World Narcissistic Abuse Awareness Day is June 1, and everyone, unless you’re living under a rock, has heard the word narcissist. In fact, the word is tossed around so liberally these days, its meaning becoming so diluted, that posting an occasional selfie can make people suspect you of being a narcissist.
Ironically, despite the popularity of the word, most people have never heard of the phrase “narcissistic abuse.”
Narcissistic abuse is a form of emotional and psychological abuse. It is primarily inflicted by individuals who have either narcissistic personality disorder (NPD, which is characterized by a lack of empathy), or antisocial personality disorder (ASPD, also known as sociopaths or psychopaths), and is associated with the absence of a conscience.
You may be wondering if most people haven’t even heard of narcissistic abuse, then why is it so important to raise awareness about it? Unfortunately, since it’s such an under recognized, understudied public health issue, statistics are hard to come by regarding this form of abuse.
So, how do I justify the need to raise awareness about a major public health issue when there are no statistics regarding its prevalence? Sandra L. Brown, founder of the Institute for Relational Harm Reduction and Public Pathology Education, describes in her article, 60 Million Persons in the U.S. Negatively Affected by Someone Else’s Pathology, how she arrived at this staggering figure:
“There are 304 million persons in the U.S. One in 25 people will have the disorders associated with ‘no conscience’ which include anti-social personality disorder, sociopath, and psychopath. Three hundred and four million divided by 25 = 12.16 million people with no conscience.
Each anti-social/psychopath will have approximately five partners who will be negatively affected by their pathology = 60.8 million people!”
Brown goes on to describe that 60 million is actually a conservative estimate because the calculation doesn’t include the children who are victims of narcissistic abuse. Nor does it factor in the percentage of people with narcissistic personality disorder, many whom also inflict narcissistic abuse on others. So, in keeping with Brown’s formula, I did some calculations of my own.
Here’s what we do know: Approximately one in every 10 people is walking around without a conscience, or at best, lacks empathy. According to the Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the prevalence in the general population for antisocial personality disorder is estimated at 3.3% percent and the prevalence of narcissistic personality disorder is as high as 6% percent.
There are approximately 326 million people in the U.S. (The U.S. population has increased) and 6% percent of them have narcissistic personality disorder, which equals 19,560,000 people. If each of those people narcissistically abuse just five people during their lives, that amounts to an additional 97.8 million people!
If you apply the same formula to the world population using the current population estimate of 7.5 billion, are you ready for this?
3.3% of 7.5 billion = 247,500,000 people with antisocial personality disorder
6% of 7.5 billion= 450,000,000 people with narcissistic personality disorder
247,500,000 + 450,000,000 = 697,500,000 people who lack empathy, or are without a conscience. If each of those people narcissistically abuse just five people during their lives, the tally of potential damage affects over 3.4 billion people!
Brown also raises the point that if some other medical or mental condition, such as diabetes or heart disease negatively affected that many people, there would be public education campaigns, walk-a-thons, and celebrity endorsed, public service announcements to raise awareness about them. Comparatively, narcissistic abuse negatively affects more people than depression (approximately 80.8 million people) and yet the public awareness about narcissistic abuse is as invisible as the wounds of those abused.
This begs the question, why hasn’t narcissistic abuse received the public attention, education, and funding that it so desperately deserves?
The answer may lie in fact to what I eluded to earlier. Narcissistic abuse is invisible to the naked eye. Unlike physical abuse, narcissistic abuse doesn’t leave visible marks such as bruises or broken bones. This is one of the reasons why so many people don’t even realize that what they’re experiencing is a legitimate form of abuse, and that it has a name — narcissistic abuse — until the damage has been done.
Another possible explanation why narcissistic abuse is such an under recognized public health issue is because describing what you can’t see or prove presents a huge challenge. Thus, the theme of the awareness campaign is #IfMyWoundsWereVisible.
Narcissistic abuse is covert, and often disguised as love and care, but it’s anything but. It’s not a single act of cruelty like an insulting comment, or verbal abuse laced with a string of profanities. It’s the insidious, gradual, and intentional erosion of a person’s sense of self-worth. It’s a combination of emotional and psychological abuse aimed at undermining a person’s identity for the sole purpose of obtaining control for personal gain. It can involve patterns of dominance, manipulation, intimidation, emotional coercion, withholding, dishonesty, extreme selfishness, guilt mongering, rejection, stonewalling, gaslighting, financial abuse, extreme jealousy, and possessiveness.
A partner who never calls you a derogatory name and tells you he loves you every single day can be a narcissistic abuser. A parent who never misses a softball game, someone who appears to be the pillar of her community, can be narcissistically abusive.
But all the homemade dinners, all the love and concern for you, all the perfect attendance to your extracurricular activities won’t mitigate the damaging emotional and mental toll of the silent treatments when you assert your opinion or disagree. There are disapproving looks or criticisms over the most trivial things. There is the subtle, but constant way you’re made to feel you’re not good enough, and wholly incapable of pleasing your abuser for any length of time. The moments of kindness or the surprise bouquet of flowers don’t erase the dizzying, circular conversations that exhaust you into submission. When narcissistically abused, you can never express a differing opinion or suggest your partner isn’t perfect or right.
The sweet gestures don’t cancel out the hundreds of ways your compassion and love are exploited and used to manipulate you. These gestures actually make the unpredictable changing climate that shifts from kindness and tenderness to coldness and subtle cruelty more confusing and stressful.
Lundy Bancroft, author of Why Does He Do That?, provides an unsettling description of how abuse can be inflicted. His example shows it can cause great psychological harm, without the use of anger, yelling, or name calling: ‘…He (or she) can assault his partner psychologically without even raising his voice. He tends to stay calm in arguments, using his own evenness as a weapon to push her over the edge. He often has a superior or contemptuous grin on his face, smug and self-assured. He uses a repertoire of aggressive conversational tactics at low volume, including sarcasm, derision—such as openly laughing at her—mimicking her voice, and cruel cutting remarks. Like Mr. Right, he tends to take things she has said and twist them beyond recognition to make her appear absurd, perhaps, especially in front of other people. He gets to his partner through a slow but steady stream of low level assaults…”
The emotional damage caused by narcissistic abuse is cumulative, which is one of the reasons why the abuse is so hard to pinpoint. We often don’t recognize or become alarmed at what appears small and innocuous in a particular moment. Most of us subscribe to the mantra: “No one is perfect.” We don’t suspect we’re being used, deceived, or conned. We assume the best intentions from the people who claim to love us. The lack of public awareness and education blinds us from seeing the pieces of our self-esteem and identity slowly being chipped away.
Many people who’ve experienced domestic violence will tell you that the emotional and psychological abuse that is characteristic of narcissistic abuse is more painful and lingering than the pain of physical abuse. As a practicing psychotherapist, I know all too well that it’s much harder and takes a lot longer to heal a broken spirit than it is to heal a black eye.
It’s challenging enough to try to describe what narcissistic abuse is, but even more challenging to try to spark the concern of people who haven’t experienced it. Some may feel they are too smart or too strong for it to ever happen to them, or impact their life in any way.
A commonly held misconception is that only weak-minded, fragile, co-dependent types are vulnerable to being abused. Sadly, this stereotype only intensifies the danger of the current lack of public awareness, and provides a false sense of protection.
The damage caused by narcissistic abuse is not limited to the individual victim. It bleeds into society, and impacts us all. Numerous studies caution us about the correlation between psychological and emotional stress, and its relationship to increased risk of illness and disease. The chronic stress of narcissistic abuse gradually wears our bodies down over time. The prolonged activation of the body’s stress response systems can take its toll, and wreak havoc on our physiology, and overall well-being. Some of the common illnesses associated with the chronic stress of narcissistic abuse include but are not limited to: heart attack, adrenal fatigue, weight gain or loss, hair loss, insomnia, anxiety, depression, thoughts of suicide, PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) autoimmune disorders, digestive problems, asthma, migraines, epilepsy, cancer, arthritis, slower wound healing, Type 2 Diabetes, high cholesterol, IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome), and increased dependency on alcohol, or other substances.
Consequently, many victims wind up missing work due to illness, or are laid off from their jobs because of excessive absences or poor work performance. As a result, they are forced to rely on taxpayer funded government and state programs, such as disability, low-income housing, welfare, food stamps, and so on. Children who are victims of narcissistic abuse often perform poorly academically, act out, and develop behavioral and/or substance abuse issues. Instead of receiving proper care and treatment for abuse, these children are identified as ‘behavioral problems,’ and placed in federally funded discipline and safety programs. The financial costs narcissistic abuse places on society would unarguably be more wisely and effectively spent if we were to use those funds for public awareness and education.
Brown, S. L., MA. (2010, August 08). 60 Million Persons in the U.S. Negatively Affected by Someone Else’s Pathology. Retrieved April 16, 2017, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/pathological-relationships/201008/60-million-people-in-the-us-negatively-affected-someone-elses
Personality Disorders. (2017). In Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (pp. 659-672). Washington DC: American Psychiatric Publishing.
Bancroft, Lundy (2003). Why Does He Do That?: Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men New York: Berkey, Print.