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Is Your Ex REALLY a Narcissist?

Guest blog by my friend Linda Carroll, Marriage Therapist and author of Love Cycles, a book I highly recommend to clients

“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:

1. Narcissist

“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 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.

2. Sociopath

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 actively contemptuous of other people’s suffering.

To receive such a diagnosis, a person has to have:

  1. Exhibited a lifelong history of deceitfulness for personal profit and pleasure;
  2. Behaved aggressively toward others without regret, and
  3. 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.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com

Commencing with Summer

Summer abounds with opportunities to notice our place on the Great Wheel of Life. And it all begins with June. Graduation. Weddings. Reunions. We gather to acknowledge movement from one part of life to another. For just a few minutes we come together like a tribe to remember, to catch up with ourselves. We look forward and look back, trying to make sense of this world where children transformed into young adults overnight while we forgot to notice. And then we begin to make room for the next opening.

I’ve attended a ton of commencement ceremonies in my life as a teacher, a family member and a friend. I love the way you can eat hopefulness with a spoon at every one of these occasions, even if you’ve felt immune to all the sentimentality.  For me there’s a moment or two of reflection and a chance to quietly celebrate all the commencements in my life, past and present. That moment has always been there, even when I was mostly celebrating never having to try to usher reluctant seniors through the last spring of high school ever again.

There’s a whole lot of commencing going on in most of our private lives, too, this time of year. During this season of refulgence, it’s as if nature outdoes itself and won’t back off on its gifts. Warm weather and long days take us by the shoulders and demand that we celebrate possibility. There’s an expansiveness of hope right now. We plant starts in our gardens. Attempt to wrangle our summer plans for trips, activities. Savor sunsets and picnics and reunions.

From this vantage point, it seems these long and hospitable days will never wane, and all that’s ahead is an endless summer. I’m often shocked when September comes that it all could have been here and then disappeared so quickly. But every year I believe in the myth of the endless summer once again. I’ve often wondered why.

I can think of a couple of reasons: first, as the world around me gets warmer and business as usual is interrupted by vacations and celebrations, as things slow down, so do I.  There are more opportunities to sit in the shade, stare into space, surrender the efficient schedule. Weather and nature and the world around me invites me to show up, to Get Here when I can. Which is now.

Or in the next few minutes. After all, it’s the season of the slacker. I still have a lot to learn…or unlearn.

What opportunities to do you foresee this season to reflect on where you’ve been and where you’re going? Are there opportunities to do this with friends or family? What can you create? Can you do that as a slacker, making it simple and slow?

Where and when will you find time for yourself  to be where you are for a few minutes (or more) during your day? How can you make this a habit, when you remember?

An Impatient Patient Surrenders

It’s a month now since I found myself climbing on the surgery gurney for a knee installation on my left leg. My right leg, ever the competitive First Child, was there first, six months ago. With the help of family, friends, and a whole infield of life coaches, I convinced myself it made sense to complete the job on the other side. The logic was watertight: I’d profit from my first experience and skate through it the second time.

I’d be able to rehab both knees at once. In a year from the start of the project, I’d finally have enough mobility for anything I might want to plan. This, after all, was the ultimate, carefully calculated, reason. I had worked out the math story problem years ago: If a titanium knee lasts 20 to 30 years, when is the best time for a patient to replace it in time for the Grim Reaper to get the leftovers?

I might as well get it over with, my mind chanted. And so I did. It seemed like I’d made the right decision afterwards, too, until the power drugs wore off. And then came the real recovery. Lots of the last month has been spent noticing this thing called pain, keeping it out of the way when I need to move and when I need to sleep, and finding out that a good coaching session or class is the best pain reliever there is.

I’d feel more spiritually evolved if I could truly say that I was able to be a compassionate witness of my own pain, and used it as a fulcrum for spiritual transcendence during this process.

But did you notice that I didn’t say anything like that?

The reality is that a lot of the time I believed my mind, which was dang sure that I had abandoned my body, at least, and tortured it at worst.

“Beam me up, Scotty!” became my mantra. I watched a ton of movies and a couple of TV series. and read about a dozen fine books, mostly novels, cover to cover. The distraction technique had certain advantages, but it began to wear thin.

And then there were the other moments, or moments inside the moments, when the only option was to surrender. When I saw that there was nothing in the situation that I needed to escape or to resist, it occurred to me to simply relax. I especially noticed in those moments how very much I could trust everything around me, beginning with my husband of 45 years. How did he learn to be such a thoughtful caregiver without my knowledge? The more I looked, the more reasons I’ve had to just…let…go.

After all, that’s who I am without my story that I need to keep it together. It’s very, very simple.

I’m just now getting a tiny peek of the original sanity that led me down this thorny lane of pain and recovery. There’s lots of hope around the corner, just past the edges of the walker. But what I never expected, truly, is that it would be there all along, just waiting for me to notice.

The Big Question: What if Mom was Right?

Around the time I got kicked out of Sunday School for asking too many questions, I decided I’d have to answer them for myself by trying out other brands than the Southern Baptist variety.

During my early teen years of searching and angst, desperately trying to find even a partial answer to my mental confusion, I turned to my mother. Why are we here? What’s the point? I asked.

She looked at me with such sympathy and kindness. “Maybe you ask too many questions,” she said. “I just accept things, and I’m pretty happy.”

My friends said essentially the same thing as my turmoil turned to depression. I kept looking, convinced I’d find a more satisfying answer, that other people must know something that I didn’t. Seek and ye shall find. The words bubbled up from somewhere.

So I became a seeker. My senior year, desperate, I picked up The Religions of Man, by Huston Smith. I had found my manual.

Philosophy classes followed in college, featuring Existential Ennui 101. Then came a life-long fascination with the concepts and practices of world faiths, which offered snapshots of the truth and stories to back them up. Eventually these same questions led to more and more study of archetypes and mythology and contemplative practices. I learned to meditate and crossed paths with Vipassana, or mindfulness. I began to hear a few subtle answers at last, as I listened, and the Search was still on.

No matter what showed up on the mystical path, what I continued to notice is that the mind just kept cooking up new questions that could not be meditated away. Or medicated, for that matter. (I had already given that a good try in my twenties)

Thirty years of seeking later, I fell in love with inquiry when I discovered that some of the thoughts that present themselves simply want to be understood…not in the mind, but in the heart.

Now my business required asking questions of my clients. So much for my mother’s advice! I became deeply committed to this process, sometimes called the Great Undoing. During the past decade, I’ve questioned the thoughts of hundreds of people, if not thousands. Almost without fail, I’ve witnessed the radical freedom that comes as the old personal religions are questioned one by one. I also continue to notice for myself how much suffering is relieved when I stop believing those stale old refrains.

And what I’ve noticed is that new refrains still come all day long, like piped Muzak in the brain. The idea of bringing each of them up for inquiry can be (just perhaps) a bit overwhelming.

Which led to a new question. The big question. The scary question.

What if my mother was right?

What if I DO ask too many questions? The more questions I’ve asked, the more I’ve come to see that there is a mind below the mind that is just fine. All the muzak of random thoughts firing away can drown it out, but at a deep level, there’s an internal Knowing that is deep and true and beyond questions because it is at the root of being. And it would be asking one too many questions to inquire into the reality of that voice.

What Does Life Want to Make of You?

“Before I can tell my life what I want to do with it, I must listen to my life telling me who I am.” Parker Palmer, Letting Your Life Speak.

Since one of my (somewhat) official titles is Master Life Coach, I talk to people pretty often who ask for help making something of their lives. They want an advisor, strategist, and a wrangler to help them get this unwieldy thing called Life back in control. At the very least, they’d like a lasso to round it up a bit. Nothing wrong with that approach, except the fact that Life usually has its own way with us when we’re fighting it. This is the source of abundant stress.

What if the Food Thing Is Simple?

“It’s just that food…diet…food choices…are so complicated.” This was my stated conviction last week as I began a three-day Eating Peace inquiry retreat with dear friend Grace Bell.

My confusion about nutrition and diet has increased over the years, and that’s saying something given my birthright as a woman and my family issues with overeating . Ever seeking a fix for various bodily challenges (such as carrying twenty extra pounds, mostly on my hips and thighs), I have tried these “deep fixes” in the last ten years alone:

Now . . . A Pause from Self-Improvement

Who is this one who’s convinced she must improve me?

She tramped through the oxalis on a wet January evening, wondering at the recirculating advice device that seemed to be her brain.

A “retreat of solitude.” That’s the way she had described her coming week in the half- collapsed cabin, hunkering up to a leaky wood stove.

“Alone with my own thoughts” she had said. “Away from the breakneck speed of screens, terrorists, presidential candidates. (Really? Him? Again? She thought. That’s reason enough to hide in the woods for two years, not just a week.)

The Wildish Truth

Wild, a film about a young woman’s transformational hike, is causing a fair-sized buzz here in Oregon. Forget the Academy Awards nominations in the actress categories. The author of the book, Cheryl Strayed, is one of us. In her real-life story, portrayed by Reese Witherspoon in the film, she may be ill-prepared and bumbling, but she’s determined. And real. When she’s finally able to lift her ponderous pack at the beginning of the film, it’s somehow familiar. We recognize the determination we can all access when we must bear the unbearable. She’s a pin-up woman for authentic courage, and the local backdoor – from the Pacific Crest trail to the Bridge of the Gods – defines our sense of place.

Starting Close In

To learn a poem by heart is to feel it in my body. To learn a poem by heart is to live with it in my pocket. I’ve long been a fan of Kim Rosen’s book Saved by a Poem. For a time I forgot how it feels to stay close to my own marrow with a poem as my guide.

But sometime a couple of months ago, Irene, one of my beloved yoga teachers, read a David Whyte poem I’d never heard before. (Wonder of wonders!)

When Liminal Time Meets Technology

It’s Epiphany morning. Here’s what I wrote at earliest light, following my purest intentions and my personal tradition of defining Epiphany as a time-out-of-time. Just before a tiny techno glitch grabbed me and shook me by the heels:

I love this liminal time. The time between dark and light. I resist electricity and grope my way by candlelight before meditating each morning.

Major Gratitude for Shelter from the Storm

What’s the difference between major surgery and minor surgery? I’m at a special pre-op session led by the hospital physical therapist. I had no idea. Didn’t care. Hospitals aren’t my thing. I just wanted to get this knee replacement over with without breaking stride in my full life. I know. I missed the irony at that moment, but I get it now. I get the punch line to the joke, too. Minor surgery is someone else’s. Major surgery is mine.

Navigating the Sacred Spiral Path

I’m traveling with my friend Siri, she who is the little sister of Garmin and the daughter of Mapquest, the maker of all directions. Sometimes when I believe her, we go straight from Point A to Point B in the most efficient manner. And sometimes I end up making three left turns when I wanted to go right…or entering a freeway to go to another exit altogether, only to get off and find that I was where I wanted to go just before I got on the freeway in the first place.

Wise in This Lifetime

Last week I made a lovely connection with a young woman by surprise. We were participating in an event where the leader requested my very least favorite group exercise: gazing in the eyes of a stranger.

I realized it would be far easier to drop my opinion and see what happened than to keep my story. As it turned out …(drum roll)…