(as published in The Friday Edition of HeartBalm Healing at https://heartbalm.substack.com)
The term narcissism and its variations get thrown around quite often and the definitions are mixed up and can be lost in translation. It’s important to be clear about this term and other forms of narcissism to understand another’s behavior, how we may become triggered by someone else, and to recognize narcissistic behaviors or how it affects our relationship with another. Information and understanding, especially for the trauma survivor, can help to face fears and soften, expose and bring light to this scary subject, thereby bringing a more empowering viewpoint to see others through a different filter instead of feeling used and victimized.
The simple form of narcissism is characterized by self-idealization and is itself a personality trait all human beings possess. It exists on a continuum with healthy narcissism being the ideal. For example, if you were a child that grew up in an abusive environment, and one or both parents was a narcissist, and you were taught that your needs and wants didn’t matter – that you were not worthy of love or kindness – as a growing teen and adult you would most likely find yourself lacking healthy narcissistic or self-idealized behaviors. You would be on the negative side of the narcissistic scale where zero represents the middle point on the continuum. In this case, you would want to begin to increase your level of narcissism or self-centered, self-caring, and self-loving habits. While this sounds odd that anyone would lack narcissism or need to increase it for those that have experienced trauma and put themselves last or put others’ needs before themselves as a survival strategy or for other reasons it’s important that every human being nurtures and embraces a healthy level of narcissism to live a happy, full and balanced life. Healthy narcissism allows us to love ourselves and therefore others.
Obviously, then on the other side of the spectrum, we can see an increase in narcissistic tendencies where levels one and two are normal-healthy and well-adjusted levels. Level three is the point at which narcissism begins to move into the unhealthy spectrum and represents the borderline narcissist (not to be confused with a borderline personality disorder), level four is the grandiose narcissist, and level five is the peak of unhealthy, dangerous narcissism, and is the level of a malignant or psychotic narcissist. To see further explanations and examples of each level please visit “Overcoming Toxic People”.
At the unhealthiest and most dangerous level on the continuum is the malignant narcissist. The term malignant narcissism was coined by psychologist, Erich Fromm to denote the most extreme form of narcissism and defines it as “the quintessence of evil” and “the most severe pathology and the root of the most vicious destructiveness and inhumanity.”
(This is a term heard much more frequently in recent years, especially as it relates to political, corporate, and cult figures, and as mental health awareness is expanding to understand and deal with dysfunctional family dynamics and healing trauma.) It’s important to note that the malignant narcissist lacks empathy, does not see others as separate from themselves, and therefore sees others as merely extensions of themselves. Others are servile beings on the planet to address, serve, safeguard and attend to their needs. Essentially, if you are not a benefit to the malignant narcissist then there is no reason for you to exist, and they may try to destroy you. The malignant narcissist idealizes and loves himself to the exclusion of others – is rigid, and can be extremely dangerous and harmful to themselves and others. Most level five public figures have a following of enablers, fanatics, and co-dependents who literally become a cult following. It is said that a malignant narcissist will never be alone he will always have a follower and at least be a cult of two – himself and one other but this small number rarely stays small for those in the public sphere. In the family structure, the malignant narcissist creates an environment so dire and consequential that many family members become enablers and have issues with codependency as adults. The truth-teller or those that don’t conform in the family are generally scapegoated and marked for destruction until they acquiesce to the rules of the psychotic parent, helped by the enablers within the interpersonal structure.
Another practical definition of malignant narcissism is a psychological syndrome comprising an extreme mix of narcissism, antisocial behavior, aggression, and sadism. Grandiose, and always ready to raise hostility levels, the malignant narcissist undermines families and organizations in which they are involved, and dehumanizes the people with whom they associate.
_Campbells’ Psychiatric Dictionary (Ninth ed.). Oxford, England.
It should be noted that the malignant narcissist will not seek help for their condition nor will they ever change.
It’s clear that the extreme between healthy narcissism and malignant narcissism should be understood so that these two are not conflated. Additionally, understanding a lack of healthy narcissism in order to bring awareness to our lives, habits, and areas that need balm, self-care, self-love, and healing is vital to our overall health and well-being.
I will refrain from discussing narcissistic personality disorder (or NPD) as outlined in the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) due to its misleading nature and overuse, the controversial nature of the diagnosis, and the DSM itself. I think it’s more beneficial to understand the practical definition of narcissism, the relevant features of narcissism that exist in our day-to-day world, and the impact it has on daily lives.
Another important mention in conjunction with the narcissist is the codependent person in proximity to the narcissist often called an enabler.
Codependency is a dysfunctional relationship dynamic where one person assumes the role of ‘the giver,’ sacrificing their own needs and well-being for the sake of the other, ‘the taker’. The bond in question doesn’t have to be romantic; it can occur just as easily between parent and child, friends, and family members.
People who are codependent typically have low self-esteem and are more interested in following and being led, have trouble making decisions and identifying their own emotions, have a desire to care for and be important to someone, and a need to allow others happiness to create and define their own state of well-being. Codependency like narcissism exists on a spectrum so some enablers can become quite entrenched in this condition while others have more control over when, where, and to whom this trait is exhibited.
Typically, where there is a narcissist there is a codependent person/enabler, and vice versa. A disturbing but real parallel could be made in the case of cults with the malignant narcissist as a cult leader and the codependent followers/enablers as cult members. This dynamic can be very toxic, addictive, and dysfunctional as well as extremely difficult to break free from. This duo-bonded relationship is found in every area of society, and our culture from politics, corporate and business environments, personal relationships, and family dynamics. Sadly, the enabler and the narcissist’s relationship are not confined to their own dynamic but can have an impact on every area and person they come in contact with, and can destroy families, personal relationships, and upend societies, governments, businesses, and communities. The constant need for lies and manipulation drives the enabler to excuse, downplay, hurt, and lie for the narcissist creating a toxic and dangerous bond. In many environments, the codependent can be seen not only as an enabler but a proxy to the narcissist – doling out the same abuse, toxic narrative, lies, and destruction. This is an example of a next-level enabler and can be just as devastating to the victims of these dysfunctional individuals.
On a personal level, this is a very tough subject for me, and I’m sure for many others, but something that is important to understand completely from an informed perspective. One mantra I live by is to face fears and constantly seek the truth. It shows me a path forward and helps me understand what might be holding me back and shine a light on the ghosts and demons that haunt us. Coming to terms with long-term abuse, the destruction of lives, and the battle to heal from a malignant narcissist abuser, and her enablers is a life-long process but an important journey to take to be free and beyond the shackles that bind us. As I’ve come to understand the variations of narcissism, I can see the times I was set up for death and destruction as a child and teen because I didn’t toe the line for my malignant narcissist mother nor did my father as her enabler do anything to support, protect or stop the abuse. I could see his objective as just staying small, quiet, and out of the way. I could only see my place as terrified, confused, and seeing truth but not understanding the cognitive dissonance in plain sight, and the lies and manipulation from my tiny, innocent perspective. As an adult, any person with selfish tendencies is a trigger for me from the mildest form to the most egregious.
The best and most explicit example of this destructive dynamic is in our current political environment. No matter which side of the political aisle you stand on or who you voted for it is clear that “the truth will out”. For many trauma survivors, the moment Donald Trump stepped into the frame as a presidential candidate life as we knew it became another living nightmare. Once the election revealed him as the winner I broke – experiencing flashbacks, and constant dissociative episodes. A deeper and even scarier truth crashed over me as I realized the number of people that supported, voted for, enabled, and believed him to be a good option as our president. I thought better of the country I called home, and the people I shared it with but I was wrong, and that broke my heart just as much if not more than the election results themselves. Ignorance, enablers, and liars are just as much of a trigger for me as narcissism itself. This was an unsafe, toxic world again for me after having survived years of narcissistic abuse, and the surrounding enablers. How was I reliving this nightmare again?
The definition of ignorance “is a lack of knowledge and information. The word “ignorant” is an adjective that describes a person in the state of being unaware, or even cognitive dissonance and other cognitive relation, and can describe individuals who are unaware of important information or facts. Ignorance can appear in three different types: factual ignorance (absence of knowledge of some fact), object ignorance (unacquaintance with some object), and technical ignorance (absence of knowledge of how to do something).
_Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, 3rd edition, 2015.
The news media and government struggled to try and make sense of this man but seemed ignorant, and unwilling to speak to or see the truth. The lack of attention to the mental illness at play in this man, and his crushing power and control over those that follow and enable him is irresponsible and egregious. Imagine seeing the truth of this destructive, toxic situation, trying to raise alarms, and yet no one wants to listen. I know for so many trauma survivors having to relive situations like these is caustic and unimaginable. It feels as though the abuse is happening all over again and everyone around is aiding the malignant narcissist, blind to it, ignoring the truth, and/or unwilling to help. Another level of trauma is created via the bystander effect – those who are present but who stand by and do nothing in the face of truth, repetitive pleas, and appeals for help. A relevant quote comes from the movie “Spotlight” about catholic priests and the devastating sexual and physical abuses of children that have gone unheeded, unchecked, and allowed to continue without justice, criminal convictions, or remedy for the victims.
It takes a village to raise a child, it also takes a village (or a country) to abuse a child.
Yet, nothing has changed, and we are still witnessing the unending horrors that this man has wreaked on our country, and the world, and how his followers continue on ignorant, unwilling to hear and see the truth, and completely undeterred in their allegiance. The media and government are still standing by, addressing him as normal but doing bad things, and still shocked by the behaviors, asking the same questions with no resolution. They continue to try and keep him in the category of a normal person who has done something bad and continues to get away with his crimes – when he is, in fact mentally ill, and a malignant narcissist of the highest level. To have seen him through this lens from the very beginning would have saved this country and its citizens from so much suffering not to mention the re-traumatization for those of us who have survived this kind of psychopath and his followers, and the world from this space we find ourselves in today.
The insidious offshoots and extensions of his criminal and predatory actions specifically his sexual assaults, misogynistic statements and abuses, sexism, and racism as seen on the news and in plain sight, were sensationalized, callously blamed the victims, and excused his actions. These kinds of unchecked criminal behaviors embolden the malignant narcissist as well as his followers and have unleashed rampant misogyny, sexism, sexual abuse, racism, and other predatory behaviors. This is a repercussion of the malignant narcissist and a dog whistle to other men who are emboldened by the unchecked criminal behaviors, and see it as a free pass to engage their primal urges to abuse and control women, and follow the malignant narcissist’s lead. This also manifested in his female followers to excuse the behavior and betray women-kind. With the onset of Covid, there was an increase in male violence against women and children as women and families were stuck in households with violent, abusive men. The blind eye turned towards the former president and his ilk unleashed rampant hatred, abuse, and violence against women, and now to the point where rights, freedom for women, and the autonomy to have sway over our own bodies. The reversal of Roe v. Wade is just another alarm of the devastation by malignant narcissists and their followers. The level of narcissism, racism, and sexism seen in these measures should be an easy thread to follow from the former president to now but the media and government will not point to his mental illness, sociopathic and sadistic tendencies. They will not listen to those professionals and survivors who know the truth, and it continues to be brushed under the carpet.
It is clear that when we understand narcissism, and the mental health implications surrounding this condition we can begin to have more realistic and healthy conversations about this behavior. It may never be a condition that can be treated but it can be checked in a way to safeguard families, relationships, organizations, and the government. Understanding and truth are powerful weapons against dysfunctional, abusive, violent malignant narcissists, and those with mental health issues, but until we start having an honest discourse about these issues, and thinking of others nothing will change.
For additional information on trauma care and CPTSD please check out my other Friday Editions as well as the HeartBalm Healing podcast and Guided Meditations with Sunny.
Sunny Lynn, OMC is a spiritual counselor, writer, poet, photographer, meditator, and nature lover on a mission of transmuting complex trauma through self-love, healing, and bringing balm to hearts everywhere. She has a blog and podcast – HeartBalm at heartbalm.substack.com that speaks on the topic of self-care and self-love, mindfulness and healing while living with CPTSD.