In an abusive relationship, some labels matter, and some labels don’t.
Suddenly the topics of Narcissism, Narcissistic Personality Disorder, and Narcissistic Abuse are all the rage (no pun intended) to discuss online these days. There is a wealth of information to be found on any aspect of the disorder or the abuse suffered at the hands of someone diagnosed with it, and with enough digging and reading (and reading and more reading) any average Joanne could eventually figure out if she, in fact, is either the Narcissist or—worse—in love with one.
For those of us who are the victims of Narcissistic Abuse, this abundance of knowledge is good news. I lived in over a decade of darkness before realizing the abusive situation I was in, and it was only by learning and researching and enlightening myself about this destructive personality disorder that I was finally able to escape it. I owe my life to Facebook and the many courageous women before me who shared their stories publicly so that I could a) see I wasn’t alone in my suffering and b) understand there was a label to describe it, which turned on a light in my world that helped me better confront the reality of my situation.
Understanding the language surrounding NPD and the abuse its victims suffer is important if we are to wrestle ourselves out from the grasp of a Narcissist. The National Library of Medicine describes Narcissistic Personality Disorder as a person “with an enduring pattern of grandiose beliefs and arrogant behavior together with an overwhelming need for admiration and a lack of empathy for (and even exploitation of) others.”
But of course we can’t stop there, since this definition is only the first key to many in unlocking even more detailed descriptions of what exactly makes someone a Narcissist, such as the symptoms or red flags to watch for. The list below comes courtesy of psychcentral.com.
- Has a grandiose sense of self-importance (e.g., exaggerates achievements and talents, expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements)
- 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 associate with, other special or high-status people (or institutions)
- Requires excessive admiration
- Has a very strong sense of entitlement, e.g., unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her expectations
- Is exploitative of others, e.g., takes advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends
- Lacks empathy, e.g., is 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
- Regularly shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes
Then come the terms for the tactics used by Narcissists to abuse their unsuspecting victims (did I mention all the reading and reading and more reading?): gaslighting, love bombing, hoovering, projection, supply … the list goes on and on.
All this information is the sharpest and most powerful tool we victims have to utilize if we want to escape, recover, and eventually heal from Narcissistic/Emotional Abuse. I spent the first year after leaving my ex (who was officially diagnosed with NPD by a psychologist who was an expert on the subject) reading anything I could get my hands on regarding this topic, because it was this that brought me out of the dark isolation I was existing within. After educating myself, I could fully recognize that I was a victim, that I wasn’t crazy like I had believed for so long, and—most important—that I wasn’t alone.
This stage of enlightenment is an important one for victims to journey through if we want to eventually heal. The timing of this stage, however, and the necessary solitude of it are equally crucial. One of the mistakes many of us make (me included) is the excess amount of time and energy spent trying to both check off each trait applicable to a Narcissist and convince him/her that he/she is one.
I will shout it from the highest mountaintop and I’m pretty sure there will be a crowd of experts and survivors standing with me who will tell you that trying to convince/help/change a Narcissist is a futile task and you’ll experience less pain with beating your head against a brick wall. In fact, I have yet to come across an expert on NPD whose advice for a victim includes anything else but to run away—and fast. Narcissists cannot change. They will not change. And once you have exposed them for who they are you can bet they will get even worse, pulling out all their tricks to get you to either forget everything you learned and come running back, or punish you—intently, purposefully—for confronting them in the first place.
And it’s at that point (again, I speak from my own experience of trying to “help” and “love him through it”) when all the labels cease to matter, that point when we realize we are in an abusive situation and the only thing we need to focus on is figuring out how to get out of it. Trust me when I say that the Narcissist will be just fine, thank you, without you, so don’t put an ounce of worry or concern into their well being, since they are certainly not investing anything in yours. (If he/she suddenly becomes charming and wonderful again, don’t spend a minute of your time buying it, instead use that time to read more on the tactic of “hoovering.”)
Another mistake we victims make is lowering our standards to such a level solely based on legality and the weight of a wedding certificate. I am guilty of this myself. I had granted the one who held the title of “husband” and the one whom with I was legally united a virtual free pass to get away with such behavior that I would never have tolerated from any other human being. I was the Queen of Excuses, even if he never afforded me the same luxury: “He had a bad childhood. He’s just misunderstood. He really doesn’t mean to (insert abuse here) me. I just need to (insert change to be made on my part here) and then he’ll snap out of it.”
But they don’t snap out of it. And there comes a point where we need to reevaluate what these labels—such as “husband” or “wife”—really mean and why we’ve let them mean so much. What part of being a good person demands that we allow those that are not good people to continue to hurt us? Because at the point of pain and suffering, everyone—spouse, family member, stranger on the street—needs to be on a level playing field. An abuser is an abuser, no matter if he put a ring on it.
The other times that labels don’t matter? When after all the reading and all the research and all the reaching out hasn’t manifested in our empowerment and we start on a downward spiral of committing all our energy to trying to figure out whether our partner deserves the label. There comes a point when we start asking too many questions and don’t have enough answers. In fact, the answers we do have are confusing us even more, and we spend our precious energy on making excuses that keep us spinning in a dangerous game of Name the Narcissist. But sometimes we must have the courage to call a spade a spade. An asshole is an asshole, whether or not a diagnosis ever follows.
“Well I know that he cheated and that he lied and that he’s cruel and pretty selfish but yesterday he was so nice and charming and sometimes he’s not that bad …”
Do we really need a diagnosis at this point? Can we stop making excuses for someone who is so obviously intent on disrespecting, lying to, manipulating and abusing us? Don’t we deserve better? And don’t we deserve that without justification, without qualification?
And without a label?
Of course it’s important to educate ourselves on Narcissistic Abuse and all other types of abusive relationships if we are to escape or help others escape from it. But there is a point when we must love ourselves enough to trust our gut instincts, to open our eyes to the truth and ask the most basic of questions in order to find the answers:
Am I hurting?
Is the one I love hurting me without sufficient remorse? Over and over again?
Does the one I love truly love me and shows me through respect and compassion at all times?
When I express my pain to the one I love, do they listen? Do they care?
Do I feel safe with the one I love? Safe that they would never cause me harm on purpose?
Do I love myself enough to tell myself the truth about the one I love?
These are the questions for which there is no reading requirement. There is no college degree necessary. There is no name or title or label to be granted. Just truth. Your truth. So if your road to recovery includes (as mine did) a certain period of time to research the hell out of your situation so that you can find comfort in knowing that there is a name for your pain, then by all means go for it until you arrive at a place where you know enough and can now focus your time and energy and love on other things, such as your new awesome life.
But if the road you’re on is not providing the answers you need and you can’t check off traits 1-20 for whether or not the one you’re with is actually a full-blown Narcissist, then scale back the research and start your journey within, using your gut instinct, using your smarts, using your truth. Because at that point the label doesn’t matter anymore. What matters is that you are in a relationship that is draining instead of feeding you, taking and not giving, abusing and not loving in the way you deserve to be loved.
Because there is a time and a place for everything, including putting labels on our pain. But whether or not we end up finding a name for what we are suffering from, the time is now to face it, escape from it, recover and heal. And the place for that movement out of the darkness and into the light is within your own soul, where your real true love is waiting for you with all the answers.