Confinement at home, economic hardship, and disrupted social systems during the pandemic have created pressure-cooker conditions for domestic violence. Already at high risk for abuse, partners and family members of people with pathological narcissism or narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) face heightened vulnerability.
A recent American Psychiatric Association poll about life during the coronavirus outbreak found a majority of Americans (59%) are experiencing serious daily impacts and a third of Americans (36%) are experiencing serious mental health effects. Cities around the world are reporting spikes in domestic violence. And on April 6, United Nations chief António Guterres decried the “horrifying global surge in domestic violence" and called on governments around the world "to put women’s [and girls'] safety first as they respond to the pandemic."
Defined by emotional volatility, a lack of empathy, and delusions of superiority and entitlement, NPD is linked with interpersonal exploitation, rage, and aggression, most often directed at family members. Making matters worse, narcissists compulsively deny their behavior and project it onto the people they hurt, and they frequently cultivate a likable or even do-gooder public persona that belies their ongoing abuses behind closed doors.
Following are eight misconceptions about narcissistic abuse that are as dangerous as they are false.
- It's not physical, so it's not abuse. Narcissistic abuse can be physical and sexual, but it often involves psycho-emotional violations such as constant judgment, belittlement, and blame. Studies show that nonphysical abuse is often as traumatic as physical abuse, leaving lasting scars that affect long-term physical and mental health (CPTSD).
- But everyone sees us as the perfect couple/family. Narcissists value external markers of success and status and often go to great lengths to present well to outsiders. Domestic abuse happens in all kinds of homes, regardless of socioeconomic and educational differences. Whether you're dressed in designer clothes or hand-me-downs, you are vulnerable to narcissistic abuse and trauma.
- It's not really mental illness because he/she hasn't been diagnosed. In fact, most people with narcissistic personality disorder remain undiagnosed. Their deluded belief that they are above reproach and their refusal to self-reflect or take responsibility means that they seldom seek or stick with therapy. As the saying goes, "Narcissism is a sickness for which everyone but the patient is treated."
- He/she loses control and just can't help it. Narcissists are as aware of right and wrong as everyone else and are capable of controlling their behavior when it suits them. When they want something or are with someone they admire, they may be highly solicitous and/or charming. And when they vent their rage and contempt, they know what they are doing and are making a choice to do it.
- He/she had a hard childhood. Many people experience trauma and hardship and do not become narcissistic or abusive. Excusing narcissists' abusive behavior and shielding them from consequences only enables further abuse and perpetuates harm in families and across generations.
- But he/she is nice sometimes. Most people are nice some of the time, and narcissists are no exception. When not feeling threatened, narcissistic spouses, siblings, or parents may be helpful, insightful, or fun to be with. This does not excuse or cancel out the harm they do when they feel slighted, competitive, or entitled to more.
- Adults can just leave the situation. Leaving an abuser, especially a highly manipulative and vengeful narcissist, is rarely easy to do. Partners of narcissists, particularly women, are frequently isolated from friends and family, drained of financial resources, and bullied into compliance with threats of assault, withdrawal of support, loss of child custody, and homelessness. Often they are victims of childhood trauma, with vulnerability to abuse cycles.
- Real abuse only happens in someone else's family, in someone else's town. Perhaps the most destructive belief about abuse is that "it can't happen to me." Victims of narcissistic abuse typically endure years of assault to their sense of identity, safety, and sanity while being told that the abuse isn't happening or they are to blame for it. Denying our own vulnerability and hurt is often a natural response to trauma, especially in childhood when we have little to no power over our circumstances. But abuse is part of the human condition, and abusers are alive and well in our own institutions and communities, our own neighborhoods and families.
If you or someone you care about is experiencing narcissistic abuse, there is help. The National Domestic Violence Hotline recognizes narcissistic abuse and trauma and is available 24/7 in more than 200 languages. Call 1-800-799-7233 to talk with an advocate. Or log onto The Hotline or text LOVEIS to 22522.