The more I read and hear about narcissism these days, the more I think that it is to contemporary emotional psychology what the Atkins Diet was to weight loss in the Nineties: everyone’s got an opinion about it, but no one seems to quite understand how it works.
Google my ex is a narcissist and you’ll get 2,650,000 results. Which is a crazy number. Though arguably not as crazy as some of the advice they contain.
The pearls of largely uninformed wisdom I found in the first dozen or so pages of search results included advice on how to break up with a narcissist, the signs to look for in a narcissist, the three phases of a narcissistic relationship and, most worrying of all, how to win back your narcissistic ex.
What does it say about us as a society that we have become so disconnected from honest and objective reason that our immediate response to the implosion of a relationship is to brand the other person in it as destructively vainglorious?
As a faddish buzzword, narcissist is right up there with the best of them today.
It’s important to be clear here that an enormous part of my therapeutic work is helping people who have been broken by bad relationships. I work with men and women who have survived and been changed by abusive and damaging relationships. I treat heartache and loss and I take that exceptionally seriously.
So, I’m not trying to underestimate the emotional pain suffered by anyone who has been treated badly in a relationship. It’s vital for anyone who’s been the victim of an abusive or manipulative relationship to take the time and space to properly heal before even thinking about getting involved again.
And I’m not suggesting there’s no such thing as narcissism, either.
Narcissistic Personality Disorder exists. I’ve seen it professionally and I can tell you here and now that it’s not pretty to live with and it’s difficult to treat. Living with someone who’s truly narcissistic is corrosive and toxic and damaging – and it can take a very long time and great courage to pick yourself up off the floor and start moving on.
But it’s important to know that it’s a condition that’s typically diagnosed by professional psychologists and psychiatrists after forensic assessment – not by a best friend with a vested interest or someone who’s simply found themselves in the ejector seat of a relationship that’s crashed and burned.
Narcissism is more than being a bit over-enthusiastic with your mobile’s selfie mode or having a slight tendency towards control freakery in a relationship or suggesting your bum looks big in your favourite jeans.
Sometimes, your relationship will break up simply because he or she was a bit of a dick.
Worse, labelling your ex a narcissist just because you got bruised or let down by their dickish behaviour actually only serves to demean, devalue and trivialise the destructive experiences of those who have shared their life with a real one.
And that is where I think our tendency to unthinkingly brand the other person a narcissist is not only unhelpful, but also a barrier to your own healing. As I’ve discussed before, labelling is the easy option – and it’s rarely helpful.
Bottom line: what if there’s just a little bit more to it than assigning a label? Here, then, are my 5 Good Reasons to Stop Calling Your Ex a Narcissist.
They might not actually be a narcissist!
This is obviously the best reason of all. At heart, there’s a bit of Narcissus in all of us. We’re all guilty from time to time of being vain, selfish, demanding and attention-seeking. A lot of the time, the narcissist in your life is actually a common-or-garden variety selfish human being who either lacks emotional intelligence or emotional availability.
In fact, unavailability – the inability to engage in a healthy relationship – shares a lot of common ground with narcissism, but they’re not the same thing.
Natalie Lue, the author of the brilliant Baggage Reclaim is an exceptional writer on emotional unavailability, which is still largely misunderstood but vital to get your head around if you keep finding you crash and burn in relationships.
It won’t help you heal
Reading articles and blogs about narcissists is a really great way of staying stuck in the rage and grief you feel at the end of a relationship. Ditto, shadowing your ex on social media isn’t going to do anything for your self-esteem, it’s just more likely to offer up a score of ways to make you feel worse about yourself and him or her.
Just as I advise my clients suffering with health anxieties not to Google their symptoms, I also urge my clients who are coming out of a relationship to do all they can to ‘unhook’ themselves from the story. That means no destructive behaviour – like taking online narcissist quizzes – that keeps you rooted in your own painful narrative.
I’m a big advocate of self-inquiry and objective reflection – and that’s very different to finding reasons to embark on a year-long journey spent demonising your ex by bingeing on personality quizzes. It simply keeps you locked into your painful story and an obsession with them and what they did.
You’re focusing on the wrong thing
Do as many online multiple-choice quizzes as you like to find out if your ex was a narcissist and eventually you’ll find a combination of answers that will prove they were. And if you put enough chimpanzees and typewriters in a room, they’ll eventually bang out the entire works of Shakespeare. And frankly both exercises are equally pointless.
Create distance and impose a ‘no contact’ rule ((here’s more great reading from Natalie Lue on this subject). When the initial emotional fall-out has stopped and your grief and rage has abated, ask yourself the questions that will actually help you to move forward.
Instead of asking whether your ex is narcissist, ask yourself a different question. Why did I choose them? What did I ignore? What did I not see? Facing and answering these questions leads to empowerment. It allows you to ask and answer the other important questions about how you can heal and what you can learn about yourself in order to make better choices next time.
Ultimately, it says more about you than it does about them
Anger is the backbone to healing, and a natural part of a break up in which you feel wronged is to feel anger and express it. Without expression of feeling, healing is more or less impossible.
But if you spend all your time telling anyone who’ll listen that your ex was a cluster B personality or psychopath or sociopath or narcissist, eventually it’ll have the opposite effect to the one you were hoping for and people will start to question your own role in what went wrong.
This is particularly true if we label all our exes in this way. If we are to make different choices in the future, it’s vital that we own and take responsibility for the choices we made in the past.
But if we find we end up stuck in the same loop of demonisation at the end of every failed relationship, then it’s useful to remember that the common denominator in all of our relationships is us. Once we realise this, we can begin to make different choices.
They are a narcissist!
Let’s assume your ex really is a narcissist. As I say, it’s not beyond the realms of possibility – they do exist. Attention is a narcissist’s oxygen and talking about them incessantly is a form of attention. So surely the best and cleverest thing to do is deprive them of the very thing they breathe?
There is no greater approbation or endorsement for a narcissist than the knowledge that you continue to obsess about them long after the relationship has ended. After all, indifference, not hate, is the opposite of love and it’s what will hurt them most.
Moving on means stopping giving the other person power over your life, emotions and thoughts. The secret to happiness is much less about the attainment of certain things and actually much more about the ability to let go – and In the end, there are three important truths to consider:
Truth One: if you’re over your ex, you won’t bother doing a personality quiz on their behalf.
Truth Two: if you’re doing a personality quiz on your ex’s behalf, you’re not helping yourself to get over them.
Truth Three: If you’re in a good relationship, you certainly won’t be Googling is my boyfriend a narcissist.