How Hierarchical Thinking Relates To Narcissistic Abuse

relates to narcissistic abuse

Example—Cinderella and her Stepmother

I learned a great deal about personality disorders as a child by reading fairy tales. Most of us know the story of Cinderella. She was the beloved daughter of her widowed father. When her father remarried a haughty woman with two spoiled daughters, Cinderella lost her place in the family status hierarchy.

Her stepmother made certain that she and her daughters got the best of everything and Cinderella was demoted to being the family servant. She was now mockingly called Cinderella because her stepmother made her sleep on the floor in the kitchen. She was often so cold that she got covered with cinders from trying to stay warm by sleeping close to the kitchen’s fireplace.

Also read The Difference Between Narcissism And Confidence

Why Do Narcissists Make So Many Comparisons?

Hierarchical thinking leads to comparisons because it is so important for narcissists to clearly understand who to idealize and who can safely be ignored. This means that if you know someone who is constantly comparing one person to another, this could be a sign of NPD. Of course, I would not make a diagnosis on this factor alone.

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How Hierarchical Thinking Relates To Narcissistic Abuse

Example—The Golden Child and the Scapegoat

Jenny was her narcissistic mother’s “Golden Child.” Jenny was a bright, adorable child. When she was born, her mother told everyone that Jenny was destined to do great things.

When her little sister Jill was born, she was constantly negatively compared to Jenny. Jill grew up hearing, “At your age your sister could already read.” Or, “It’s a shame you will never be as pretty as your sister.”

Jill was trained from early childhood to have low self-esteem and see herself as inferior to her sister Jenny. She was the family scapegoat. It took her years of psychotherapy to realize that she was just as talented, attractive, and worthwhile as her older sister—even if her mother saw her as below her sister in status.

Why Do Narcissists Engage In Dominance Fights?

So, if you suck up to those above you in status and devalue those below you in the hierarchy, what about people who are your equals? Well, if you have NPD, there is no such thing as an equal in a pure hierarchy. This leads people with NPD to engage in nasty and sometimes quite lengthy dominance fights.

Example—Candy and Mary

Candy and Mary were work colleagues. They both had similar jobs. Mary assumed that they were friends. Candy, who had a closet narcissistic disorder, envied Mary and saw her as a competitor. Candy covertly did whatever she could to get other people to see Mary as inferior and inadequate.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the term “closet narcissist,” it was invented by the object relations theorist James F. Masterson (1926-2010) to describe a subtype of people with NPD who want to be special but are too insecure to openly claim the spotlight. Instead, they find a roundabout, manipulative and indirect ways to accomplish their goals. Other theorists call this subtype by different names. Sometimes it is referred to as covert, fragile, or vulnerable NPD.

If you want to read more about this subtype of NPD, please check out Masterson’s book, The Emerging Self (1993), Paul Wink’s paper, “Two faces of narcissism” (1991), or my book: Borderline, Narcissistic, and Schizoid Adaptations (2016).

In this case, Candy told stories about Mary’s inadequacies behind her back. Under the guise of being sympathetic, she would go to lunch with their boss and say things like, “It is such a shame that Mary is struggling so hard to do her job. I know she needs help, so I often simply pitch in and then let Mary take the credit. Poor Mary! She is so overwhelmed!”

When a promotion became available, Candy got it and cemented her status as above Mary in the company’s hierarchy. Mary’s reputation never recovered and she never found out that Candy had engineered the whole thing.

Related: What Is Healthy Narcissism? How Does it Differ from Self Love


All people with narcissistic personality disorder are hierarchical in their thinking. They automatically assess everyone they meet with regard to where they fit into the status hierarchy they value. There are no exceptions for friends, family members, colleagues, or lovers. Everyone is seen in rather stark terms: “Do I have a use for this person? Will this person help me rise in the hierarchy? Are they above or below me?”

References :
Masterson, J. (1993). The Emerging Self. NY: Brunner/Mazel.
Greenberg, E. (2016). Borderline, Narcissistic, and Schizoid Adaptations. NY: Greenbrooke Press.
Wink, P. (1991). Two faces of narcissism. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 61 (4), 590-597.
Originally Appeared On: Psychology Today
Republished with permission
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How Hierarchical Thinking Relates To Narcissistic Abuse
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How Hierarchical Thinking Relates To Narcissistic Abuse
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Dr. Elinor Greenberg PhD, CGP

Elinor Greenberg, Ph.D., CGP, is an internationally renowned Gestalt therapy trainer who specializes in teaching the diagnosis and treatment of Borderline, Narcissistic, and Schizoid adaptations in a lively and practical way. She has trained psychotherapists in her approach in the US, Norway, Sweden, Wales, England, Russia, and Mexico. Dr. Greenberg is the author of the book: Borderline, Narcissistic, and Schizoid Adaptations: The Pursuit of Love, Admiration and Safety.View Author posts