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One of the most popular questions I receive from survivors of narcissistic abuse is, “But what if I am the narcissist? How would I know?” Chances are, if you’re even able to self-reflect on this question, you probably aren’t a narcissist. Narcissists, after all, lack empathy and are unable to even own up to their abusive behavior most of the time unless it serves them in some way. And even the most self-aware narcissists do not have a problem with their narcissism; they see it as a sign of their superiority, whereas you are obviously seeing it as a source of concern.
However, let’s take this one step further and examine why this question is so powerful – and what really may be going on when you ask it.
The effects of projection and trauma.
This is a common question among survivors because narcissists have a way of projecting their own malignant traits onto their victims throughout the abuse cycle, accusing them of having the same motives and behaviors as them. It is quite easy for a malignant person to point the finger at the person he or she is abusing and say, “You’re the abuser, not me!” It’s a speedy route to escape accountability and it diminishes the victim, thus killing two birds with one stone. Victims of any form of emotional abuse are programmed to self-destruct and blame themselves for the abuse. When they’ve been mistreated and later discarded, this familiar sick accusation still resounds in a victim’s mind long after the relationship is over. What if they are the ones who are narcissists? Unfortunately, they mistake their self-doubt for reality and are gaslit into believing that perhaps they were the problem all along, when in reality, the blame of the abuse should always fall on the abuser.
We translate our human flaws into reasons for being abused.
It’s quite easy for non-narcissistic people to attribute the blame of someone else’s actions onto themselves because we are all human and have flaws. While the narcissist refuses to own up to his or her abuse, we as the victims tend to look within. We’re introspective to a fault and so we search for something we may have done to provoke the abuse or cause it. This is especially true for those of us who have an internal locus of control – what personality psychologists call a tendency to attribute external events to ourselves. We think we have more control over other people’s behavior than we actually do. We start to hyperfocus on our flaws and start to wonder if we could’ve been more this or more that. Stop right there. You are already enough and have always been. Being flawed does not give anyone the right to abuse you.
We reacted in some way to the abuse, so we equate our reactions to the abuse to the actions of the abuser.
Since we are human, we will inevitably react in ways that may be uncharacteristic, especially if we’ve been abused for quite some time. When we’ve been traumatized for so long, it takes a toll. When victims look at their reactions to chronic abuse, it’s important to remember that there is no such thing as a “perfect victim.” Any sane person would eventually maladaptively react to the chronic violence and toxic stress a pathological person puts them through. The fact that you’re even feeling guilty or ashamed for reacting to someone mistreating you? This is evidence of your empathy, a trait that narcissists lack. The key is not to engage in self-blame, but to use that energy towards getting out of the relationship rather than focusing on how you’ve reacted to abuse in the past.
Some people do in fact have what are called “narcissistic fleas,” a residual effect of the abuse they suffered.
This is especially true for childhood abuse survivors of narcissistic parents. You may find that you have one or two traits that you have to work to overcome due to growing up with this form of toxic influence. Children of narcissists may be sensitive to criticism or be overly reactive due to what they experienced. Or, survivors of a narcissistic partner might find themselves acting like their narcissistic partner as a defense mechanism. You might be suffering from what therapists call “Narcissistic Victim Syndrome.”
While it’s important to do the inner work necessary for healing, just keep in mind that these “fleas” are not indicative of your character. They are not symptoms of a full-fledged personality disorder with hardwired behavioral patterns. They are temporary and they can be addressed.
If you find yourself asking if you’re the narcissist, ask yourself the following:
Do I have empathy for others? Do I consider the feelings of others? Do I make an effort to change my behavior if I think it’s in any way harmful? Am I able to look at myself and my behavior honestly? Chances are, if you’ve said yes to these questions, your concern about being a narcissist stems moreso from all of the reasons stated above rather than an actual character disorder. That being said, always seek the support of a mental health professional for an official diagnosis or treatment to help with trauma.
Like anyone who has ever been traumatized, you’ve been affected. Yet the journey to recovery means that we get to unravel this process in a healthy way and actually acknowledge our vulnerabilities and weaknesses. Unlike malignant narcissists on the high end of the spectrum, victims of narcissistic abuse are willing to evolve – and that, perhaps, makes the biggest difference of all.