When words are used too often and incorrectly, the true meaning of that word can be misunderstood. Take the word “narcissistic,” for example.
When working in domestic violence advocacy, the word “narcissistic” is often thrown around when describing abusers. While it is true that abusers and people in general focus on themselves and behave selfishly, true Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) is a Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) medical diagnosis.
What Narcissism actually is
As defined by the DSM-IV, NPD is considered one of the four Cluster-B personality disorders. NPD is characterized by a “pervasive pattern of grandiosity, need for admiration, and lack of empathy.” It is diagnosed when the individual displays five or more of the following criteria:
- Has a grandiose sense of self-importance (exaggerates achievements and talents, expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate experience) ,
- Is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty or ideal love,
- Believes that he or she is special and unique and can only be understood by, or should be associated with, other special or high-status people (or institutions),
- Requires excessive admiration,
- Has a sense of entitlement (unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her expectations),
- Is interpersonally exploitative (takes advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends),
- Lacks empathy (unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others),
- Is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of him or her,
- Shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes.
While the above traits are considered diagnostic traits, there are several characteristic traits in NPD individuals. Five such characteristic traits are: lack of accountability (never accept responsibility for their actions), manipulative, fake apologies, blame shifting, and projection.
- Lack of accountability – NPD individuals will never hold themselves accountable and accept responsibility for their actions or words. They feel they can do no wrong, so you will never see them admit to mistakes.
- Manipulative – NPD individuals are adept at manipulating others. They will exploit your strengths and weaknesses to get what they want. They are master manipulators who will carefully pick the words they use in order to deceive, coerce, intimidate, seduce, and mislead you.
- Fake apologies – NPD individuals will never give heartfelt apologies. Instead, they will give you a fake one. You’ll hear things like, “I’m sorry, but you…” or “I’m sorry, but if you hadn’t…”
- Blame shifting – This goes almost hand in hand with the lack of accountability trait. Because NPD individuals never accept responsibility, you will always see them “passing the buck” and blame everyone around them for their mistakes and wrongdoings.
- Projection – NPD individuals will accuse you of the very things that they themselves are guilty of.
How it can be damaging
While having some level of basic narcissism is healthy (like having a high self-esteem or briefly bragging about an achievement), there is a danger to labeling all abusers as NPD. To rush into putting a name to what someone experiences minimizes the effects a true victim of an NPD individual experiences. It’s an overuse of a word that doesn’t affect that much of the population. In fact, according to the DSM, only 2 to 16 percent of people with NPD are within the clinical population and less than 1 percent is within the general population. Of that 1 percent, approximately 50 to 75 percent are men.
It is in that 1 percent statistic that you will discover that not all abusers are true NPD individuals. So when we rush to this kind of label within the domestic violence survivor community, we are doing ourselves a disservice. Yes, we want to put more of a name to what we experienced with our abusers, but only a mental health professional can make a true NPD diagnosis. One thing to note about true NPD individuals is that you will never see them attend counseling because they feel they are perfect and that nothing is wrong with them. So many true NPD individuals go undiagnosed.
Mental health awareness also takes a hit when words like narcissist are used too often. True victims of NPD individuals fight hard to be heard and validated. They often exhibit classic signs of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), according to Dr. Athena Staik. It is in the following signs that a therapist can diagnose PTSD and Narcissistic Abuse Syndrome (NAS).
Signs of NAS include intrusive thoughts or memories, physical-emotional reactions to reminders of trauma, nightmares and flashbacks, avoidance thoughts, distorted sense of blame, sense of detachment or isolation from others, difficulty concentrating and/or sleeping, and hypervigilance.
So, if many rush to call all abusers narcissists, it will take away from what true victims of NPD individuals go through and endure. The more that word is tossed around, the less of an impact it may have. If you are truly curious about your former partner being a narcissist, talk with a mental health professional about what you endured and what effects it had on you. From there, that professional can likely make a diagnosis. (This would mean the professional would diagnose you with regards to what you went through, and not be diagnosing the abuser).