Why does it matter so much that survivors of narcissistic abuse use the terms “narcissist,” “sociopath,” and “psychopath?”
Why not just refer to the abusers as “abusers?”
The labels “narcissists,” “sociopaths,” and “psychopaths” can have over-the-top connotations, as they are often found in horror films about serial killers. The risk is that they can lead to a dismissal of what happened to us with a claim that we are being overly dramatic.
Or perhaps we could get accused of being too over-zealous in using psychiatric terms that we’re unqualified to use. I’m well aware of what has popularly been termed the “Goldwater Rule,” which is a section in the American Psychiatric Association’s Principles of Medical Ethics that states that a psychiatrist should not provide a diagnosis to someone that he or she hasn’t personally examined.
Yet that is the very crux of using the Goldwater Rule as an argument against survivors or others using the terms outside of a mental health professional’s office to describe destructive behavior. By necessity, because narcissistic abuse is a very specific form of abuse, it’s impossible to talk about without mentioning particular diagnoses and how they may apply to specific people in the victim’s lives to explain their pattern of behavior. This, however, is incidental.
Mental health professionals diagnose to treat. We, as survivors, are not treating people. We aren’t even technically diagnosing them, because that’s something only mental health professionals can do. We are naming and defining extremely destructive behavior for the benefit of the people on whom it is perpetrated.
Doing so can save lives.
Let’s follow the logic to understand how and why it’s so crucial that the labels are colloquially used…
1. Because of its nature, narcissistic abuse is hidden.
Much of narcissistic abuse is covert. Its hidden nature makes it difficult to even recognize, much less point out and explain.
It works covertly through a series of exploitive tactics that result in the victim willingly putting the abuser’s well-being above his or her own by making the victim believe that the abuser has his or her own best interest in mind and a relationship is mutually beneficial. The tactics perpetrated by the abusers in these situations work by eroding the victim’s identify, self-autonomy, and judgment until the partner is conditioned to take on the perspective of the abuser.
This stealth form of abuse can at first remain hidden to the victim. Even after the victim becomes aware that something is wrong, using the same tactics that enabled the abuser to hide the fact that the exploitation was occurring, the abuser continues to manipulate the victim into believing the abuse is not actually abusive, that it is deserved, or that the victim is to blame for what has taken place.
Victims of this type of abuse are psychologically shell-shocked and unable to understand what is happening to them beyond the fact that something is wrong, without the right tools to put it in perspective.
2. Its hidden nature is a unique characteristic of this type of abuse.
Although narcissistic abusers may also engage in more traditional forms of emotional abuse and even other types of abuse such as physical abuse, this grooming and “conditioning” of the victim is unique to narcissistic abuse and in fact its very essence.
While abusers of other types may gain dominance by physical force or emotionally tearing their partners down, narcissistic abusers gain control by mentally controlling the victims in such a way that the victims bond so strongly to them that they will put themselves in danger or allow themselves to become physically or psychologically ill in order to allow the abuser to extract resources from victims, such as money, attention, sex, love, status, or all of the above.
Other labels–more traditional labels for other types of abuse will not suffice to explain what happens to victims in these relationships.
3. The dominance and control by the abuser in the relationship are established and maintained through the deception of the true character of the perpetrator.
In other words, abuse is hidden from the victim because the true character of the abuser, including his or her motives, is kept hidden from the victim.
Narcissistic abuse follows a pattern in which the perpetrators initially love-bomb their partners, creating a situation in which it is difficult for the partner to resist because the narcissist intentionally fakes qualities, likes, dislikes, and even past experiences that mirror and complement the victim’s.
It is not possible to talk about narcissistic abuse without also talking about its perpetrator and what he or she was trying to accomplish.
4. The purpose of using the label is not to define the perpetrator but to name the abuse.
The purpose of writing and reading books about narcissistic abuse is not to diagnose narcissists. It is to assist survivors. Yet, because this unique form of abuse exists and has the effects that it does because of the unique traits of the perpetrators, one cannot describe the abuse without also describing the perpetrators.
Most narcissists never seek treatment because they do not believe anything is wrong with them by definition. This means that they are unlikely ever to be diagnosed in the traditional sense. This means that their partners will likely never receive any explanation for what is happening to them because their abuser went to see a mental health professional.
Instead, it is necessary to look at the combined behaviors of the perpetrator as evidence of what appears to be “narcissistic,” “sociopathic,” or “psychopathic” behavior.
This is the same concept that we can observe when watching a scary movie and one of the characters thinks he or she may be in danger and uses tropes from vampire lore to determine whether another character is a vampire or not. The hero can’t just come out and ask the other characters because he or she is unlikely to get a truthful answer so must instead use all of the signs from classic vampire mythology to figure it out, such as: does the other character react negatively to holy water? Do they avoid garlic? When standing in front of a mirror, is their reflection missing?
It is the victims of narcissist abuse that reflect back and illuminate the narcissist for who he or she truly is. The damage to victims follows a recognizable documented pattern that has been named and can then be identified as meeting criteria for narcissistic abuse by the person who perpetrates it.
5. Being able to name and define the abuse allows survivors to become aware of what they are experiencing as not normal and help to raise awareness of this type of abuse.
Using terms such as “narcissist,” “sociopath,” and “psychopath” responsibly as ways to discuss people with patterns of harmful behavior helps victims to recognize that what they are experiencing is abuse.
As victims realize there is a well-established body of knowledge on this type of systematic abuse, they also begin to realize that the abuse was not their fault, that there was nothing they could have done to change the outcome of the relationship, and that the world can make sense once again when they have the language to describe what they have been through.
It ultimately doesn’t really matter how we label narcissists when they are not the beneficiaries of that label in the literature on narcissistic abuse. The discussion about labeling is merely a semantic discussion. A toxic person is a toxic person.
Using these particular terms can be what results in victims realizing that they are not alone and finding the information that they need in order to overcome the abusive situation.
Talking About the Abuse as Opposed to the Label
If you’re in one of these relationships or are a survivor, you may have found it tempting to run to your partner or to others to tell them what you’ve learned about your partner.
There are many reasons why it’s not a good idea.
Telling your partner is unlikely to get any kind of a reaction that you will feel good about. You are likely to receive either anger or denial. Even worse, the longer term effects is that you may give your partner more ammunition if he or she looks up what the terms mean and uses them more effectively to hide his or her behavior. Or perhaps they may start to use it in a smear against you.
If you try to warn other people, because others will likely have just as hard a time as you as believing people like this exist and are under just as much of the narcissist’s spell as you were, you will likely only come off as unhinged.
The labels are not for the narcissists or sociopaths themselves, they are for us to understand the situations we experienced.
I, therefore, recommend using them in ways that will help and not hurt you, such as educating yourself and reclaiming your narrative.