This is an interesting and important question. Many of us who’ve been caught up in relationships with narcissists know that something isn’t right with us after the relationship. We don’t feel like the person we used to be; we’re often not as cheerful as before, and sometimes more impatient and moody with others. We might also find out relationships with other people start to be strained.
This raises the question: can and do narcissists also turn their victims into narcissists? Do they make us into what they are? Does the victim become the narcissist themselves in some way?
The answer to this is actually quite complex, and depends on whether we’re referring to simply having some narcissistic tendencies, versus having full blown narcissism.
Here is a quick summary answer:
Narcissists can in a certain sense partially induce narcissism in their victims. Victims of narcissists who do not adequately process their trauma and remain in denial can indeed display diminished empathy and pronounced narcissistic traits over time, but not turn into full blown narcissists.
The bottom line on this is that victims of narcissists often have a lot of work to do on themselves after their relationships, and the best way to approach this is with humility and sincerity, and not with a victim mindset, thinking they were perfect and blameless and did nothing wrong themselves in entering or continuing the toxic relationship.
Narcissists can definitely cause a lot of damage in people they get tangled up with, but they can’t also turn them into full blown narcissists.
However, there’s some nuance to the issue, so let’s break it down thoroughly, firstly examining full blown narcissism, and then narcissistic tendencies, looking at how each can (or cannot be) passed onto people through toxic relationships with narcissists.
Full Blown Narcissism Cannot Be Passed On In Adult Relationships
Let’s start off with the good news – full blown narcissism cannot be passed on in adult relationships:
Full blown narcissism or Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) originates from intense childhood trauma, objectification and abandonment, and cannot be suddenly developed or passed on in adulthood, because of having a relationship with someone who has NPD.
In this sense, full blown NPD isn’t “contagious” – it can’t be passed on just by being around them and being traumatized by them. It requires several different factors to come into play while the child is still developing it’s ego and identity.
- Narcissism is often thought to originate from excessive un-boundaried spoiling in childhood, or else from an alternating pattern where one parent berates and abuses, whilst the other spoils the child to try and compensate.
- Common motifs here are a message of “you’re special” (in excess), “you’re important”, “you’re superior”. Sometimes there may be over the top messianic talk of the child’s “mission” or “purpose”, or of being “sent by God”.
- If this happens over a prolonged period of time, it will crush the real self and identity of the child. An image is being projected onto them that isn’t real.
- The common factor here is objectification – whether being abused or idealized, the child is treated not as a real human being but as an object to be used for the parent’s gratification.
- Over time the child’s real self is discarded, and a “narcissistic shell” self is presented to the world in it’s place.
- The real human emotions of the child are also hidden away inside the narcissistic shell.
- Over time, these authentic emotions atrophy and die inside the shell.
- From this point on, you have full blown NPD, where the person can engage and interact with others in a seemingly normal way on the surface, but where there are no real human emotions left.
- NPDs are then simply robots operating from a series of defense mechanisms designed to prop up their false, grandiose, shell self. They are constantly seeking “supply” from others to do this.
- The corollary of this is that they are psychologically allergic to any kind of real, authentic emotions or human engagement. As Vaknin himself points out, narcissism can be seen as a denial of the true self.
Therefore, for full blown narcissism or NPD to be present in a person, this process of objectification and trauma has to have been going on in the person since childhood, to the extent that their personality is literally broken at the core and the narcissistic defense mechanisms so ingrained into their psyche that they are almost irreversible, no matter the external influences.
Thankfully, this doesn’t happen to victims of narcissists who get into relationships with them in adult life.
However, there is a huge difference between full blown narcissism (NPD), and someone who has strong narcissistic tendencies. Someone can display many of the traits and characteristics of narcissism, but not be at the level where they could be diagnosed as having a full blown personality disorder. That doesn’t mean they’re well rounded people; it’s just a matter of the degree of narcissism.
And this is the trap that many victims of narcissists can fall into. They might never be full blown NPD after being tangled up with one themselves, but through a mixture of unprocessed trauma, denial, and an extreme externalized locus of control, they can still develop some very strong and unpleasant narcissistic tendencies.
Let’s look at how and why in the next section.
Richard Grannon on Narcissists Passing On Their Narcissistic Traits To Victims
The best treatment I have seen on this particular topic was given by Richard Grannon in one of his courses on his Spartan Life Coach website.
It’s called the Break The Trauma Bond course, and is a superb resource. It is currently available here as of the time of writing, but availability is not guaranteed in the future as he is retiring some of his courses to focus on new projects. Be sure to get it if you still can and are struggling to recover from a narcissistically abusive relationship.
Most especially, I want to single out some great quotes from the “Accelerated Healing Through Overcoming Denial” tutorial on this course, as there’s some concise quotes on victims of narcissist abusers also developing narcissistic traits that hit the nail on the head, and that many people in the recovery space badly need to hear.
Here are some crucial insights he has on this topic:
“Every victim of huge scale trauma, who can’t deal with the reality of what happened, develops narcissistic traits. Make no mistake about it. It will turn you into them over time.
Why? Because narcissism is just a response to trauma. It’s just a coping mechanism, based on what? (Denial). What does it lack? (Extreme Ownership). What does a narcissist say? “It’s not my fault, it’s you. You did it…. I’m not having that. It was you, it wasn’t me”…. The narcissist is trauma bonded, and they’re trying to pass it on….
If you don’t break the Trauma Bond, you will become highly narcissistic. I know, because I deal with people who are in trauma bonded victim-hood, all day, every day, and they have no idea how far down the road of narcissism they’re already gone. But they’re all claiming to be victims…And I believe they were….But because of this denial, and the looping and doubling down on the denial, they’re actually developing pronounced narcissistic traits.”
What Grannon is pointing out is that by staying stubbornly stuck in denial and not taking ownership for your mistakes, you’re mimicking the exact traits of the narcissist, and practicing and ingraining them more and more into your mind over time.
And then more great insights on the whole issue of empathy with abusers and victims. There’s often the distinction that’s made between the sociopath/narcissist abuser (presumed to have no empathy), and the victim (presumed to have all the empathy, even sometimes called an “empath”). Grannon points out it’s not always that simple:
You think (the narcissist) has no empathy, they do. You think you have all the empathy, you don’t, you don’t. If I could pass you on the emails I’m regularly receiving, week in, week out, you would see there’s a very very low level of empathy from people who claim to be the victims of narcissistic abuse.
Is that (the victim’s) fault. No! Trauma switches off empathy. It dials it down. What else does it do? It makes people extremely stubborn, it makes them rigid, and it makes them likely to think in black-and-white terms, and to absolve themselves of ownership. Trauma does that.
Grannon is again pointing out that narcissistic abuse is like a wound that’s being passed around, but victims cannot assume they are “empaths” who have all the empathy, because they often aren’t, not once the abuse has happened.
And then one final quote on what typically happens to people who rot their lives away in victim-hood, without fully breaking their denial and accepting their own failings and and mistakes in the relationship:
“If you cannot (accept your responsibility, break denial, and admit your own failings/mistakes), you’ll never break (the trauma bond). If you don’t have the humility to do this, you will be stuck (in victim-hood) for the rest of your life guaranteed. 10, 20, 30 years down the road, if you are lucky enough to live that long, you will have developed very pronounced narcissistic traits. You’ll be looking at a dwindling circle of friends, because people won’t be able to stand you, because you’re becoming more and more of a nightmare to be around…..
(Therefore) you have a choice. I’m either going to accept responsibility for my part in the relationship, or I’m going to remain trauma bonded, and my life is going to suck. And I’m probably going to turn into one of them eventually. You can never be full blown NPD without the childhood trauma, but make no mistake, you can develop some pretty nasty character traits in adulthood, and many do….I’ve seen it first hand”.
I agree 100% with Grannon, because I’ve also seen it first hand. My mother was unfortunately a perfect example of exactly what he’s talking about in the quotes I’ve given above, never coming to terms with trauma in her own life and developing very nasty, narcissistic character traits as a result.
These are only a few quotes of many on this topic in this particular Trauma Bond course that are essential for any victim of narcissistic abuse to hear, so it’s a recommended purchase for anyone interested in this topic.
But the bottom line is that anyone who has experienced narcissistic abuse is at great risk of developing, perhaps not full narcissism, but strong narcissistic traits if they don’t adequately process and come to terms with their trauma.
Steps To Avoid Taking On The Narcissist Abuser’s Traits
Here are some suggestions to avoid this process of partially turning into the abuser following a toxic relationship, or to reverse the process once it’s started:
No contact – Very simple – no more contact with the narc abuser, no forgiveness, and no more second/third/fourth chances. These people don’t change. Cut off all contact, delete numbers, emails, block on social media etc. If you keep engaging with the narcissist, they’ll just keep pushing your buttons and traumatizing you, and you’ll just have more and more stuff piled up inside you that needs working on. You’ll never recover and move on without breaking off all contact.
Accept your own failings – Fully and honestly journal the things you did wrong in the relationship – did you seek them out, did you drawn them in, did you let things progress WAY too fast, did you overlook red flags, did you buy into a fake idea of perfection and smooth charm, did you go for the “bad boy”, did you see them as a “prize” you could show off to others because they were so “hot”, did you tolerate and remain in denial about their bad behavior, did you have this “spidy-sense” that something was wrong, but ignored it because they were funny/hot/charming/great in bed etc., did you take them back, did you want sex/money/fame/status/entertainment etc etc. Fully accept your role in the bad relationship, as well as all the bad things they did.
Get off narcissism forums – However well intentioned they may start out, these types of narcissistic abuse recovery forums are the perfect breeding ground for people to remain in denial and “cope” narratives, not taking ownership for their own mistakes and failings. This is evidenced by the fact that many people spend YEARS stuck on these forums, and don’t progress forward in life. Grannon is particularly savage on this for those ready to hear it. You need to take a brutally honest inventory if you’re using these forums, especially for a long time – are they really helping your recovery, or delaying it by keeping you stuck denial and victim-hood narratives? Move away from this and onto more honest, accountability encouraging work like Grannon’s and others.
Seek help if needed – If you find yourself unable to function properly, moody and impatient with others, restless, lacking in empathy, numbed out, just not the person you were before the toxic relationship, humbly admit how damaged and wounded you are and seek the help of a good therapist to work through the trauma.
Remain humble – A crucial insight I got from Sam Vaknin and Richard Grannon’s revelatory recent discussion of narcissistic abuse, I wish I had known this 20 years ago. Humility is a key trait that will help you speed up the process of recovery from a narcissistically abusive relationship – humbly admitting and accepting that you failed, you fell for their nonsense, and that you need to rebuild from scratch. Angrily and obnoxiously stomping around like you’re 100% the victim who did nothing wrong, will not help with recovery. I’ve been there many years ago and it just delays recovery. Humbly accepting that you let them in (and sometimes even sought them out), and tolerated their nonsense, and that they’ve pretty much sent you “back to square one” as a person, and diligently working on recovery, is a much better approach.
Work on empathy – Again this will come if you work on recovery and trauma processing with a good therapist, but it’s a good idea to check in with yourself on the question of empathy. Are you really the empathic person you’d like to think? Or has your empathy been diminished by the experiences you’ve had? Unprocessed trauma dials down empathy, even if you don’t consciously mean to, so it’s important to take an honest inventory of yourself on this. How tuned in to others are you? Are you worse since the abusive relationship? Could you improve in this regard?
Again, if you can find it, Richard Grannon’s course on Breaking the Trauma Bond is also a very good resource for approaching recovery in the correct way, that stops you turning into the narcissistic abuser through denial and lack of empathy.