Adults who experienced domestic abuse when they were children have more potential to suffer from long-term health impacts such as diabetes, obesity, and heart disease. They might also experience mental health problems which involve low levels of resilience, and higher levels of anxiety and depression, among other health complications. Those who endured severe physical violence as children at times carry their injuries into adulthood in the form of disabilities; intellectual, social, and emotional difficulties can arise, and individuals might perform poorly occupationally as a result of the abuse they’ve been through. Furthermore, their perceptions of a ‘normal’ relationship can also be affected (e.g. women who cannot differentiate between affection and a sexual advance), and the traumas can also lead to shallow object relations, where those who survived are unable to form a meaningful connection with others. Yet, the most concerning aspect of childhood domestic abuse is that in some cases these children can grow to imitate the behaviour of their perpetrators and subjugate others. This is what acquired narcissism is, a relational system where the person exposed to domestic abuse goes on to introject such patterns of behaviours and to abuse other innocent victims, displacing the trauma. This article will focus on this potential consequence of domestic abuse, and what happens when a victim becomes a perpetrator drawing from Shaw (2014).
Some narcissists are born with this predisposition (e.g. psychopaths), whilst others acquire the predisposition through trauma (e.g. sociopaths), getting absorbed in a generational and social cycle of abuse. This is how acquired narcissism works. That is, the individual is not born with it, but rather he acquires it through adverse experiences. Shaw (2014) defined traumatic narcissism as ‘the action of subjugation. In the traumatizing narcissist’s relational system, the narcissist fortifies himself by diminishing the other. The other is then conquered, controlled, or enslaved at worst—and exploited’. In other words, traumatic narcissism can be described as the narcissism that can consciously traumatise other people through behaviours. Similarly, traumatised narcissism happens when someone who has already been narcissistically abused, unconsciously behaves in ways that resemble their perpetrator. Traumatised narcissism— which is also traumatising— can be acquired in adulthood, is often temporary, and recovery depends on the individual’s ability to heal trauma; whereas traumatic narcissism as described by Shaw (2014) is acquired through childhood trauma, is often long-term and constitutes a pathology that is consistent with an individual’s personality and trajectory. Moreover, in some cases victims of narcissistic abuse go on to become traumatised narcissists. In rare cases, adults go on to become traumatic narcissists; especially when they are subjected to adverse epigenetic changes or traumatic brain injury resulting from their circumstances.
For those with acquired traumatic narcissism, narcissistic trauma is often relational or developmental, and relational trauma happens when there is a constant disruption of a child’s sense of feeling loved and safe (Monroe, 2017). There might be a form of physical or emotional neglect and abandonment, a violation of boundaries, and/or abuse. In other words, relational trauma happens when a child’s needs are not met by their caregivers, and where the child ends up feeling betrayed by their parents. All this can affect a child epigenetically, and alter their biological make-up in the long-term. For instance, Shaw (2014, pp. 7-8) states: ‘these people typically experience significant depressive symptoms, which are actually post-traumatic symptoms of cumulative developmental, or relational, trauma—symptoms that are often expressed in the form of painful lifelong longing for love that can never be requited. In development, to be recognized primarily as object—in other words, to be rigidly objectified—is to be cumulatively traumatized in one’s efforts to consolidate the sense of subjectivity’.
Furthermore, the American Psychological Association (n.d.) defines subjectivity as ‘the tendency to interpret data or make judgements in the light of personal feelings, beliefs, or experiences’. Stripping someone off their subjective can lead to problems with intersubjectivity, which Oxford Reference (n.d.) describes as ‘the mutual construction of relationships through shared subjectivity’. Indeed, those with acquired narcissism struggle to maintain stable relationships with others precisely because of their many relational traumas. According to Shaw (2014, p. xv) ‘the traumatizing narcissist seeks to abolish intersubjectivity, and to freeze a complementary dynamic in the relationship, allowing recognition in one direction only—toward himself’.
This is why narcissists are extremely talented at hiding and protecting their vulnerabilities always wary of the world around them, a world that betrayed their trust. They seek to impress others through what seems like a normal demeanour. Yet, covertly, a narcissist will display the following behaviours:
- Passive aggression: they may say things that are not directly offensive but that are still hurtful.
- Introversion: they might be more reclusive but still need narcissistic supply from others.
- Sulky behaviours: they may act in sullen ways when they do not get their way.
- Constant dissatisfaction: they chronically blame the world for their circumstances, and constantly complain.
- Grandiosity: they secretly think they are superior to others, and will only associate with those they deem to be superior.
- Sense of entitlement: they always want to take what they desire, often crossing boundaries.
- Playing as the victim: they always say that the world is doing something to them, and do not take responsibility for the harm they cause.
- Hypersensitivity to criticism: they might rage if criticised and might feel hurt at the slightest comment.
Morever, Shaw (2014, p. 13) states that ‘the heightened sadistic tendencies of the traumatizing narcissist may be masked in some cases by charisma and seductive charm. She has successfully dissociated the need to depend on idealized others by achieving a complete super-idealization of herself. She is overt in her need for superiority and domination, successful in seducing others into dependence on her, and cruel and exploitative as she arranges to keep the other in a subjugated position’. A common misconception is to think that the narcissist’s grandiose overcompensation is somewhat rooted in high self-esteem. I would argue it is more rooted in egocentrism. The truth is that narcissists are hypersensitive to their own impression management. That is, the facade they show to the world is their vulnerability because deep down they do not love who they are. Overtly, the malignant narcissist will exhibit the following behaviours:
- Pathological jealousy: they may experience feelings of envy and anger at the slightest disadvantage.
- Psychopathic behaviours: callous, cold-blooded, and instrumental harmful actions.
- Persecutory delusions: excessive paranoia based on false beliefs that the world is out to get them.
- Cruelty: having no remorse for engaging in sadistic behaviours.
- Coercive control: manipulating, threatening or controlling the victim.
- Pathological lying: not being able to tell the truth.
- Distress-based responses: things that hurt his self-esteem or self-image might trigger his dangerous behaviours.
- Sexual promiscuity: having more than one sexual partner.
- Hypersensitivity to criticism: always on guard for real or imagined criticism.
- Aggression: an inability for self-restraint when raging.
The individual with acquired narcissism is essentially looking for the love that he or she did not receive in childhood. According to Shaw (2014, p. 10) ‘patients described as pathologically narcissistic are often those whose self-esteem is terribly fragile; who easily feel insulted, attacked, and humiliated […] someone who in development has suffered severe damage to their self-esteem system, and whose self-esteem regulation is therefore inconsistent and precarious, subject to the internal persecution of the split-off protector self’. Furthermore, according to Mahendran (2015, p. 179) there are five main cognitive biases used by narcissists in order to maintain their self-esteem: (1) misremembering, which is a particular way in which people tend to remember past events in ways that are self-serving; (2) self-serving attribution, which consists in attributing blame to external events for failures, and attributing credit to the self for successes; (3) false consensus effect, which consists in assuming that other people will make the same choices one does, and behave in similar ways to one; (4) sour grapes effect, which consists in devaluing unattainable goals and rewards; and (5) unrealistic optimism which consists in attributing a positive expectation or outcome to something, even if the evidence and standards contradict it.
In conclusion, acquired narcissism can be severely detrimental and is often a result of domestic abuse. Acquired narcissism can be conscious or unconscious, temporary (traumatised narcissism) or long-term (traumatic narcissism), and has many biases reinforcing an unstable sense of image.
American Psychological Association (n.d.) ‘Subjectivity’, APA Dictionary of Psychology [Online]. Available at https://dictionary.apa.org/subjectivity (accessed 17 December 2021).
Mahendran, K. (2015) ‘Self-esteem’, in Turner, J., Hewson, C., Mahendran, K. and Stevens, P. (eds) Living Psychology: From the Everyday to the Extraordinary 1, Milton Keynes, The Open University.
Monroe, H. S. (2017) ‘How Relational Trauma Affects Teen Mental Health, Relationships, and Self-Esteem’, Newport Academy, 1 September [Online]. Available at https://www.newportacademy.com/resources/mental-health/relational-trauma/ (accessed 16 December 2021).
Oxford Reference (n.d.) ‘Intersubjectivity’ [Online]. Available at https://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/oi/authority.20110803100008603 (accessed 16 December 2021).
Shaw, D. (2014), Traumatic Narcissism: Relational Systems of Subjugation, New York, Routledge [Online]. Available at https://www.routledge.com/Traumatic-Narcissism-Relational-Systems-of-Subjugation/Shaw/p/book/9780415510257# (accessed 16 December, 2021).