“Narcissism” is a word which we hear a lot about these days. Sometimes it’s used in a jokey way to describe people as a “bit of a narcissist” – often meaning they like the sound of their own voice a bit too much. But what exactly is a narcissist and why are so many people on the receiving end of narcissistic abuse?
Narcissistic Personality Disorder is a mental health condition which affects approximately 0.5% of the American population, according to official statistics. However, we need to think of Narcissistic Personality Disorder as a spectrum and, whilst your parent, sibling or partner may not have an official diagnosis of NPD, they may well display symptoms which have affected you. Many people with Narcissistic Personality Disorder don’t believe they have a problem and never seek out professional help or a diagnosis. This means you might have spent much of your life with a narcissist, even if they don’t have a label to tell you as much.
What is a narcissist? Well, before we go any further, it’s useful to think of narcissists as being of two types – covert and overt (or grandiose and vulnerable).
Your grandiose narcissist is probably what most people think of when we think of a narcissist. These are the people who are the life and soul of the party. They’re often charming and demand attention, believing themselves to be superior to other people. They need a constant supply of people to feed their ego and they often boast about their achievements and live in a fantasy world where they’re far more important and successful than they actually are. Under the (often charming) façade, they’re often domineering, selfish and bullying. They don’t really have an interest in anyone but themselves.
Your vulnerable narcissist is, at first glance, the complete opposite of a grandiose narcissist. They lack the charm and outgoing personality of their grandiose counterpart and are more likely to be stuck in a corner at a party than garnering attention. What they share in common with the grandiose narcissist is that they are self-centred and manipulative. They have a sense of entitlement and may regard themselves as superior to other people. They tend to see themselves as victims and can’t understand why the world doesn’t recognise how amazing they are. They need people around them to stick up for them and join in their mind games when it comes to bullying and manipulating other people.
Grandiose or vulnerable…narcissists are unpleasant people to be around. They use people for their own means. A narcissist always comes first in their world and, if you’re the child, employee, sibling or romantic partner of a narcissist they will use any means possible to ensure you meet their needs. They might criticise you to make themselves feel better. They will manipulate you into doing their own dirty work when it comes to bullying others. They’ll attempt to control you and prevent you from having a life separate from theirs. They’ll gaslight you into thinking that you’re the one with the problem and that they’re perfectly reasonable people and you’ll end up questioning your own sense of self.
Narcissistic abuse is a particularly insidious form of abuse. It’s very hard to pinpoint and if you grew up in a family where a parent was a narcissist, it’s probably taken you a very long time to realise it. You may have been well fed, clothed and even lived in a nice house and went on nice holidays. You might not have been hit or sexually abused. In fact, everything might have looked ok. If you were abused by a narcissist, chances are you were subjected to ongoing, subtle bullying. Your ideas were put down. You were ridiculed. You were used in some twisted ways towards other siblings or people outside your family. You were abused and it’s taken its toll on your adult life.
Narcissistic abuse goes straight to the very core of who you are. It destroys your self-esteem and makes you question your sense of who you are and what’s right and wrong. Although it’s not as obvious as other forms of abuse, it’s every bit as damaging.