Differentiating Between Narcissism and CPTSD

Libby Shively McAvoy
Photo byPhoto by Photo by Jose Francisco Morales on Unsplash

The term narcissist is used quite a bit when, in reality, about 5% of people are diagnosed with Narcissistic Personality Disorder. When someone is manipulated and discarded, they often accuse their ex of being a narcissist. I believe there are more narcissists than diagnosed, but it is not as common as many believe. You may have been told by your ex you are a narcissist. If you are researching it and self-reflecting or questioning whether you are, you likely are not. True narcissists are offended by that accusation, and most will not look into it. All of us have some narcissistic traits.

Complex Post Traumatic Stress Syndrom (CPTSD) shares many narcissistic qualities and is often confused with narcissism. The difference between CPTSD and PTSD is that people with CPTSD were repeatedly exposed to neglect, abuse, or multiple traumatic experiences. They tend to have more exaggerated symptoms and be more reactive.

Let’s look at some similarities and differences between someone with CPTSD and someone narcissistic.

  • Someone with CPTSD tends to focus on what others think of them and needs external validation or approval because their sense of self-worth is deficient. A narcissist is also very focused on outward appearances and what others think of them. However, the intent behind someone with CPTSD is not to disappoint or let others down, whereas a narcissist acts out of ego.
  • Both narcissists and those with CPTSD live in a victim mentality. The difference is that a person with CPTSD can understand that the shame and guilt they had in childhood are now self-inflicted. They can realize they were victims in the past but are no longer. A narcissist remains a victim because this is how they look like a hero.
  • Both can come across as arrogant or all-knowing. A narc does so from a place of ego, whereas a person with CPTSD has the need and desire to fix others to avoid looking at their own problems.
  • Narcissists cannot take criticism because they believe they are perfect. A person with CPTSD struggles with it because they are tender and emotionally fragile, but generally can see how it can help them improve.

Someone with CPTSD, like PTSD, lives in a constant state of hyperarousal and is easily triggered by past painful memories or experiences. Being in this state of flight or flight makes them reactive and moody. They often have relationship attachment and control issues. They create damage because they subconsciously feel they are not good enough. In reality, they crave the love and acceptance they lacked in childhood.

View of someone with CPTSD

I feel Invisible
I will never be enough
My feelings don’t matter
If I ask for help, I will be accused of seeking attention

Both narcissists and those with PTSD worry about how others perceive them and have a deep fear of abandonment. The person with CPTSD will be highly controlling to cover up their shame. They will fixate on issues and often have the same conflict lacking resolution. They both are self-absorbed, leave relationships easily, project, have bursts of rage, and can be unaware of how their actions affect those around them.

Characteristics of a Narcissist

  • Speak poorly of others, especially past relationships
  • Will die and distort facts to suit their own agenda
  • Emotionally distant unless they want something
  • Controlling and unable to relax
  • They cannot admit to their own mistakes
  • Provoke people and then blame them for the fight

Narcissists will not seek change or improvement because they refuse to admit a problem, whereas those with CPTSD tend to be more teachable. Not all with CPTSD want to change, but many do.

Characteristics of someone with CPTSD

  • Never feeling safe
  • Lacking emotional regulation
  • Attraction to emotionally unavailable people
  • Difficulty relaxing
  • Strong negative sense of self-perception

Someone with CPTSD confuses empathy with control and will manipulate because of abandonment and childhood wounds. Maybe this person ghosted or gaslighted you, and you are confused. Usually, it is because it is too painful for them to face the truth. This person will likely show up and apologize later. This apology can mimic a trauma bond with a narcissist, but they typically are not vengeful like a narcissist.


Someone with CPTSD will have these symptoms:

  • emotional reactivity
  • flashbacks
  • negative mindset (all-or-nothing thinking)
  • difficulty sleeping
  • anxiety
  • substance abuse or the desire to numb out emotions
  • low self-esteem

Although someone who suffers from CPTSD will likely have trust and intimacy issues, they can have successful relationships with self-awareness. Consistency and boundaries are critical. It also helps if they work to increase emotional intelligence.

Often, with childhood trauma, our emotions quit evolving at the age at which we were neglected or abused. The good news is it is never too late to increase emotional intelligence, which will increase empathy, self-worth, and awareness so you can learn to respond rather than react when triggered. Our triggers are there to teach us, but how you respond and learn to self-soothe will prevent drama.

If you are dating someone with CPTSD, be aware that they will not trust you easily, but try not to take their reactions personally. Understand the role of self-regulation and avoid becoming dependent and trying to fix them. Set boundaries and maintain open communication. Value your self-worth and walk away if the relationship becomes mentally or physically abusive.

Whether the person you love is a narcissist, has CPTSD, has substance abuse addiction, or another mental disorder, it is essential to recognize when the relationship becomes toxic and emotionally abusive, or overly controlling. You are worthy of a loving, healthy relationship.

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Libby is a Personal Development and Relationship coach specializing in emotional intelligence. By blending motivational speaking, leading yoga and wellness retreats, and writing, she has mastered the art of living her best life while helping others.

Cincinnati, OH

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