By Shahida Arabi
Malignant narcissists display a severe lack of empathy, a penchant for exploiting others and an excessive sense of entitlement. Given the nature of their pathological, hard-wired behavior, many are unlikely to change. Millions of survivors around the world are affected by their cruel and callous mistreatment, a form of insidious, psychological torment we call narcissistic abuse.
Covert malignant narcissists don’t just charm their relationship partners; they also fool law enforcement, lawyers, ADAs, judges, friends, family members and bosses every day. They are able to obtain followers and build harems that carry out their dirty work for them. They can sabotage, stalk, harass and retraumatize their victims even after they’ve supposedly ‘discarded’ them. They become enraged and vindictive should their victims leave first. They can even make their victims look like the abusers. How can this be?
According to recent research, narcissism is on the rise, especially among the younger generation. A higher number of younger people are now meeting the clinical criteria for Narcissistic Personality Disorder (Twenge and Campbell, 2009). This is due to several factors, including but not limited to the expansion of social media and the need to be seen as “special and unique” in an age where entitlement and instant gratification rule.
With the proliferation of tools like online dating apps and websites (which malignant narcissists tend to infiltrate in large numbers), it is even more likely today that someone will run into a predator, because the possibilities to connect with people have become infinite.
The Just World Hypothesis
One of the most common laments I hear from survivors is the idea that “they should’ve known better” or that their abusive ex-partner was “so nice” when he or she wanted to be. Many wonder if it is true that their partner was devoid of empathy or a conscience. They reminisce about the times their abusive partner seemed sweet or sorrowful after incidents of abuse. They are thrown into doubt about whether any of the abuser’s pity ploys or shows of remorse had any hint of genuine regret.
We have to acknowledge that malignant narcissists are incredibly good at what they do and that even experts and professionals are fooled every day. Even Robert Hare, the creator of the Psychopathy Checklist, admits to still being duped by these types (Egan, 2016).
The reason malignant narcissists are so convincing, however, has just as much to do with our core beliefs as it does with their skilled performances. Our inherent belief that everyone possesses the same conscience, moral inclinations and/or level of empathy that we do actually makes us more vulnerable, both as individuals and as a society, to rationalizing, minimizing or denying the damage that psychological predators inflict.
Research indicates that while those who score high in dark triad traits like narcissism, psychopathy and Machiavellianism possess cognitive empathy, they lack affective empathy. According to researchers Wai and Tiliopoulos (2012):
“Individuals high on the dark triad traits appear to exhibit an empathic profile that allows them to retain their ability to read and assess others’ emotions, and subsequently utilize this sensitive information to formulate strategies with which they can acquire what they want, while their lack of affective empathy may lead them to overlook or ignore potential harm inflicted to others in the process.”
This means that narcissists use their cognitive empathy to assess a target’s weaknesses, strengths and emotions as a way to fulfill their own agendas. However, they feel little to no remorse about violating the rights of their victims and exploiting innocent people for their own gain. Perhaps even more startling, these same people reported positive feelings when looking at sad faces. This suggests that they possess a sadistic joy in provoking their victims – an experience survivors of narcissistic abuse are all too familiar with.
Unfortunately, society fails to recognize this and attributes the malignant narcissist’s success to his or her merits or character. The Just World Hypothesis proposes that people get what they deserve; we rationalize that good things must happen to good people and bad things must happen to malicious people (Grinnell, 2016).
When we witness successful, suave predators being loved and praised by their communities, we tend to ‘question’ a victim’s claims about the abuse they commit behind closed doors. Where the Just World Hypothesis falls short and falls into victim-blaming, of course, is the fact that malignant narcissists are actually rewarded by society because of their convincing performances rather than the actual substance of their character.
What doesn’t help is that malignant narcissists terrorize and sabotage their victims, who are often empathic people with integrity. They can provoke their targets into reacting in maladaptive ways, and gaslight them into believing that they are the ones going crazy. This is surprisingly easy to do, considering victims suffer the effects of trauma and do feel like they’re becoming “unhinged.”
What survivors are actually suffering from, however, are symptoms of Narcissistic Abuse Syndrome, PTSD or Complex PTSD (de Canonville, 2015). This can include disassociation, anxiety, depression, nightmares, emotional and visual flashbacks that cause the victim to regress back into old traumas, as well as hypervigilance, social isolation, suicidal ideation and a pervasive sense of hopelessness (Walker, 2013).
Survivors also ‘bond’ with their abusers through intense, traumatic experiences, which makes them likely to protect their abusers due to their own sense of cognitive dissonance about the abuser’s true self. They are conflicted due to the nature of the trauma, the dependence they developed as an effort to survive, as well as the fear of retaliation from their often more powerful partners. As a result, by the time survivors speak their truth, society may doubt their credibility.
To make matters worse, narcissistic and sociopathic predators are able to twist and turn the tale to cast their victims as the actual perpetrators in custody cases. Through their charm and pity ploys, they also evade charges in cases where they might otherwise be held accountable for stalking and harassment. They may even instigate petty legal disputes to regain control over their victims.
They may videotape, record or otherwise document the reactions of their victims to chronic abuse as “evidence” that their victims are the ones that are pathological – of course, conveniently leaving out the years of abuse that led up to those reactions.
Through no fault of their own, their targets suffer emotionally, intellectually, psychologically and sometimes even physically. In the most extreme cases, victims can even be driven to suicide from the effects of chronic abuse and torment.
Wolves in Sheep’s Clothing and The Halo Effect
The halo effect is a phenomenon where we overvalue an attribute in one area and generalize our impression of a person across the board due to that attribute (Hindle, 2009). For example, we might assume that a beautiful model is not just good-looking but also moral and kind –or we might see an intelligent, charismatic businessman as likeable and personable or of high, moral character.
When it comes to the charming narcissist, society tends to fall into the “Halo Effect” trap. Remember that narcissists spend most of their lives learning how to mimic emotions, empathy and taking on any persona that would enable them to target the specific vulnerabilities, desires and weaknesses of their targets. That means they often present a well-polished image of their “false self” to society that is convincing and utterly persuasive to the world at large. They invest a great deal of time and energy into presenting this image and they also possess a naturally fearless and bold charisma that draws people in.
As Martha Stout (2004) writes in The Sociopath Next Door, “I liken sociopathic charm to the animal charisma of other animals who are predators. We watch the large cats, for example, and are fascinated with their movements, their independence and their power. But the direct gaze of a leopard….is inescapable and tantalizing, and the fascinating charm of the predator is often the last thing the prey ever experiences” (p. 88).
Survivors can attest to the magnetic charisma that their abusive ex-partners possessed and how other admirers seem to be naturally drawn to them. This makes triangulation – the deliberate manufacturing of love triangles to make the victim compete for the narcissist’s attention – all the more traumatizing to the victim, especially during the devaluation and discard phases of the relationship.
The Narcissist’s Harem, Triangulation and the Enabler Effect
With their magnetic charm and natural charisma, narcissists build harems of supporters and enablers with ease while alienating their victims throughout the relationship. They also use a few of their most loyal supporters to carry out their bidding when appropriate – everything from spying on the victim, collecting information on the victim and sabotaging the victim.
Those that carry out the dirty work for the narcissist are what the survivor community calls “flying monkeys,” and they can consist of false friends of the victim as well as the closest friends of the narcissistic abuser. Yet any enablers of the narcissist – those who protect the narcissist and deny the abuse – can be just as dangerous. The harem (the larger support group) of a narcissist can consist of ex-lovers, “friends” of the opposite sex (or same sex, depending on sexual orientation) who are not truly just friends, family members (narcissists are known to engage in covert emotional incest), relatives, co-workers, bosses and even complete strangers they can pull into the relationship dynamic to cause the victim to walk on eggshells.
The victim is essentially used for “target practice” in public and among the harem – humiliated, covertly and overtly put down, as well as triangulated with their harem members with sadistic pleasure. Should the victim ever steal focus away from the narcissistic abuser by being too social, likeable or confident, he or she will put down the victim to belittle his or her sense of self to ensure they are put in their place.
As a result, the abuse victim usually withdraws socially to prevent becoming a target and suffers from low levels of confidence. Should the target of the abuse ever speak out against the abuse, the narcissist then uses these reactions to blame the victim for being “needy,” “clingy,” “overemotional,” “too sensitive” and for “overreacting,” effectively gaslighting the victim into believing that it is the victim’s responsibility not to respond, react to or hold the abuser accountable.
How to Spot an Enabler or Flying Monkey and Move Forward
Many survivors struggle on their No Contact journey, not only because they are still attached to their abusers through the trauma bond, but due to the invalidation they receive from the rest of society. Those who have fallen under the narcissist’s spell can do just as much damage as the perpetrators. They may unwittingly or even deliberately participate in wreaking havoc on the victim’s life through the following ways:
- Partaking in a love triangle with the narcissistic abuser and the victim. These types of enablers become sources of supply as they are receptive to flirtation, infidelity or the narcissist’s sexual advances despite the fact that they know it is morally wrong. They are swept off their feet by the narcissist and believe in the falsehoods that the abuser feeds them about their victims. Common claims that the victim is “crazy,” “insecure” or even abusive are common.
- Justifying, rationalizing or minimizing the narcissist’s abusive behavior and blaming the victim if he or she ‘dares’ to speak out or take legal action against the abuser. This is common among enabling family members of the narcissistic abuser, who will do anything to protect their son, daughter, sibling, mother or father regardless of the harm they pose.
- Feeding into the smear campaign against a victim by spreading malicious gossip, participating in rumor-mongering, or by excluding the victim from social events.
- Helping the abuser to escape consequences for their actions. Lawyers, judges, ADAs can all act as ‘enablers’ of the abuser if they are convinced that the victim is the abuser, if they are charmed by the narcissist’s false mask and/or if they are persuaded by another flying monkey (such as the narcissist’s own lawyer) to drop charges.
- Acting as a third party that passes on communication from or about the abuser to the victim through e-mail, text, mail, phone calls or in-person meetings. This can occur despite the presence of a restraining order or the setting of boundaries.
- Refusing to believe the victim’s accounts of the abuse and engaging in victim shaming or blaming when the abuse is brought up.
- Helping to silence the victim’s accusations by depicting the victim as unhinged, resentful or vengeful. Asking the victim to keep “quiet” about the abuse and to be “mature” or “move on” while dismissing the level of trauma experienced.
Perhaps not all ‘flying monkeys’ or enablers are as unempathic as the narcissistic abuser, but they can cause just as much harm, whether it is intentional or unintentional. Flying monkeys can even be part of the victim’s own support network, charmed by the narcissist to collect information about the victim and pass it onto the abuser.
These enablers may even believe they are doing the morally right thing by supporting the abuser and will rationalize their actions by claiming that they did not see the abuse occur and that they have never “seen that side of the abuser.” While it’s important to acknowledge that enablers fall on all points of the spectrum, from the dangerously malicious to the unwittingly naïve, protecting ourselves from the narcissist’s harem is essential to a survivor’s No Contact journey from his or her abuser.
How to Protect Yourself
Predators would not be able to survive in a society where they could not manipulate at least a few people into believing in them. Narcissistic abusers unmask themselves to their loved ones and are unlikely to show their true selves to their co-workers, bosses, casual acquaintances or anyone they’re currently grooming. That is why it is important for survivors of malignant narcissists to do what may feel counterintuitive: to continue speaking out.
Survivors of narcissistic abuse can protect themselves by:
- Documenting incidents of abuse, harassment or stalking by the malignant narcissist and his/her enablers. Even if the abuser’s enablers deny the evidence, documentation will help in any court case against abusers and their harems, especially if you have an order of protection against the abuser and any third-party contact.
- Minimizing or cutting off contact with any and all harem members, even if they are part of your support network. This will help to cut the channels of communication that may be allowing the narcissist to gather information about you after the break-up. Refuse to answer any texts or phone calls from the narcissist’s friends, acquaintances, family members or anyone who they may have recruited to provoke you. If you must engage in communication, restrict it to small talk and do not give out any personal information. Remember, anyone who has currently been ‘charmed’ and ensnared by the narcissistic abuser and is refusing to believe your accounts of abuse is not a true friend. It is a blessing in disguise to realize who to stop investing in and who to detach from early on.
- Change your privacy settings on social media. Narcissists are notorious for cyberstalking their victims, especially if their victims ‘discard’ them first. Be wary of any friend requests from accounts you’re not familiar with and block any harem members you may be following on social media. Limit the amount of information you make available and accessible to the public. If for some reason you can’t block them entirely, you can always use the ‘Restricted List’ on Facebook to ensure that they can only access your public information. Anticipate that the narcissistic abuser will be ‘checking up’ on you online, even if they have been blocked.
- Share your story with those who understand and spread awareness. Whether it’s a counselor, an online community or a personal blog, find creative outlets to express what you went through and spread awareness. The more people learn about manipulative tactics, the more widespread this information will be. Inevitably, the collective effort of survivors and advocates who speak out will begin to jumpstart change in circles of influence like the criminal justice system and the mental health community. As people begin to see how common this type of abuse is and how covert and insidious it can be, they may start to take a double look at situations where they previously judged the victim.
- Find support networks that validate the abuse you went through. Whether it’s online forums, blogs, coaching, a trauma-informed psychotherapist or support group, find other survivors and professionals who understand the complexities of this form of violence. They will be able to not only relate to your experiences but validate them on a level that the harem members of a narcissist failed to do. Finding these meaningful connections can be life-saving and incredibly healing on your journey to recovery.
- Don’t forget to also seek inner validation. It is important that victims of narcissistic abuse also learn to validate themselves on the journey to healing. Writing down the incidents of abuse and how they made you feel can help ground you in the reality that you experienced. Remind yourself that what you went through was valid and that no one has the right to distort your reality.
- Begin to heal the trauma. The power and pull of a narcissist’s tactics and their harem begins to lose their emotional potency as survivors begin to heal.
Start to reconnect with yourself using diverse healing modalities like yoga, meditation, aromatherapy, sound therapy, trauma-informed therapy, EFT and/or EMDR to calm the body, mind and spirit that may still be reeling from the abuse. The best “revenge” is moving forward.
As you refocus on your own healing journey and distance yourself from the dark voices of enablers, perpetrators and abusers, you stop the gaslighting effect from taking its effect upon you and your personal beliefs. You stop gaslighting yourself and start educating others. This is when the real ripple effect of change can occur. As survivors rise, so do their voices, and their stories shed a light on the cruel acts of psychological violence that once silenced them.