The Case For
Well duh! Of course they are. I mean let’s just pause for a moment and consider all the horrible things they do to you…
You only have to read a few articles by people who have had relationships with narcissists or had one in their family to come across headlines like this;
“20 Diversion Tactics Highly Manipulative Narcissists, Sociopaths And Psychopaths Use To Silence You”
“The Secret Language of Narcissists: How Abusers Manipulate their Victims.”
“If You Are the Target of Narcissistic Abuse”
Read on and the descriptions inside are like the plot of a nasty psychological thriller, the evil doer ramps up their abuse to extract every last morsel of narcissistic supply, while incapable of the slightest consideration or sympathy as they drive the unsuspecting victim round the bend then dumps them callously when they are no longer of any use,
“stronger forces were at work, and had been at work, to keep me numb and silent and weakened”
there was love bombing, grooming “a calculated and predatory act of maneuvering a person into a more dependent and isolated position by claiming a “special connection” where they are more vulnerable to accepting future abusive behavior.” ~ https://www.elephantjournal.com/2015/10/understanding-the-language-of-narcissistic-abuse/
“Rather than acknowledge their own flaws, imperfections and wrongdoings, malignant narcissists and sociopaths opt to dump their own traits on their unsuspecting suspects in a way that is painful and excessively cruel.”
“Malignant narcissists and sociopaths use word-salad, circular conversations, ad hominem arguments, projection and gaslighting to disorient you and get you off track should you ever disagree with them or challenge them in any way.”
“Deliberately misrepresenting your thoughts and feelings to the point of absurdity.” ~ http://thoughtcatalog.com/shahida-arabi/2016/06/20-diversion-tactics-highly-manipulative-narcissists-sociopaths-and-psychopaths-use-to-silence-you/
“When all else fails, the narcissist resorts to playing the victim card. This is designed to gain sympathy and further control behavior” ~ https://pro.psychcentral.com/exhausted-woman/2015/04/eight-mental-abuse-tactics-narcissists-use-on-spouses/
It is all so deliberate, cunning and downright evil. All these headlines and articles make quite clear the narcissists KNOW what they are doing, it is a ploy. They “use”, “manipulate”, “control behaviour” this all suggests the narcissist is consciously planning and plotting for a particular outcome where they emerge on top and to Hell with everyone else. Language like this to describe narcissists is almost universally used by their victims to describe what happened to them.
“Narcissism is an evil that masquerades as good. Like a Pied Piper this master illusionist can lead you to Hell all while making you feel flattered to be chosen to go there. Only when you wake up in Hell do you realise the real evil that existed in his fluted song. By then it’s too late; not only have you fallen victim, but most likely you have paid for the flute, as well.” ~Tigress Luv
Doesn’t that sum up a narcissist? Someone like your MIL who believes themselves to be a better sort of person to others and is so invested in that belief that they discount all evidence to the contrary with their manipulations, diversions and rages so as to keep their self-image intact.
Evil is seen as separate from sick in our society. When heinous crimes are committed; serial murders, sadistic torture and abuse of defenceless victims, we call the perpetrators evil as we struggle to conceive of any mindset which would lead to such actions. Their behaviour is so far from normal and so deliberate, not the rash or impulsive actions of a mentally unstable person, not sickness but choice. We face the possibility that such people exist in a version of reality which is utterly devoid of the ability to see other people as people at all. Complete absence of empathy and a desire to inflict pain on others for your own enjoyment are prerequisites for evil.
Don’t narcissists have a lack of empathy? Don’t they commit emotional and social abuses against people with impunity? Buying someone a crappy present to show how insignificant they are to you is not rash, not an emotional outburst (i.e. not sick), it is deliberate.
Just as we cannot hold in our minds what sort of person would commit violent, sadistic murders nor can we hold a picture of a person, our MILs maybe, who commits repeated acts of social and emotional cruelty even when told quite clearly how they are hurtful and unacceptable. It makes no sense to a normal person. Normal people don’t act this way, they don’t play games with people by denying they are committing such acts in the first place. Normal people listen, hear you and apologise because their intent was never to harm. How can we help but interpret the behaviour of a narcissist as deliberate and wilful?
Evil in a theological sense is to turn from your God, not just to become worldly and materialistic, invested in pleasures and status of the Earthly realm but to actively pursue acts which you know are wholly contrary to the tenants of your faith with no care for the damage. Thou shall kill, thou shall bear false witness, thou shall steal, thou shall covet.
Narcissism is a love of self and self-image, to a theologian this is to place oneself above God and heretical. Self-idolatry in effect. True religious practice in any form, Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Sufism, Hinduism, is humility before an Almighty. Humility requires an utter acceptance of your inadequacy in the face of the vastness of the Cosmos and a realisation of your part in this Cosmos as no more or less significant than any other. So are narcissists evil in the religious sense? Dante’s vivid description of the circles of Hell certainly includes levels where people had put themselves and their worldly pursuit of status ahead of their faith.
Violence against others is the 7th circle of Hell and this could include emotional violence not just physical harm, fraud of any kind or false representation including liars, hypocrites and seducers form the 8th circle and the worst, the bottom of the pit are betrayers. People who betray and exploit special relationships within family, to guests, benefactors, or their country are trapped for an eternity of punishment with Lucifer himself chewing Judas (betrayed Jesus Christ to the Romans in return for thirty pieces of silver), Brutus (murders his friend Julius Caesar by literally stabbing him in the back) and Cassius (instigator of the plot to kill Julius Caesar). Narcissists commit all crimes of the lower circles of Hell do they not? They betray their children’s instinctive love by using them to slake their unquenchable thirst for narcissistic supply and approval. They betray their guests (us, their sons- and daughters-in-law) with fakery and fraud before turning to interpersonal violence. They are emotionally and sometimes physically violent, they are frauds and betrayers. They are evil.
The Case Against
The definition of the word evil is profoundly immoral and wicked. Let’s pick that apart.
Immoral means goes against the established moral code of right and wrong. To deliberately be immoral implies that you have awareness of what is and isn’t moral in the first place. Morality requires that you know what is proper conduct. You have to hold within yourself sufficient awareness of your society and its rules so that you can make a moral decision. Whether your behaviour is right or wrong depends very much on the view of others, of your society’s principles. Without this external measure of acceptable how do you gauge your own morality? This is why we spend so much time teaching our children right and wrong. Immorality is then to choose deliberately to step outside those rules and principles.
Wicked means very bad, corrupt, wrong, black-hearted, sinful. You can have actions which are immoral but not wicked. It is immoral to lie but if a lie is told by and about oneself and harms no one in consequence you would hardly call it wicked. If I said I once won a gymnastic medal at school when actually I didn’t I am being immoral but not very bad, corrupt and black-hearted.
So to be truly evil my immorality must extend to acts which deliberately cause serious harm to others. In order to do this I must be able to distinguish which acts will hurt other people. I have to know when others are hurting and how to provoke this hurt in them.
I have wrestled with this point for some years now since realising my MIL is seriously narcissistic and I have come to a conclusion. I don’t think narcissists are evil, I think they are mentally and emotionally ill.
You can argue that narcissists don’t know that they are being immoral as they don’t have a clear sense of right and wrong, they are psychologically incapable of seeing past the end of their own nose and so are oblivious to the harm they cause others. In their own minds they are very moral and proper. It’s other people who do them harm and falsely accuse them of being hurtful because these other people just don’t understand them. Narcissism is a huge blindspot not a deliberate desire to inflict harm.
In the first half of this post I wrote that complete absence of empathy and a desire to inflict pain on others for your own satisfaction are prerequisites for evil. Narcissists certainly have low or absent empathy, it is one of the traits which define the disorder in the psychiatric profession’s manuals DSM IV and V.
Would you be evil if you felt no empathy but left others alone? I think not. You could feel nothing for other people and yet understand the need for obeying rules and laws, even social rules and customs like exchanging gifts. The android Data in the Star Trek – The Next Generation TV series is an example of a conscious being with no capacity for empathy because they feel nothing at all. Such a person may struggle with intimate relationships (as Data does in the series) but not act exploitatively in a conscious way. Evil involves intentional harm to others.
So I have come to the conclusion that despite what so many blogs and articles by wounded victims suggest most narcissists have little or no intention to hurt you. They are not cunning and Machiavellian villains devoting their time and resources to targeting you. The crushing truth is that they are so wrapped up in themselves they barely see you at all. They are gazing obsessively at themselves and polishing their own self-image. all. the. time. You are an afterthought at best. They are also blind to their obsession, they are unable to fully see that there are other people, another world around them. It simply isn’t as real as they are to themselves. Remember Narcissus in the myth starved to death while staring at his own reflection. They are sick, they are incapable of looking away from themselves.
That doesn’t mean that they don’t hurt you, make no mistake, I am not letting them off the hook. The behaviours they use when interacting with other people can deeply would those people. What I am saying is they have so little awareness of others and such limited insight into themselves it is silly to portray them as out to get you, to control or target you, to wilfully try and abuse you. They are instinctive, it’s like claiming a wasp was deliberately targeting you because it stung you. I’m sorry but you just aren’t that important to them.
So what exactly is going on inside a narcissists head when they are abusive, lie to or manipulate you? Panic. Overwhelming existential panic. Narcissists have two polarities inside them, two extreme positions. One is “I am a special person” the other is “I am an awful person” and there is nothing in between. All narcissistic behaviour is a desperate attempt to shore up the first position by receiving confirmation from the outside of their specialness (in whatever way they think of themselves as special) AND at the same time a desperate attempt to run away from and divert anyone else from noticing the other possible position where they are shameful and defective. Nothing else gets a look in, this is the dominating preoccupation of their life. Trying to maintain their position at one end of this see-saw while refusing to even acknowledge the other end is all consuming and terrifying at the same time.
For example, a narcissist could lie through omission so that you find yourself involved with some plan of theirs which you never agreed to, maybe they invite friends round for a barbecue and expect you to be there helping out but don’t tell you until the night before.
They have done this so some need is met, they can’t ask you for agreement as that means you could say no and the need is not met. This may deprive them of a desperately needed boost of affirmation or approval, and they have to have it, this preoccupies them intensely even if you can’t see that. They will not consciously think “I will not ask them if it’s OK to have a BBQ” no they operate in a habitual way where they have learned since childhood that getting what they need can be achieved through various means and doing things without asking is one of them. This becomes a habit which they do not have to consciously think about.
They will convince themselves that their need actually helps you in some way, to justify it to themselves and to bolster their sense of themselves as a good person. They may even tell you how difficult it has been to organise this thing you never wanted to do for your benefit. And they believe this. Do not underestimate how much they believe this. Narcissism is a continuous state of self-delusional reinforcement of a fantasy (I am special and never wrong) and horrified retreat from a nightmare (I am awful and hateful). They lie to themselves more than they ever lie to anyone else.
If you react with shock, anger and refusal to cooperate then they can interpret your reaction as stemming from YOUR flaws not their actions. You are ungrateful because organising a barbecue is a nice thing. They are genuinely baffled when you ask to be informed about such plans in good time in future. Your request seems outlandishly fussy, they simply can’t see that you are a real person with your own plans and needs which they should be anticipating and being respectful of. They don’t see you. Not going along happily with their plan cracks their fantasy world and they paste over the cracks by externalising the problem, it’s you not them. Everything with them is fine.
This failure to properly conceive of other people as having as vivid and real an inner world and needs as yourself is a developmental stage that all children pass through. Narcissism has been described as a form of arrested development in that they walk around in an adult body but fail to see the world in an adult way. Your 5 year old child doesn’t realise it is nearly dinner time (even though you have the saucepans bubbling on the stove) and insists that their entire paint set be produced so they can paint a masterpiece on the kitchen table that second. Likewise the narcissist needs to see their grandchild this weekend and you have to supply them because they NEED it.
The mistake people make when dealing with narcissism is to see it as anything other than a very needy child walking around in an adults body. We can ignore a spoilt child and think nothing personal of their tantrums. We obviously don’t expect a reciprocal relationship of equals with such a child and nor should we expect it from a narcissist.
Hence the narcissist cannot be truly evil as they are not truly moral in any sense. They lack the ability to see the moral expectations of our society in the same way a child does. They are so turned inwards they cannot see you, you baffle them. They are needful, grasping creatures, quite desperate really. The terrible harm comes from the fundamental imbalances in any relationship with them. We think we have a relationship with someone capable of reciprocity and we don’t. If you don’t spot this fast you become stuck in their fantasy projection and try to fit yourself in it. That is when the harm of narcissistic abuse kicks in. You try to keep them happy and to make sense of why your relationship with them keeps going wrong.
Finally I think it is soothing in a perverse kind of way for victims of narcissistic abuse, especially when the abuse is in a romantic relationship, to believe they were targeted by a deliberately vicious person. The extreme anger that people feel when they see the narcissist for who they are rather than the false image they project is understandable and it is normal for people to be horrified and attack and blame them. Underlying this anger is anger at oneself and shame at having not seen through the facade any earlier. To interpret the abusive relationship as one where this person deliberately hid themselves with the intention of luring and abusing you keeps you as the hero of your own story. It saves your ego at a time when you are very hurt and betrayed. That is necessary and normal but not true. When the rage and hurt subside what you are left with is the chance for a very honest look at yourself and why you were the supply that this dysfunctional person got so much from.
Why did you keep giving and not see what they were? Often this is rooted in our childhoods. Victims of narcissistic abuse are usually unusual in someway. Unusually empathic, unusually compliant, unusually undemanding. In our relationships with MIL we are caught between our perceptions and feelings that something is wrong and wishing to not upset our partners and their family. We put our feelings down and allow them to get away with too much. The NPD MIL feels so powerful, but this is our partner’s inner child projecting some almost godlike authority on the MIL. She is not evil, all powerful or out to get you. She is desperately paddling like mad under the surface to maintain an image of superiority in ways your partner colludes with. Not evil, but sick and quite vulnerable and pathetic.
You can hurt them very easily once you see it, but then that would be deliberately immoral and wicked wouldn’t it.