Do Most Abusers Have NPD (Narcissistic Personality Disorder)?
Despite the current trend in referring to an abusive personality as "the narcissist," that phrase shouldn't be thrown around carelessly. Here's what it really means.
“The narcissist” and “the abuser” tend to be synonymous terms in the current trend of domestic abuse literature. It’s assumed by many authors—and therefore by their readers—that if a person is abusive they must be a narcissist. But what, exactly, do these authors mean by “narcissist”? Are they claiming that all abusive personalities have NPD, whether nor not they’ve been officially diagnosed? Or are they merely commenting on overbearing and controlling narcissistic tendencies?
First of all, no one has the right to carelessly bandy about terms as if discussing someone who has actually been diagnosed with a psychological disorder. It’s rare for someone to be diagnosed with NPD for two reasons:
• Although many people have narcissistic traits, very few people actually have the mental disorder diagnosed as Narcissistic Personality Disorder, and “it is present in only a small percentage of abusive men,” according to domestic violence expert Lundy Bancroft.
• People who have NPD most likely won’t go to a professional to seek an official diagnoses. They see nothing wrong with their behaviors, beliefs, and attitudes. If a person has NPD, seeing a therapist is the last thing he or she will do — unless they feel it can make them look better and help them with their claim of being the “good guy” and the “victim.” In these cases, they’ll eagerly see a therapist only to adopt psychological lingo when they attack their target. They also use a therapist as another source of ego supply, portraying themselves as the loving and patient partner to an “impossible” spouse.
So why is the word “narcissist” so popular amongst authors writing on the topic of intimate partner violence? Take a look at your local bookstore and you’ll see titles such as The Narcissist’s Playbook, The Covert Passive Aggressive Narcissist, Becoming the Narcissist’s Nightmare, and The Wizard of Oz and Other Narcissists. One author even goes so far as to call his book Psychopath Free.
Two things are crucial to understand:
Know the difference between an actual diagnosis of NPD versus an abusive personality with narcissistic traits (and, let’s be honest—all abusers have strong narcissistic traits).
Stop labeling people as if they have actual personality disorders, even those who act in manipulative and controlling ways. Yes, they’re people, too. They’ve been “made in the image and likeness of God” (Genesis 1:26). Their bodies are also temples of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 6:19). Even so, they’re following the wrong path. Abusive personalities are those who have used their God-given free will to go astray and “by their wickedness suppress the truth … And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a base mind and to improper conduct” (Romans 1:18,28).
I’ve used the word “narcissist” in a few of my past posts when quoting another author’s work or making a specific point, because the information provided is solid and helpful in describing abusive situations. I’ve also mentioned NPD and its close sibling BPD—but have always been careful to specify traits rather than an actual diagnosis. There’s an enormous difference between having an unhealthy level of narcissism—which most abusers do—versus being a full-out, diagnosable narcissist.
Most people with coercive and manipulative personalities have unhealthy levels of self-focus, feeling that their emotions, their opinions, and their situations need to be the focal point of their relationships.
What is NPD and how can you tell the difference between actual NPD and unhealthy narcissistic traits? We all have narcissistic traits to some degree or another—the balance is between healthy self-esteem (setting reasonable boundaries based on balanced self-love and respect) and toxic narcissism (focusing on self to the point that the feelings and needs of others are consistently neglected). According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, narcissism is a synonym for egocentrism, which is “excessive interest in oneself and concern for one’s own welfare or advantage at the expense of or in disregard of others.”
It’s when ego-centered traits are chronically and consistently out of balance that a problem becomes obvious—as well as destructive to those in the direct line of fire.
Narcissistic traits may include:
A focus on themselves, their own feelings and needs, with the expectation that others also focus on their feelings and needs.
They make themselves the center of attention, such as by dominating conversations and social situations.
Empathy is at a minimum, if they can feel empathy at all. This is because feeling empathy for another would be taking attention away from themselves.
They have no qualms when it comes to lying to others. “The ends justify the means,” no matter what the end goal is.
The blame game, baby! These personalities are professionals when it comes to blaming others, the art of projection, and denial of their bad behaviours.
They may be overt and grandiose about their feelings of entitlement, or subtle and claiming to have a low self-esteem—but regardless of the form it takes, they feel they deserve to behave the way they do. Ya know. Because they deserve it.
That certainly sounds like a domestic abuser, doesn’t it?
On the other hand, to have an official diagnoses of NPD—according to the DSM-5—a person must show a persistent pattern of grandiosity, a need to be admired by others, and serious lack of empathy. These traits first appear in early adulthood and are determined if five or more of the following criteria are present in a personality:
• An over-the-top sense of self-importance, for example a tendency to exaggerate accomplishments or the expectation of special treatment from others.
• A preoccupation on fantasies of limitless success, power, ideal love, intelligence, beauty, etc.
• Self-perception of being unique and superior in some way, with the expectation that personal and business associations should reflect his or her special status.
• An unending need for excessive admiration.
• Sense of entitlement (expects special treatment and obedience from others).
• Exploitative of others to achieve his or her own ends and to achieve self-needs and desires.
• Lacks empathy toward others.
• Intensely envious of other people, or believes that others are envious of him.
• Pompous, haughty and arrogant.
Again, this list may sound like an abuser, at least in some respects. So how can you know the difference between someone who may actually have NPD versus someone who has overbearing narcissistic traits?
Here’s the best sign to look out for:
The self-centeredness of someone who truly has NPD is severe, unyielding, and always present to a high degree—no matter the interaction or situation. If a person’s narcissistic traits are limited only to their intimate partner, and don’t spill over into any other relationships and interactions, then that’s a sure sign the abuser is in control of his behaviour and likely wouldn’t be diagnosed with full-blown NPD . He (or she) knows how to behave properly, for example around his boss, attorney, co-workers, or the local parish priest.
This is a sign that you’re dealing with a manipulative personality—but not a diagnosable narcissist with an actual personality disorder.
That label doesn’t truly apply. Labels are names, and names can be misleading.
In the end, though, does it really matter whether your abuser has diagnosable NPD or “merely” unhealthy narcissistic traits? If he’s unwilling to look at himself honestly; if he won’t admit that his behaviour is abusive, under his control, highly toxic and needs to stop; if he refuses to seek professional help; and if he continues in his manipulative ways, attitudes and behaviours, then an official diagnosis or specific label makes no difference whatsoever.
Besides, there’s no need to label someone as this or that. It’s the cruel words, the cutting and controlling behaviour, the hypocritical and distorted attitudes that matter.
And those have got to stop.
“Be who God meant you to be and you will set the world on fire! The future starts today, not tomorrow.” (St. Catherine of Siena and St. John Paul II )