include taking risks, competitiveness and perfectionism.

Those with NPD have vulnerable low explicit self-esteem (conscious evaluation of the self) and high implicit (autonomic/unconscious) self-esteem. The co-occurrence or ‘collision’ between the two causes the high symptom severity seen in the full-blown disorder.  

Narcissists have no ‘observing self’ and cannot reflect on and understand their impacts on others beyond knowing that they have upset them to gain supply. The idea that they play a part in a problem is not on their radar, and if it touches on that they will project, ‘you/others are at fault’. So un-self-aware, they are confused and depressed when the life they believed they were entitled to does not manifest. To feel ordinary can feel devastating.  

In terms of trait diversity, that does not exist in personality disorders, which are in fact marked by trait excesses and deficiencies – a significantly over-developed trait and an under-developed trait. In narcissism the over-developed trait is self-importance/competitiveness and the under-developed trait is sharing/empathy.    

Being around a narcissist, even at the lower end of the spectrum, is stressful, exhausting, hurtful, upsetting, irritating, infuriating and confusing – a shock will be in store from this emotionally immature personality type no matter how long the waters have been smooth. For a scapegoat of a narcissist especially, the abuse is active and incessant – there is no end point.  

Nothing I have written on this website or read about in books and online content on narcissism conveys the malignant realities of this disorder, that I hear about regularly in client stories.  

Ultimately it is irrational to ‘blame’ and be angry with the narcissist – they have a disorder, after all, that they did not choose. Too many media pieces talk about how to achieve ‘revenge’ or ‘outsmart’ the narcissist etc., which is not helpful – it will not change the narcissist or help you to heal. However, the traits that shape their behaviours mean that narcissists are inevitably harmful and often traumatising to others. Healthy, rational personality functioning and adult self-care means that, even where there is a genetic connection, we are not obliged to endure this pathology. Our first priority has to be ourselves and our life-long healing journey.  
Copyright Lorna Slade 2017-2024
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