To answer this question, we must first deconstruct the word narcissism, strip away the distortions of popular psychology, and understand it in its original context.
Narcissism is a word used to describe self-idealization. All human beings have a propensity to assign value to themselves. In fact, in and of itself, narcissism is not an inherently negative trait. On the contrary, a normal or healthy amount of narcissism is necessary for our mental health.
One of the keys to understanding narcissism is recognizing that it exists on a continuum. Problems arise when narcissism is excessive. Likewise, when it is deficient, it can pose a different set of challenges.
Excessive narcissism can inflate the ego to the extent that it generates a sense of superiority that eclipses one’s ability to value others. The most extreme expression of this trait is narcissistic personality disorder, also known as NPD.
The inability to see the value in other people can be an obstacle to treating others with respect and dignity. It fails to inhibit the individual’s aggression and relies on a plethora of primitive defense mechanisms to preserve the bloated state of the ego. For this reason, it is sometimes called malignant narcissism.
It is in the fertile soil of this brand of narcissism that DARVO can occur. DARVO is an acronym that stands for:
Jennifer J. Freyd, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at the University of Oregon, coined the term DARVO 1997 to describe a defensive tactic commonly used by manipulators to avoid being held to account by scapegoating the person they harmed.
“The perpetrator or offender may Deny the behavior, Attack the individual doing the confronting, and Reverse the roles of Victim and Offender such that the perpetrator assumes the victim role and turns the true victim – or the whistleblower – into an alleged offender.”
What is DARVO in narcissism? It is one of the most extreme forms of gaslighting commonly used by highly narcissistic people and NPDs to preserve their idealized image of themselves.
Confidential support is available 24/7/365 to anyone experiencing abuse. In the USA call 1-800-799-7233 or log on to thehotline.org. In the UK call 0808 2000 247 or log on to nationaldahelpline.org.uk.
SOMETIMES IT CAN SEEM as if highly narcissistic people possess such extraordinary manipulation skills that they appear to bend reality to their will. In many cases, survivors of narcissistic abuse are left reeling as the perpetrator blithely revises the fact of their aggression, twisting the truth into a narrative that bears no semblance to what actually transpired.
This is because narcissists have mastered a tactical maneuver that effectively grooms individuals and, indeed, entire social groups by controlling their perception of events.
The name of this strategy is DARVO.
What is DARVO?
DARVO is an acronym for Deny, Attack, Reverse, Victim and Offender. It is a defense mechanism used by manipulators to evade accountability for the abuse they inflict on others. It is a blame-shifting tactic used for gaslighting in the context of emotional abuse.
The term was first presented in a 1997 article by Jennifer J. Freyd, Ph.D., Professor of Psychology at the University of Oregon and founder of the Center for Institutional Courage.
According to Dr. Freyd, “The perpetrator or offender may Deny the behavior, Attack the individual doing the confronting, and Reverse the roles of Victim and Offender such that the perpetrator assumes the victim role and turns the true victim – or the whistleblower – into an alleged offender.”
Denial is used by the abuser and bystanders in their clique. It usually sounds like:
Ididn’t do anything, but if I did, it wasn’t that bad.
It never happened, but if it did, it wasn’t that bad.
At the structural level, Dr. Freyd refers to this tactic as institutional DARVO.
Who gets targeted for DARVO?
For DARVO to occur a power imbalance must exist. It is most effective when the abuser has more social capital than the survivor.
If the abuser is a member of a dominant group and the survivor is a member of a disenfranchised group, generally the survivor is less likely to be believed.
People who are likely candidates for DARVO are:
Survivors who confront their abuser.
Socially vulnerable individuals or groups, e.g. women are more likely to be targeted for DARVO than men.
What is the purpose of DARVO?
The DARVO tactic serves many purposes.
DARVO is a smokescreen used by narcissists, psychopaths or other manipulators to conceal the truth of their behavior.
DARVO enables the narcissist, psychopath or other manipulator to control how others perceive the target and the conflict.
DARVO often stuns the targeted person into confusion and silence.
Thus, the abuser is able to craft a scapegoat story which is used to cultivate biases against the target and rally bystanders to their cause.
“This occurs, for instance, when an actually guilty perpetrator assumes the role of ‘falsely accused’ and attacks the accuser’s credibility and blames the accuser of being the perpetrator of a false accusation,” explains Dr. Freyd.
In a DARVO climate, no amount of evidence will suffice as proof of the abuser’s transgressions. The target will not be believed within a social circle that has been groomed by a narcissist, psychopath or other manipulator. On the contrary, the target will be subjected to a terrifying campaign of victim-blaming by the group.
Once the abuser has successfully secured the bystanders’ support and conditioned them to perceive the survivor as the perpetrator, the clique collectively subjects the survivor to the merciless process of scapegoating.
If the survivor lives through it, they are usually driven into isolation and social death. Other outcomes can include homicide or death by self-annihilation. The narcissist, psychopath or manipulator’s endgame is the complete destruction of the target.
DARVO as a collective grooming tactic
The cognitive distortions created by DARVO cultivate an ecosystem of moral corruption. Members of the peer group are encouraged by the narcissist to engage in polarized or black and white thinking.
The group’s empathy for the narcissist is weaponized and used to encourage negative biases about the recipient of the abuse. Narcissists, psychopaths and other manipulators do this in order to ensure that members of the dominant clique become indifferent and callous about the betrayal of the survivor.
The desensitization of the group opens the door to the objectification of the targeted individual and once this is accomplished every kind of violence becomes acceptable.
Examples of this can be seen in manifestations of anti-semitism, racism, sexism and homophobia.
Why do bystanders participate in collective betrayal?
In other words, bystanders yield to betrayal blindness in the interest of looking out for themselves and to avoid the loss or pain they might risk if they sympathized with the target.
They assign more value to their relationship with the abuser so it follows that it’s in their best interest to empathize with the narcissist not with the survivor.
In fact, in many cases bystanders may stand to gain more social capital if they lend their support to the narcissist. So it is usually a combination of greed for gain and an instinct for self-preservation that eclipses any ethical or moral considerations in the bystander.
In other words, members of the clique adapt to conflict within the group by “turning a blind eye,” to the harmful behaviors of the narcissist.
The longterm effects of DARVO on survivors
Many survivors feel psychologically obliterated by the trauma of experiencing DARVO. It can have disastrous consequences for the survivor’s mental health. For example, it can cause severe anxiety, panic, depression, and post-traumatic stress which, in turn, can adversely impact the survivor’s physical wellbeing.
DARVO invalidates the survivor’s lived experience. It inflicts further pain and suffering as the wronged party is cheated out of any measure of justice. Instead, in addition to the original violation, survivors are persecuted and blamed in spite of the fact that they are the wronged party.
Rejection from their peers and the narcissist’s immunity to being held accountable is a constant cascade of salt poured in the survivor’s wounds, causing them to be repeatedly re-traumatized.
Sarah J. Harsey, Eileen L. Zurbriggen & Jennifer J. Freyd (2017) “Perpetrator Responses to Victim Confrontation: DARVO and Victim Self-Blame,” Journal of Aggression, Maltreatment & Trauma, 26:6, 644-663
Freyd, Jennifer J. “Institutional and Interpersonal Betrayal.” Freyd Dynamics Laboratory (August 2014): 08.48 minutes.