As the saying goes, we often hurt the ones we love, but narcissists torture others deliberately and with little to no restraint.
Merriam-Webster defines torture as “the infliction of “intense pain to coerce, punish, or afford sadistic pleasure” and “anguish of body or mind.” Anyone who has had the misfortune of being targeted by a narcissist knows very well that torture is in fact precisely the word for the experience. Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) is by nature an abusive disorder because of the narcissist’s deficient development of ego and empathy, which leads him/her to compensate with a false vainglorious omnipotent persona in the absence of a moderating conscience.
Those closest to people with NPD, such as a partner/spouse and children, are at most risk of torturous behavior. It can range from psycho-emotional to physical and sexual, but it is inevitable because narcissists don’t care if they hurt others while at the same time are always attempting to exert control.
“Coercion” is the first part of the dictionary definition of torture. Narcissists coerce others, especially their family, to uphold the manufactured identity they create for themselves in place of the shame and instability they actually feel beneath their assertions of superiority. They continuously work to convince themselves that their invented self is real and true, and they resort to all means of coercion to exact cooperation from those around them to support their sham reality.
Here are common coercive tactics narcissists use to gain compliance from others.
- Isolation removing the target’s independence, such as by restricting contact with friends, outside family, and social connections; constraining physical freedom; and limiting financial resources
- Removal of Free Will destabilizing the target’s fundamental sense of self, reality, and worldview through persistent questioning and negative judgment
- Instilled Powerlessness undermining the target’s confidence in his/her thoughts, feelings, and perceptions through distortions of reality, gaslighting, and dismissing and denying truths and facts to cause self-doubt and cognitive dissonance
- Thought Control controlling acceptable opinion and expression in the target through judgment, intimidation, silent treatment, rejection, and unspoken “rules of engagement”
- Terror controlling the target’s words, actions, and thoughts through implied, threatened, or real verbal, physical, and/or sexual violence, sometimes combined with intermittent repentance, promises of change, and/or rewards to keep the target “in the game” and holding out hope for change
“Punishment” is the second part of our dictionary definition of torture. Narcissists are not capable of sustained genuine love, loyalty, or respect for others, even and often especially those who in fact love and are loyal and respectful to them. Anyone who triggers, usually inadvertently, their profound insecurity, or narcissistic injury (that early childhood psycho-emotional wound that never heals), is fair game for a host of punishments. Narcissists punish for numerous reasons, and they do it without remorse believing others deserve it and would do the same to them if they were clever enough and/or given the chance.
Reasons for Punishment
- to control
- to get revenge
- to demonstrate their powers of influence
- to obtain/regain compliance
- to vent their rage
- to assert their entitlement
- to shut down potential or actual threats
- to defeat “competition”
- to display their dominance
- to get “respect”
- to create fear
- to derive sadistic pleasure
Here we come to the third part of our dictionary definition of torture: “sadistic pleasure” in pursuit of causing “anguish of body or mind.” Some narcissists are malignant, meaning their primary means of exerting control over their environment is through serial aggression, dominance, and abuse. Many malignant narcissists are also sadistic, experiencing pleasure, often sexual, through torturing others. They aren’t hurting others just because they lack a conscience and are trying to moderate their self-esteem. They are doing it also because they enjoy and even delight in humiliating, dominating, defiling, and dehumanizing others. People with NPD are not necessarily sadistic, but the ones who are make monstrous abusers who will torment those, in a parallel universe, they are meant to love.
Thank you to The Neurotypical Site for insights into psychological coercion based on Amnesty International definitions, adapted here.
Julie L. Hall is the author of The Narcissist in Your Life: Recognizing the Patterns and Learning to Break Free coming December 3, 2019, from Hachette Books. Preorder your copy now.