By Grace Gufler

October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month and a perfect time to address some common myths of abuse and profiles of abusers. One of these is the false assumption that all abusers are narcissists. Many persons in an abusive relationship will refer to their abuser as a ‘narcissist’ and, some, even label their partner with the misdiagnosis of narcissistic personality disorder. This happens for many reasons. For one, labeling an abuser’s behavior as a personality disorder can be a source of comfort to victims of abuse. In an abusive relationship, the victim is often in search of an answer as to why their partner is behaving in such a damaging and hurtful way. A diagnosis, like a narcissistic personality disorder, relieves some of the anxiety and confusion victims experience. In other words, if we have a name for it, then we can find a solution and end the abuse. This thought process not only reinforces victim-blaming, by wrongly placing responsibility on the victim but also contributes to our lack of awareness in recognizing abuse.

This way of thinking can be very damaging and, therefore, important for us to address. Not every abuser has a narcissistic personality disorder. Abuse occurs in many different ways and every type, degree, and combination of abuse comes with its own unique spectrum. In this spectrum, we have a limitless amount of personality types of the perpetrators that are engaging in these acts of abuse. When we encourage the idea that all abusers are narcissists, we are overlooking persons who are experiencing a different type of abuse. 

Another misconception that is contributing to this myth is that narcissistic behaviors or traits are equivalent to narcissistic personality disorder. This is not the case. Narcissism is a personality trait, just as extroversion or introversion, and is not equivalent to mental illness. To help make this distinction clearer, here are the diagnostic criteria for narcissistic personality disorder according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-5).

Narcissistic Personality Disorder is a general pattern of grandiosity, need for admiration, and lack of empathy that begins by early adulthood and is displayed in more than one context. To be diagnosed a person must meet at least 5 of these criteria:

  1. Grandiose sense of self-importance
  2. Preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty or ideal love
  3. Believes they are special and unique and can only be understood or surrounded by persons of high importance and status
  4. Requires excessive admiration
  5. Sense of entitlement 
  6. Interpersonally exploitative (takes advantage of others for personal gains)
  7. Lacks empathy and is unwilling to recognize or identify with the emotions and needs of others
  8. Often envious of others or believes people are envious of them
  9. Exhibits arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes. 

When we look at what an actual diagnosis of narcissistic personality disorder entails, we can see that it is much more complex than we believe. Perpetrators are often viewed as having this diagnosis because they display some of the indicators above. However, it is important to recognize that there is not just one profile of an abuser and abuse can occur in a multitude of ways. Having bits of narcissism in your personality is normal and even healthy. Narcissistic personality disorder entails much more than boastfulness, manipulation or lacking empathy. A big step in helping to eradicate the stigma of abuse is to no longer contribute to the reinforcement of the myths sustaining this stigma in our society.