A popular point of discussion on social media these days is narcissism. It seems like everyone's parent or ex has been deemed a narcissist.
While in some ways the discussion can be helpful in recognizing abusive behaviors that can impact one’s own mental health, the overuse of the term has taken away some of its power and can lead to misunderstandings. Although it is common these days to toss around phrases like “my ex was such a narcissist” to such an extend that it seems like everyone dated a narcissist. However, the actual presence of Narcissistic Personality Disorder only occurs in 1% of the population.
A person can exhibit moments of narcissism ( arguably all of us), but not be a Narcissist.
So what does a Narcissist in clinical terms look like? The classic signs of NPD include:
Someone who may be very full of themselves, vain, or overly self-confident. They may have little insight into themselves. The may have little empathy for others and see themselves as the victim in situations where they are the offending party. Often people initially find them very amiable and “charming” is the word that repeatedly comes up in domestic violence circles. They have a way of drawing people to them with their charisma and enigmatic personality, but often their words and gestures are hollow with little sincerity, thoughtfulness, or follow-through. Because they make such a great first impression they can easily trick judges, police, family, and others in authority into believing that they are just a great, well meaning person and their counterpart is suffering from mental illness (enter gaslighting).
Narcissism and its role in Domestic Violence
Just because your significant other said you were exaggerating or doesn’t recall your side of the events does not mean they are gaslighting you. Gaslighting is a strategic way certain abusers systematically try to make their partner think themselves crazy. It is designed to break them down. Most relationships have couples that widely misperceive or misinterpret events, where one may be experiencing cognitive distortions and have a hard time separating feelings from facts or another may be bad at reading or responding to emotions non-defensively...that does not make them gaslighters or Narcissists.
Gaslighting came from the old classic 1944 film “Gaslight” where the main character attempted to convince his wife she was crazy by stealing things from the home and accusing her of stealing or misplacing things, then telling her she had a poor memory, and climbing into the ceiling and adjusting the gas in the ceiling lights and acting like it wasn't happening to convince her she was going insane. It came to be known as a specific form of domestic violence, though can be used by anyone in power/authority, or looking to gain something from someone else for malevolent means.
It essentially is intentionally saying/doing things to make someone believe they are going crazy…usually in effort to gain control over them/their things/or to just be antisocial and abusive and enjoy others suffering.
Narcissists may use their charm and charisma to get others to align with them against their victim. The victim feels crazy and their self esteem and self-concept are eroded. They may exploit the victim's vulnerabilities to their own advantage physically, financially, or emotionally. Narcissists have more than average encounters with HR, police, civil and criminal suits, protection orders in which they see themselves as the wronged party. They may cry, pout, sulk, yell, namecall, deflect, project, deny, become puffed up, enraged, and incredulous if their behaviors are pointed out. One noted hallmark is the tendency to accuse others of the very behavior they themselves are exhibiting while admonishing it in the other person (kinda makes you feel crazy, right?). If they do admit what they have done wrong, it will be your fault because you “made them do X”, or you “made them feel Y”. Ultimately, they will usually take the stance of “it’s your fault.” I.e. "It’s your fault I cheated because you were not having sex with me enough.”
Charming Narcissists may start out with lovebombing and seeming like the perfect person. When getting lovebombed it might feel like you are the main character in your favorite romcom and you likely will feel very special, but usually after 1 year or so of after they get their partner “on the hook” with marriage, housing, loans, or a child their veneer begins to fade and the other side starts to emerge- sometimes classically known as the Dr. Jekyl/Mr. Hyde personality. The victim tends to spend a lot of time in ever shortening cycles of domestic violence idealizing the perfect periods and struggling to see the holistic pattern that tells much more about the overall personality structure of their partner and the waning hope for change. Partners, employees, and children or narcissists tend to develop a lot of insecurity about themselves, are highly attuned to slight reactions from others in a “walking on eggshells” approach to maintain survival and avoidance of further pain.
Gaslighting vs Perceptual differences
By contrast, Most relationships involve 2 people disagreeing about something because of their own past experiences, internal thought processes/distorted views of the world, and resulting different perceptions of the experience. In most cases, people are not intentionally trying to convince someone they are crazy-though this may be the inadvertent result.
Take for example the Michael Brown shooting. They had 64 witnesses and their perceptions and reports of their experience differed wildly. Sure, some may have been motivated by secondary gain to report the way they did, but they were by far not outliers (https://www.motherjones.com/politics/2014/11/inconsistencies-what-happened-during-michael-brown-shooting/)
There are famous experiments in cognitive psychology where people can be engaged in a game of basketball and a man in a gorilla suit can walk straight through the court and when asked later about it, most players and witnesses of the game will not see it, because they are focused on the ball (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vJG698U2Mvo). A person could easily say “wow, did u see that gorilla?!” And the other person might be like “what are you talking about? There was no gorilla.” An argument ensues and one or both may feel crazy and this is where pop psych gets it wrong-someone might say-“you are gaslighting me.” This is not true, unless the person was intentionally trying to make the other person think they are crazy.
And the added piece with cognitive psychology research by Elizabeth Loftus teaches us that people are especially bad historians. Our memories are very fallible and maleable to suggestion, which is why eyewitness testimony is considered the weakest/most unreliable form of evidence, despite people having the most confidence in it (https://www.science.org/content/article/how-reliable-eyewitness-testimony-scientists-weigh#:~:text=As%20Loftus%20puts%20it%2C%20%22just,that%20their%20memory%20of%20an).
So, when thinking of gaslighting, ask yourself about the overall behaviors and intentions of this person. Do they generally mean you goodwill even when they are not trying to lovebomb or get something from you in a manipulative fashion? Do they try to help/support/lift you up/encourage your dreams and best version of yourself? Or do you usually feel bad/smaller/more out of control in ways that is usually inconsistent with how you view yourself/others/the world.
Narcissists in Therapy
Joseph Burgo in the book “The Narcissist you Know” talks about different types of Narcissists, the ones that want to be held in high esteem, famous, or revered and will happily step on anyone who gets in the way of achieving their goal. Dictators, politicians, and some actors and models have been known to fit this mold. Others have a veneer of wanting others to see them as great, but they are much more shallow and easily wounded and resort to lashing out when that is not validated. They are likely to throw a fit, use injurious words to cut down anyone that might see through the veneer and cut the person out of their life entirely. Some may be philanthropers or nurses, teachers, or ministers, or police , or even therapists where they are in the position of being admired and praised, but the people that are closest to them like their partner, parent or child may have a very different experience of them than their public persona.
Narcissists are not historically known to show up for therapy unless court mandated or coming in with their partner for couple/family therapy. It is sometimes said that narcissists in therapy only become better at manipulation and therefore a clinician that recognizes the perils should proceed with caution. In these settings they tend to first focus on winning over the therapist by being a “good client” or they finger point all issues as originating with their partner/boss/family member/ex/etc and take no accountability for the work they need to do on their end to make repairs. Essentially, they take the stance of wanting the therapist to validate their concerns as the injured party and try to co-opt the therapist to get the other person to take the responsibility for the problems in the relationship. They may seem agreeable to homework, but have little follow through if the expectation is for them to focus on change within themselves, yet be simultaneously demanding of change and work from their partner. They usually do not see their hypocrisy and are emboldened by their narcissistic injury to overlook their injurious behaviors.
Theories of what causes Narcissistic Personality Disorder
Theories on the roots causes of NPD vary. Sometimes it develops because they grew up in entitled settings where they were pushed to be “the best” and likewise developed little empathy for anything/anyone that did not meet those standards. Conversely, some were treated so poorly from developmental/attachment trauma that they develop a false sense of self/veneer to convince themselves they were ok to steal themselves up from the outside threats. This is the narcissism that is much more fragile, because if they allow their guard to come down and see their own flaws, their core sense of self may be at threat. They may be vulnerable to experiencing the extreme pain of their early trauma, so they fight hard to allow those vulnerable feelings from being experienced.
Traits vs personality disorder
Maybe you have read this and thought you for sure know someone who is a Narcissist, but to be clear, the pervasiveness and chronicity and truly heinous impact of this abuse is what makes it unique. You likely have someone who treated you poorly, made you question yourself, did not validate your feelings, took advantage of you, or behaved poorly during an argument and did not share the same perspective as you, but it does not necessarily mean they are a Narcissist. If you reflect, maybe there are times you could say the same for yourself too. This popsych mislabeling is a disservice to real sufferers of narcissists, and gaslighting. Your ex- boyfriend may be a selfish ass, but probably isn’t an actual narcissist. We need to be kinder to one another and more magnanimous sometimes in how we interpret others actions.
Fore more readings on the subject, you can read here:
The Narcissist You know by Joseph Burgo
By Megan Garza, MA, LMFT
Megan Garza, MA, LMFT is a certified Specialist in Treating Trauma at a Supervisory level and is Licensed as a Marriage and Family Therapist. She specializes in work with sexual abuse survivors.