“Every narcissist was once a wounded child”
Elan Golomb, Trapped In The Mirror
This is one of the most confusing things about being with some narcissists, especially in romantic relationships. Yes, we do “see” on some level all the vicious, toxic, predatory, abusive behavior. But we also might sometimes see signs that they are a vulnerable, troubled, traumatized person. They may cry and appear vulnerable, they may appear to sometimes be “sorry” for their toxic behavior, to show signs of remorse and guilt and suffering from trauma themselves.
Therefore it can all feel very contradictory and schizophrenic when dealing with a narcissist up close. On one level, we might hate them for all the horrible things they do to us, how they irritate, annoy and exasperate us. But on the other hand, we might also feel sorry for them when we see what appears to be signs of past victimization and trauma from their side.
How do we resolve this paradox or contradiction? Can narcissists be both predators/abusers AND victims at the same time? Do the two things go hand in hide? Does the apparent “vulnerable”, troubled side they might show to us sometimes mean we must excuse and forgive the times when they’re horribly abusive and toxic?
Resolving this paradox is often one of the key insights required to truly let go of a toxic person in our lives. Here is a summary answer:
Narcissists can be both abusers and victims at the same time, since NPD is in itself rooted in immersively traumatic childhood experiences. The predatory side of the narcissist lies in “passing on” their childhood wounding and victimization, instead of resolving it in a healthy, self contained way.
In other words, yes, the narcissist was also very likely a victim of abuse in their own past, but that does NOT mean we have to fall into the trap of pitying them to the point where we excuse away all their other toxic, abusive behavior. Narcissists, like anyone else, still need to be held responsible for their behaviors towards others in their adult lives.
Now let’s explore all aspects of this issue in more detail.
Full Blown Narcissism (NPD) Is Created By Childhood Trauma & Abuse (Victimization)
Let’s cover the context in which you CAN definitely say that the narcissist is, and was, a victim themselves. Full blown narcissism, also known as Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) is itself thought to be derived from Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (C-PTSD), which is itself rooted in immersively traumatic/abusive childhood experiences.
In other words, in order for the narcissist to have become a narcissist, they definitely have to have suffered an abusive and traumatic childhood, to the point where they don’t develop the proper empathy and deny and block out reality to cope, to an extent it becomes a pathological habit they carry with them throughout their lives (hence a narcissist’s ability to deny reality with such ease).
Put even more simply, yes, the narcissist was also a victim, especially in the earlier part of their lives. This is why they have such strongly ingrained defense mechanisms like denial and projection, and also why you may feel you can never really “get through” to them, or really make them change. It’s like there’s a thick “wall” or “shell” there that you can never quite penetrate, because there is! It’s the narcissistic shell they erected to cope with the intense abuse and victimization they suffer in childhood.
However, despite this shell, some narcissists do show signs of vulnerability and trauma. This may include:
- You may already know that they were abused/abandoned/neglected by their parents, suffered genocides or other traumatic experiences, early in life.
- It is also often true that narcissists were never allowed to properly individuate in childhood, due to excessively controlling, boundary disrespecting, smothering parents. This creates this incomplete and broken sense of self you may have sensed with narcissists.
- Some narcissists were also sexually abused in childhood (part of a wider process of objectification by toxic parents or relatives).
- They may sometimes cry and get upset.
- They may sometimes express apparent remorse for horrible behaviors towards you (covert narcissists especially can often swing back and forth between abusive and remorseful behaviors)
- They may sometimes leak out small details that may reveal how abusive their childhood was.
- They may sometimes beg for forgiveness from you in a way that seems heartfelt and convincing, and plead with you to take them back.
- Some covert narcissists especially do even carry an air or energy of “vulnerability” about them, always seeming fragile and withdrawn (that is, until you get to know them up close and the mask comes off).
- Some narcissists can also be bullied and victimized in their adult lives as well.
In other words, yes, narcissists did often have a “rough time of it” in early childhood and adolescence, to the point where you can call them a “victim” in their own right.
Why Are Narcissists Also Predators/Abusers?
Reading all that may have made you feel a bit sorry for the narcissist (momentarily!). But then we might recall all their other toxic, abusive, vicious, predatory behavior and think “huh?! how does that square up? They can seem like an angel, but they can also be the most horrible person imaginable when they want to be. What’s going on?”.
All of the Cluster B personality disorders (psychopathy/sociopathy/borderline/narcissism) are provocative, in other words, characterized by a need to reach out and provoke reactions from others as a way to manage their internal disorder, as opposed to resolving these issues in a healthy, self contained way (i.e. with a therapist) that does not negatively impact others.
In other words, narcissists and other disordered people are deeply traumatized, wounded people, but instead of truly dealing with and coming to terms with their trauma, they seek to pass it on to others through their vicious abuse. Narcissistic abuse is like a wound that’s being passed around, where toxic people are projecting out instead of “going inside” and healthily resolving whatever trauma is there.
There’s also a real inverted sickness there with narcissists and other Cluster B disordered people, where normal, healthy, sane dynamics are flipped on their head. Instead of being “inflated” or “fed” psychologically by positive responses from others, they are instead “fed” or “supplied” by negative emotional reactions from others.
This pathological inversion explains a lot of behaviors:
- The constant provocative and reaction seeking behavior, seeking conflict and argument.
- Constant triangulation and cheating, where they’re trying to provoke jealousy especially in others.
- Constant projection, gas-lighting and denial which continues to irritate and exasperate people dealing with them, often to the narcissist’s seeming amusement.
- Filling their own lives and of others around them with constant drama and conflict, to the point of mentally de-stabilizing partners to the point of breakdown/mental illness.
- Constantly scanning for, and “pushing” at every chance, weaknesses, “buttons” or vulnerabilities in their own victims, re-opening old wounds and traumas in those they’re tangled up with in relationships (the real predatory nature of narcissists).
- Taking victims on the predictable idealize-devalue-discard cycle, where they create a fake bond only to then break it, often in the most cruel and sudden way possible to cause maximum injury (attempting to individuate from their own traumas, without any care for the damage they cause to others in the process).
“Custer B is the .. definition of reaction seeking or dramatic personality disorders. This is not ‘I want to go away and sit on my own in my room’, this is ‘I need to annoy you to live. I need to hurt you to feel OK. I need to cause chaos and drama wherever I go just to feel basically alright’”.
All of this behavior is done through conscious choice by the narcissist once they are adulthood, which is why it can’t be excused, despite them also being victims.
In addition, it should go without saying that none of this behavior from the narcissist even works in resolving their own traumas, which is why they repeat the same patterns over and over again in all the relationships they go through, bouncing from one disaster to the next.
The “wound” is not being resolved, but instead spread around, which is why these people are so damaging and destructive, and need to be avoided at all costs, despite being victims themselves.
New E-Book Coming – A-Z Glossary Guide on Cluster B abuse, designed for newcomers to the topic. Click here join the list to be notified on release.
Narcissists As Troubled AND Toxic
Therefore hopefully we’ve conveyed the point that with narcissists, the distinction between victim and abuser/predator is NOT a binary on/off scenario where someone is either one or the other – narcissists/sociopaths can be (and often are) BOTH a victim and a predator.
Troubled AND Toxic is my own term I came up with to describe this. By replacing OR with AND when making this distinction, we switch away from the binary way of thinking, and we can see why the narcissist is the way they are more clearly.
Narcissists as both predator AND victim (Richard Grannon)
Check out the first few minutes of the above video, where this exact issue of the victim/abuser paradox, plus the confusion it can cause in people tangled up with them, is addressed.
Avoiding The “False Pity” Trap With A Narcissist
It’s especially common with more generous, forgiving people to lean more heavily on the “victim” side of the equation with narcissists, and use their childhood trauma to “forgive” their toxic, predatory behavior. Or when tangled up with these people, after abusing us, they might break down into a sob story about their childhood (or we might just know the abuse they suffered early in life), leading us to pity and feel sorry for them, and excuse away all their toxic behavior.
The problem is, the toxic, abusive behavior will never end with a narcissist, and will continue to wear you down and turn you into a victim if you keep tolerating it.
One key breakthrough insight to detach us from these people is to realize they are BOTH a victim AND a vicious predator at the same time – it’s NOT an either/or situation, it’s both. In fact, as we covered above, Cluster B disorders are rooted in complex and immersive childhood trauma. But that still doesn’t excuse their vicious, predatory, exploitative behavior in adulthood.
This is a key shift in thinking and perception of disordered people in our lives that can help us break away and detach from them more easily without falling into misguided pity and false sympathy, thinking we can somehow “reach” the real real person we (falsely) believe is trapped inside them.
Let’s cut through all the nonsense on this that could be used to “rationalize” or “excuse away” a narcissist’s toxic behavior by saying that they were also a victim themselves.
Once an person is a fully grown adult, they are 100% responsible for their behavior towards others. If they were a victim in their own childhoods, they are also 100% responsible for working through their own traumas with a professional, instead of passing them onto others via their own abusive, predatory behaviors.
If a narcissist won’t do the necessary work to truly heal in a healthy way (which they almost always won’t), then they need to be removed from your life, even if they were technically a “victim” themselves.