I previously offered an explanation for why narcissists engage in their abusive behavior, or, more specifically, what they get out of it. For the sake of continuity, I’ll summarize it here. In short, they are incapable of getting their social needs met through traditional means because of the nature of their personality disorder, but their personality disorder enables them to engage in harmful, dysfunctional behaviors to get them met. The behaviors they use alienate them from others and lead to further exclusion from traditional processes, so it’s a self-reinforcing cycle.
So what are these harmful, dysfunctional behaviors that are so alienating, and yet are still adaptive enough that narcissists are able to get their needs met? They are the behaviors that comprise narcissistic abuse. Although they are largely psychological and emotional in nature, to leave it at that is unsatisfactory. Narcissistic abusers often do make use of many of the same emotional and psychological abuse tactics which are already widely known thanks to organizations such as the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. These tactics include things such as humiliation, accusing partners of cheating without cause and monitoring where they go.
Yet these behaviors co-occur and are used in conjunction with additional behaviors that are not as widely discussed and are unique to narcissistic relationships. It is these latter behaviors that actually define narcissistic abuse. What narcissists do is so distinctive from what other abusers do, it must be identified and highlighted in order to understand exactly how it operates, how it can be recognized, and why its effects are so damaging. Therefore merely to say the abuse is psychological and emotional is not descriptive enough.
The key feature of narcissistic abuse that distinguishes it from other types of abuse is the narcissist’s intricate false construction of reality to manipulate people in social and romantic relationships.
How does this actually work?
We can look to financial crimes for a mental construct for understanding this type of behavior. A reporter for the New York Herald first used the term “confidence man” to describe a type of thief who stole money not by taking it from people directly but by gaining their confidence and abusing their trust so that they willingly handed it over.
The same blueprint can be applied to narcissists who are interested in the emotional, interpersonal and social rewards that come with manipulating others. They are “confidence men and women,” or con artists, who figure out how to gain the trust of the people from whom they want something: they develop a set of false selves that they present to each in turn and maintain with a series of lies.
When narcissists meet someone who has a particular quality or resource that they desire or covet, they will learn what it is that they must become in order to extract what is desired from the other person. Then they will build a persona directed at that person in order to obtain it. A narcissist may develop several false selves at the same time that they maneuver between simultaneously, keeping all of them and everyone compartmentalized. If people that are connected to different personas know or learn about each other, what they are told will be lies and half-truths as the narcissist figures out how to work them into each narrative in ways that will make sense to everyone else in it but will not threaten the roles he has designed for everyone in the elaborate universe.
What this means is that none of these people actually know who the narcissist really is because he or she has constructed a separate reality for each person, a distinct life that is a false world that only benefits the narcissist.
That’s a little mind-blowing if you actually think about it from a big picture perspective. But when you zoom in and think about it from the perspective of even just one of the people who has been manipulated into the universe, when cracks inevitably start to show and lies start to unravel, when one of those worlds start to crumble and then fall apart totally, it can unseat a part of the identity of that person who lived in that world. Reality was not real.
Watch lifecoach Richard Grannon use the film Inception to describe how this happens in narcissistic abuse below.
(I recommend the entire video, but the part I’m referring to if you are rushed for time is from about 4:00 to 12:30)
He also makes the point that unless you have been through it, it sounds over-dramatic.
It does, doesn’t it?
I used the term mind-blowing, but, yes, I’ve made the “over-dramatic” point too. We have a schema for serial killers and mass murderers and even people who swindle unsuspecting people out of their life savings, but not people who just make up false selves in interpersonal relationships. We have almost no words to describe it. I, too, once believed that without a crime, there was no such thing as a sociopath.
Just being able to explain what happened to you if you’ve been through it to someone who hasn’t is something many survivors feel they are never able to do. And if you are unable to do that, it’s difficult to explain almost anything else about narcissistic abuse, such as, in a nutshell:
- how you ended up in the relationship in the first place (you were tricked by someone who wanted something you had)
- why you love or miss someone who caused you so much pain (you fell in love with someone who wasn’t real)
- why you had such a hard time leaving or kept re-entering that world so many times (you weren’t in your own reality, didn’t know it, and because of that you were just no match for the psychological abuse tactics used on you)
- why you weren’t acting like yourself (your identity was eroded)
- why you thought or talked about the relationship so much (you were trying to figure out what was real)
- why you can’t just go back to the person you used to be (your concept of humanity has been altered and you’ve had to figure things out)
So let’s keep hashing this out until we can put some words to it. We don’t need to keep their silence or live in their worlds anymore.