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Home / Articles / Identifying Abuse / What Is Narcissistic Personality Disorder?

What Is Narcissistic Personality Disorder?

A comprehensive guide to help you understand narcissistic personality disorder

A survivor/victim escapes abusive partner with narcissistic personality disorder

In this guide, we’ll talk about narcissistic personality disorder, a mental disorder that many survivors of abuse come across in their search for answers when questioning why their partner is making the choices they’re making.

A Definition of Narcissistic Personality Disorder

According to the DSM-IV, the official manual of the American Psychiatric Association that classifies and defines mental health disorders, narcissistic personality disorder or NPD is a pattern of grandiose self-importance and a lack of empathy, which typically begins in early adulthood. A person with NPD may...

  • Exaggerate their achievements and talents, or expect to be recognized as superior without accomplishments to support this.
  • Be preoccupied with fantasies of success, power, brilliance, beauty or ideal love.
  • Believe that he or she is “special” and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status individuals.
  • Require excessive admiration.
  • Have a sense of entitlement or unreasonable expectations of overly favorable treatment or expect automatic compliance with his or her expectations.
  • Take advantage of others to achieve their requirements.
  • Lack empathy and is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others.
  • Is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of them. 
  • Demonstrates arrogant or better-than attitudes and behaviors. 

Individuals with NPD don’t respond to criticism or defeat well, and may act out in anger or withdraw completely. While some individuals with NPD can be high-achievers, the researchers have also found high rates of substance abuse, mood and anxiety disorders in those with NPD. 

How to Know if an Abuser is a Narcissist

Besides checking off any of the boxes above, Shannon Thomas, LCSW, author of Healing from Hidden Abuse: A Journey Through the Stages of Recovery from Psychological Abuse told that a survivor can tell they’re in a relationship with a narcissistic abuser if the abuser never admits fault or takes responsibility for anything. Narcissistic abusers will also...

  • Use gaslighting to make a survivor believe that their memories of events are inaccurate or blown out of proportion.
  • Tend to get very angry and walk out of counseling sessions. (Advocates warn couples counseling will not stop abuse anyhow.)
  • Shame victims about anything from their accomplishments to the previous trauma they suffered, insinuating they deserved it somehow.  
  • Often stay cool, calm and collected, sometimes even amused, when their partner is visibly distraught. 
  • Project their faults and wrongdoings onto a victim, such as blaming their partner for lying or cheating when it’s actually the abuser who is doing those things. 
  • Change the subject in conversations in order to evade any accountability, aka, turning the blame back onto something the victim did instead, even if it’s not relevant. 
  • Have circular, nonsensical and seemingly never-ending conversations in order to frustrate their victim to the point where they are more likely to give up. 
  • “Love-bombing” a victim—showering them with grand gestures of affection and attention only to begin tearing down their self-esteem later on. The victim then craves the original amount of admiration back, beginning a dangerous cycle of psychological abuse. 

Read more in-depth explanations of the myriad ways narcissists manipulate their victims in our four-part “Ways Manipulative Narcissists Silence You” series.

Can NPD Be Treated?

According to Psychology Today, treatment for NPD can be tricky because those who have it feel a sense of grandiose importance and are highly defensive of criticism, which makes it difficult for them to admit they’re living with NPD, or to seek treatment. Talk therapy by a trained professional may help those with NPD relate to others in a healthier way. However, whether or not abuse will end by treating NPD is another story. Treating one won’t automatically stop the other, but some advocates believe batterer treatment programs can end abusive behaviors in individuals who are truly committed to changing. You can read more about that in our three-part What Is Batterer Counseling? series

Abuse Cannot Be Blamed on Narcissistic Personality Disorder

Abusive partners can have a multitude of obstacles in their lives—from mental health disorders like NPD to substance abuse to post-traumatic stress disorder to unresolved childhood trauma. But the same can be said for non-abusive individuals as well. This is why it’s important to remember that being abusive is a choice abusers make, and it can’t be blamed on an obstacle or cause in the abuser’s life. An abuser diagnosed with NPD just means the abuser has two issues now—mental illness and being an abuser.

By the abuser convincing the survivor that the abuse he or she is inflicting is out of their control, the survivor may feel a sense of guilt or obligation to stay. The abuser may try to excuse abusive incidents with something like, it’s not my fault, I have this disorder. Remember that not everyone with a mental health disorder is abusive. 

Abusers may tell a survivor they’re going to “get better,” are “working on it” and just need a survivor’s help in overcoming their mental health issues. They may say something like, I can’t do it without you or you’re the only one who can help me. Survivors may begin to feel responsible for helping to stop the abuse. 

On the contrary, an abuser may also blame a survivor for the abuse, saying things like, why can’t you just do what I ask? or I was only violent because you got mad at me first

Lauretta Reeves, Ph.D., a senior lecturer in the department of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, told that she believes the only solution to helping some survivors see abuse is not their fault, or their responsibility to end, is by leaving. 

“Only with distance can you see the dynamics. If you are still in contact, the abuser will likely use that pity channel effectively,” she says. “Your partner is interested in maintaining the status quo and will say or do whatever it takes to gain control of the situation again. Most abusers don’t change, because they don’t think they have to.” 

Why Listening to Your Gut Is So Important 

Only a survivor knows when it’s safest to leave an abusive partner. If a survivor chooses to stay with someone who has NPD, there may be a rollercoaster effect to the relationship. There will be good days and bad days—but the bad days can get far darker than those in a relationship with a healthy person. Abuse almost always escalates, and a survivor should pay attention to the warning signs. 

  • Gradual escalation looks like verbal insults becoming more degrading, an abuser’s control ramping up (a victim is no longer allowed to leave the house without permission) and threats becoming more alarming (“If you’re not back by 9, you’re going to regret it.”)
  • Sudden escalation looks like an abrupt change from say, verbal insults to physical assaults. An abuser may suddenly shove a victim against the wall to make a point, or abuse a child or family pet. They may “fly off the handle” and begin throwing objects, punch a hole through a wall or show a victim the gun they keep in the drawer “just in case.”

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It’s important a partner always listens to his or her gut, or intuition. If something feels off, or increasingly dangerous, it probably is. If you have a bad feeling about a partner, don’t ignore it. Gift of Fear author and violence expert Gavin de Becker lists 13 “Messengers of Intuition”—things you may feel when you’re around someone that signal something is worth paying attention to. They include:

  • Nagging feelings
  • Persistent thoughts
  • Anxiety
  • Curiosity
  • Hunches
  • Gut feelings
  • Doubt
  • Hesitation
  • Suspicion
  • Apprehension
  • Fear

When It’s Time to Go

Leaving a narcissistic abuser will be tricky because the mind games, manipulation, veiled or overt threats and guilt trips will only intensify. Consider these steps when leaving an abusive partner.

After leaving an abuser, it’s important to also work on repairing your self-esteem which an abuser has likely torn down. Do something for yourself that makes you remember who you are, be it taking a solo vacation, an art class or simply dancing around the house to your favorite musicRead more ways survivors found themselves after leaving abuse.   

We've prepared a toolkit "What Is Narcissistic Personality Disorder?" to help you understand even more what NPD is so you can better assess your relationship and understand your situation.