As a seasoned therapist in NYC specializing in treating survivors of complex trauma and a subset of relational trauma known as narcissistic abuse syndrome, I encounter men and women who enter treatment baffled by the damage incurred by a female narcissist. Being certified in Dr. Karyl McBride’s five-step recovery model for treating adult children of narcissists often means that many of these victims seeking treatment were victimized by maternal narcissists.
Sometimes they are married or romantically involved with a narcissistic woman, or they might have been perpetrated by a narcissistic sister or encountered a female narcissist in the workplace. As a result, they are beset by Stockholm Syndrome and evidence PTSD, dissociative traits and present with dangerously low self esteem and self condemnation. They evidence a high tolerance for cruelty and abuse, doubt their perceptions, and may idealize and fear their abuser.
We’ve all had the misfortune of meeting her. She’s the mean girl, a femme fatale, a damsel feigning innocence, an engulfing destructive mother, a gluttonous gold digger. Whatever form she takes she is toxic to everyone. Usually diagnosed as borderline or histrionic with core personality traits of narcissism, the female narcissist is just as dangerous and malignant as her male counterpart.
Unlike the introversion-extroversion spectrum in which we see a range of opposite ways of being, with traits of engagement and disengagement peppered in-between, the narcissism spectrum draws distinctions of adaptive to malignant states. Accordingly, while the introversion-extroversion only connotes differences, the narcissism spectrum delineates what is healthy from what is not only mentally sick, but what is also dangerous. How benign or destructive a narcissist is depends on where they land on the spectrum.
Not surprising, as difficult as it is to convince others of the surreal machinations of a narcissist, it is especially challenging when the narcissist is female. Identifying a female narcissist can be more complex than recognizing a male narcissist largely because gender polarization and cultural stereotypes can obfuscate where a woman falls on the spectrum.
The female narcissist understands that the stereotypical female is characterized as demure, nurturing, and empathetic. She is viewed as virtuous and non-violent. There is little variability or gradation.
In the world of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ polarizations the woman who deviates from a one-dimensional conceptualization of soft, sweet and selfless are denounced as bitches, shrews, witches and hags. They are ‘fallen’ women. There is no ‘in-between.’ The female narcissist is privy to how this collective denial of a woman’s complexity interferes with differentiating healthy expressions of aggression in women from egregious amoral behavior. She capitalizes on this reality by knowing who she needs to pretend to be to get what she wants. Most importantly she understands what eludes many; evil is always cloaked in virtue.
Hence, the female narcissist crafts a personae which conceals her Machiavellian agendas and malignant traits. Her true self hides behind a beguiling, clichéd feminine demeanor.
In the Gaslighting Friend, I wrote about a dynamic with a woman who touted herself a spiritual healer and a pillar of altruism and morality. Indeed, this fictionalized account told of a ten-year friendship I shared with a narcissistic ‘shaman’ who used virtue signaling and piety to glean supply. When I stopped believing that her backstabbing and intermittent barbs and disparagement were meant to ‘help,’ I saw the energy vampire that lurked beneath her fallen mask.
Indeed many narcissistic women market themselves as New Age coaches and charitable leaders in professional development forums. Their humanitarian do-gooder guise coupled with overtures of enlightenment procures worshipping devotees who are eager to please and grovel. A friend of mine is still reeling in the aftermath of having been a primary mark by a lauded female teacher in a ‘consciousness-raising’ cult.
Likewise, the Maternal Narcissist hides behind a veneer of virtue and martyrdom, while behind closed doors heinous crimes are committed. The severity of cyclical abandonment, engulfment, cruelty, and brainwashing correlates with how malignant the narcissism is. However, wherever she may fall on the spectrum, she lacks the capacity to empathically attune to her child.
Dr. Karyl McBride wrote in Will I Ever Be Good Enough?: Healing the Daughters of Narcissistic Mothers, “A narcissistic mother sees her daughter, more than her son, as a reflection and extension of herself rather than as a separate person with her own identity. She puts pressure on her daughter to act and react to the world and her surroundings in the exact manner that Mom would, rather than in a way that feels right for the daughter. Thus, the daughter is always scrambling to find the “right” way to respond.”
Departing from the more seemingly benign facades of the altruist and the mother, the femme fatale narcissist uses aggressive sexual persuasion to get what she wants. In classic form she love bombs and uses her sexuality to control the relationship. By showering her romantic prey with compliments and barraging the courtship with steamy sex, she generates magical feelings of euphoria and specialness so as to hook her romantic prey. Once the ‘deal is sealed’ she proceeds with fostering an addictive trauma bond. This is achieved through intermittent reinforcement.
Abuse is interspersed into the relationship with intermittent reprieves of ‘normalcy’ and loving overtures. She will ghost, run hot and cold, make hollow promises, withhold, blame and gaslight. This establishes unpredictability and confusion. Eventually, cognitive dissonance sets in and the narcissist’s victim experiences a desperate urgency to discern a rhyme or reason. As the progression of abuse escalates and the victim becomes more malleable, the narcissist becomes more ruthless. Lying, cheating, stealing, and resorting to overt forms of emotional and physical violence become routine.
Both male and female narcissists are grandiose and feel entitled to endless admiration, even worship. They share a delusional sense of accomplishment and superiority and are contemptuous towards those they regard as inferior. Paradoxically they are filled with envy and project that they are envied by those around them. Naturally, as is the hallmark of NPD, they are devoid of empathy. This, in turn, promulgates unrepentant exploitation and calculated abuse.
Like their male equivalents, the female narcissist is developmentally stunted and mired in self-loathing. Beneath her bravado lurks insecurity, shame, vulnerability and humiliation. Her emotional volatility and insecurities are stealthily expressed through rage and sadistic assault. She conceals her narcissistic wounds and fragile ego with a meticulously devised false personae that ensures she will succeed at gleaning supply and being the center of attention.
It is clear when we contrast and compare the male and female narcissist that what differentiates them has more to do more with image and style of presentation than symptomatology. The roles and functions the female narcissist assumes will correlate with the persona she cultivates.
Obsessed with image, she will be dressed to the nines, polished and coiffed. She may even resort to cosmetic surgeries to best embody whatever part she is trying on. Generally a materialist, the female narcissist will target a wealthy suitor in her pursuit of “love.” Regardless of whether she is single, married, or betrothed, she has no compunction about seducing friends’ boyfriends or cheating with her friends’ husbands. She will do what is necessary to procure a lavish lifestyle. She needs to have material status to feel superior and flaunt her possessions so as to intimidate others. For the female narcissist, life is always a competition.
Driven by drama and stimulation, she will thrive on creating chaos and conflict. With histrionic exaggeration she will triangulate others to gossip, slut-shame and back-stab, reveling in bullying others with catty debasement. This is especially prevalent in narcissistic mother-in-laws who are covertly incestuous with their sons. By inserting themselves into their son’s marriage they deride the wife, taking the son hostage, and causing marital havoc.
If the female narcissist takes the form of an employer or supervisor, systemic pandemonium will ensue. A client I treated years back, initially felt inspired by the ostensible solidarity and engagement of her new female boss. She felt galvanized to work with another successful accomplished woman. Amid intermittent reinforcement and accolades, backstabbing, gaslighting, sabotaging, and disparagement occurred. Fueled by unrestrained envy, the CEO triangulated others into a web of deceit, creating a culture of confusion, fear, and cognitive dissonance. Ultimately, due to acute trauma, my client had to resign.
Holding female narcissists accountable means we need to expand our consciousness not just about the reality of human evil, but also about how evil manifests through female expression. Cultural prescriptions afford female narcissists the latitude to manipulate and abuse in ways that conceal their malevolence and vindictiveness.
Hiding behind beauty, maternalism and victimization, the female narcissist gets away with destroying others with impunity. In fact, when the perpetration of intimate partner violence is carried out by a female, we typically scoff at the notion that a man could be victimized, even in cases when medical attention is warranted. I’ve provided treatment to many men who were hit by their female partners and even threatened with false allegations of rape if they didn’t comply with untenable demands.
To stop enabling female narcissists we need to be willing to dismantle the mask of femininity that conceals what truly lurks beneath. Only then can true gender equanimity occur and can victims be rightfully acknowledged so that healing can ensue.
Thank you Sheri Heller for submitting this wonderful article!
If you would like to read more from this writer you can check out there website here: https://sheritherapist.com/index.html