How What You've Learned From Narcissists, Psychopaths, & Other Toxic People Can Help You Navigate Now
Nearly two weeks after the elections in the United States, people here and elsewhere continue to experience shock, dismay, distress, anger, and fear in response to the expected inauguration of Donald Trump as President of the United States.
For those who perceive Trump as a narcissist or psychopath, the angst is both personal and collective. The difference between slowly discovering a family member is a psychopath and consciously choosing to marry someone with known to be toxic is an important one; both involve suffering, but the latter includes an element of choice. In the case of the election, the majority of Americans face an involuntary, long-term relationship with a man they perceive as egomaniacal, untrustworthy, dangerous, volatile, and punitive --- and misogynist, racist, xenophobic, anti-LGBTQ, and toxic to the environment.
You already know this.
Here, I offer some perspective and strategies that might be helpful to you as you orient yourself to the latest reality. We can use the insights and tools of sociology and psychotherapy to make sense of this experience, and to navigate our ways through it.
First, let's recognize that our current situation is a result of our previous situation. That Americans could elect DOnald Trump --- or that an election could result in a Triump presidency, as is more accyrately the case --- should have been far less a surprise than it was to many; we have been traveling down the road in this direction for quite some time. Keeping blinders on as we have been traveling contributes to the shock many feel now.
In the past many of us in the US have chosen to think in ways endorsed by both the individualistic dominant culture of the US and by capitalism, which encourages people to compete more than cooperate, to dispose rather than conserve, and to hoard rather than to share. Why is this important? It's important because we will need to shift our perspectives in the direction of the collective in the emerging environment. The old way of thinking has created the crisis we currently face. We need not only to address the crisis, but also the conditions that have created it.
When one of us has a sociopath in the family, it might be a personal trouble. When billions of us are concerned about the impact of one regime on the entire planet, it's a social problem and needs to be addressed on a collective level. In order to understand what went wrong here ---and to prevent things from becoming even worse, we need to shift our perspective. Sociologist C. Wright Mills, makes the distinction between "personal trouble" and "social issues," and notes how challenging it can be to shift to thinking this way. Mills, constrained by the language conventions of his time, writes:
".[..men] do not usually define the troubles they endure in terms of historical change and institutional contradiction. The well-being they enjoy, they do not usually impute to the big ups and downs of the societies in which they live. Seldom aware of the intricate connection between the patterns of their own lives and the course of world history, ordinary [men] do not usually know what this connection means for the kinds of men they are becoming and for the kinds of history-making in which they might take part. They do not possess the quality of mind essential to grasp the interplay of man and society, of biography and history, of self and world. They cannot cope with their personal troubles in such ways as to control the structural transformations that usually lie behind them.
"It is not only information they need--in this Age of Fact, information often dominates their attention and overwhelms their capacities to assimilate it....What they need, and what they feel they need, is a quality of mind that will help them to use information and to develop reason in order to achieve lucid summations of what is going on in the world and of what may be happening within themselves"...(Mills 1959).
So, the incredible potential of this historical moment is for us to use our fear and distress to transform both how we understand the world and how we operate in it. We will need to acknowledge how we have been lulled into the complacency of material comfort or seduced into competition for mindless excess, or how we have allowed others to be exploited for our benefit as we focused on our own individual welfare, or how we have allowed the critical thinking and engagement practices of functioning democracies to deteriorate as we slept.
The question is, how do we make that shift? In this waking-up moment of shock and grief and fear and disbelief, where do we go from here? If we are forced into a non-consensual relationship with a toxic person, what can we do ---- besides freak out? How do we address what many of us see as a crisis, while coming to consciousness about the conditions that created it?
We're gonna talk about that right here, right now. As we do, please take a breath. Make a cup of tea. Pet your cat or hug yourself. This is not an easy time, and what's ahead is not easy. It's going to be important in every moment to hold onto yourself and your center, as it always is in crisis situations and toxic relationships.
Okay, exhale. Let's think together about how we can help ourselves and others out.
Although each of us will find ourselves improvising to address the needs of the moment using our particular skills and resources, any of us who have survived relationships with narcissists or psychopaths or other toxic people have some transferable skills that I'd like to name here. Those skills and perspectives that have allowed you, as an individual, to survive a toxic relationship on a small scale will be handy as we collectively orient ourselves in this emerging environment.
If you've never had a toxic relationship, it may be even more important for you to take a look at these skills. Survivors already have a sense of what lies ahead.
1. Resist denial. In toxic relationships, we often refuse to see what's happening. We minimize the realities of toxic behavior and its impact on us. Denial allows us to feel more comfortable about situations and ourselves, but it also costs us time, empowers perpetrators, and creates the foundation for greater abuse ---and greater regret. What is "oh, that's just boy talk" at the level of a marriage can become "we didn't think they really were putting people in camps" on the level of a nation. Resist denial.
2. Keep yourself centered. In toxic relationships, victims often become so exhausted and distressed that they have difficulty thinking clearly, making good decisions, remaining rational or creative or hopeful and acting from places of resilience. In a stressful political climate, as in a stressful interpersonal relationship, you can help yourself and everyone else by keeping yourself centered, grounded, and healthy. This will allow you to practice #1, looking reality squarely in the face. The more grounded we are, the more able we are both to see and to name what is real. You've heard the prescription before, but I offer it again, with reassurance that it is not an indulgence but a necessity for you to sleep, eat well, go outside, lie in the grass, exercise, sing, dance, make love, or otherwise connect with the long life force of this gorgeous planet. In recharging, we create the possibility of continuing the work, and continue to deepen our reasons for doing it.
3. Practice responsivity vs. reactivity. In toxic relationships, we often become reactive rather than responsive. By facing reality and staying grounded, however, we can respond to distressing developments wisely, creatively, and proactively. It is reactive to scream at someone who voted for Trump; it is responsive to continue to advocate for a raise in the minimum wage, or to learn about the history of women's reproductive health practices, or to donate to a cause that will need to be fortified, or to think about how to directly support families that may be torn apart through regressive immigration practices. Identify the prospective political or social developments that concern you right now, and right now consider three actions that you could take that would address the needs connected to them. Trust that small actions make a difference, that you are significant, and that acting locally makes an impact.
4. Strengthen your connections. In toxic relationships, we often become isolated from supportive others. Toxic partners (and others) engineer this because it benefits them. In a toxic political environment, seek connection with others who can affirm your reality, collaborate with you on solutions, and assist you in remaining balanced. In connection and community we can find solace and support as well as connection, joy, fun, relief, and empowerment. By strengthening your connections, you also come to understand more about how we can act in solidarity with each other across lines of difference, and how you will feel better through supporting others.
5. Use the past to predict the future. In toxic relationships, survivors often make the mistake of expecting change in a benign direction when an exploitive or abusive person makes promises or minimizes past threats. On average, victims of intimate partner violence break up and make up with their tormenters seven times before finally exiting the relationship. We want to see the good in others, want things not to be as bad as they appear, want people to be able to change (see #1). If we allow ourselves to resist denial and stay centered, we can take in the truth of the past and use it to predict the future. This allows us to be more proactive and responsive, to coordinate and collaborate well with others, and to minimize shock and lost time when previously unthinkable events happen. The husband who expected his wife to drain the bank account because she had done so before becomes the nation expecting bankruptcy from a leader who has mismanaged finances multiple times in the past. When we use previous behavior to anticipate and prepare for future behavior, we have more capacity to respond adroitly.
The truth that our individual biographies are shaped by history is nothing new, but in this moment more of us --- especially those of us with white, US privilege--- are more acutely aware of that truth. In this emerging collective awareness of our interconnectedness and the interface between politics and personal life, there is the potential for a difficult but liberating transformation. Donald Trump's election is a flashpoint. He has not created this moment; he is it's greatest symptom and most compelling symbol; a deeper, broader array of toxic relationships have created him, and as we work to minimize the damage that a Trump presidency may do, we will need also to exit the exploitive relationships we have too long ignored in our individualistic, capitalist culture of excess.
This is work worth doing. The time is now.