Ashera is a Marriage and Family Therapist with an extensive background in sexual health education. You can ask her stuff anonymously and she won’t get weirded out. Seriously, try her. Send your questioning queries to email@example.com.
Recently I was called a narcissist by an ex. Normally, being labeled by someone who lacks credentials in any field of psychology has very little bearing on how I live my life. However, this one was different. I have a long history of torpedoing most of my very serious relationships. To say I loved this person is an unbelievable understatement. I wanted a future with this person. But, due to a long and unstable run where commitments were never realized and plans continuously shifted or were pushed back, I found myself reverting to poisonous behavioral patterns. My needs on both a physical and emotional level started taking control. Instead of dealing with my partner, I sought it out through others. And, as we often do, lied to protect ourselves and our partners. When it all came to a head, it was devastating.
There is a pain that I have caused, that I cannot get rid of. It has taken me some time now, and my ex has moved on (seemingly), while I continue to push through. She told me I need help, so, I have started to do some research into possible behavioral disorders to in fact see what course of action I need. The long and short of it is this: I know there is something that needs to be improved within me. Hearing a word like “narcissist” from someone you love can really make you wonder. My question to you is this: how can we identify ourselves as being a narcissist? And, how can we separate narcissism with borderline personality disorders?
Dear Narcissistically Challenged,
WOW there is a lot going on here! We’re gonna have to break this down into a few different pieces in order to make sense of it.
[I should note that I am a marriage and family therapist. There are psychologists that are trained in diagnosing and treating personality disorders. I will give you the highlight reel to diagnosing and treatment, but this is in no way exhaustive.]
Firstly, every single person has narcissistic traits. It’s a part of being human, seeing as we only really live inside our own heads. You are the only person who experiences the world as you do, so it’s OKAY that your wants and needs sometimes take the driver’s seat in your head. It becomes a full-fledged personality disorder when a person has little to no empathy for others and has an inflated sense of their own importance. Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) is built around a sense of entitlement, and it wreaks havoc on all aspects of their lives—friendships, romantic relationships, work, and finances. A person with NPD has a lot of false bravado, but that serves as a protective casing around a fragile ego that is extremely sensitive to criticism. People who suffer from NPD often don’t seek treatment until later in life when they develop symptoms of depression. Prior to that, they will end up with a trail of wrecked relationships leading to social isolation.
Like NPD, Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) is a lifelong mental illness that impacts how a person feels about themselves and others. People who suffer from BPD have a history of unstable, chaotic relationships, generally characterized by patterns of over-idealism, followed by a fear of abandonment and rage. All of their relationships feel like, “I love you! No, I HATE you! But, no! Don’t leave me!!” People who suffer from BPD experience an intense fear of rejection. Their emotions are intense, from rage to lust, to a profound sense of emptiness. Many engage in risky behavior, be it fast driving or unprotected sex with strangers. Suicidality is very common amongst people with BPD, and their urges are often driven as a response to real or perceived threats of abandonment.
Personality disorders are chronic, but that does not mean they are untreatable. There are plenty of people who are able to learn to function with their personality disorders through the use of talk-therapy (also known as Dialectical Behavior Therapy in the medical books). Treatment is often geared towards helping a client gain perspective about their own patterns and giving them insight on how they can improve their functioning. This therapy has become the gold-standard for treating BPD, as it teaches behavioral skills to dealing with the symptoms.
While I noted that each person is the only one to live inside of their own skulls, I do caution people from diagnosing themselves. It is really easy to peruse through the DSM-5, Mayo Clinic, or MedMD and come out with the suspicion that oneself is afflicted. The best course of action is to go to a trained psychologist for an assessment, generally after seeing your primary care physician first. Bring a list of your symptoms, including when other people noticed you exhibiting them. Be open about your trauma and medical histories, including any drugs you take, legal and illegal. Getting a mental health diagnosis is not a bad thing: it means that you have a name and a guideline to improving your own functioning.
Now, onto the other pieces!
So in this situation, it sounds like you entered a relationship, problems arose that were not addressed completely, and you stepped outside of this relationship with other people sexually. When this came out, it was explosive and shitty for everyone involved and now your previous partner is very, very hurt. Through a conversation post moving-on, she called you a narcissist and it has sent you to where you find yourself now.
“Cheating” is such a loaded concept in our culture, yet it’s not always easily defined. It’s all mixed up in jealousy and trust. To some couples, use of pornography is cheating. To poly or open couples, it may be sexual contact without first consulting the other partner(s). At its core, infidelity is always a breach of trust. There are couples who can use infidelity to rebuild their relationship from the ground up and have far stronger relationships post-affair than they did pre-affair. For many couples, it’s a messy end.
A person who has experienced a breach of trust is going to feel a whole lot in a short period of time. The facts they built their perception of reality around got kicked to bits and now they’re left to rebuild it all. Many people will experience PTSD-like symptoms following the discovery of an affair. They may experience flashbacks or nightmares about the event. Their reactions are timely and very real to them.
In your situation, it sounds very much like your presence makes your ex very reactive. Coming into contact with her to apologize, talk, or whatever, is most likely going to make her explode in rage. She does not see you in a kind light right now. We all say things when we’re hurt and angry, so it’s very possible she called you a narcissist knowing far-well that it would hit below the belt. The fact that you’re concerned about the hurt you’ve caused and are doing some soul searching is fairly anti-narcissistic, though. Because she’s still hurt, the ball has to be in her court. If and when she decides to contact you needs to be on her terms. Anything short of that will likely be taken as a personal attack.
Yet, there is still work for you to do.
As I mentioned earlier, the only way to know “for sure” if you have something wrong with you is to get diagnosed by a good counselor. Yet, you may not have the symptomology for a diagnoses like NPD or BPD. What then?
Diagnosis or not, there is a pattern and you’re recognizing it. It may be helpful to map out your relationships and look for similarities (much like I talked about here). When, how, and why did you “torpedo” these relationships? Do you regret ending these relationships or just how you ended them? Does it usually involve an affair, or are there other go-to end-it tools that you employ? It’s important to figure out what this pattern is in full so when you can feel yourself getting swept up into it you can try to change it for a healthier pattern.