Some Portland intersections have painted green “bike boxes” on the pavement to allow bicyclists to wait for the light in front of cars and get through the intersection ahead of right-turning drivers. They help prevent “I just didn’t see them!” right-hook collisions between cars and bikes. When I am out on my bike, I often see drivers waiting on the bike box instead of behind it. I politely tell them the space is for bikes and ask them to back up.
Recently, a white male driver responded angrily, “What are you going to do, give me a ticket? Mind your own business! I can do what I want!”
That was a clear example of narcissistic behavior.
- Rules do not apply to him
- Lack of empathy for other viewpoints
- Outrage that I dared bring the issue to his attention
- Only direct consequences (a traffic ticket) would change his behavior
Note: I am labeling his behavior, not diagnosing him as a narcissist. I am not licensed to diagnose, he is not my patient, and we (thankfully) only had that one brief interaction.
Ongoing exposure to narcissistic behavior wears a person down. A child or adult who is randomly blasted with abusive contempt and hostility, especially for asserting their personhood, will reflexively ask themselves, “What did I do?” They start to wonder if maybe they ask for too much. Maybe they are doing everything wrong. If only they could do things right, maybe their partner or boss or parent would be kind and warm.
Traumatic events are stored in the brain as scattered sensory fragments. A primary task of healing is to find words for what happened and link the fragments into a narrative. When someone is being actively abused or starting to recover, the task of finding words takes priority over protecting the feelings of perpetrators.
Breaking silence is already hard, without limiting the words you are allowed to use. Call them narcissists. Label them abusers. Name that the problem lies with them, not you. Find that small island of stability in an ocean of gaslighting. Begin to repair your boundaries and yourself.
With those labels, search online for articles, books, and communities that offer support and tips. Feel the relief of common ground and recognizable patterns. Convey a lot in a few words. “I’m divorcing a narcissist.” “My abuser just walked in. I need to leave.” Check whether potential practitioners have the specific expertise to help with healing rather than blaming the victim.
Separate mental illness from abuse
When the immediate crisis has passed and we reach a place of more stability and safety (which can take years), we can add more nuance to our language.
Mental illness is never an excuse to behave abusively. We might want to diagnose an abuser as mentally ill to explain their behavior, or to emphasize how terrible the experience of abuse was, or to warn other people away from them.
At the same time, when we conflate abuse and mental illness, we unfairly stigmatize people with mental illness who are doing their best to live their lives without abusing anyone. Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) is a label that is often applied after an abusive relationship. Some people with BPD are abusive. Some are not. BPD is often a consequence of childhood attachment trauma and overlaps with complex PTSD.
Some narcissism is normal
The label of narcissism straddles the border between describing someone’s abusive behavior and saying they have the mental illness of Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD), which can also be a consequence of childhood trauma. Narcissism is normal in toddlers. As we grow, most of us learn to balance consideration of others’ needs with our healthy entitlement to get our needs met.
When we describe someone’s abusive behavior rather than labeling the whole person as mentally ill, we reap several benefits.
- We practice non-ableist language and lighten the load on everyone struggling with mental illness.
- We simplify our task, since describing behavior is less complex than diagnosing someone.
- We focus more precisely on the problem, and thus make room for solutions. It is easier to ask someone to change their behavior than to change their mental status, and easier to tell whether they succeed in making the change.
Internal red flags
One goal of labeling people is to recognize patterns. If we could avoid all abusers and narcissists, maybe we could avoid being hurt again. We can certainly pay attention to what people tell us about themselves, for example none of their past partners will speak to them, or they identify as a narcissist.
In general, rather than trying to categorize other people, we can learn to recognize red flags and responses within ourselves. If we feel small, ashamed, or like we are always wrong when we spend time with someone, we can choose to spend less time with them. No label needed.
If we feel powerfully confused around someone, both attracted and wary, we might be responding to sparkly charisma and intentional love-bombing, followed by sudden disinterest that triggers old pain. It can take a long time to discern whether the problem is us or them, whether to stay or go. Naming behaviors and inner reactions can build clarity.
Works in progress
Are there people who are completely evil or completely good? Perhaps a few. Most people are complex mixtures of good and bad intentions, benign and harmful behaviors. We are works in progress, striving to do better than the year before and the generation before. There is no fixed “Good Person” badge.
Are there habitual predators, people who intentionally choose vulnerable people to be their next victim? Definitely. We as a society could notice, contain, redirect, and nourish people with predatory behaviors. We could meet everyone’s basic needs, including the need for trauma healing. Instead, it is up to individuals to discern threats and get needs met as best we can.
We all contain all qualities, including the qualities of predator and abuser. The more we acknowledge that, the more we can choose benign behavior, and the more we can have compassion for others’ struggles while protecting ourselves from hurtful behaviors.
- Portland, Oregon’s Bike Boxes
- Disarming the Narcissist by Wendy T. Behary, LCSW has comprehensive suggestions for handling narcissistic behavior.