The Little Shaman is a spiritual coach & specialist in cluster B personality disorders, with a popular YouTube show and clients worldwide.
It seems we hear the word "narcissist" everywhere these days. People use it to describe the selfish, the self-absorbed, the arrogant, the vain. More than one pundit has accused the President of The United States of being a narcissist. It was the answer to a Jeopardy question. (Or the question to a Jeopardy answer, to be exact.) Google trends shows that the number of people searching for information using the word “narcissist” have shot through the roof in the past few years. For some, this mainstream attention to a previously-ignored topic is validating, but for others it's a double-edged sword.
This is because however promising the general public's interest in pathological narcissism may be, it's not without its downside. While large-scale interest in narcissism finally illuminates a community of victims that have suffered too long in the dark, misuse of the term and the resulting misunderstanding of the situation in general casts a shadow of skepticism upon them as well. It is true that narcissistic people can be arrogant, vain, and self-absorbed but that's not all they are. The introduction of this term into the collective mainstream lexicon has created a situation in which many victims of narcissistic abuse feel dismissed and invalidated by the lack of understanding displayed by rampant misuse of the word "narcissist."
Words are important. They are how we express ourselves, they are how we describe things, they are how we communicate with other people. When the definition of a word is expanded to include too many things, it becomes diluted and when the definition of a word becomes too diluted, it is rendered meaningless. It becomes yet another example of the superficial vernacular which plagues communication as a whole. Worse, in this situation, the misuse of a word is causing victims to feel marginalized and their pain to be trivialized.
It's hard enough for people to talk about abuse, even under the best of conditions. It's difficult for victims to admit that abuse is happening and to seek help for it. When there is a general misunderstanding of the type of abuse a person has been suffering, it becomes infinitely harder. And understandably, it makes people angry.
Narcissistic abuse involves terribly damaging manipulation, gaslighting, assaults on the victim's esteem, their very personhood, and many times, violence. It is an assault on all fronts that never stops. Many victims of narcissistic abuse report experiencing every type of abuse there is: physical, verbal, emotional/mental, sexual, financial, religious and more. Narcissistic abuse is insidious. It is damaging and traumatic. A pathologically narcissistic personality is a destructive, often sadistic personality that will stop at nothing to get what they want. They generally have no qualms about hurting or destroying anyone -- including themselves -- in pursuit of their momentary desires.
How can victims of narcissistic abuse feel empowered to come forward when mainstream society characterizes narcissists as people who take too many selfies? How can victims of narcissistic abuse feel safe enough to share their trauma in such an invalidating environment, where the understanding of the reality of narcissism is so shallow? How are actual victims supposed to believe they will be taken seriously when the word "narcissist" has been reduced to just another buzzword?
It's simple. They can't.
For those that understand the abuse that is happening to them, the diluted meaning of the word “narcissist” makes it difficult for them to step forward and speak out. But for those who do not understand the abuse they are experiencing, the misuse of the word “narcissist” and the mischaracterization of what a narcissist is can lead them to incorrect conclusions about what they are dealing with. If narcissists are people who are arrogant and vain but their abuser is not, they may believe they are not experiencing narcissistic abuse. The failure to realize this can keep people in the relationship much longer than they perhaps would be if they understood the reality of the situation.
That reality is that relationships of any kind with narcissistic people -- be they family, friend or intimate -- can only be abusive. The nature of pathological narcissism precludes any other outcome. It also reduces the likelihood of improvement to almost nothing. Narcissists must rely on other people to meet their needs. As a result of this, there can be no equality in a relationship with a narcissist and no consideration. Other people exist only to serve the narcissist, to fulfill their needs. There is no consideration or even understanding from a narcissist that other people have needs, rights or anything else. It is truly, completely and literally all about them.
Dealing with a narcissistic person is a situation that cannot be comprehended if someone has not experienced it. It is very difficult for empathetic, caring people to understand the extent of the selfishness, the pernicious lack of empathy, the callousness, the indifference, the level of pathology and the abuse that is inherent to the pathologically narcissistic personality, and it is even more difficult for caring people to understand the toll this takes on someone who feels trapped in the web of such a person. There is a reason people who finally escape these relationships are so often diagnosed with PTSD. It is like being at war in your own home.
When the general stigma that abuse victims face is combined with a fundamental misunderstanding of the abuse and the abuser, a situation is created where people feel that they have nowhere to turn. Victims of narcissistic abuse already fear this because of the very nature of pathological narcissism. Narcissists are able to believably project an entirely different image of themselves to the public. Victims are continually confronted with the fact that even people who know the abuser don't believe them. It is made even worse when public perception is that a narcissist is something other than what their abuser appears to be. This used to happen in part because people didn't know what a narcissist was. Now it's because they think they know but they don't.
“Rob can't be a narcissist! Look how many pictures of his kids are in his wallet!”
“Amy can't possibly be narcissistic. She doesn't care about her looks at all!”
“Brian isn't a narcissist. He never brags.”
“Erin is not a narcissist because she's so insecure and needy.”
Pathological narcissism creates a complex and complicated personality structure that cannot be reduced to simple behaviors or explained with buzzwords. It is a devastating situation, both for the narcissist and anyone unlucky enough to be involved with them. It is expressed in many different ways and because narcissistic people are individuals just like everybody else, no two are exactly the same. Some differ radically and require experience to detect – even for trained professionals. This makes them no less dangerous, however and it is an injustice to victims of narcissistic abuse for the media and society at large to continue to perpetuate incorrect stereotypes of what a narcissist is.
The word itself also carries a heavy stigma with it, and throwing it around so lightly can be very damaging when people are incorrectly labeled as narcissists. “Narcissist” is quickly becoming the go-to for anyone who has a selfish friend or a cheating ex. This is perhaps understandable due to the misinformation surrounding what constitutes a narcissist, and because labeling things helps people make sense of the world. However, it is not acceptable in a culture where words matter so much and precision of language is so important.
For those entrusted to help victims with their healing, the damage that the misuse of this word is doing is painful to watch. We hear stories from victims who have suffered the worst abuse imaginable. Their lives, families and self-esteem have been ruined by truly pathologically narcissistic people. Many have lost their jobs, their homes, their children, their friends, their freedom, their families... They've had their intellectual property stolen. They've been convicted of crimes they did not commit. Some have become permanently disabled. They've been raped, beaten, attacked, gangstalked, smeared, extorted, blackmailed and gaslighted until they have no idea what is real and what isn't. They don't even know who they are anymore. Why? They had the misfortune of becoming entangled with a narcissist.
After listening to these horrible stories, it is unnerving to scroll through social media and witness people using the same word to describe mundane (if annoying) behaviors and people. It's extremely frustrating and worse, the more entrenched these incorrect assumptions become in the common psyche, the harder they are to change. It is one thing to educate someone who has no information. It is another to correct someone whose information is wrong.
All over the world, victims of narcissistic abuse are holding their collective breath in the hope that the current spotlight on narcissism will shed some light on the abuse they've been suffering so long. For their sake, don't let narcissism become the latest -ism to fall victim to misuse, overuse and abuse. Speak responsibly.
Cindy Board on April 15, 2019:
Thank you for this article. I feel better a bit better for having read it.
It is refreshing to read your comment 'it is unnerving to scroll through social media and witness people using the same word to describe mundane (if annoying) behaviors and people'.
I, and I alone, think 'bad' behaviour has become normalised, therefore it has become, as you have stated, has become a 'buzz-word'.
I can't put in to a short overview what I have experienced and only became aware of this 'disorder' about 10 years ago. I'm turning 60 this year.
I have spent my life with a narcissistic mother, married a narcissist and got stabbed in the back and thrown out on to the street literally by my mother calling in her other daughter with personality issues of her own because she didn't get her own way. She made me choose between her and my son. Guess who I chose.
Now I have two children, raised? by their NPD father for almost 10 years and the damage inflicted on them. They are 22 and 23 this year.
And today I learn my 22 year old strongly 'resents' (not sure if the word 'hate was actually used) me after being in the background, using the government services to get their father to ensure they went to school - they didn't go to school, having their medical needs attended to, having them vaccinated and having their mental health addressed.
They were given everything they wanted by their father, but not one thing that was needed, was given to them.
And it is still all my fault.
The Little Shaman (author) from Macon, GA on January 23, 2019:
I think it's OK to stop dealing with anybody who is toxic or abusive, regardless of what type they are.
Mary32 on January 23, 2019:
Could a person relate to you in a really toxic way, without that person necessarily being a true narcissist?
Like maybe if they feel a lot of envy toward you, or their expectations of you/the relationship are really out step with the way you view the relationship? (they want too much from you, expect too much, want the relationship to be either "more" or of a different nature than what you are able and willing to provide). And what if all of that envy and disappoint comes out in ways that feel toxic to you? Could that relationship just be toxic (or toxic to you) but the other person might still be capable of having non-toxic relationships with other people?
We're all human! I kind of get it: Envy is not an easy emotion to feel and relationships that fail to meet our desires and exceptions can be a great source of pain. If I understand correctly, it's okay to say how we feel, in an honest way, but we're actually not suppose to try to make other people responsible for the way we feel and we're not suppose to take our emotions out on other people (punish them, act out passive-aggressively, manipulate them to try to get what we want, etc).
What if your values are just really different and your concepts about personal boundaries are really different? (Different people have different values and different comfort levels and expectations re: boundaries). What if it feel to you like the other person is trying to impose their values onto you and that it feels like to you that they are constantly trying to chip away at your boundaries and insert themselves into areas of your life where you don’t want them?
What if it feels like the balance re: about them and to their benefit vs about you and your benefit seems "off"?
I still feel like if those sorts of things are going on in the relationship, that maybe the relationship needs to end, but then What about labels?
I feel like it's wrong to label - the say "I think you are a _____” or to tell or imply to other people that you both know that you think that that person is a_____ . But what If the label help you to conceptualize the situation and give you a framework for understanding it? Is that bad? Is going “no contact” bad, unless you know 100% that the person is a Narcissists, or is a toxic relationship enough of a reason? If you end the relationship/go no contact, do you owe them an explanation as to why? It is okay to find support where you can, even in online communities re: survivors of Narcissistic abuse?
It is reasonable to hold out hope that that person will be able to find people to have healthy, non-toxic relationships with? (That seems preferable than thinking that you just release a bad penny back into circulations for some other poor person to get stuck with).
(And just to complicate things: what if what you suspect is like on the less severe end of the spectrum and also more of the “covert” variety than the “classic/overt”?).