It’s Narcissist Friday!
Abuse is a loaded word. Because it is so loaded, we have to qualify it in order to know what it means. For example, if I say that someone is abusive, you might ask what kind of abuse. It isn’t enough just to categorize someone as abusive. Should you be frightened of such a person? Should you consider calling the authorities? Or should you just ignore my accusation because I am angry or feeling offended? If I add that the person is guilty of child abuse, your mind will go in one direction. If I change it to spousal abuse, you will think something else. If I add “sexual” to either of those, we have yet another dimension.
We have identified abuse as a “cause celebre.” If you want attention, tell people you are being abused. If you want to raise money, do it for someone who is abused. If you want to be elected, claim that your opponents are abusers. However, because it is used in these ways, many people consider it to be phony, just a tool to get sympathy. And real abuse goes on without the attention it should get. And real victims continue to suffer.
I was faced with a question recently: is narcissistic parenting child abuse? Before you say yes or no, consider the problem. Some people believe spanking is child abuse. Some believe that not spanking is child abuse. Some see no problem leaving younger children in the charge of a ten-year-old sibling. Others would consider that to be neglect, a form of abuse. Some will let a fussy child go to bed hungry rather than give in to childish demands. Others would consider that to be abuse. So how do you answer whether you think that narcissistic parenting is abusive?
Who asks this question? Perhaps the adult child of a narcissist wonders if their strange and painful childhood was abusive. That might explain the difficulties that have come with adult life, the indecisiveness or the PTSD symptoms. Perhaps the mother who is beginning to realize that her husband is narcissistic. She wonders if she would be able to get custody in a divorce, so that the children would be protected. Perhaps a counselor or attorney would ask such a question to determine the best way to help a client.
This short post will certainly not answer the question, if it can be answered at all. Instead, I would like to share a couple of thoughts that might help those who are seeking an answer.
First, our culture defines abuse as an event. In other words, it has to be substantiated and chronicled as an event in time. What happened; when; where? The culture does not see a person as abusive all the time. Instead, they see and acknowledge abusive actions in time. I knew a lady who hit her child with a board. It was not an accident. It happened at a certain point in time. There were bruises to prove that it happened. It was determined to be abuse. If you want to consider something as abuse, you will have to tell a story with specific details. For the court, you will have to keep careful records and make charges to authorities in order to be believed. If you can substantiate the abuse, but did nothing to stop it (calling the police, for example) then you will be doubted. If you called the police, but have no evidence, they will probably do nothing.
Second, narcissism is a disorder, not an abusive act. You and I may understand that narcissists use people and care nothing about the pain they cause, but others will not see that. To claim that someone in your life is a narcissist is not the same as saying that person is an abuser, no matter how much that makes sense to us. In fact, it is the narcissism that allows the abuse. Because the narcissist cannot and will not connect with the pain of others, he/she simply does not care about what hurts them. The manipulations and emotional neglect of the narcissistic parent are cruel to the point of damaging, but most of what the victims experience would be hard to explain to others.
Some narcissists are also sociopaths. Some are destructive and actually enjoy the pain of others. For these people, physical abuse brings a perverted pleasure. But most narcissists do not abuse physically, according to the professionals. Narcissistic abuse is much harder to see and understand—unless you are on the receiving end. Sometimes even then.
Finally, sometimes the determination of abuse can only be found in the relationship. What I mean is that some forms of abuse are only understood by the two people who experience it: the abuser and the victim. If a mom hits her child with a board, we understand that to be abuse. If the same mom calls the child lazy, we are not so sure. Even the child may not understand at the time. But later, the adult child may understand that the mom was manipulating and abusing her. If a father makes a promise and fails to follow through, no one outside the relationship may see the act as abusive, but the son may understand one day that his father only used promises to control. Sometimes a third person, close to the relationship, can see the truth, but that person will have difficulty convincing others. Even more so if that third person is the only one who will consider the actions abusive.
What all of this leads to is that you might have to determine for yourself whether you were abused by narcissistic parents. If you examine the characteristics of narcissism and determine in your own heart and mind that your parent(s) fit the description, you may be able to see their actions as abusive. That might help you understand your present struggles a little better. You may not be able to get any legal or official action against them, or even be able to convince others, but you can know more about yourself. A good counselor can help you see how that abuse led you to a certain dysfunction in your life.
If you are the spouse of a narcissist, you may have to determine for yourself whether your husband/wife abuses the kids. Don’t expect others to understand what you know. You may have to act on what you know to be true, even if others don’t see it. Lawyers, pastors, even most counselors may not see what you experienced as abuse—only because they were not there and not you. A quality counselor, who understands narcissism, can help you to deal with your feelings and may also be able to help you see the dangers facing your children.
What actions can you take if you believe your spouse exhibits narcissistic abuse? I worked with a woman whose husband read horrible, true stories to the children before bed, stories of torture and murder. She believed his actions were abusive, damaging to the children. When he refused to stop after she expressed her concerns, she gathered the children and left. Counseling and time supported her concerns. The authorities today respond almost only to physical abuse and serious neglect. Narcissistic parents usually abuse in other ways. You may have to make the hard decisions without help from authorities.
If at all possible, build a small support structure: friends, family, counselors, etc. Let others know what makes you afraid. Let them help you make wise decisions about how to handle the situation. You don’t want to put the children in danger yourself. Living in the car, going without food, leaving them alone—these things could make you look like the abuser. If you have a place to go and money to get there, you can provide the safety you and the children will need.
Is narcissistic parenting child abuse? I can say that parents who abuse are almost always narcissistic. I can say that narcissism causes the depersonalization that allows the abuse. I can say that narcissism, by definition, hurts others without sympathy. But, without examining specific actions, I cannot say that narcissistic parents are abusers. Self-focus, lack of empathy, even manipulation of others is not necessarily abuse. So, I would say that narcissistic parenting is not, by definition, abuse. But it sure is not good.
Was your childhood with narcissistic parent(s) abusive? Perhaps. It may be worth talking with someone about that.