When you already believe you’re terrible and worthless, it’s easy to reinforce your self-conception.
It’s common knowledge that bullies prey on the insecure, but, often missing, is the insight about their own inner worlds. Displaced anger, directing your rage from a more threatening object to a less threatening one, is the usual explanation provided for narcissistic abuse. It’s presented as the weak against the strong, wherein the strength of one exploits the fragility of the other. But, there’s so much more to it than that. Arguably, the victims own strength(s) triggers her bully’s weaknesses.
It’s a misconception that narcissists abuse people they feel superior to, even though that’s sometimes, but more rarely, true. More frequently, they mistreat those whom they perceive of as threats to their incessant need for dominance, putting their victims in their place to manage their envy of them. We tend to think of narcissists as preferring chaos, but, in reality, they like comfort so much more; conflict is a last resort. The narcissist surrounds himself with sycophants, whom he treats rather well, because they do the heavy-lifting for him. Reassurance, upward comparisons, and idealization are provided in abundance by his minions. In this respect, mistreatment, for the most part, occurs when the narcissist feels the imminence of an uprising, which signals a danger for his self-image.
However, when all is going well, the bully provides his followers with his graces, so long as they don’t outshine him. Consider popular film and television, or even your own experiences. How many times do the mean girls or troubled boys actually mistreat their “friends”? Isn’t it more so the case that they take advantage of them rather than outright abuse them? But, you’re thinking, how about their partners? Romantic relationships are often double-edged swords for narcissists. On the one hand, they choose partners with much to offer, who are smart, beautiful and talented; on the other, they’re constantly reminded of why they don’t deserve them.
Those who struggle with self-esteem, sometimes, tell themselves that molding themselves and capitulating to each of the narcissist’s needs will preclude punishment and resentment, but merely being you is enough to foster hatred. Are you a less threatening object in that respect? Yes and no. You may not be able to punish the narcissist (based on your quiet demeanor) and, therefore, at times, he may punish you just for being there. But, simply being you is punishment enough, triggering latent envy and subsequent rage. Knowing how much others love you and why they hold you in high regard is enough to flip a mental switch.
My clients, those who significantly struggle to acknowledge the good parts of themselves, can’t image being envied. So, I’m challenged to convince them that they became victims for reasons hitherto unconsidered. To them, victimhood was the natural result of being burdens, annoying and dependent. They wonder, “How can anyone want to be anything I am?” And their partners would never admit to them, or even to themselves, that jealousy lies at the root of their abuse. Fundamentally, their explanations perfectly match those of the victim. Or, when feigning remorse, they externalize the blame, highlighting high degrees of stress or external pressure that they’re feeling. This is the old “It’s not you; it’s me” interpretation. Or, better yet, “It’s not you or me.”
Unfortunately, even with some self-awareness and a desire to be charitable, when the narcissist exposes his internal-state, the bullied finds a way to convince herself that he’s wrong because this new, frightening perspective challenges her core self-concept. So, much of the work in treatment focuses on exploring how the victim came to conceive of herself as being deserving of abuse and the elements that help sustain her understanding.