September 14, 2008

Unbelieving the Unbelievable

The Lovers by Rene Magritte, 1928

When first learning about narcissism in 2001, many other people were also searching for explanations of the Jeckyl-Hyde person causing pain and relational confusion. At this point in time, there is so much information about personality disorders, Narcissism and Psychopathy, dysfunctional systems, toxic families and abusers that I’m more confused that I was prior to reading my first book about narcissism: Denial of the True Self by Alexander Lowen.

I’m j’est kiddin’ with ya a little, but the increase in websites, books, blogs and research articles has been phenomenal. At first, any book mentioning ‘narcissism’ was piled on my nightstand. Now books are lining my office walls. I’ve resorted to scheduling a read-list that should be completed by 2050, if my self-discipline improves from what it has been. Hopefully by then, psychologists will have a better handle on what narcissism is, who’s got it, who doesn’t and what kinds of people stay in narcissistic relationships.

In review of all the books I’ve read so far: Dr. So-and-So defined NPD as 'this' while Dr. Such-and-Such disagreed and insisted it was 'that'. Then Dr. What’s-his-Name questioned existing criteria while Dr. I-have-the-Truth, didn’t. To add to the confusion, some doctors said narcissism could not only be treated, it could be cured; while others insisted there was a biological component, precluding cure. While the good doctors define and redefine the NPD diagnosis (is malignant narcissism the same as psychopathy and can it be inherited?), the rest of us are making as much sense of existing information as we can. We are the ones who live/d with these folks, after all. We have valuable information about how the narcissistic pathology manifests and how other people are affected by the narcissist’s pathological self-interest.

If accumulated studies have relied on narcissists’ self-report, well, there’s one answer as to why specificity has been complicated. Narcissists are not inclined to admit failures, divulge bad behavior, confess to using people like stepping stones, nor offer an unbiased report of their public and private relationships. They are equally unlikely to admit they’re manipulating their psychological profile---and the psychologist, too.

If narcissists willingly admitted to their misdeeds, they’d not be defined as narcissists.

This is why listening to the narcissists’ victims merits inclusion in professional studies. But that would require offering us the same credibility extended to narcissistic clients; in other words: assuming we’re normal until proved otherwise. Extending an unbiased perspective means questioning assumptions about who those N-partners and children of Ns might be. It’s as if narcissists are finally diagnosed and we, by default, are assumed to be mirror reflections of their mental disorder. "Water Seeks its Own Level", don’t ya know.

So here’s what's worrisome after seven years of daily communication about narcissism:

There is an erroneous assumption amongst lay-people (and some professionals, too), that anyone related to, partnered with, caring for, or working with a narcissist has serious defects of character. A belief that victimized folks have psychological deficits, immature narcissism, character flaws, co-dependent behaviors if not a Dependent or Borderline Personality Disorder. Besides, as common knowledge goes, children of narcissists will likely become abusers and former partners are masochists-in-waiting.

Now, I’m not sure where people are collecting their pseudoscientific data, but to everyone out there writing about your private experience with narcissists, bon courage. Don’t be swayed by people’s attempts to deny the truth, which is: anyone can meet and love a narcissist. That anyone, no matter how ‘authentic’ they believe themselves to be, can still become involved with a narcissist. That even with a Red flag checklist tattooed on the palm of their hands, people can be misled, tricked, conned and fooled into believing someone is the person they claim to be.

I can’t fault people for their self-protective assumptions, though. Most of us read a news story about a sociopath or narcissist and tell ourselves we’re too smart to fall for such trickery and deceit. But con games would never work if people realized that being normal rendered them susceptible to manipulation and belief.
"The default is trust until there's a reason not to," says Robyn Dawes, a psychologist at Carnegie Mellon University. ~Article Link
Most people go through life without questioning their extension of trust, until it’s misplaced that is. In fact, I don't think most of us consider how much trust we extend every day of our lives. Because we don’t question our assumption that we're relatively safe in a not-so-safe world, each time a victim speaks about his or her experience, they threaten everyone’s self-protective defenses. Perhaps this is why 'threatened' people are quick to reify their Just World Assumptions by blaming the victim---making us feel worse than we already do. Suggesting there's something wrong with us and oh-so-right with them:

“Why’d you trust that person so much? Are ya gullible? I’d never do that!”

It’s easier to be a critic than it is to empathize and identify with the victim.
“We size up someone's trustworthiness within milliseconds of meeting them, and while we can revise our first impression, there are powerful psychological tendencies that often prevent us from doing so - tendencies that apply even more strongly if we've grown close.” ~Article Link
TRUST is a normal behavior. Imagine what our world would be like if we could not trust drivers to stop at stop signs. Imagine the chaos if we had to see proof of their safe driving records before we agreed to get on the road with them. We basically trust people to be conscientious, honest and responsible. It’s very hard to disbelieve our assumptions about life, especially since most of us don’t even know we have them.

It’s the same way with choosing a partner. We trust them to be committed to the relationship in the same way as ourselves. Once incongruent behavior causes us to question our perceptions, we’ll wrestle with Unbelieving the Unbelievable (Gilbert, 1990) by rationalizing our partner’s behavior.

Our society is on a steep learning curve about personality disorders (cluster B specifically) now that people are breaking the silence about psychopathy and narcissism. We are discovering that not everyone is trustworthy, nor of mutual good will. There are people in our world for which self-interest will always trump altruism. But rather than accusing victims of gullibility in a false sense of protection against a similar fate, we can learn about human behaviors in which trust is preliminary to a healthy society.
"Trust is the baseline," says Susan Fiske, a social psychologist at Princeton University. "Trustworthiness is the very first thing that we decide about a person, and once we've decided, we do all kinds of elaborate gymnastics to believe in people." ~Article Link
It’s important to give victims the benefit of the doubt and listen to their experience. They are doing everyone a service in their courage to face public criticism, speak of things most people prefer we silence, confront personal insults and the discrediting of their credibility. It takes a powerful confidence in one’s self-worth to insist on being heard, to admit to making mistakes, to being nothing less or more, than human.



Daniel Gilbert. Unbelieving the Unbelievable: Some Problems in the Rejection of False Information. 1990. "...This method of initially representing ideas as true may be economical and it may be adaptive, but any system that uses it will err on the side of belief more often than doubt. That human beings are, in fact, more gullible than they are suspicious should probably "be counted among the first and most common notions that are innate in us.""

Drake Bennett. The Confidence Game. 2008. "...The art of the con is based on a variation of this idea: that trust is more reflexive than skepticism. And research has suggested that, once people form an initial impression of someone or something, they seem to have a hard time convincing themselves that what they once believed is actually untrue..."


  1. "Perhaps this is why 'threatened' people are quick to reify their Just World Assumptions by blaming the victim---making us feel worse than we already do. Suggesting there's something wrong with us and oh-so-right with them:"

    " ... “Why’d you trust that person so much? Are ya gullible? I’d never do that!”

    It’s easier to be a critic than it is to empathize and identify with the victim.”... "

    It is easier to avoid ones fear in the short run. I think that would be the seed of this problem.

    Folks don’t know how to validate. All because people do like hearing there own voice amplified as they profoundly state, Are ya gullible? and then enjoy the power tool of their own self motivated ego defenses (they are safe). It is ignorance and a lack of self- awareness straight up.

    The problem with this is that by not listening the other person is not gifting themselves with resourceful information (as you stated at the end of entry). Why Heck, they might just end up in my shoes. This I believe to be true.

    Ones awareness of other is contingent upon their awareness of self.

    I have a friend who did exactly this. It was all after the narc ordeal was over. I shared some information with her about the actions of this maN. Her response was…Why did you stay? I would have been gone like lightening…something to that affect and all in a vibrato of knowing and superiority.

    By the way, this woman is married to a man she realized had an addiction to porn when she was 8 month pregnant with her now 3 year old child. Upon hearing this information you better believe I didn’t say..WHY Didn’t you leave him? NOOOOOOOO WAAAAAAAAAAAAAY!

    I remember this well because it really shocked me. I didn’t think her response would have been so cold and trite. While I was sitting there gasping for some under standing I received…I could have done it the right way or better than you, in tone of voice and gesture.

    I can recall listening to a girlfriend of mine after she got out of an abusive relationship.
    This was nearly 18 years ago.

    When she told me what had been happening I didn’t respond like recent friend…I just listened and said how yucky it was and that I could hardly bear to hear that she had gone through this. That was the truth. I had a difficult time seeing my dear friend dealing with such physical/mental abuse. It hurt to know…but that is what made me different at the time, I suppose. I was ok with the pain…I could tolerate it. Yet there was a voice inside me that did say…Why didn’t you leave? I never would put up with that? Well, maybe not that but something else.

    That voice inside my head that I didn’t allow to speak out loud really wanted out of knowing. It is an insane feeling and if it were not for that memory, I would have never been able to get past my recent friends response although this conversation did change the relationship for me. I then realized she was clueless in regards to validating. Her answer is and was to drink it away. We are no longer friends.

    I think the above responses to the exposure of abuse where an adult is concerned is a shared feeling of helplessness and the receiver of the information can not stand the sensation of helpless. They eradicate the feeling by extending an answer that saves them from the real knowing that some one is gassing a whole group of humans.

    People figure if it is an adult and not a child then they should have the means and there fore they didn’t practice the means which = something is wrong with the person…so go get help.

    It is easiest to say that if some one has no experience in the subject then they really don’t know what to say. If they are in denial then that doubles the motion. I would say that a person who has not encountered a narcissist has absolutely no idea of the deception/emotional-CON (emocon). Yet I do believe there are people who will never be caught in the deepest hole of in a narcissistic situation. Some people do know red flags and they don’t even call them red flags.

    Abuse of adults …is not in the forefront and it is not recognized in the same way that child abuse is. It should be. As I just wrote above…tons of people denied what Hitler was doing and people today deny what is happening on the globe as well. So why would it be any different???? Seriously…when I ask for awareness in one area I have to realize that awareness isn’t happening in many pertinent areas. I can make a list.

    Excellent entry CZ!

  2. Excellent blog, CZ:)

  3. Well here's an odd thing I'd love your feedback on. Its been 3 years of post-breakup recovery for me. feelin great, feelin free, feelin reborn into a newer better experience of life.

    I wrote extensively in forums about the pain, confusion, rage, righteous indignation, my own self-criticisms. the very steep learning curve we all know. I defended us survivors as NOT being co-dependent, or love-addicted, or relationship-addicted, or masochistic as was suggested in reading, even some therapists and more than a few forum trolls.

    Because I knew in my BONES, I just felt it, that wasnt the case for me and likely not the case for others.

    Sandra Brown's book Women Who Love Psychopaths confirmed what my bones knew.

    Ok, all comfy in my knowledge and healing now.

    And as I watch stories on the news, or Dateline about women who were unsuspecting victims of boyfriends, husbands, exhusbands, extra-marital partners who, while they are never labelled by the news anchors or show hosts as narcissists or sociopaths are described in detail in ways that smack of familiarity to any of us.

    And even after ALL I've experienced, read, come to understand and healed from, I STILL find the voice in my head saying "Oh my God, I would have run away from that guy long before she did!"

    I know better, because I didnt run from my exN/S until the most painful 7 years of my entire life had come to a close.

    So what is that voice? Is it a way of soothing ourselves? Because saying that, even silently to myself is all about me, and really not a judgment at all on the poor victim in the story.

    I can forgive every person who said it, wrote it or had it in the look on their face when I shared my story, because now I realize, theyre telling me something about themselves, and I dont think its entirely hubris. I suspect it has something to do with a mental shield and sword they want to believe they have...that *I* want to believe *I* have.

    (even though, simultaneously I am also scared I may fall in love again, with someone I come to find is also a dangerous person)


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