There's nothing more crazy making than being on the receiving end of hostility or manipulation without really understanding what's going on. That's probably why we've seen a lot of interest in our current series on narcissism. And it's satisfying because the purpose of The Intelligent Divorce Project is to make murky subjects like narcissism a bit clearer. The feedback we'ver received has reinforced our efforts with many readers sharing that they're finding strength through understanding. Having worked with many, many overwhelmed parents, I can understand this.
Yet life is never so simple. I was pleased that a reader wrote a note arguing that a label like the narcissistic ex is not that helpful, but rather represents a dumbing down of human suffering into simplistic categories. I have sympathy with this argument, because I am sensitive to the notion that our diagnostic labels are reductionistic and can undermine the dignity of what makes a person a person.
This led me to thinking about continuing the series by deepening our understanding of narcissism to include the compassion we can have for all suffering souls, even if they cause suffering in turn. After all, the purpose of understanding is not to simply set up a category of people towards whom we can all have contempt. That just adds to more suffering and it is not my agenda.
Now, I'd like to respond to this particular reader's comment, because - literally - this discussion goes on in my head all the time.
Simplistic thinking about what makes us human is for the birds. Without question, we should celebrate the complexity of humanity, and not just reduce it. On the other hand, we need to have a common language to talk about our experience, which gives us a handle on our lives and serves as a short hand to communicate with others. This in turn enables a suffering person to build a healing community that understands what they're trying to say. Language is slippery, it both defines (limits) and enables. This tension should be properly acknowledged. Definition is useful. Reduction is not. Finding the balance is not an easy task.
The fact of the matter is that the life of the mind is bigger and more interesting than what any scientist or poet can imagine.
I sometimes feel a little bit frustrated when I hear or read people frivolously using the term "Narcissist". It's as if they are describing another race or species, as opposed to a normal individual with an abnormal learned response in certain situations and environments. There is no such thing as a narcissist and people, especially those with an MD behind their name, should not be offering such convenient and prejudiced labels to naive and impressionable people that don't know any better.
This is a very useful critique. Truth be told, there are ultimately no narcissists because all of these labels are mental constructs designed to help us get a better handle on our experience. The DSM IV and DSM V label mental issues as disorders and not diseases for this very reason. Very little of our work is truly fixed diagnostically like a broken femur - for example - might be.
We all will agree that a broken femur is cracked, but we may not agree that a person fulfills the criteria for a narcissistic disorder. There's no MRI or blood test for narcissism, nor will there ever be. Yet, we're faced with the problem of defining our experience, and hence we need language and definitions, even if they're limited. When people act in a consistent manner that is destructive, it is often useful to have a category or label, even if it falls short of a scientific proof. The field of psychiatry struggles with this problem - sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse.
In essence, I use all these Character Trap descriptions to help people make some sense of their experience. It is centering - not perfect - but centering. And, I think it has strong heuristic value. The goal is to reduce suffering by lifting the fog of confusion just a bit.
Narcissistic behavior is an abnormal learned response to environments or situations where the individual feels threatened, vulnerable or otherwise in emotional or psychological danger.
Yes, we are all injured and a person with narcissistic features is to be understood with compassion. I agree. These Psychology Today pieces are often read by those who are reeling from an abusive ex and need to let go of many of their own expectations.
By understanding the limitations of their ex (whether she is narcissistic, paranoid or sociopathic), a person is more able to grieve and deal with the situation more productively. If my readers or others see themselves as having a Character Trap, I by no means want to reduce that person to a simple category. But, I hope that my work can open their eyes to selfish and destructive behavior that can be helped with certain types of treatment.
And in a divorce situation, everyone feels vulnerable so is it any wonder that 1 or both parties will end up displaying narcissistic behavior? No, it isn't!
The term "Narcissist" plays to our phylogenetic heritage and the need to see parties in an "Us or Them" category. This may have served us well as wondering tribes, but as modern civilized humans it's a lamentable flaw; in other words, if they are a danger to us, if we feel threatened by them, then they must conveniently fall in to the "Them" category and be "Bad people."
About us and them; I agree. Polarizing people is an ancient way to organize the world. Let's state that no one needs to put down a narcissist, sociopath or a drug addict, for that matter. Anyone struggling with these traits is not to be envied. They can be dangerous to others and not particularly happy with their own lot in life. The key for a potential victim of these types of people is to realistically protect yourself so you don't allow such a person to take advantage of you, which is not a good thing for anyone.
When we allow people to take advantage, like stealing money, poisoning children against a parent, victimizing another because of a sense of self righteousness - or if they are abusive, physically, sexually or psychologically - we are doing them and the world no kindness. Standing up effectively requires that you know what you are dealing with. And when the going gets tough, the field can be hazy. My prayer is to make it all a bit clearer for everyone involved - and hopefully help a few souls (and children) along the way.
© Mark R Banschick, MD
For more from Dr. Banschick:
The Intelligent Divorce - Taking Care of Your Children (Kindle)
The Intelligent Divorce - Taking Care of Your Children (Amazon)
The Intelligent Divorce - Taking Care of Yourself (Kindle)
The Intelligent Divorce- Taking Care of Yourself (Amazon)
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