When some people hear the term “narcissist,” they envision someone who talks about themselves too much or takes a lot of selfies. These traits may be present, but are essentially harmless and may even be amusing when portrayed in pop culture.
Pathological narcissists, however, lie excessively, wear different masks around different people, have secret lives, and fake positive emotions, resulting in false realities being constructed for victims. This is all done to manipulate them into willingly making themselves vulnerable enough to be exploited and results in an extraordinary amount of psychological damage.
It all sounds very Shakespearean.
And yet, narcissistic abuse remains very difficult to explain to someone who has never been in a relationship with a narcissist.
We can turn to dozens, if not hundreds, of Hollywood films for understanding some of what narcissistic sociopaths do. For example, two graphic films, Natural Born Killers and The Wolf of Wall Street, were both so successful at portraying narcissistic sociopaths who respectively killed and conned money out of innocent people, that the movies were accused of glorifying the behavior.
But where in pop culture do we turn to understand how and why narcissists prey upon people’s minds and emotions?
It’s not just about being a player.
It’s not just about breaking someone’s heart.
It’s not even just about someone who has a temper problem and lashes out abusively.
“Somebody being an asshole is not a personality disorder. If somebody is being an asshole consistently every moment of the day through multiple contexts and multiple scenarios even when you’re saying, ‘Please stop being an asshole, it hurts and you’re ruining my life,’ that’s a personality disorder.” – Richard Grannon
I mean, what is it that narcissists, as psychological abusers, even do? And, more importantly, why do it at all? What do they get out of it?
Swindlers, we understand, con people out of their money. We can also understand intellectually that those who have the desire to kill and hurt others are mentally ill. Normal people don’t empathize with either of them, but we have a mental construct that provides socially-accepted reasons for why they do what they do.
The things we as victims endure in narcissistic relationships, however–double lives, lovebombing, brainwashing, smear campaigns, hoovering, silent treatments, trauma bonding, and so many other abuses– comprise a mystifying and horrifying-sounding jargon that, from an outsider’s perspective, likely seems dramatic and outrageous. The details that undergird these terms, however, are ubiquitous in story after story across millions of survivors around the world.
Yet we have no socially-recognized go-to schema for understanding the reasons narcissists abuse people in relationships.
One of the keys to shining a light on narcissistic abuse and the harm it causes is to explain what it is that narcissists are trying to accomplish when they manipulate people in social situations.
Is it just that they get pleasure out of watching chaos around them ensue when they set people against each other and cause people pain?
Again, this sounds like something straight out of a movie, as if there are monsters walking around in human skin who orchestrate social mayhem for no other reason than to do it, because it makes them feel powerful murdering souls instead of bodies.
Despite the dramatic overtones, it is true that the “high” alone caused by the psychological manipulation can explain some of what some narcissists do. The answer, however, is much more complicated than that.
I’d like to give simplifying the explanation shot. I want to see if it’s possible to pare down what happens in adult-to-adult narcissistic relationships into just a few sentences that absorbs all of the behaviors and motives. Let me try with a few propositions:
- Everyone has social needs, such as love, respect, support, appreciation, a feeling of connection, trust, and companionship. Healthy relationships are mutually beneficial, in that people give and receive these things from one another.
- Narcissists need these things in even greater quantites than most people, because they are extremely vulnerable to feelings of insecurity and emptiness unless they are constantly adored by others.
- Narcissists are also incapable of giving these things back to others. This is because they are always driven to be concerned with getting their own needs met above all else.
- They will also be incapable of giving these things back to others because to get their needs met, their actions end up compromising the very definitions of these things (e.g., respect, support, appreciation, etc.).
- This happens because healthy relationships do not meet their needs, and they must rely on deceptive and manipulative methods in order to receive what they need from other people.
- In addition, they are wired with low or no empathy, which enables them to accomplish this.
- The tactics they use cause immense psychological damage and wreak havoc on people’s lives because the people with whom they enter the relationships are conned into believing the relationships are mutually beneficial ones and then manipulated in a variety of ways once in them.
Almost everything you will ever read about narcissism and narcissistic abuse, on this blog and elsewhere takes one aspect from this broad explanation above of what happens in narcissistic relationships and attempts to expand on it. For example, an article may attempt to explain why narcissists lack empathy or put their needs above all else, or to discuss how they feel and think, or to describe one or more of the tactics they use to get their needs met, or to explain the effect of a behavior on the victim.
Even though this is an extremely basic way of explaining the purpose of narcissistic manipulation from the narcissist’s point of view and why it matters, I believe an explanation of this type is necessary for helping raise awareness that this type of abuse and manipulation exists and it is a threat.