How to Identify the Victim of Narcissistic Abuse (Versus the Narcissist Who Plays the Victim)

narcissistic abuse narcissistic relationships understanding narcissism Jan 04, 2024

When an abusive narcissist is called out on their behavior, whether they are exposed or confronted, they will likely play the victim rather than own up to their abuse. Why? Because a narcissist is always running from their shame. To not feel any shame, they will project, deflect, and manipulate—anything to avoid facing their demons. 

This blog operates on the premise that the abuser is a narcissist (a wolf in sheep’s clothing) and the victim is not. If both the abuser and victim were narcissists, with one overpowering the other, then the insights of this blog would not directly apply. Further, a narcissist is someone who is chronically and unapologetically entitled, arrogant, exploitative, lacking in empathy, grandiose in their self-estimation, high-conflict, manipulative, envious, easily angered, deceptive, and incessantly needy for validation from others to regulate their sense of self.

Jennifer Freyd, a psychology researcher, coined the term DARVO to explain one of the insidious ways an abuser manipulates when being confronted. DARVO stands for Deny, Attack, and Reverse Victim and Offender. Essentially, DARVO means that a narcissist will deny that they are being abusive. They will turn around and attack you, possibly with threats, slander, a smear campaign, humiliation, harassment, and other means of intimidation to block you from confronting them—and then reverse roles, portraying themselves as the victim and the accuser as the offender. In extreme cases, a narcissist may deliberately harm or sabotage themselves to create the illusion of being the abused party in the relationship.

The Third Party and the Two Stories

As a third party, you'll encounter at least two narratives: the abusive narcissist positioning themselves as the victim, asserting that the true victim is the abuser, and possibly even a narcissist. Secondly, the actual victim perceiving the narcissist to be the abuser.  How can you tell the truth? Don’t accept things at face value. Narcissists are master manipulators. To find the truth,  you must probe deeply into the narcissist's and victim's stories. In particular, there are two things to consider when trying to discern the truth. 

The first is that a narcissist doesn’t function out of their true self but rather a false self, which means they have no stable core. Without a stable core, they are like chameleons who can reinvent themselves completely at every turn. The only way to do this convincingly is to be the person they have reinvented themselves to be. A narcissist can cover their abusive persona and reinvent themselves into a victim who claims to feel afraid of the one who is calling them out on their abuse. Other people, seeing the narcissist in this convincing role, may easily fall for it.

Another crucial aspect to consider is that narcissists engage in a behavior known as "splitting." When a narcissist “splits,” they see people as either good or bad and don’t distinguish between nuanced parts of a situation or a person. This typically involves them villainizing people, and since they become so emotional, dysregulated, and antagonistic in their accusations, they easily persuade others that someone has wronged them terribly. In the third party’s assessment, people don’t just become extremely emotional and wound up for no good cause. This third party assumes that there must be a good reason why the narcissist is so extremely upset. It doesn’t naturally occur to them that the person sitting across from them could be wired with a predatory nature, especially if the third party doesn’t have an understanding of narcissism or the psyche of an abuser. A third-party person will instinctively believe that the abuser in your life is just like any other human being because it is not in their frame of reference to conceive that this person could be a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

 In situations where a narcissist employs DARVO (Deny, Attack, and Reverse Victim and Offender), it becomes challenging for a third party unfamiliar with narcissism, psychopathy, or other cluster B personality disorders to discern the manipulation tactics at play.

How to See Through DARVO

So here are three things that are critical to understand to see through a narcissist’s attempts at DARVO. 

Understand the Motives

The first thing you need to do is understand the fundamental motives that a victim and a narcissistic abuser have. 

What is the motivation of an abuser using DARVO?

DARVO is a form of manipulation. It is designed to fight. The motive is to deflect and avoid blame and shame. An abuser engaging in DARVO is usually truth-avoiding because they do not want to take responsibility. They do not want to own their part and take the blame, so they blame others. 

Typically, a victim of abuse wants to feel safe, wants to heal, and may be open for reconciliation if his or her abuser is willing to do the long hard work of facing their demons and dealing with their sin issues and character issues that led them to be abusive and possibly unfaithful in the first place. A true victim is seeking honesty and transparency from the abuser because that is foundational to reestablishing truth. Jesus said, "You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free." Truth is central to the healing process. A victim of abuse is usually truth-seeking.

An abusive narcissist has the following interests:

  • To avoid being held accountable
  • Not losing their reputation, and maintaining their status
  • Not losing the benefits they have been able to have through their abusive, manipulation, and/or coercive control
  • Shame avoidance
  • To punish the people who confronted and/or exposed them

Meanwhile, the victim’s interest is:

  • To heal
  • To be heard, believed, and supported
  • For justice
  • For God to restore and redeem what has been lost
  • To possibly reconcile with his or her abuser, if the abuser was willing to do the long and hard work of facing their demons and dealing with their sins and character issues that caused them to be abusive in the first place.

When you consider where both parties are coming from, you can probably tell who is a true victim and who is engaging in DARVO because their motives will inevitably leak out in their words and actions. The Bible says that out of the outflow of the heart, the mouth speaks (Luke 6:24). So paying careful attention to what both parties are saying and how they are saying things can show you who is the victim and who isn’t. 

King Solomon illustrated this careful listening when two women brought their infant children to him, one dead, and one alive (1 Kings 3). Both of the women claimed that the living baby was theirs and the dead baby was the other’s. So because Solomon could not tell which woman was lying and which was telling the truth, with wisdom from the Holy Spirit, he announced that the living baby would be cut in half and each woman would be given a half. And that is when the true motives of each woman were uncovered. The true mother objected to this solution and told Solomon to give the baby to the other woman. She couldn’t bear the thought of seeing her baby be killed. Meanwhile, the other woman insisted that Solomon follow through with dividing the child. So Solomon saw by both their responses who was the real mother and who was not and gave the living child to the woman who wanted him to live. Truly, there was a divine wisdom operating in Solomon at that moment. Just like Solomon asked God for wisdom, you can certainly pray that God will grant wisdom to those who are involved in your situation. 

When a narcissist or abuser is evading accountability and attempting to deflect responsibility, they will often shift into a mode of blame-shifting, wherein they vilify and demonize the other. They are not looking to explore or dialogue or self-reflect because all that could mean uncovering the truth about what they’ve done, and who they are. So when a person does a lot of blaming that is void of any self-reflection or self-awareness, one way to test where they’re at is simply to ask them, “What part did you have to play in this outcome?” A narcissist would have a hard time answering this question. At best they may say, “Yes, I’m not perfect. Nobody is perfect.” Follow up and ask them to walk you through in detail all the parts they had to play in creating the outcome. It will be difficult to get a narcissist to go as far as to admit they were wrong. They will speak in generalities and not refer to anything specific in anything they did wrong. Narcissists generally do not look too deep in themselves and have little self-awareness. 

If you were to ask a victim of narcissistic abuse this question, it may also be hard for them because the question can suggest blame and lack of belief. Remember that victims have been constantly gaslighted and blamed unjustly, so make sure to approach the conversation with love and compassion. But, if a victim were to think through carefully, they might say something like, “I was afraid…I didn’t think I had any other choice….I was told to love and submit more by my church…I was trauma bonded…he/she threatened to destroy my life if I left…” Here is what my experience was. And then they will proceed to tell a story of patterns of behaviors, incidents, and how those things affected them. 

A victim is usually looking to tell their story. They share in a way that is self-reflective and story-telling. Their goal is not necessarily to slander or smear the name of their abuser, but more to tell their story because for so long they have been voiceless. For them, this process is about freedom, healing, and knowing the truth, because it is the truth that makes them free. A victim is looking to heal and possibly reconcile. Those goals require truth-telling and truth-facing. 

A narcissist, on the other hand, plays the victim by blame-shifting and not by holding themselves up against the truth.

The PR Campaign

Here’s the second way a third party can see through a narcissist’s manipulative tactics. An abuser is likely to be more vocal than the victim. Why? Because a narcissist is seeking to preempt the victim’s story by starting a PR campaign and setting the tone first as themselves being abused or betrayed. Their interest is to maintain their image, so they are about doing whatever is necessary to avoid any possible damage to their reputations. This means they need to be in control of the narrative.

On the other hand, victims are already so burned and depleted by the trauma they’ve been through that they are looking to heal and looking to share their stories with safe and trustworthy people. They are not out doing a PR campaign about how much they have been victimized.

Intent toward the other

A narcissist usually engages in splitting by seeing people as either all good or all bad. So because they see themselves as the victim and want to punish the other person for exposing or betraying them, they will want to see that person punished or see their demise. So when they share, they intend to punish or see retribution. They are not seeking the rehabilitation and well-being of the victim but quite the opposite, and that will come through in how they tell the story.

On the other hand, a victim, as much as they have been hurt and traumatized by their abuser, their first and foremost goal is healing and telling their story and wanting honesty because they have been lied to, manipulated, and deceived so much. They are not on a crusade to talk about wanting to see their abuser’s demise or punishment. Now granted, a victim may be very angry and they may very well want justice and revenge. They may be tempted with the strong desire to see their abuser punished for their wrongdoings, especially if they seemed to have gotten away with so much for so long, but unlike a narcissist, even if a victim is wrestling with all these angry, rageful feelings, they are not going to go around and craft their entire story around this one point because a victim is not only dealing with anger, but with a complexity of many different emotions that they are holding all together, such as grief, and sadness and loss and fear along with anger… while a narcissist tends to think only in black and white, in all good or all bad. A victim generally can talk about the good moments in the relationship as well as the terrible moments and conclude that the abusive narcissist was wearing a mask to conceal their true nature. But a narcissist cannot hold together the good, bad, and ugly of the person they abused, so they will see them as all bad and forget anything good that person has ever done. They will recreate the reality of the relationship in a way that makes it seem like it was bad all along. So, for them, they can paint a person as all bad and carry on their crusade of wanting to see them punished and looking to see their demise.

So, to summarize the 3 points on how to spot the victim:

  1. A narcissist typically goes into blame-shifting and slandering mode, whereas the victim goes into story-telling mode.
  2. Narcissists are more vocal about their story as a PR move with a bigger number of people, while victims only share with safe, supportive people.
  3. A narcissist sees the other as all bad and wants to punish them or see their demise, whereas the victim wants to heal and is dealing with the complexity of emotions. 

Related Resources

Watch the video version of this blog here.

  •  Am I Being Abused by a Covert Narcissist? How to Tell. [Watch]
  • How to Stay Your Course in the Face of Manipulation. [Watch]

Find more resources in our topic-based catalog

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