Several years ago I entered into correspondence with someone who, it seemed at the time, really just needed a friend, someone who would offer unconditional love. Since I am generally for friendship and kindness, I was happy to try to offer that person what they needed.
Over the course of several months, the relationship seemed to take one bizarre turn after another. My correspondent expected me to write every day, and if I didn’t then they got very angry. They alternated between acknowledging that of course my husband and children were my top priority, and seething with rage that in fact my husband and children were my top priority. The final straw was when I explained that I would not be able to write for a couple of days because I was in the hospital with my son, who had been in a serious accident. I came home to a series of increasingly hostile and nasty e-mails accusing me of a wide variety of fantastical offenses. At that point, I ended the relationship.
This person’s behaviour was extreme, but it’s a kind of pathology that I’ve seen elsewhere. Throughout our correspondence, it frequently happened that they would report being abused, mistreated and taken advantage of by a wide variety of people. At some point an alarm started going off in my head: there was something wrong about the stories. The behaviour of the other people involved was too inconsistent, it didn’t make sense.
Moreover, while I do understand that there are people who compulsively enter into abusive relationships, this was different: this person seemed to be suffering abuse not only at the hands of family and friends, but also at the hands of priests, nuns, moderators on internet groups, random folks on the bus, and on, and on, and on. It seemed that everywhere they went there was someone just waiting there, ready to treat them badly.
I felt bad for doubting the stories. I mean, what if this person’s life really was like that? What if they were just being abused, and abused, and abused, everywhere they went? I’ve lived a pretty privileged life overall. What if I was just assuming that nobody’s life could be that bad because mine happens to have been largely good?
Then suddenly, one day I discovered that I had become the abuser. Because I had the gall to go and care for my injured son. And finally everything made sense.
In psychological terms, this person’s behaviour was typical of a certain type of narcissist. We usually think of narcissism as showing itself in grandiose claims, a constant fixation on the self and a tendency to try to control others through a combination of rewards, threats and lies. However, when a narcissist isn’t getting the attention and adoration that they crave, they will see themselves as a victim – and they will paint their victimhood in the same garish, over-the-top palate that self-aggrandizing narcissists use to describe their successes.
For some, the constant proclamation of victimhood becomes their primary method of securing attention and controlling others. People involved in ministry or in caring professions can be particularly vulnerable to this type of behaviour because we train ourselves to practice compassion, to really listen to other people’s stories and take them to heart, and to advocate for those who seem to be suffering.
In my own case, I was especially reluctant to entertain my suspicions about the situation because I had seen charges of narcissism used far too liberally by folks in the reparative therapy racket to dismiss the entire LGTBQ community. In political discourse, the claim that gays, feminists and other “liberals” basically operate by “playing the victim” in order to secure control over the political landscape was (and still is) routinely used by folks on the right to evade responsibility for very real, preventable forms of human suffering. I didn’t want to be the person who abandoned someone in need because their suffering made me uncomfortable.
So, how do we tell the difference between someone who is making legitimate claims to our sympathy, and someone who is abusing our compassion?
1. We need to get rid of the idea that this is somehow tied to the political spectrum, or to particular groups of people. In every demographic there are going to be some people who play the victim in this way. The only difference that politics makes is how the victim will present themselves and who they will claim to be victimized by. A person of this type will happily switch political “sides” if they find that they are no longer getting enough attention, and they will claim that their former friends betrayed or used them. The political divide tempts us to watch out for stories of narcissistic victims who are successfully manipulating the other camp so that we can use this as ammunition, but we would actually do better to be vigilant about the people who want to manipulate our own.
2. While it’s definitely true as a principle that we should always believe stories of abuse (most people who are abused find it very difficult to report, and being subjected to skepticism can cause serious psychological harm), we also need to be aware that there are people out there who invent or exaggerate events in order to secure attention. Watch out for people who are constantly abused and mistreated. If a person claims they were abused by their father and by several successive domestic partners, that adds up: we know that children who are abused in the home will often repeat those relationship patterns in adulthood. But if someone is just constantly being mistreated by people from every walk of life – including people who they haven’t elected to be in a relationship with – that’s a red flag.3. Watch how the person reacts if you gently suggest that there might be two sides to the story. Obviously this is not appropriate if a person is claiming serious abuse, but a perpetual victim will present at least some situations where they are aggrieved over relatively minor slights. Humans generally prefer reconciliation to perpetual enmity, so in such cases most people will be eager to interpret the situation as a misunderstanding or will at least be open to the possibility that maybe the other person was acting from legitimate motives. A narcissist will never entertain such an idea. They will either double down on explaining how evil their opponent is, or they will become livid that you are “taking the other person’s side.”
4. Look out for stories that are clearly truncated or abbreviated and where the motives of the other parties don’t add up. In cases of serious abuse, confusion, gaps in reporting and even loss of memory can be normal – but if you find the same kind of gaps in a story about how someone was mean on the internet, that suggests that you’re not getting all the facts. If requests for clarification or detail meet with stonewalling, repetition of the original version, or with anger that you are doubting their report, take their claims with a hefty dose of salt.
5. Narcissism often runs in families, so victim-type narcissists may be aware that NDP is a thing and may have suffered genuine abuse from other narcissistic family members. Projection is a classic narcissistic trait, so those who are aware of what narcissistic behaviour looks like may be quick to accuse others of narcissism. Genuine NPD exists in only about 6% of the population, and most narcissists will behave charmingly towards strangers. So if you meet someone who is constantly having encounters with narcissistic abusers who treat them badly, it may mean that they’re projecting their own behaviour onto others.
6. If you’re suspicious that a person is behaving this way, and it is at all possible to do so, get external verification of their claims. On social media this can be fairly easy because you can often just go and dig up some of the conversations where the person was supposedly mistreated so badly. In real life, you may be able to get in touch with other people who know the person. While everyone has occasional misunderstandings that blossom into long-standing enmity, the narcissist will have dozens, even hundreds of them. A victimized narcissist will always see themselves as being gravely mistreated if their tale of woe does not allow them to completely control a conversation or to get their way. So if the person you suspect steamrolls angrily over people who gently and politely disagree with them, that’s a good indication that your instincts are right.
7. While it’s normal to share about bad things that have happened to us, most people do not have an endless litany of grudges and bad experiences going back to childhood. Most of us like to remember the good stuff more than we like to remember the bad. If someone’s entire life history is just a patchwork of different times that all kinds people were horrible to them, while they of course were completely innocent, that suggests that it may just be a sympathy grab.
8. A person who uses stories of their own victimization to feed off of other people’s compassion may become irritated if the sympathy limelight goes to someone else. If a person’s response to someone else’s legitimate suffering is to very publicly proclaim their lack of sympathy (especially if they do so in a way that invites others to join in being unsympathetic), that’s a bad sign. If they are angry or contemptuous at the suggestion that other people, particularly people they dislike or disagree with, may also be entitled to compassion, also not good.
Obviously, any given one of these traits alone does not make someone a narcissist. A lot of people will display one of these behaviours, and people who have recently gone through some kind of severe trauma may display more of them for a brief time while their emotions recover. It’s when there is a pattern of these behaviours taken together, and the behaviours are consistent over time, that there is a problem.
Ultimately, though, the most telling clue is just how you feel when you have to deal with this person. Did the relationship started off feeling like it would turn into a great friendship, and now just seeing their name in your in-box makes you feel tense and upset? Has this been getting worse for months? Then probably it’s time to cut it off. Don’t bother pointing out the person’s behaviour to them: you will almost certainly just get added to the list of folks who have abused and mistreated them, and they may even attack you publicly. Even just going no-contact may result in public reprisals or stalking behaviours, depending on how essential you were to the person’s supply of sympathy.
Finally, don’t get sucked in by the letters explaining how much they miss you and need you to save them. Unless you are a trained therapist, and the person is looking for help with their own narcissistic behaviours, there is nothing you can do for them. No amount of pouring out time and sympathy will actually bring about healing, because the person is not interested in being healed. Being wounded is what gets them the attention that they crave.
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