What is Power by Shahida Arabi about? Are you stuck in a relationship with a narcissist?
In Power, Shahida Arabi provides an overview of Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) and describes a narcissist’s signature manipulation strategies. She also gives advice for healing after narcissistic abuse.
Read below for a brief overview of Shahida Arabi’s Power.
Power by Shahida Arabi
Many of us have met someone who’s a little too vain and loves to show off—people often referred to as “narcissists.” However, despite this common understanding of narcissism as a mildly annoying personality trait, it can also be a severe clinical condition called Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD). This type of narcissist—sometimes called a “malignant narcissist”—lacks empathy, has a grandiose sense of self, and exploits others to bolster their ego. As a result, many narcissists emotionally, verbally, and sometimes physically abuse their romantic partners, causing them long-term psychological distress.
In Power, Shahida Arabi describes the characteristics and manipulation tactics of malignant narcissists to help people avoid relationships with narcissists or end a relationship with one as soon as possible. Arabi says that understanding narcissists and their tendencies is crucial because anyone can fall prey to narcissists, who often seem like ideal partners in the early stages of their mind games. She also asserts that by understanding NPD, abuse survivors can recognize that abuse is never their fault and begin to heal.
Arabi has graduate degrees in sociology and psychology and has written multiple books on narcissistic abuse, including The Smart Girl’s Guide to Self-Care (2014), Becoming the Narcissist’s Nightmare (2016), and The Highly Sensitive Person’s Guide to Dealing With Toxic People (2020). She also founded the website Self-Care Haven, which features extensive resources for abuse survivors. As a researcher and survivor of narcissistic abuse, Arabi has a multifaceted understanding of the topic and deep compassion for other survivors.
Narcissists and Their Characteristics
To start, we’ll explain the distinguishing characteristics of NPD and what causes it. (Shortform note: Throughout the guide, we’ll refer to people with NPD as “narcissists” for simplicity. However, keep in mind that some people use this term to describe non-clinical, less severe forms of narcissism, which people can exhibit on a spectrum.)
What Is NPD?
Arabi says that the clinical definition of NPD includes the following traits: Narcissists feel superior to others, desire constant admiration and affirmation of their superiority, feel pathological envy, lack empathy, and try to bolster their ego at the expense of others.
Based on her research and experience, Arabi adds that narcissists tend to control and abuse their romantic partners in strategic and sadistic ways. This means that they get pleasure from putting other people down and making them feel worthless because it reinforces the narcissists’ overinflated egos. Because narcissists are incapable of feeling empathy, they’ll go to great lengths to make themselves feel better through psychological abuse (and sometimes physical aggression as well).
Arabi explains that narcissists can be difficult to identify early on because they’re highly skilled at detecting what appeals to others and put on an alluring facade to draw people in. She says that a narcissist will only reveal their cruel nature after a partner is invested in and infatuated with them, making it more difficult for their partner to leave them.
What Causes NPD?
Now that we’ve explained what NPD is, we’ll explore what causes NPD. According to Arabi, psychology experts haven’t identified a definitive cause for this mental disorder. She explains that there are several biological and environmental factors, often overlapping in individuals, that likely cause NPD. Most importantly, Arabi notes, people develop NPD during childhood, so a victim of narcissistic abuse is never the cause of the narcissist’s behavior.
In addition, Arabi says that despite the underlying causes of NPD—which aren’t in the narcissist’s control—any abuse the narcissist enacts is a conscious choice they make, so they should still be held accountable for it.
At the biological level, narcissism is a trait that can be passed down genetically (but isn’t always). In addition, research shows that narcissists have distinct anomalies in their brains, particularly in areas associated with empathy and compassion.
NPD can also arise when children are raised in an environment that causes either extremely high or low self-esteem. For example, children are more likely to develop NPD if they’re raised without any rules or boundaries, are continually told that they’re special and perfect, or are lavishly praised and valued for specific traits like their appearance. In these cases, the child becomes entitled to positive attention and expects it from everyone else, too.
On the other hand, children who are neglected by their parents and adopted children who feel they have to compete with their non-adopted siblings are also at a higher risk of becoming narcissists. In these circumstances, children may develop NPD (a specific type called “vulnerable narcissism”) to compensate for feeling undervalued.
In the case of both overindulgence and neglect, the children who develop NPD don’t have a healthy sense of self in which they feel worthy for who they are, and not for their talent, appearance, or other desirable traits.
In addition, exposure to narcissistic parents increases the risk of NPD because children can learn to mirror the behavior. When this exposure doesn’t result in NPD, it still makes people more likely to become victims of narcissistic abuse later in life because the person was conditioned from a young age to appeal to their narcissistic parent for survival.
Manipulation Tactics of a Narcissist
In the previous section, we learned that the main goal of a narcissist is to gain adoration from others, which reinforces their feeling of superiority. Now, we’ll describe the tell-tale signs of a narcissist trying to manipulate you into giving them that attention. Arabi says that by understanding these tactics, you can equip yourself to recognize and end relationships with a narcissist as quickly as possible.
A Pattern of Building You Up and Tearing You Down
A common behavior in narcissists is a repeating pattern of showering you with love, compliments, and affection to suck you into a relationship, only to then tear you down psychologically through covert and direct insults. Arabi says that this tends to end with the narcissist abandoning you in a cruel way, though they are likely to try to maintain control and start the pattern all over again with false promises of changing their behavior. Arabi refers to this as the “Idealize-Devalue-Discard” cycle.
This tactic is effective because at the neurological level, it establishes a biochemical addiction to the narcissist. The narcissist’s false charm and over-the-top expressions of love (what Arabi calls “love-bombing”) tend to make you invested in them quickly, and it leads to high amounts of the brain chemical dopamine that makes you feel good.
Arabi then says that when the narcissist begins to turn on you and withhold that affection, you’ll strive to please them to get back to that level of dopamine. By erratically flip-flopping between love and cruelty, the narcissist creates what psychologists call an “intermittent reward” that makes the dopamine rush even more intense when they finally treat you well. Arabi compares this to when people play slot machines, and they can’t stop playing because of the randomness of the occasional earnings.
The next common manipulation tactic of a narcissist is gaslighting, in which the abuser makes you feel like the abuse isn’t actually happening or that your negative reaction to their abuse is unwarranted. Arabi says they might achieve this with blatant denial, like “That never happened,” or by feigning innocence and implying that you’re overly sensitive. For example, they might use statements like “I didn’t know you would get so upset about that—I didn’t mean any harm,” even when they intentionally hurt and triggered you.
Arabi explains that this tactic is highly damaging because it makes you question whether the abuse is really happening and makes you feel ashamed for being too sensitive or critical. This ultimately gives the narcissist more ammunition to harm (an additional insecurity to target) and reduces your ability to call them out or hold them accountable.
Drawing You Back Into the Relationship
Another manipulation strategy narcissists use to fulfill their incessant need for attention is a psychological term called “hoovering”—or sucking you back into the relationship. Arabi explains that narcissists will try to draw you back in not because they have any genuine remorse for their actions or love for you but because they want more from you. It’s a way of testing your boundaries—how far can the narcissist push you and still be able to continue the abuse?
In one form of this tactic, once you’ve distanced yourself from the narcissist or after the narcissist abandons you, they’ll lure you back with apologies, lies about their remorse, and promises to go back to the way things were at the beginning of the relationship. Arabi says the narcissist may also prey on your compassion or guilt you into returning through methods such as threatening self-harm.
Arabi warns that if you’ve ended things with the narcissist, they might stalk you after the breakup as a way of intimidating you, exerting control over your life, and provoking some kind of response.
The Difference Between Narcissists and Emotionally Immature People
Arabi acknowledges that some of the manipulation tactics described in this section may seem similar to the behaviors of people who don’t have NPD. There are many people who string their partners along and dump them in inconsiderate ways, or are self-absorbed and don’t treat others with respect. Although some of these qualities overlap with emotionally immature people who don’t have NPD (who Arabi refers to as “toxic”), Arabi recommends simply walking away from anyone who demonstrates a pattern of these behaviors.
Arabi adds that the key distinction between someone with NPD and someone who’s emotionally immature is that the narcissist is not just inconsiderate but incapable of feeling compassion, and they’re unlikely to want to change because they’re getting what they want by abusing other people. An emotionally immature person, on the other hand, does have the capacity to grow and evolve, especially when they come to terms with how their actions affect others.
Healing After Narcissistic Abuse
Whether you’re in a relationship with a potential narcissist or have already ended a relationship with someone who demonstrates the behaviors we’ve discussed, Arabi offers advice on how to take back control of your life and begin to heal. Her biggest recommendation is to end the relationship and all contact with the narcissist, since this is the only way to definitively end the abuse. However, she also acknowledges the challenges of doing so.
In this section, we’ll cover her advice for ending, coping with, and healing from a relationship with a narcissist. She also recommends that throughout these healing strategies, you strive to have compassion for yourself by understanding that abuse is never your fault, and surround yourself with people who genuinely love you and will support you throughout your journey.
Ending a Relationship With a Narcissist
According to Arabi, the only way to resolve narcissistic abuse is to leave the relationship and either end all contact with them (often referred to as “No Contact”) or do so as much as possible (“Low Contact”) if you have children together or need to communicate for some other reason. However, Arabi acknowledges that this can be extremely difficult in practice, for a variety of reasons, so a victim of narcissistic abuse should never feel ashamed for being afraid to leave or for taking “too long” to leave by other people’s standards.
Some of the many reasons it can be difficult to end a relationship with an abusive narcissist include: the neurochemical addiction to the abuser due to the tactic of using intermittent rewards discussed earlier in the guide, “trauma bonding” (in which the victim forms a strong emotional connection with the abuser to cope with the abuse), fear of retaliation for leaving, a lack of financial independence or housing security, damage to the victim’s executive decision-making centers in the brain (caused by the abuse), and manipulation tactics tailored to win the victim over.
Coping in a Relationship With a Narcissist
Given the challenges inherent in ending a relationship with a narcissist, Arabi also provides some strategies to reinforce your sense of self and increase your ability to hold your partner accountable if you’re still in a relationship with a narcissist.
Arabi says that even after ending a relationship with a narcissist, the abuse may have long-lasting effects, such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Complex PTSD (CPTSD), low self-worth, erosion of your fundamental identity, cognitive dissonance (in which you try to reconcile differing perceptions of the abuser and the abuse), depression, and self-isolation. Because of these wide-ranging effects, healing can be a years-long process.
Arabi writes that it’s important to be kind to yourself during this process by giving yourself plenty of time and allowing yourself to feel the full range of emotions.
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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Shahida Arabi's "Power" at Shortform.
Here's what you'll find in our full Power summary:
- A look at the severe condition called Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD)
- How to avoid or end relationships with narcissists
- Advice for healing after narcissistic abuse