When I was 17, I got into a relationship with a 24-year-old man [note to U.S. readers: this is normal and not illegal in Europe].
I had not been really interested in him, but he was very insistent and I ran out of arguments. 18 months later I ended the relationship without really knowing why. I just felt I had to get out of it. Years later I met him again and he complained to me how I had ‘spoiled him’ to the degree that he now only engaged in SM relationships with young girls, who had been heavily abused as children. That was when I realized just what had been going on during those one and a half years. Without being mentally or emotionally able to look at the abuse, my survival instinct had cried out loud enough to make me move.
The Big Boss
In 2012, I worked as an advisor in the Philippines. My team was Filipino, working with me in Bacolod, and my disciplinary superiors were Germans based in Manila. When I went on maternity leave with my first child, I had very good relationships with my coordinator and the country director. By the time I returned three months later, both had been replaced with old-school bosses. My top superior paid me a visit about a week after I had returned back to work.
He sat at the table, eating the dinner my husband had prepared, drinking beer and talking non-stop for two hours. He never bothered to ask about my work, my experience so far, my results, let alone my life. Instead, he told me how utterly useless my whole position was (never mind that it had been his team, who had designed that position), how ineffective the work was, how he was the creator of some of the most powerful inventions in the field, how awesome he was in general and that, if I wanted to continue to be employed, I’d better come up with “something”.
Then he graciously allowed me to drive him back to his hotel, highly satisfied with himself. I drove back in shock. “What an asshole,” I told my husband, who hushed me and told me not to put up a fight. After all, we had a two-month-old baby, and if I lost that job, we’d have no home, no money, no country to live in.
“What an asshole,” I told my Filipino team, who smiled that sweet Asian smile that said: “Oh, NOW you find out.” Then they assured me that things would turn out okay. And they did. I was stressed out for a few months, but eventually, we came up with an idea that Mr. Fullofhimself accepted to “see if you’re any good.” A year later, he expected me to extend my contract for another year, and to this day I cherish the moment I politely declined and disappeared with my whole family in the Amazon rain forest instead.
In those days, I had never heard of the term ‘narcissist’. I had never heard of ‘toxic masculinity’. Nor did I ever consider myself having PTSD. I did know I had issues I better worked out if I wanted to get on with life (three years in the depth of the Amazon helped). These days I read about narcissism everywhere. When I run the catalog of criteria along these men, they fit the description of narcissist disorder beautifully. Grandiosity? Check. Putting other people down? Yes. No empathy? None whatsoever. Craving admiration? Check. Putting the blame on everyone else? Yo.
I am forever grateful that I had none of the diagnostic tools at my disposal at the time. In my mind, both men (and a series of others) were simply jerks. And it wasn’t any disorder or their masculinity that had hurt me; it was their behavior. Sometimes it took longer than necessary for me to draw the proper conclusions, but eventually, I always did. Over time, I’ve honed my ability to surround myself with healthier individuals. The key for me here is that I never created a clinical story out of any of these experiences. Calling my boss an asshole may not be politically or medically correct, but it allowed me to cope. It allowed me to view the situation as simply being highly unpleasant, find ways to deal with, and eventually escape it and get on with life.
The more I see people diagnosing anyone who doesn’t fit their idea of a ‘good’ person (feel free to substitute good with any other term: emotionally stable, healthy, mature…) or who fails to meet their expectations, the more they seem to be caught up in the pathology of all of that.
Call someone a jerk and you’ll look for ways to simply avoid their presence or just call them out on it. Label them as narcissists and you’ll find yourself caught up in a web of complications. There are innumerous articles out there that explain how impossible it is to change a narcissist. How extremely difficult it is to escape such a relationship. How incredibly manipulative these people are. In other words: how much of a victim YOU are.
What Do You Really Want?
As much as I understand that it is important to overcome the belief that you deserve all the pain you’re feeling or that it’s your fault that you’re being treated harshly, I seriously doubt that putting all those labels onto yourself and the other is doing you any good.
Labeling only creates more polarization and often leaves little space for any true understanding of an individual (i.e., empathy…). We all know how much damage was done to women with the umbrella diagnosis ‘hysteria’ for, as Mark Micale put it, “everything that men found mysterious or unmanageable in women.” These days, we use ‘toxic masculinity’ for any unwanted behavior shown by males. This is not what I call progress.
“I am such an empath” and “he is such a narcissist” serve little more than attributing guilt to a situation without creating solutions. In fact, the way I see it, all those labels serve mainly one purpose: to legitimize your own perception. Most people — including me — feel stupid for staying in an abusive relationship for more than five minutes. So, let’s put a label on them, and suddenly I have a ‘scientific’ reason for why I could not take action sooner.
After all, Psychology Today confirms how viciously manipulative these people are. Phew.
This may help me feel less ashamed for my previous failure to set my boundaries. It will do little to strengthen me for future similar situations, though. The moment I think ‘narcissist’ again, I’ll be paralyzed by all the clinical implications that the label carries.
The reality is very simple: whenever you suffer in a relationship, it is a good idea to change. Either change your perception or change the relationship. You do not need or deserve to suffer. Period. And it is always up to you to stop it. Again period. No, I am not talking about blame or shame or guilt. None of these concepts create solutions. They all create more suffering. You are not GUILTY of being in a relationship that causes you pain. You have the choice and the power to change it. I’m sure there are a thousand reasons for why the other should not have done what they did, for why they should make things better, and how they are guilty. Congratulations. Now what?
Once you understand that taking responsibility for your situation does NOT mean you accept any kind of guilt, but instead, you take the power to end your own suffering, you are finally moving towards a solution.
Let’s strip ourselves and others from labels. Honor your experience instead. Does it feel wrong, does it feel bad? You don’t need to search for legitimacy. Honor your feelings; accept your experience. Whatever action you take from there, make sure you are kind. To yourself and others. That’s all.
 Micale, Mark. “Hysteria and its Historiography: A Review of Past and Present Writings” History of Science. 1989 p. 320