Narcissists have a bad reputation, to put it mildly. More and more “narcissist” seems to be used interchangeably with “abuser,” with terms like “narcissistic abuse” and “narcissistic parenting” in common use. Armchair diagnoses and labelling are common on threads about abusive behavior.
This is, needless to say, tremendously stigmatizing to people with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD), and doesn’t make it any easier for people to seek help with a disorder that is already said to be resistant to treatment. As others have pointed out, no other mental disorder is intrinsically linked in people’s minds to being an abuser as NPD is, except perhaps borderline personality disorder (BPD) and the so-called antisocial personality disorders. Even these other massively armchair-diagnosed and stigmatized disorders, however, are not automatically associated with abuse the way NPD is: “Borderline abuse” and “psychopathic/sociopathic abuse” have not entered the popular vernacular the way “narcissistic abuse” has.
What I don’t want to do, obviously, is dismiss the specific concerns and issues arising from being abused by people with narcissistic traits. An abuser’s narcissistic traits, like any other trait of abusers, can cause distinct issues in victims and survivors. These are absolutely issues that should be discussed and researched, and the last thing I want to do is silence survivors or take away the language they need to understand and heal. This is all the more because I was myself abused by someone with strong narcissistic tendencies, such as preoccupation with success and perfection and expectation of special treatment, and I’m still unpacking the impact this left on me.
My problem with “narcissistic abuse” as a term is that it is extremely stigmatizing against people with NPD while its utility to survivors seems limited. The term is flawed by inaccurate and overbroad thinking about narcissism and demonization of narcissistic traits. It also places the focus on the abuser’s characteristics and speculative or real diagnosis, and not on the effects on the survivor. I know I have issues from the inordinate expectations placed on me by someone who saw me as an extension of the self to fulfill some fantasy of glory, and who treated any negative reactions on my part as a personal affront. Are these issues distinct to being abused by someone with narcissistic traits? Are they distinct enough to be separated from abuse in general? Or is the distinction meaningless because ALL abuse is actually narcissistic in nature?
This lack of clarity about the definitional boundaries and implications of “narcissistic abuse” makes it not so much a diagnostic criterion or resource for survivors as a snarled insult, an expression of rage toward a poorly-defined group rather than a means to confront and heal. Don’t get me wrong, the rage of victims is absolutely necessary and can be a powerful force. However, this is rage at a group of people that may or may not include the actual abusers but certainly does include people who are not toxic or abusive, and whose mental illness is moralized and conflated with toxicity EXACTLY as we know we shouldn’t for just about any other mental illness.
The way “narcissistic” has been turned into a synonym for “abusive” also means that it’s difficult to conceive of non-abusive narcissistic people, far less narcissistic people as victims. Even though people with narcissistic traits, up to full-blown NPD, have clear vulnerabilities to abuse due to their sense of emptiness and hunger for validation, when narcissism and abuse come up it’s exclusively about narcissists as the perpetrators.
To the extent we accept that narcissistic traits may make a person likelier to be abusive, the lack of resources on preventing and managing such risks as a narcissistic person is striking. It’s as though narcissistic people as a class, not just the ones who are toxic/abusive, have been written off as unworthy of protection and unable or unwilling to make choices to be better. This is what dehumanization looks like.
Is this what the classification of “narcissistic abuse,” and the discourse surrounding narcissism in general, are meant to achieve? To provide no meaningful guidance to victims whose abusers have narcissistic tendencies beyond what could be achieved by simply calling it abuse, while demonizing a whole class of mentally ill people as inherently toxic and evil? Then what’s the use of it? Where’s the reason to continue using it?
Again, and I want to make this clear, I believe there are potential uses in delving into the characteristics of abusers and the circumstances of abuse. Spiritual abuse gives rise to distinct issues, for instance, as do financial, physical, sexual, verbal, and emotional abuse. Parental abuse, sibling abuse, workplace abuse, and peer abuse can all be very different from each other. An abuser with narcissistic tendencies might similarly cause distinct issues that survivors must navigate.
A lot more clarity is required, however, for the categorization to be useful to survivors without being stigmatizing to people with NPD. I suspect it’ll have to be broken down much more than simply “narcissistic,” too, such as the reality-warping effect of being made to participate in overinflated fantasies, or living with the onus of perfection to fulfill the abuser’s preoccupations. I equally suspect that many of the things people call narcissistic abuse are just plain entitlement that can arise with all kinds of pathologies and not just NPD, or the lack of any pathology at all.
There is great emotional power in having an Other to rail against, and clarity in having one answer, like narcissism, for everything. When the chosen target is wrong, however, and the answer is inaccurate, we end up doing harm to others and ourselves. The way things stand now, “narcissistic abuse” is one of those inaccurate and harmful categories. It’s time to retire it and do better.