Melanie Marklein, PhD
Licensed Clinical Psychologist, Clinical Director
We are in the middle of a pandemic. Those infected don’t know they have been infected or why they feel so bad. They just feel more hopeless and worthless over time. They feel increasingly anxious and isolated. They wonder if they are going crazy. This pandemic is deadly to the human spirit, alienating people from themselves and from their sense of belonging in the world.
As a trauma therapist, people come to me for help when the anxiety, depression, and loneliness start making it nearly impossible to function. They cannot find the motivation or energy to go to work. They are not sleeping well. They feel numb and their relationships are troubled. They feel broken, but they also feel guilty for seeking help because “other people have it worse” and “there is no reason” for them to be so sad. More often than not, our search for the root of the problem reveals that they were abused by a narcissistic parent and/or romantic partner.
Many people are shocked and disturbed to learn that the way they were treated in these relationships constitutes narcissistic abuse. It is common for survivors of narcissistic abuse not to realize they are (or were) being abused because it comes in the form of emotional and psychological manipulation. Narcissists maintain power and control by distorting reality and messing with the minds of their victims. Thus, the first step in recovery from narcissistic abuse is naming it for what it is and recognizing the myriad effects it has on the survivor’s mental, physical, emotional, spiritual, and social well-being.
What is narcissistic abuse?
The term is used to describe emotional and psychological abuse perpetrated by someone who is highly narcissistic. Narcissism exists on a continuum from exhibiting a few narcissistic traits in certain contexts (most of us do) to meeting diagnostic criteria for full-blown Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Personality disorders are enduring, inflexible patterns of inner experience and behavior that are pervasive across a range of situations and persistent over a long period of time.
People with Narcissistic Personality Disorder appear to think very highly of themselves when actually they have an intolerable sense of inferiority. To defend against their painfully poor self- image, narcissists unconsciously construct a mask of superiority. They have a grandiose sense of self-importance and may display a haughty attitude. Narcissists organize their lives in ways that allow them to deny negative feelings about themselves and maintain the illusion of superiority. They require excessive admiration and exaggerate their achievements. Everything a narcissist does in relationships is unconsciously driven by an intense fear of rejection or criticism. They behave in controlling and manipulative ways to protect their fragile ego. After such exposure to the narcissist’s psychological manipulation, children and partners of narcissists often develop toxic levels of shame and lose trust in their own perception of reality. To help alleviate the shame, therapists consistently reassure survivors that the problem is not them, it’s what happened to them. Trauma therapists repeatedly emphasize that survivors’ symptoms are a normal response to abnormal circumstances.
Is our country in an abusive relationship?
Lately I have been wondering about “normal.” When I talk with clients about “abnormal circumstances” in terms of relationships, I mean circumstances that fall outside the realm of a healthy, functional, mutually respectful relationship. It is not a “normal” circumstance when one person bullies, denies, rages at, and manipulates the other to the point of annihilating their self-esteem. But after days spent in therapy sessions with my clients, telling them how unacceptable it is for their parent, partner, boss, etc., to treat them like they do, I have been coming home to newscasts airing the latest examples of narcissistic abuse perpetrated by the President of the United States. I keep wondering: How is this ok? What happens to a country being “parented” by a severe narcissist? Let’s take a look.
Narcissists project onto other people what they cannot own in themselves. They tend to either idealize or denigrate other people and go between those extremes without much middle ground. When idealizing, the narcissist is using that person as an extension of himself, inflating the person’s talents as a method of self-inflation. When denigrating, the narcissist is projecting hated parts of himself onto the person who is exhibiting “unacceptable” qualities or behaviors. That is why narcissists, when confronted about their abusive behaviors, often turn around and insist they are the ones being abused. We have seen this recently with President Trump’s fuming reaction to the Black Lives Matter mural being painted on the street in front of Trump Tower in Manhattan last week. The BLM protests are part of an anti-racism movement that is calling out centuries of abuse, injustice, and violence perpetrated against Black people in America. Yet, instead of listening and having a sense of accountability, President Trump tweeted his opinion that “the words ‘Black Lives Matter’ are a ‘symbol of hate.’” He goes on to say, “Maybe our GREAT Police, who have been neutralized and scorned by a mayor who hates & disrespects them, won’t let this symbol of hate be affixed to New York’s greatest street.” Notice the denigration of people who are challenging his sense of superiority, and the idealization (“GREAT” police and “greatest” street) of the things that support his superiority. If that doesn’t scream projection, I don’t know what does. https://www.cnn.com/2020/07/09/us/trump-tower-black-lives-matter-mural-new-york- trnd/index.html
Narcissists are never accountable for their actions. They do not apologize (unless they are trying to manipulate you) or take responsibility for mistakes. Instead, they blame someone else. To apologize would be to admit they made a mistake, and to admit they made a mistake would threaten their constructed persona. Again, the number of times President Trump has deflected responsibility by blaming something or someone else is staggering. You have certainly seen this in action if you have been following his response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Rather than developing a unified response to the crisis, we hear our President accusing China of not doing enough to contain the spread of the virus and we see him pulling his support from the World Health Organization. It’s everyone else’s fault.
Narcissists use gas-lighting and denial. This is another way they avoid taking responsibility for how their behavior impacts other people. If you express to a narcissist that you did not like something they did because it was hurtful or disrespectful, they manipulate you into doubting your perception of reality by suggesting you are imagining things, misinterpreting them, or being too sensitive. They might insist they were “just joking” or try to convince you that “it’s all in your head.” This is a form of psychological abuse that can have extremely deleterious effects on survivors over time, making it impossible for survivors to know what to believe or who to trust. The President modeled this gas-lighting behavior after comments he made in a White House briefing made a stir. During the briefing, President Trump mentioned the possibility of injecting disinfectants into the human body to kill the coronavirus. Doctors, lawmakers, and makers of Lysol products reacted with alarm and incredulity, rapidly issuing public warnings about the dangers of ingesting or injecting disinfectants, such as bleach, which are highly toxic. When reporters asked President Trump to explain himself, he claimed that his comments were not intended as a serious suggestion and that he made them sarcastically to “see what would happen.” He was, essentially, gas-lighting us by trying to convince us we were all overreacting. https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2020/04/24/disinfectant-injection- coronavirus-trump/
Narcissists cannot handle criticism. People with NPD require constant admiration and can react with rage when they are challenged or criticized. Again, the President has demonstrated countless times exactly how this plays out. In May, President Trump threatened to “strongly regulate” or shut down social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook after they began fact-checking his unverified claims on Twitter that mail-in ballots would lead to widespread voter fraud. https://www.cnn.com/2020/05/27/politics/donald-trump-twitter-threat- regulate/index.html During a press conference on May 11, a reporter confirmed that President Trump has made statements like, “America is doing far better than any other country in terms of testing,” and then asked him to explain why he treats the COVID-19 pandemic like a global competition when the number of Americans dying from coronavirus is rising rapidly. Trump accused the reporter, a Chinese American woman, of asking a “nasty question” and told her she should ask China before abruptly walking out of the press conference. https://www.nytimes.com/video/us/politics/100000007133876/trump- ends-coronavirus-news-conference-reporters.html Narcissists also respond to perceived criticism with emotional manipulation, attempting to evoke feelings of guilt and shame in anyone who is displeased with something they did. When you try to stand up for yourself, a narcissist acts wounded by your assertiveness. He might accuse you of betrayal and try to make you feel guilty by calling you disloyal and ungrateful. We saw examples of this in 2017 when President Trump disparaged NFL players who took a knee during the national anthem in protest of police brutality, racism, and other forms of social injustice. He accused them of disrespecting the flag, the anthem, and the country with their “unpatriotic” displays.
Narcissists lack empathy. Empathy is the act of understanding, being aware of and sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the thoughts and feelings of another. Narcissists operate from self-interest alone and are either unable or unwilling to imagine what it must be like in someone else’s shoes. A President who plans an indoor political rally during a pandemic, putting his supporters at risk of infection and making insensitive comments about slowing testing down, is blatantly lacking empathy for the millions of people suffering with the viral infection, grieving the loss of loved ones who have died from coronavirus, working beyond the point of exhaustion in hospitals to care for the sick, and/or struggling to make ends meet because of lost wages. President Trump then had the audacity to be furious at the “underwhelming” crowd at his rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma because the turnout was much lower than anticipated (during a pandemic), and fuming mad at his political aids because they exposed the fact that six members of their team in Tulsa had tested positive for COVID-19. This is a narcissist, a man who only cares about himself.
What happens when the leader of a country has narcissistic personality disorder? The People are traumatized. People who have been traumatized in abusive relationships report hypervigilance, a pervasive sense of mistrust, somatic symptoms, sleep problems, dissociation, and difficulty regulating emotions. Like a trauma survivor, America has become fragmented and lost its sense of a cohesive identity, with fragmented parts holding different memories and narrating vastly different accounts of its history. As a country, we are perpetually anxious, paranoid, and mistrustful. Numbing through alcohol, food, shopping, binge-watching TV, and countless other mechanisms is normalized as a pastime. America is seething with fear, shame, hatred, and aggression. The COVID-19 pandemic and its effects on the economy and education are no doubt stressful. The racial injustice and police brutality we continue to witness is heartbreaking, as is the violence and backlash against those protesting and fighting for justice. But the sense of chaos, confusion, terror, helplessness, and powerlessness we feel is the result of being “led” by a President who only cares about himself. On a national level, the traumatic effects of narcissistic abuse just might be more dangerous than the coronavirus. This pandemic is killing us spiritually, emotionally, mentally, and physically. This is what happens to a country abused by a narcissist. This is what’s happening in our country.