“My boyfriend is a narcissist. That’s why we broke up,” says Amy, case closed.
“My ex-wife has a borderline personality. That’s why we aren’t together,” says Jake, and no one asks if he had any part in the demise of the marriage.
“My brother is a sociopath,” says Todd. “That’s why our joint business venture was doomed.” End of discussion.
More and more, I hear people sum up failed relationships by using clinical terms like the ones above. I’ve noticed, too, a myriad articles in blogs and magazines that advise us to get out of relationships if our partner fits one of these tags.
It’s true that some people are deeply affected by what are called “personality disorders.” That being said, it remains highly unlikely that your ex can legitimately be labeled as a narcissist, a borderline personality, or a sociopath, even at his or her worst.
That’s because the way we act when we’re in the middle of a difficult time in a relationship is never the basis of such a diagnosis. Our emotional and psychological makeup consists of a continuum: at one end lies aspects of our personality which surface under stress. At the other end is our underlying condition, that is, the organizing principle of our personality both in good times and bad, during periods of calm and under stress, whether we’re in a state of well-being or trauma.
It takes a long time to observe the complex series of symptoms that constitute a psychological condition and arrive at a legitimate diagnosis. So why has it become the vogue for so many unhappy partners to toss around these very serious and complicated labels?
When we’re hurt in a relationship, it’s tempting to make the other person the problem and to select evidence and events that diminish their credibility and value. This tactic may even have the temporary effect of making us feel better. If we slap a label on our ex, what went wrong is a “slam dunk.” The certainty with which we come to this conclusion short-circuits any pain we might suffer, and shields us from our sense of loss. Most of all, we can duck out on seeing our part in the unraveling.
So let’s examine a few of these labels, and re-consider how we are using them:
"Narcissist" is probably a label we hear most frequently, and is one that is also frequently misused. Let's start with an example ...
Meg, who always thought of herself as somewhat sickly, mildly attractive and “reasonably intelligent” (but not startling so), blossomed at 32. Her career as an editor in a yoga magazine suddenly was flourishing, and her fitness achievements and radical health improvements made her a sought-after blogger and speaker. As someone whose self-estimation had always been “just OK,” she was deeply excited by her new achievements.
Her old friends, meanwhile, began to notice how she tended now to focus on her accomplishments and her long list of admirers. They saw her less in person and more on social media, where she constantly posted selfies of herself in amazing yoga posse. Was Meg a narcissist? Or was she just going through a transition period, which caused her to be especially self-centered?
True narcissists are the loneliest people on the planet. Unable to connect with and claim their actual strengths and positive qualities, they rely almost entirely on how others see them or her to achieve a sense of self. Their moods tend to swing between the ecstasy of grandiosity and the agony of deficiency.
Most of us can relate to some of the characteristics that define a narcissist. We may even exhibit narcissistic traits or qualities for extended periods of time. A true narcissist, however, maintains this defining attitude always, because he or she knows no other way.
Here’s another example of how another label can get misused. Christine found out that her partner, Manny, had been dating her best friend for months behind her back. Enraged, she threw his clothes on the lawn, reported his cheating to his sister, and on impulse posted a photo on Facebook of the two traitors kissing on a running trail.
So is Megan a sociopath? Or was she temporarily blinded by anger and pain and did things she would later regret? A true sociopath lacks empathy all the time, and often is often actively contemptuous of other people’s suffering.
To receive such a diagnosis, a person has to have:
- Exhibited a lifelong history of deceitfulness for personal profit and pleasure;
- Behaved aggressively toward others without regret, and
- Shown a lack of remorse for the harm they have caused.
3. Borderline Personality
Likewise, borderline personality disorder is not simply a synonym for your ex-wife, who you think is punishing you by changing her mind about when you can have the kids, or by sending you mixed messages about her residual feelings for you.
The main feature of BPD is an ongoing pattern of instability in interpersonal relationships, self-image, and emotions. A person with this disorder is impulsive, often self-injurious, and often has a history of self-cutting and suicide attempts. Such a person lives with a frantic need to avoid real or imagined abandonment and expresses chronic feelings of emptiness and emotional instability, even during periods of calm and well-being.
Recall those times when you’ve been at your angriest while interacting with your partner: would you like to have had a video camera record your responses in that state? Probably not. Would your behavior indicate that you’re a person with BPD? Again, probably not.
Typically, personality disorders are diagnosed by a trained mental health professional, such as a psychologist or psychiatrist. Even family doctors are not trained to make a diagnosis, let alone upset friends and family.
So please: let’s stop flinging around labels that most of us are fortunate enough not to fit.
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