Mar 1, 2023

The Overuse of Narcissism : Why Most Abusers Aren't Narcissists

Most Abusers Aren't Narcissists

“He’s such a narcissist”

How many of us have heard people say things like this in reference to a perpetrator of abuse? Do perpetrators really have Narcissistic Personality Disorder, or is this a term that has been overused and misused?

According to the DSM 5 [1], Personality Disorders are biological, and the behaviors are “enduring”, “stable over time”, and “pervasive and inflexible” . The DSM 5 states :

“The pattern in personality disorders is maladaptive and relatively inflexible, which leads to disabilities in social, occupational, or other important pursuits, as individuals are unable to modify their thinking or behavior, even in the face of evidence that their approach is not working. “

(**Note “unable to modify their thinking or behavior”. This further attributes to the DSM’s claim that personality disorders are not choices, they are a part of who the person is)

Having NPD means the person can't help it. Therapist Randy Withers LCMHC states :

"While people with Narcissistic Personality Disorder are capable of some truly terrible behaviors, they are nonetheless people who suffer from a mental illness that is largely beyond their control. 

Those with a different point of view might take issue with what I have just said. NPD is a personality disorder, they would say. That’s totally different than a mental disorder like depression.

But they’d be wrong. The American Psychiatric Association classifies personality disorders as a type of mental disorder. The Mayo Clinic notes this as well, and research published in the British Journal of Psychiatry notes that their distinction is arbitrary."

If a perpetrator was truly a narcissist, you would see the disorder in all aspects of their life. Ie. Interaction with boss, coworkers, parents, wife, pastor, friends, strangers, etc. But as many victims of abuse have experienced, abusers are generally just abusive to their partners and/or kids, but can put on a happy smile and act like a saint whenever they want to, when they want to impress someone, or when it’s important to them. This shows evidence their harmful behavior and mistreatment is a CHOICE, not a biological dysfunction and disorder they “can’t help”.

Furthermore, statistics show most abusers don’t even fit the criteria for Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Gandolf (1999) [2] tested 840 abusers from four different batterer intervention programs and found only 25% exhibited narcissistic characteristics. Belfrage and Rying (2004) [3] interviewed 164 perpetrators of spousal homicide, and found only 6% had Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Echeburua, Fern├índez-Montalvo (2007) [4] analyzed 162 perpetrators of intimate partner violence, and found only 12% had any psychopathy at all (and interestingly, the perpetrators within the study who murdered their partners were not more likely to have psychpathy either).

But why is calling abusers “narcissists” harmful? 

According to the DSM definitions, automatically calling abusers “narcissists” implies they can’t help their behavior, it’s just “who they are”, and they are inflexible to change. This not only conceals the perpetrators choices, it also conceals the violence committed against victims. And whenever violence is concealed, victim blaming follows (society has to put the blame somewhere). In addition, the overuse of this label upholds the cultural notion that abusers cannot change, and if they cannot change then they cannot make a choice. How can we as a society stop abusers if we are inadvertently teaching them they can’t control themselves and cannot change? How can we protect victims if we cannot stop abusers? So for the safety of victims, we must stop using the label “narcissist” as a catch all for abusers.

I really appreciate what Response Based Practice stated, who are leading experts in violence against women and perpetrators :

“Part of treating offenders with dignity … is that with very rare exceptions, we see violence as deliberate, and people who perpetrate violence as already possessing all the skills and awareness and ability to be completely respectful and non-violent before you ever meet them.

“People who perpetrate violence are not perpetrating violence all the time… If we begin to look at that then what we’re saying is, firmly, ‘your actions are deliberate and you are responsible for them. And we know that you’re completely capable of behaving differently and we can find out that you’re capable of behaving differently by looking at your excuses, your justifications, your denials.’ Because people would not bother to deny they’ve been violent if they didn’t already know it was wrong.

“It’s much more dignified to treat men as capable, competent, social actors than as people who are just stupid, hapless, are driven by forces they don’t understand and need us to tell them how to behave. From our point of view that’s humiliating and you don’t get people to be responsible in that way. So we treat men as capable.”


[1] Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders

[2] Gandolf (1999)

[3] Belfrage and Rying (2004), Characteristics of spousal homicide perpetrators: a study of all cases of spousal homicide in Sweden 1990-1999

[4] Echeburua, Fernández-Montalvo (2007), Male Batterers with and without Psychopathy: An Exploratory Study in Spanish Prisons

Linda Coates & Allan Wade 2007 & 2021

Influences :

E Calvete (2008) , Mental health characteristics of men who abuse their intimate partner (PDF)