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Understanding Narcissistic Abuse

A Closer Look at Narcissism and Gaslighting

Narcissus is affixed to his own reflection in the spring. J.W. Waterhouse, 1903. Public domain.

The term narcissism comes from the story in Greek mythology of Narcissus, who fell in love and became obsessed with his own reflection in a pool. In modern usage, narcissist may refer to a personality trait or narcissistic personality disorder.

Narcissistic Personality Disorder

Narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) is listed as a diagnosis in the DSM-5.  It falls in the same cluster as borderline personality disorder and antisocial personality disorder.  It's unclear exactly how prevalent it is, but the DSM-5 cites a source that found a range of 0 to 6.2 percent in community samples.

The DSM-5 describes NPD as a "pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behaviour), need for admiration, and lack of empathy."  To be diagnosed, someone must meet five of nine diagnostic criteria, including an inflated sense of self-importance, need for excessive admiration, and exploitation of others.  

Treatment, in the unlikely event that someone with NPD were to seek it out, would involve psychotherapy aimed at increasing empathy.

Terms Related to Narcissism

The DSM-5 doesn't break NPD down into subtypes, but a number of different subtypes have been proposed, including the popular terms covert and overt.

The field of psychoanalysis uses the term narcissistic supply to refer to people who the narcissist uses to boost their own self-esteem.  To do this, the narcissist draws  on strategies such as flattery.  This behaviour thought to be the result of a lack of supply in childhood.

Narcissistic abuse was originally associated with parent-child relationships, but it has come to be more broadly applied to any type of relationship. The purpose is often to gain or maintain narcissistic supply.  The inconsistent threat/reward pattern can result in trauma bonding that keeps the victim tied to the abuser.

According to the DSM, people with NPD are "very sensitive to 'injury' from criticism or defeat," and this reaction is sometimes referred to as narcissistic injury.  According to Wikipedia, "narcissistic injury occurs when a narcissist feels that their hidden, 'true self' has been revealed."

"Diagnosing" Narcissism

Ideas from psychology and other fields often take on a life of their own when they become commonly used on the internet.  I don't think it's helpful when mental illness labels are haphazardly applied, as it gives the misleading suggestion that bad behaviour equates with mental illness.  We should not minimize the potential harm of psychological abuse, but that doesn't mean it's appropriate for people not qualified in psychiatric diagnosis to be slapping an NPD label on in an attempt to make sense of bad behaviour.

Instead, I would say that psychologically abusive people should be called out for what they are, abusers.  They should not be handed a shield of mental illness to hide behind.

Gaslighting

Gaslighting is a form of psychological manipulation that is commonly associated with narcissistic abuse.  It's not actually a term from the field of psychology, though; it's actually a term that came into popular use after a 1938 stage play and subsequent movie that portrayed this type of abuse. 

Gaslighting involved the use of denial and misdirection to make the victim question their own beliefs, memory, and sanity.  It undermines the target's basic sense of competence as a human being, and chips away at their sense of self.  It's a form of psychological abuse that is not limited to narcissists, but is often associated with them.

From a psychoanalytic perspective, the gaslighter is trying to shift the elements of their self that they are uncomfortable with onto the target, and have the target accept that which has been projected. The gaslighter tries to remove any possibility of resistance or their views being challenged by consistently undermining the target and destroying their intact sense of self.

As with narcissism, the internet popularity of a term like gaslighting is likely to result in overuse. Gaslighting can cause serious psychological damage, and to use the term too broadly may end up detracting from the harm done to true targets of gaslighting.

While stories of narcissistic abuse and gaslighting are scattered liberally across the internet, it's useful to keep in mind where these terms come from and what exactly they refer to. Not all jerks are narcissists, and not all narcissists inflict a lot of damage on others. Sometimes an a**hole is just an a**hole, and no one deserves to be subjected to that.