Trauma and Narcissism

Our perspective

Our therapists have experience with narcissism and how this affects the dynamics of relationships.  Narcissism is a relational trauma that adversely affects a person's self-esteem. We see narcissism on a continuum with what many people refer to as narcissistic personality at one end.  The percentage of people at the extreme end is low.  We believe it is important to view narcissism as a quality that we all have or lack.  Simply Narcissism is seeing oneself as special as a way of protecting against shame and guilt.  This can be viewed in a healthy range where confidence in our abilities is seen within our limitations.

Where narcissism begins to create difficulties is when we compare ourselves to maintain a 'better than' persona and feed this view at other's expense.  This can become a habit as a way of protecting ourselves and when it moves into a compulsive and addictive response the person can develop what is known as Narcissistic Personality.  At the other end, we can move towards a lack of narcissism where there is an avoidance of attention and need.  This is referred to as echoism.  Depending on life's challenges we can move into more narcissism or lack of narcissism to cope.

Relational Trauma and Narcissism

These days it can be tempting and somewhat comforting to attribute any experience of self-absorbtion or entitlement in a parent, partner or boss to them being a narcissist.  What we can say is that certain experiences will affect us adversely and the younger we are the greater the impact.

Relational trauma can occur if you have experienced someone in your life interacting with you in the following ways:

Physical abuse - punishment and a sense of being bad
Sexual abuse - your sexuality is to be used by others, carry the shame and responsibility for the abuse.
Verbal abuse - rejected, criticized, shamed, made to feel less than. 
Neglect - lack of attention to emotional, physical and relational needs.
Psychological abuse  - manipulation, gaslighting, control.

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Narcissistic Abuse


What distinguishes Narcissistic abuse is the subtle, especially in the beginning, and progressive nature of it.  In an ongoing struggle to keep away from the pain of shame, narcissists rely on a variety of mental and psychological defense mechanisms and destructive behaviours.  Many of these actions, when it is focused on those around them, are abusive.  Even though it has a strong psychological component it can easily become physical, sexual, financial, or spiritual. Especially the more entrenched the person becomes in living their life this way.

If you grew up in a family with a parent that had a high degree of narcissism you would likely;

  • Fell unsure you were abused at all.
  • Feel that you were too sensitive, overreacting, imagining things
  • Doubt yourself and second-guess yourself. 
  • Lack of trust in your judgments and perceptions.
  • Ideolize your parent.

Main Characteristics of Narcissistic Abuse

All of these characteristics we can all express at certain times.  When we refer to someone narcissistic they would display these characteristics most of the time.

Boundary violation: Narcissists have no boundaries. They do not see you, your space, and your experience as separate from themselves. For a narcissist, their wants or needs are always the priority. Even if they may pretend otherwise, it is usually to ultimately get what they want.

Denial:  A narcissist's denial will occur even in the face of clear evidence.  If the truth does not serve them they will deny it.

Devaluation: The constant need to be better than is often at other people's expense.  

Divide & Conquer:  Divide & conquer describes identifying an individual who will then be set apart from the others - either in a positive ‘chosen’ capacity or through alienation and bullying. This serves to weaken and isolate group members. This can happen in families where someone is scapegoated to be seen as bad while everyone else is good.

Emotional Blackmail: Threats, and intimidation designed to elicit feelings of fear, guilt and compliance. This can be punishment, silent treatment, use of anger, aggression or threats.

Finger-pointing: Individuals never or rarely apologize - they will not feel the need to. They will instead attempt to keep any accusations, or responsibility away from them by pointing out what anybody and everybody else is doing or not doing. They will be highly skilled at turning the focus onto somebody else and making others feel like they are the ones at fault. They will want to convince both themselves and others that they are the victim. ‘I cheated because you weren’t there… if you were there for me then I wouldn't have had to sleep with anybody else!’

Fishing: Narcissists will throw out ‘hooks’ to catch their target so they can manipulate their needs. They are often skilled in using the exact bait necessary to reel their target in.  For example, a person's need to rescue or fix someone will be used to get people's sympathy or take advantage of them.
Gas-lighting: Gaslighting is a common term and process associated with narcissists.  It is highly psychologically abusive and dangerous. Through gaslighting, you begin to doubt yourself, lose trust in yourself, and as a result, at times feel like you are losing your mind. In extreme cases, it can lead to having a complete nervous breakdown.
Idealization: The worshipping of an individual or organization.  With idealization a person or thing is viewed as incredible, the best thing since sliced bread, perfection. It is also this kind of validation they seek from others.  Parents of narcissists tend to completely worship their child as if the child can walk on water, or relate to the other extreme, where they are devalued and not good enough.

Inconsistencies: The one thing you can rely on with many narcissists is that they are consistent in their inconsistencies. Be it with words and/or behaviours. Saying one thing and doing something that is completely at odds with that. For example, declaring they want to be with you, but not acting like it, or being unable to commit, despite promises of commitment.

Love-bombing: Overwhelming others with affection and attention, compliments, praise, and gifts to gain their interest and 'love'. The aim of love-bombing is ultimately to manipulate and control. This often happens at the beginning of a relationship with intense displays of affection or attention.

Toddler Tantrums - Underneath the arrogant exterior lies an emotionally stunted child. Their wounding occurred in their family in the first few years of life. They have little ability to operate as a grown-ups emotionally and so will react in very childish ways, effectively throwing their toys out of the pram; shouting, screaming, storming off, giving you the silent treatment, and other forms of immature emotional manipulation. 

Topping: Most narcissists have a habit of ‘topping’ or ‘upping’ above anything anybody else has achieved, or owns. This serves to quickly return the focus of attention and admiration to them. Narcissists find it difficult to tolerate enjoying the success or achievements of others. Topping can also include negative bragging about such things as illness. For example, if you have a health concern, such as a headache, they already have a brain tumour.