How Society Gaslights Survivors of Narcissists, Sociopaths, and Psychopaths (A Guide for Therapists, Law Enforcement and Loved Ones)
By Shahida Arabi
“There is a class of individuals who have been around forever and who are found in every race, culture, society and walk of life. Everybody has met these people, been deceived and manipulated by them, and forced to live with or repair the damage they have wrought. These often charming—but always deadly—individuals have a clinical name: psychopaths. Their hallmark is a stunning lack of conscience; their game is self-gratification at the other person’s expense. Many spend time in prison, but many do not. All take far more than they give.” – Dr. Robert Hare, The Charming Psychopath
As an author who writes for abuse survivors, I’ve communicated with thousands of people who have been affected by malignant narcissists, sociopaths, and psychopaths as partners, friends, family members, co-workers or even bosses. Throughout the course of my work, I’ve noticed a common theme: the societal invalidation and gaslighting of survivors.
This form of secondary gaslighting and invalidation is incredibly painful, especially when it comes from the very professionals, friends and family members who are meant to help support the survivor on their healing journey. Not only does secondary gaslighting from other people further isolate the survivor, it actually hinders the healing process. I can’t tell you the number of times a survivor has reached out to me to tell me the painful effects of being invalidated by a friend, a family member, a spiritual leader or even a therapist who dispensed ill-informed, sometimes even victim-blaming ideas.
This also contributes to a global Gaslighting Effect in which speaking out about abuse by covert manipulators is met with some form of backlash, victim-blaming, and victim-shaming by enablers of abusers and abusers themselves. Survivor Ariel Leve explains that this form of secondary gaslighting in incredibly traumatic to the survivor. As she says, “It wasn’t just that my reality was canceled, but that my perception of reality was overwritten…it wasn’t the loudest and scariest explosions that caused the most damage. It wasn’t the physical violence or the verbal abuse or the lack of boundaries and inappropriate behavior. What did the real damage was the denial that these incidents ever occurred…the erasure of the abuse was worse than the abuse.”
How Have We Harmed Survivors? How Do We Help Them?
I want to preface this by saying that there are many excellent therapists, life coaches, writers and advocates who are well-informed about the effects of being with a highly manipulative, narcissistic individual. Unfortunately, there are also professionals and laypersons out there who inadvertently retraumatize survivors because of a lack of knowledge about how covert manipulation tactics work – as well as the effects of this type of trauma. Some survivors are even misdiagnosed by therapists when they are in fact suffering from PTSD or Complex PTSD from years of chronic abuse.
It’s important to learn the appropriate ways of communicating with survivors of malignant narcissists – those who lack empathy, who exploit others for their own gain, who abuse others chronically, and who lack remorse and conscience for their actions.
Here are common mistakes people make when communicating with survivors of this type of insidious violence:
1) Treating the abuse as a “compatibility” issue, a “bad break-up” or minimizing the pathological behavior of the abuser by equating it to that of the garden-variety jerk.
What we need to understand as a society is that malignant narcissism is not an “everyday” problem. While narcissism does exist on a spectrum, many of the survivors who are reeling from the trauma of emotional abuse have encountered individuals on the extreme end of the spectrum. They have met predatory individuals who have systematically stripped them of their self-worth and confidence. Victims of malignant narcissists often undergo emotional, psychological, spiritual, financial and sometimes even sexual or physical abuse.
Someone who is a malignant narcissist has characteristics that go beyond selfishness, self-centeredness or vanity. They have antisocial traits such as a lack of remorse, a failure to conform to social norms, impulsivity, aggression, and a lack of conscience. This is someone who can engage in inhumane cruelty and acts of both psychological and physical violence just to get their needs met.
Dr. Ramani Durvasula (2018), an expert on relationship abuse, notes, “I’ve done research and work in that area of domestic violence or what’s also called intimate partner violence, and most people who perpetrate domestic violence are either narcissistic or psychopathic. So there is danger there, in other words, they will dispose of you if you get in their way.”
The narcissistic or sociopathic abuser is not “just” a cheater, a player, or a “difficult” individual – and you cannot approach them as such. They tend to be chronically abusive, manipulative, deceptive and ruthless in their mind games. They can even escalate into horrific acts of violence.
When unwilling to receive or unresponsive to treatment, the malignant narcissist is someone with hardwired behavioral patterns which cause irreparable harm to others. Whether you’re a therapist, an advocate, part of law enforcement, a family member or a friend of a survivor, be wary of giving out advice or counsel that would apply to garden-variety toxic people. For example, sometimes “direct communication” or assertiveness can actually enrage an abuser or give them information these manipulators can use as ammunition. Survivors would need strategies which are tailored to the dangerous aspects of exiting a relationship like this.
The same advice you give to someone dealing with an empathic person does not apply to someone who is empathy-impaired and intentionally and sadistically posing harm.
2) Interrupting key features of the healing process by trying to get the survivor to “heal” quickly.
While every healing journey is unique, the journeys of narcissistic abuse survivors have many similarities across the board because the same manipulation tactics are being used. A survivor of habitual gaslighting by an abuser is suffering from the extreme effects of cognitive dissonance. They are trying to reconcile their abuser’s false image which “hooked” them initially with the abuser’s true callous and cold self.
As a result of this, survivors tend to ruminate over incidents of abuse as well as the initial love-bombing they received from their abusers. Baffled onlookers (counselors, friends, family members) may assume that the survivor is “stuck” or “can’t move forward” because they ruminate over the incidents of abuse.
What they fail to understand is that rumination and over-analysis are effects of the trauma they experienced.
Survivors of any form of abuse are always attempting to sift through the thoughts, feelings, and memories which have caused them this cognitive dissonance. That’s why they tend to tell their stories again and again – because they are attempting to provide a coherent narrative to the trauma they just experienced.
This narrative allows them to overcome the cognitive dissonance and dissociation (including the disconnect among thoughts, memories, emotions) they experienced as a result of the abuse. As Andrea Schneider, LCSW (2014), writes, “Cognitive dissonance is diffused and reduced when the survivor of narcissistic abuse is able to receive validation and confirmation of the reality of his or her circumstances.”
To interrupt the process of rumination in a way that is judgmental and invalidating is especially harmful to a survivor who is just trying to figure out what happened to them. While you can certainly provide tips on healthier alternatives to excessive rumination, do not judge the rumination as a “defect” or “flaw” on the part of the survivor. It is a normal part of the journey to healing. A healthy way to interrupt rumination might be to ask what the survivor can do to better reconnect with the reality of the abuse they experienced and guide them to reconcile their cognitive dissonance by acknowledging the abuser’s disordered nature or tactics. This will help to decrease the gaslighting effect.