It’s Narcissist Friday!
Barbara Roberts, author of “Not Under Bondage,” asked a very good question in a recent comment here. Why use the word “narcissist”? Why not just call narcissistic behavior what it is and call the narcissist an abuser?
The problem, of course, lies in the definitions. For some people, abuse means almost exclusively a physical act. It may or may not have a sexual purpose. Those who hold that definition might allow the use of the word in connection with demeaning or cruel words, but would not consider verbal abuse to be “real” abuse. They would support legal protection and separation only for physical abuse.
But we understand that there are many forms of abuse that are not physical. Roberts does a good job of calling our attention to these forms and explaining how they cause harm to their victims. Psychological abuse, for example, is very real and very damaging. I have come to believe that several, if not many, of the stories we hear about mothers killing their children are the result of long-term psychological abuse by husbands who might never hit or cause physical pain directly. Financial abuse may actually become a form of slavery. Wives who have no access to money often feel trapped, held by their inability to leave.
Certainly narcissists abuse. Narcissistic manipulation can be very abusive, very harmful to the other person. But we still have to make the case that it should be considered “real” abuse. Narcissists are often quite aware of limits placed on them by society. Not only will they not use derogatory terms toward their spouses or children in public, for example; they may not use those abusive terms in private. A narcissistic husband might not call his wife a “fat cow.” He might only, but consistently, hint that he thinks she is overweight by suggesting that she should wear a larger size or that she should refrain from dessert. While most of us would consider the cruel terms to be abusive, we would find it much more difficult to convince others of the abuse of the latter.
Is it abuse to dress up a little girl and parade her in front of your friends, then ignore her much of the rest of the time? I think so, but not all would agree. Is it abuse to invite the whole family to a celebration except for one adult child, but then criticize him for not attending? Again, I think so. Is it abuse for a husband to constantly remind his wife to be wise in making decisions, thereby intimating that her opinion is usually foolish? I believe it is, but it would take considerable time with the couple even to see it happening.
The question isn’t whether I consider such manipulations to be abusive. The question is whether it is helpful to lump those actions in with the accepted things labeled as abuse. It will be very easy for outsiders to say that this abuse is only in the mind of the “victim,” and they will certainly put the quotes around the term.
So I write about narcissism. Are narcissists abusers? Yes. Not all of them abuse physically or sexually, but they all abuse—if for no other reason than the fact that they fail to care about the harm their actions do to others. Are all abusers narcissists? Probably not, although most of them would be narcissistic. A narcissist causes pain almost without mindfulness, unless that pain serves his purpose somehow. But some abusers hurt others specifically. They do it because they learned to do it or think they should. They might do it because they are afraid of a certain person, but they don’t do it to anyone else. Some abusers give no thought to consequence, while most narcissists are constantly thinking of results and consequences. There are differences worth noting.
I realize that I have to be careful here. There may be a range of opinions on this simply because of our definitions or our backgrounds. I think narcissistic abuse is in a different category than other types or causes of abuse. It is more difficult to pin down, usually, but sometimes it looks like the same old thing.
Let me summarize by giving my very general perspective on abuse, particularly in the family:
All physical abuse is life-threatening. Whether unintentionally exaggerated or accidentally damaging or presaging further harm, physical abuse is of sufficient danger for a partner to leave or a child to report.
All sexual abuse is rape. To exploit the sexuality of a child or coerce an adult against her/his will, even without the act of intercourse, is a forceful violation.
All psychological/emotional abuse is assault. Coercion, bondage, and servitude do not require physical force. Carefully chosen words can do great damage.
All narcissistic mistreatment is abuse. It might not even feel like abuse to the victim, but there are certainly aggressors and victims in narcissistic relationships. Eventually, the damage accumulates and can be debilitating.
Now, these are my thoughts and I realize some might think I go too far with them. But I remember how Jesus saw these things.
21 “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder, and whoever murders will be in danger of the judgment.’
22 But I say to you that whoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment. And whoever says to his brother, ‘Raca!’ shall be in danger of the council. But whoever says, ‘You fool!’ shall be in danger of hell fire. Matthew 5:21-22
27 “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’
28 But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart. Matthew 5:27-28
By the way, I am reading Barbara Roberts’ book right now and I am greatly impressed by the depth and care with which she handles the Scriptures. I plan to write a review to share here. Thanks, Barbara, for the great thought that prompted this post!