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Narcissism: When Victims Become Abusers

The Little Shaman is a spiritual coach & specialist in cluster B personality disorders, with a popular YouTube show and clients worldwide.


You may have heard the saying before, "Hurt people hurt people." It means that when someone is hurt, they often lash out and hurt other people. Many abusive people were in fact victims of abuse themselves as children. That includes narcissists and psychopaths. The majority of the time, abuse, neglect or both are found in the backgrounds of abusive people. This makes sense, of course. When this behavior is what is modeled for people, it is much more likely that they will become that way themselves, especially considering the developmental issues that often occur emotionally with children in these situations and considering that it has been shown that even non-physical abuse can change and damage the brain.

It is very important to remember that despite what many people think, spoiling a child is abuse. When we say abuse and neglect here, we are including indulgence in that. Spoiling and indulging children has the same psychological and emotional effects on them that neglect does.

There is often some push-back against this idea, as if the notion that abusers could have ever been victims is somehow dangerous or maybe even absurd. It really isn't. When people are abused, they feel angry. They feel hurt. They feel oppressed and unable to defend themselves. They feel treated unfairly and unable to rectify the situation. Some people react to these things by becoming bullies, by becoming batterers, by trying to dominate and oppress or hurt others. Some react by becoming nurturing, by becoming sympathetic, by trying to support and uplift, to help others. Some react by becoming submissive or codependent and trying to please others, even to their own detriment. Some people react with a combination of these different things. It's important to remember that just because something does not match up with your own personal experience, that doesn't mean it isn't possible. Everyone is not the same. Not everyone who is abused comes out of it with empathy for victims. Some come out quite the opposite.

But why is there reluctance to accept this idea for some people? Maybe the idea that the abuser was a victim at one time seems like giving the abuser an excuse. It isn't, regardless of the way society may see it. Just because someone was once a victim does not give them an excuse for anything. It is never an excuse to be abusive. Maybe the abuser being a victim at one time creates a feeling of sympathy or humanity toward the narcissist for some people and they feel safer - and perhaps even a bit superior - seeing the abuser as this monstrous, inhuman entity that was born evil and stayed evil. That's totally understandable, if a little unrealistic. Certainly there are some people who fit that bill, but the overwhelming majority of abusers - including narcissists - are dysfunctional human beings making selfish choices. There's really no need to make it into more than that if it isn't, because - as we see from looking at history - that is absolutely bad enough.

We can see how damaging abuse can be to children, but what if the victim of abuse isn't a child? What if they are an adult in a voluntary relationship? Can they become abusive themselves as a result of being abused? The answer is yes, they can. In fact, we hear about it all the time. People become resentful, nasty, angry and even cruel to their abuser because they have so much rage toward this person. Others may get out of the relationship but find themselves behaving that way toward people who don't deserve it. When this happens, it is often very distressing, because most people don't want to behave that way. Most people don't want to be mean, cruel or behave suspiciously toward people who have done nothing wrong.

In all of these situations, this happens because narcissism is, at its core, a defense mechanism. It becomes pathological when, instead of growing out of these behaviors as a child, a person grows into them - usually due to being in an environment that supports it through abuse, neglect or indulgence. When someone has been abused or in a very hostile, combative environment for an extended period of time, they often find that they, too, behave this way on occasion. It can even become the way they behave all the time. This is not just because hostility and abuse have become the norm in their life, but also because almost everybody will develop defensive narcissistic behaviors in these situations. Interestingly, the behaviors and symptoms associated with Complex Post-traumatic Stress Disorder or C-PTSD are very similar to the behaviors and symptoms associated with pathological narcissism. It begs the question, could pathological narcissism actually be some form of pathological C-PTSD?

This makes sense, and abuse affects both children and adults much the same way. If someone never acknowledges your needs, you may unconsciously begin to focus only on them to make sure they do not get ignored. If someone continually attacks you, you may become hypersensitive and hyper-reactive because you are expecting to be hurt. If someone continually provokes or starts arguments with you, you may become snappy, irritable and angry all the time because you are constantly anticipating a fight. These are defensive behaviors and they can become a habit, as can the emotions that often go with them. You may start thinking of other people as manipulative, sneaky, liars, cheaters, abusers, users and other negative things, even if they don't deserve it. You may start seeing yourself as a victim in general. This is defensive, because your mind wants to be sure you don't get hurt anymore, and if it identifies everybody as a threat, that won't happen.

This is not fair - to other people or to you. It's a toxic mindset that creates far more problems than it ever solves. Look to narcissists for a perfect example of the damage this can do. Everybody is not toxic, everybody is not an abuser and everybody is not selfish or manipulative. Most importantly, you are not a victim. You are strong and you do have power. You just have to realize that.

If you find yourself reacting in ways that you don't like, it's time to ask yourself what you're really afraid of. You may have internalized and personalized much of the abuse you've been through and have begun to think of yourself as a bad, useless, worthless or damaged person no one will ever love. You can't trust other people if that is what you believe about yourself, and you cannot truly believe anybody loves you if you don't think you deserve it. It might be that you need time to work on healing yourself before involving other people in a situation that you are not ready for and that is not going to be fair to them. If you work on healing yourself, you will be ready for healthy relationships with healthy people and you will be strong enough to end unhealthy relationships before the situation gets out of control.