Here I’m not going to talk about the popular theory that most narcissists were probably neglected or abused as children. In this article, I’m focusing on the question of whether someone who is already a narcissist can become a victim of narcissistic abuse.
Yes, they can–and more often than you might think.
Of course, not all narcissists are abuse victims, and the more malignant they are, the more likely they are to cause suffering rather than suffer themselves. Psychopaths and malignant narcissists wield Svengali-like power over their subjects and are often found in the highest echelons of business, politics, religious organizations, and other positions of great power and influence. They do not allow themselves to be in a position of subservience to someone else, and take great pride in the fact most people fear them. In fact, they would much rather be feared than liked. The smartest ones are cunning enough to be invulnerable to a total loss of narcissistic supply, which would send them crashing into a deep depression (and opens a window to healing, as I’ve discussed in previous posts). They know how to get others to trust them, which is part of their charm and one of the ways they climb to the top and stay there.
But other narcissists (not “benign” narcissists, because they do have a conscience and even some empathy)–those who still have NPD but are not as high on the spectrum as a malignant psychopath, can and do become victims to “stronger” narcissists.
An unholy alliance.
These relationships actually work in their twisted, sick kind of way, with the weaker narcissist falling under the thrall of the stronger, malignant narcissist. Because they are both still narcissists and the weaker one basically identifies with their abuser (known as Stockholm Syndrome, which is also a defense mechanism seen in victimized people with PTSD), they form a symbiotic relationship, with the weaker person willingly taking on a masochistic role and the stronger one the sadistic role. Their sexual relationship may indeed include elements of S&M, but the sadomasochistic relationship isn’t limited to just sex.
The stronger narcissist will treat the weaker one badly and abusively, but because the weaker partner identifies with their abuser, they actually “enjoy” the abuse they get. It validates them and gives them the narcissistic supply they need (and way deep inside, maybe they feel like they deserve punishment).
Unlike normal people, a narcissist prefers negative attention over no attention, and their abuser is seen as their savior–the one person in the world who can give them the attention they so crave. M. Scott Peck, in his book “People of the Lie,” described such a relationship. Harley was a weak man in thrall to his evil, mean wife Sarah, who constantly berated and belittled him and ordered him around, while Harley just whined pitifully about how badly Sarah treated him but seemed to do nothing about it or have any real desire to stop her abuse. He had no intention of leaving her. He told Dr. Peck he “needed” Sarah. Of course he did–Sarah was his sole source of narcissistic supply (because she had made sure he was cut off from anyone else). Dr. Peck speculated that Harley, although complaining incessantly about his wife’s abuse, actually seemed to want it, and he wondered if he might have been a little “evil” himself, which was what might have attracted him to someone like Sarah in the first place.
I see this same situation in my father, who has always been codependent on MN women, and allows these women to make all his decisions for him. He has always been weaker and more codependent than the domineering, controlling women he married.
A friend of mine, a survivor of narcissistic abuse who also has a blog, tells the story of an aunt of hers, living in abject poverty, who was scapegoated and belittled by every other family member, most of them highly malignant narcissists. She was tolerated at family events but outside of that, no one would have anything to do with her. You feel sorry for this impoverished, lonely, maltreated aunt–until you keep reading and find out that she is a malignant narcissist herself–of the “needy” variety.
Most people think of narcissists as cagey, cunning, selfish sociopaths who get everything they want by ruthlessly stomping all over others to reach the pinnacles of financial and professional success, even if that involves a life of crime. But there are many narcissists who are not successful, and in fact are dirt poor. These are what I call “needy narcissists”–people who mooch off of others, using others’ goodwill and generosity without ever giving anything back in return. They whine to anyone who will listen about how their sorry circumstances are everyone’s fault but their own. They demand pity and constant attention. They act entitled. They cry and try to elicit your guilt. They might steal from you. They’ll start a smear campaign against you if you don’t give in to their demands. Sometimes they find ways to get government assistance–such as disability–by faking or exaggerating a disorder so they don’t have to take responsibility for themselves.
They are financial and emotional vampires, feeding off others’ altruism until their providers are sucked dry emotionally, spiritually, mentally and sometimes financially. My ex-husband falls into this category. These narcissists are only less dangerous because they lack power and money, but make no mistake: they are just as dangerous on a personal level as materially “successful” narcissists, and they play all the same evil mindgames to get their way. They take pride in how pathetic they are rather than in what a perfect specimen of beauty, intelligence, success, or charm they are. They still think they’re entitled to be treated as if they’re gods.
“Covert” and “inverted” narcissism isn’t narcissism at all.
There is also something I’ve read about called “covert narcissism” or “inverted narcissism,” which actually has been used to describe people with low self esteem, avoidant traits, hypervigilance, and high sensitivity. Which means that according to that definition, I am a narcissist.
I don’t buy it though, because people with these traits are usually very empathic and if anything, their conscience is too well developed for their own good. They not only worry they won’t be liked, they worry that they may have hurt someone or have done something wrong. They struggle with guilt and shame. They may self-sabotage, but they never set out to hurt other people, and when they do they feel terrible. Real narcissists may be hypersensitive (about themselves) and paranoid, but they never worry about hurting others; at best they just don’t care.
Of course an “inverted” or “covert” narcissist is likely to be abused, because they fit all the traits of someone likely to be bullied and victimized. They are us!
The weak narcissist in thrall to an MN is not an “inverted” narcissist–they are true blue narcissists who just lack the cunning, intelligence, charm or Svengali-like traits their abuser possesses. Or they’re just not as evil as the MN. Within the relationship, they are just abuse victims, but outside of it, they treat others as badly as any other narcissist. Just because they’re abuse victims doesn’t mean they’re nice people. (It doesn’t mean they don’t deserve help either). Obviously, the best thing for a narcissist in an abusive relationship to do would be to go No Contact, but due to their craving of (negative) narcissistic supply, they are not likely to ever leave the relationship.
Can a malignant narcissist become an abuse victim?
Other than in childhood (before they became narcissists), I would say no. Because two high-spectrum, completely malignant narcissists are likely to hate each other. One MN won’t give up their power to the other and sees another MN as a huge threat.
Think of two predatory animals like wildcats, encountering each other in a forest. Both are alpha males of their own group so neither is a weak animal. Would these two cats become allies? No. They will fix their gaze at each other, never taking their eyes away, and slowly start to circle around each other, sizing up the other animal. At some point, one of the cats will launch a surprise attack, or one will flee before that happens.
In a similar manner, two predatory humans in the same room will be very cautious around each other, sizing each other up, but will almost always intensely dislike each other. They may fight, or they may never speak to each other, but they will not become friends. They are of no use to each other whatsoever. A malignant narcissist will always choose a weaker victim he can use and manipulate, and sometimes that victim will be another narcissist who identifies with their abuser but is no match for them.