It always amazes me when I see our culture pick up on a psychological term or psychiatric diagnosis, turn it into some kind of buzzword, and talk about it in the kind of way that makes it seem just about anyone could meet criteria. I must admit I cringe whenever I hear someone who struggles to concentrate at work—while his cell phone sits face-up on his desk, and people come in and out of his office all day—conclude, “I’ve got ADD,” or when a person who maintains a tidy home assumes, “I’m OCD.” These days, the diagnostic discourse has taken on a new flavor. There’s been a recent surge of articles about how to spot a narcissistic, or how to know when you’re being gaslighted; I can’t help but get a little uncomfortable when I come across them. No doubt, articles of this nature can be helpful to some people—especially if they’ve had a traumatic and puzzling experience that they’re able to make sense of as a consequence of reading them. But there’s another side to all of it that I find troubling.
I take a non-pathologizing approach as a therapist, which means I don’t see my clients’ experiences, even the most disquieting among them, as reflective of something intrinsically wrong with them; but I certainly recognize the importance of diagnostic labels. I’ve worked with many clients who experienced tremendous relief when they learned that what they were experiencing had a formal name and could be treated. The problem is, I’ve encountered just as many clients who’ve been harmfully affected by the labels placed upon them. When people make diagnostic terms mean something about themselves—namely that they’re broken, dysfunctional, damaged, or deficient—their capacity to heal and create change is all too often diminished. This is what I fear can happen when articles featuring personality traits reflected in a narrow subset of the general population become widespread.
The truth is, human behavior exists on a continuum, and whether or not something is considered pathological is really a matter of degree and intensity. At any moment, any one of us could meet some of the criteria for a psychiatric disorder. In certain relationships, at certain points in our lives, under certain circumstances, most of us have acted narcissistically or manipulated someone else in order to get what we want. I’m not saying this to suggest that truly narcissistic people don’t exist, or that legitimate gaslighting isn’t a problem; certainly, it’s important to recognize when people act in characteristic, patterned ways to exploit or do harm to others. Giving a name to the behavior could help people understand it more clearly and respond accordingly. But when we learn that there are official terms for certain kinds of behavior, it’s tempting to apply them liberally and classify others in ways that could be damaging.
My purpose in writing this is to invite those who read it into an alternative perspective—one that looks beyond labels to see the bigger picture of human functioning and human relationships. When we get caught up in terminology and ascribe names to certain facets of the human experience, we limit our ability to understand and address the corresponding behavior on its own terms. We erroneously try to fit the complexity of the human experience into an unreasonably small container. We risk minimizing or overlooking our role in the interactions we have with others—because we can easily chalk everything up to their presumed disease or dysfunction—thus missing valuable opportunities for growth and development. When we apply the labels to ourselves, we risk creating the kind of suffering that inhibits our willingness to do things differently and create change.
Though labels serve a certain purpose, when we become attached to them, we get caught up in concepts and abstractions that keep us from making contact with life and with each other. Instead of spending our time coming up with ways to put ourselves and others into categories, what if, instead, we focused on connecting, learning how to relate, demonstrating compassion in spite of our differences, setting clear and firm boundaries when it’s appropriate, doing our best to get through this challenging and complicated experience we call life?
In the end, whether we’re talking about narcissism, gaslighting, or any of the other psychological terms and categories out there, we should remember to proceed with caution in our efforts to understand. We should remember that no matter what fancy names we come up with, we know when something doesn’t feel right. We know when our functioning is disrupted. We know when someone is doing harm to us. And when we let ourselves focus on that—instead of getting caught up in the terminology—we can respond with much more clarity and much less judgment.