Narcissistic abuse

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Narcissistic abuse refers to any abuse by a narcissist, particularly emotional abuse in parent-child and adult-to-adult relationships.[1] The term was coined in 1999 by Sam Vaknin as the name of his support group for victims of narcissists.[2]

Parental narcissistic abuse is where parents require the child to give up their own wants and feelings in order to serve the parent's needs for esteem.[3] The term emerged in the late twentieth century due to the works of Alice Miller and other Neo-Freudians, rejecting psychoanalysis as being similar to the poisonous pedagogies.[4]

Self-help culture assumes that someone abused by narcissistic parenting as a child likely struggles with codependency issues in adulthood. An adult who is or has been in a relationship with a narcissist likely struggles with not knowing what constitutes a "normal" relationship.[5]

Adult-to-adult relationships[edit]

Narcissistic abuse may also occur in adult-to-adult relationships, where the narcissistic person tends to seek out an empathetic partner in order to gain admiration of their own attributes and feelings of power and control – narcissistic supply. The narcissist creates a dynamic abuser and victim relationship through a cycle of abuse resulting in traumatic bonding that makes it hard for their partner to leave the increasingly abusive relationship.

People with codependent-type traits may seek relationships with narcissists.[6][7]

The narcissists' relationships are characterized by a period of intense involvement and idealization of their partner, followed by devaluation, and a rapid discarding of the partner.[8] Alternatively, that scenario can loop, with ghosting (ceasing communication with the former partner) and hoovering (luring the former partner back) instead of discarding. At the beginning of a relationship (or its new cycle) with a narcissist, the partner is only shown the ideal self of the narcissist, which includes pseudo-empathy, kindness, and charm. Once the partner has committed to the relationship (e.g., through marriage or a business partnership), the true self of the narcissist will begin to emerge. The initial narcissistic abuse begins with belittling comments and grows to contempt, ignoring behavior, adultery, triangulation (forming any relationship triangles), sabotage, and, at times, physical abuse.[6]

At the core of a narcissist is a combination of entitlement and low self-esteem. These feelings of inadequacy are projected onto the victim. If the narcissistic person is feeling unattractive they will belittle their romantic partner's appearance. If the narcissist makes an error, this error becomes the partner's fault.[9] Narcissists also engage in insidious, manipulative abuse by giving subtle hints and comments that result in the victim questioning their own behavior and thoughts. This is termed gaslighting.[10] Another common abusive tactic is underhanded public humiliation, when the narcissist says something seemingly neutral but offensive to the victim and enjoys the emotional reaction. This is called dog-whistling. Any slight criticism of the narcissist, whether actual or perceived, often triggers narcissistic rage and full-blown annihilation from the narcissistic person. This can take the form of screaming tirades, silent treatment or quiet sabotage (setting traps, refusing communication, hiding belongings, spreading rumors, etc.).

The discard phase can be swift and occurs once the narcissistic supply is obtained elsewhere. In romantic relationships, the narcissistic supply can be acquired by having affairs. The new partner is in the idealization phase and only witnesses the ideal self; thus once again the cycle of narcissistic abuse begins. Narcissists do not take responsibility for relationship difficulties and exhibit no feelings of remorse. Instead they believe themselves to be the victim in the relationship[11] as because of their self-debasing projections, their partner can only ever fail to meet their expectations.


  • 21st century transactional analysis has highlighted clients who suffered some narcissistic abuse as children (that is, an injury to their developing selves), examining for instance the boy in an all-female household who only survived by developing powerful emotional antennae in order to respond to the emotional needs of his mother and sister.[12]
  • Post-Jungians have explored the after-effects of an intense narcissistic wound resulting from an oppressively unempathetic parent.[13] In particular, Polly Young-Eisendrath emphasises how the narcissistic longings of mothers (or fathers) to amass reflected glory through their children...can bring disastrous results for mother and child if both lose their capacity for autonomous development.[14]
  • Object relations theory for its part stresses both that the most traumatizing experience of all is the absence of emotional giving from a mother or father, and that, in an intergenerational pattern, people who have been brought up by tyrannical authoritarian parents will often parent their children in the same way.[15] Adam Phillips adds that the mother who colonizes her child and stifles gestures of autonomy and difference breeds in him or her an often unconscious craving for the dead-end justice of revenge.[16]
  • In another tradition, Julia Kristeva points out how a pairing of mothers and fathers, overprotective and uneasy, who have chosen the child as a narcissistic artificial limb and keep incorporating that child as a restoring element for the adult psyche intensifies the infant's tendency toward omnipotence.[17]
  • M. Scott Peck looked at milder but nonetheless destructive common forms of parental narcissism, as well as the depth of confusion produced by his mother's narcissism in a more serious instance.[18]


Antecedents: Ferenczi[edit]

The roots of current concern with narcissistic abuse can be traced back to the later work of Sándor Ferenczi, which helped to shape modern psychoanalytic theories of "schizoid," "narcissistic," and "borderline" personality disorders.[19]

In "Confusion of Tongues Between Adults and the Child", Ferenczi observed that patients often displayed "a striking, almost helpless compliance and willingness to accept my interpretations" even if he encouraged them not to agree with him.[20] Ferenczi traced his patient's behavior to childhood trauma. He found that in cases of sexual abuse, children often misinterpreted the emotional responses of adults and responded to them by becoming passive toward the adult. The child developed an "anxiety-fear-ridden identification" with the adult, as well as "introjection of the guilt feelings of the adult":

"The same anxiety, however, if it reaches a certain maximum, compels them to subordinate themselves like automata to the will of the aggressor, to divine each one of his desires and to gratify these; completely oblivious of themselves they identify themselves with the aggressor." [20]

Ferenczi also argued that a child's tender love for a caretaker often involves a fantasy of "taking the role of mother to the adult". In what he identified as the "terrorism of suffering", the child has a "compulsion" to right the wrongs of the family by taking on responsibilities that are far beyond the child's maturity level. In this manner, "a mother complaining of her constant miseries can create a nurse for life out of her child, i.e. a real mother substitute, neglecting the true interests of the child." [20][21] Within such distorted patterns of parent/child interaction, 'Ferenczi believed the silence, lies, and hypocrisy of the caregivers were the most traumatic aspects of the abuse'—ultimately producing what he called 'narcissistic mortification'.[22]

Ferenczi also looked at such distortions in the therapist/patient relationship, accusing himself of sadistic (and, implicitly, narcissistic) abuse of his patients.[23]

Kohut, Horney, and Miller[edit]

A half-century later, in the wake of Kohut's innovative pronouncement that the age of "normal narcissism" and normal narcissistic entitlement had arrived[24] – the age, that is, of the normative parental provision of narcissistic supply – the concept of its inverse appeared: narcissistic abuse. According to Kohut, maternal misrecognition amounts to a failure to perform the narcissistic selfobject functions of "mirroring"...the cause of a narcissistic disturbance.[25] Paternal misrecognition could produce the same result: Kohut explored for example a son's transference reproaches directed at the non mirroring father who was preoccupied with his own self-enhancement and thus refused to respond to his son's originality.[26]

Karen Horney had already independently highlighted the character disorder – particularly the compulsive striving for love and power – resulting from the childhood hurts bred of parental narcissism and abuse. She thus heralded today's work in this area by Alice Miller and others.[27]

Alice Miller lays special emphasis on the process of reproduction of narcissistic abuse, the idea that love relations and relations to children are repetitions[28] of previous narcissistic distortions. Miller's early work in particular was very much in line with Kohut's tale of deficits in empathy and mirroring, with a stress on the way adults revisit and perpetuate the narcissistic wounds of their own early years[29] in an intergenerational cycle of narcissistic abuse. In Miller's view, when abused for the sake of adults' needs, children could develop an amazing ability to perceive and respond intuitively, that is, unconsciously, to this need of the mother, or of both parents, for him to take on the role that had unconsciously been assigned to him.[30]

Wider developments[edit]

Miller's work, in its emphasis on the real-life interaction of parent and child, challenged the orthodox Freudian account of Oedipal fantasy, in a sustained indictment of the moral and pedagogical underpinnings of the therapy industry; and did so at a point when 'the keyword of the 1980s was invariably "abuse".[31]

With the passing of time (and of the polemical edge), a more slimmed-down, pragmatic version of the concept of narcissistic abuse gradually came to permeate most of the wider culture of psychotherapy.

Only in the Freudian heartland of mainstream psychoanalysis has the term retained a more restricted, pre-Ferenczi usage. Thus in a "comprehensive dictionary of psychoanalysis" of 2009, the only appearance of the term is in connection with misuse of the couch for narcissistic gain: The fact that it is seen by some patients and therapists as a "status symbol" lends it to narcissistic abuse.[32]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ C. Bailey-Rug, Life After Narcissistic Abuse (2015) pp. i–iii
  2. ^ Scroll down for "founded" date in group information:
  3. ^ James I. Kepner, Body Process (1997) p. 73
  4. ^ Note: In For Your Own Good, Alice Miller herself credits Katharina Rutschky and her 1977 work Schwarze Pädagogik as the inspiration to consider the concept of poisonous pedagogy,[1] which is considered as a translation of Rutschky's original term Schwarze Pädagogik (literally "black pedagogy"). Source: Zornado, Joseph L. (2001). Inventing the Child: Culture, Ideology, and the Story of Childhood. Routledge. p. 77. ISBN 0-8153-3524-5. In the Spanish translations of Miller's books, Schwarze Pädagogik is translated literally.
  5. ^ C. Bailey-Rug, It's Not You, It's Them (2016) pp. 80–81
  6. ^ a b Vaknin, S. (2010) Malignant Self Love
  7. ^ "The Inverted (Covert) Narcissist (Narcissist-Codependent) - Codependence and Relationships with Abusive Narcissists and Pychopaths".
  8. ^ G. David Elkin, Introduction to Clinical Psychiatry(1999) p. 171
  9. ^ Zayn, C. & Dibble, K. (2007). Narcissistic Lovers: How to Cope, Recover and Move On. Publisher: New Horizon Press
  10. ^ Stern, R. (2007). The Gaslight Effect: How to Spot and Survive the Hidden Manipulation Others Use to Control Your Life. Publisher: Harmony
  11. ^ C. Bailey-Rug, Life After Narcissistic Abuse (2015)
  12. ^ H. Hargaden/C. Sills, Transactional Analysis (2002) p. 131
  13. ^ Andrew Samuels, Jung and the Post-Jungians (London 1986) p. 228
  14. ^ Polly Young-Eisendrath, Women and Desire (London 2000) p. 198
  15. ^ Neville Symmington, Narcissism: A New Theory (London 1993) pp. 75, 79
  16. ^ Adam Phillips, On Flirtation (London 1994) p. 106
  17. ^ Julia Kristeva, Black Sun (New York 1989) pp. 61–62
  18. ^ M. Scott Peck, The Road Less Travelled By (1990) pp. 175–77
  19. ^ Janet Malcolm, Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession (London 1988) pp. 134–35
  20. ^ a b c Ferenczi, Sándor (1949). "Confusion of the Tongues Between the Adults and the Child—(The Language of Tenderness and of Passion)". The International Journal of Psychoanalysis. 30: 225–230.
  21. ^ Ferenczi, "Confusion", in J. M. Masson, Freud: The Assault on Truth (London 1984) pp. 293–94
  22. ^ Martin S. Bergmann, Understanding Dissidence and Controversy in the History of Psychoanalysis (2004) p. 162
  23. ^ John E. Gedo, The Language of Psychoanalysis (1996) p. 97
  24. ^ James Grotstein, "Foreword", Neville Symington, Narcissism: A New Theory (London 1993) p. xiii
  25. ^ Lior Barshack, Passions and Convictions in Matters Political (2000) p. 37
  26. ^ Heinz Kohut, How Does Analysis Cure? (London 1984) p. 183
  27. ^ Janet Sayers, Mothering Psychoanalysis (1991) p. 18
  28. ^ Barshack, p. 37
  29. ^ Henry Sussman, Psyche and Text (1993) pp. 83–84
  30. ^ Alice Miller, The Drama of Being a Child (1995) pp. 9, 152
  31. ^ Lisa Appignanesi & John Forrester, Freud's Women (2005) pp. 472–73
  32. ^ Salman Akhtar, Comprehensive Dictionary of Psychoanalysis (2009) p. 60

Further reading[edit]

  • Angela Atkinson, Jillian Tindall, Navigating No-Contact with a Narcissist: A Recovery Roadmap for Survivors of Narcissistic Abuse (2017)
  • Dr. Sarah Davies, Never Again - moving on from narcissistic abuse and other toxic relationships (2019)
  • Patricia Evans, Controlling People: How to Recognize, Understand, and Deal with People Who Try to Control You (2003)
  • Alice Little, No Contact - The Final Boundary: Surviving Parental Narcissistic Abuse (2016)
  • Alice Miller, The Drama of the Gifted Child (1979)
  • Steven Stosny, Treating Attachment Abuse (1995)
  • Estela Welldon, Mother, Madonna, Whore: The Idealization and Denigration of Motherhood (1988)
  • Shahida Arabi POWER: Surviving and Thriving After Narcissistic Abuse: A Collection of Essays on Malignant Narcissism and Recovery from Emotional Abuse Paperback (2017)