Let's continue our discussion about Narcissism with more dialogue. As many of you know, a straightforward essay format is useful, but lacks the nuance that a give and take can bring. I really thank all the people who write in—it makes this project bigger than just an exercise in thought. It becomes a real conversation.
So, let's dig in. Here's a follow up (with slight editing) from an insightful contributor:
My main problem with the prolific overuse of the term "Narcissist" is that it groups people into the hackneyed categories of "Bad" or "Evil" people. This, in turn, can be used as an excuse to justify one's position and behavior, and sometimes hide your own narcissism behind accusations of "Narcissism" towards your once significant ex.
In some way the dumbing down of conversation is a symptom of just how regressive people can get when a relationship falls apart. Calling someone a narcissist (or a borderline) are weak ways to feel superior. Yet, heaven protect the classic neurotic person who is married to or divorcing a person with a classic personality disorder, because it's going to be very bad for the uncertain and more nuanced neurotic. They are facing a spouse or ex spouse on the other side who wants to win at all costs and will use his or her full arsenal (intelligence, influence, money, violence etc) to achieve those ends. A label can help a pretty innocent neurotic get with the program of self protection.
In so many dysfunctional relationships, the convenient moniker "he/she's a Narcissist" becomes the fashionable response. It's just become too convenient and trendy, today, that in the breakdown of a dysfunctional relationship, one or other (or both) parties is referred to as "The Narcissist". Which is, putting it simply, a way of saying "I am good and you are bad; you are the enemy" thus excusing your own unpleasant or manipulative behavior because "they are a bad person who "deserves" what I throw at them - and I am the good person so I am allowed to behave this way".
Yet, an ex spouse with a real personality disorder (or a "Character Trap") can be truly dangerous. In our second book, The Intelligent Divorce: Taking Care of Yourself, we go over this material in some depth. Whether they play the victim, decide to go on the offensive or just want your kids to hate you as a form of deluded punishment, such people need to be dealt with from a place of emotional sobriety. With all the drama going on, work on staying centered and try to forgive yourself for being in this situation. If possible, forgive him or her for being disturbed (difficult but useful). Get as objective as possible. You and your kids need to be safe, without you passively allowing worse behavior—or triggering more of it. It may not be fair, but its reality. And it's not easy.
Superiority is not useful; radical acceptance and a healthy action plan—including outside help‚—is required. After all, if your own narcissism or self righteousness is distorting the divorce, you are part of the problem and not part of the solution. You have a real point here; too many people that are stuck in the Victim or Avenger Character Traps, for example, can over react to perceived wrongs and feel a scary sense of self righteousness and respond inappropriately. Note the not uncommon problem of false reports of child abuse—or demands for orders of protection that are just winning in court rather than about real danger (obviously, when in doubt, make the call—safety first).
Divorce can be a mine field of destructive behaviors—often abetted by a well meaning but less than competent and underfunded legal system. This is why I started The Intelligent Divorce Project and our online course in the first place. We need to have strong voices for moderation at a moment when everyone can feel both victimized and vindicated. It can be a mess.
If you think that you're under siege from an unstable ex, I can't recommend a competent therapist enough. First of all, she can help you see the situation more objectively. You may be underestimating how dangerous your ex is. Acceptance does not mean passivity—and you may need to step up to deal with him or her effectively. On the other hand, when we therapists do our job correctly, we constructively confront people with aspects of themselves that they would prefer not to see. For instance, if you're getting triggered, time and again, the problem may stem from your own childhood trauma or disappointment, and not just what's happening in the moment. If it's your stuff, you don't want to trigger trauma for everyone, if it's not called for. A careful self inventory may be just the thing to prevent your own self righteous - and a destructive trigger-response reflex. Nobody likes to be attacked, particularly when they believe that they're innocent.
A good therapist can often help you prevent a mistake before you make it. And a mistake avoided is damage that doesn't need to be undone.
What goes on in all the media hype around Narcissism and other labels is frankly, a continuation and encouragement of an immature position in relationships. When the term "Narcissist" comes out, we are reverting to a "sticks and stones" playground mentality, rather than addressing the problem as adults, with both parties saying "Yes I have faults, I am not perfect and I made mistakes". Now wouldn't that be a grown up way of approaching these problems rather than name calling? Let's not offer people the convenient moniker to encourage childish behaviors, let's, instead encourage a mature perspective. Perhaps if we were all a bit more grown up in our relationships, the divorce rates might drop significantly, but then, you'd sell fewer books ;-)
Finally, on that note, here's an insight I think you and our other readers will appreciate.
No matter how evolved you may be, everyone can learn from this story.
When I was a young doctor, one of my supervisors expressed his contempt for the free use of the term—narcissism—among his colleagues and friends. You see, it's just too easy to call someone that you don't like, a narcissist.
My supervisor heard such statements regularly, it irritated him and he told me that this behavior is regressive big time. It's regressive because it creates the illusion of control—that you are better and more competent than the other guy (or gal), instead of the fact that you're just mad.
When you can't stand someone, don't call him a Narcissist; call him an a-hole.
It's less superior, less regressive and better describes what you are experiencing.
© 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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