February 21, 2010

The Treachery of Images: Steven Stosny

The Treachery of Images by René Magritte, 1928-9

It looks like a pipe. But it isn't a pipe. It is the image of a pipe. If you believe Magritte misnamed this painting, try putting tobacco in the bowl.

This painting came to mind while reading Steven Stosny’s blog. He teaches that compassion is an antidote to aggression and violence, in particular: domestic abuse. I like his compassion theory and support any program inspiring people to connect to core values and treat one other with kindness. That’s a tall order when intimate relationships are disrupted by infidelity, abuse, disdain, contempt, or even everyday problems inherent to intimate relationships.

It’s not easy staying in love.

Any program teaching people to recognize, claim, and take responsibility for anger and underlying 'feelings' of shame and guilt, has my support 150%. The whole world won’t change because of a single program, but if just one child has a chance to grow up in a peaceful home, then it’s worth giving cognitive empathy, sympathy, and compassion a ‘try’.

Recently, Stosny wrote an excellent summation of a new French law prohibiting emotional abuse in the home (home is supposed to be a safe place, not Abu Ghraib.) He wrote: Emotional Abuse Violates Civil Rights. Because of public reactions to his support for legal restriction on emotional abuse, he wrote an excellent rebuttal:
“I regret that so many people still believe that emotional abuse of loved ones should be legal and that falling in love exempts one from equal protection of the law against emotional abuse. Anyone who works with families can attest that emotional abuse is on a steep increase in our age of entitlement. One day the pervasiveness of emotional abuse will reach a tipping point in the law, as occurred in civil rights and in physical abuse of children and spouses. For now all we can do is pray for those who will be harmed before history passes its inevitable judgment on us.” ~Emotional abuse of family members should be legal?
So far, so good. Loved his analysis and point of view. Then he wrote this article, of which I have serious reservations:
"Partners who diagnose each other often rely on the same self-help checklists or Google searches. Many abusers read the checklists out loud to their partners during arguments to prove how screwed up he/she is. They very commonly rely on their less than ethical therapists who diagnose the partner without even meeting, much less examining and testing him or her.
"...The mere impulse to justify contempt or failure of compassion (e.g., diagnosing pathology in your partner) tells you that you are violating your deepest values which creates a war within you. Thus, contempt of a loved one causes self-contempt: "He/she is so crazy or abusive that I was such an idiot to believe and trust him/her." Your relationship may have wounded you, but pathologizing your partner keeps the wounds open and fresh.
"If you want to heal, recover, or prevent getting into a bad relationship in the future, see victim identity for the cancer on your soul that it is. Renounce it along with the self-help books and blogs that encourage it..." ~Steven Stosny

AARRRRRGGGG!!! Enough already! "Ceci n'est pas un victime!"

Revealing taboo secrets victims have been prohibited from speaking without censure is not identification with victimization. Breaking the Silence is repudiation of exploitation. Talking, sharing, opening our lives to others is how people have dismantled socially sanctioned 'thou-shalt-nots' and toppled oppressive power structures.

Granted, a blog revealing painful intimacies about women's lives can appear to be a Victim Blog. A book describing abuse of naiveté and trust can appear to be a victim book. Reclaiming our integrity and renouncing the victim-identity many of us were groomed into accepting, requires a piecing together of shattered parts of the self.

That might mean years of writing about past events while gleaning fresh insights, including the punitive admission of culpability, dupability, and manipulability. Confessions of idiocy may appear to be a victim identity; hoping a witness will verify that we did not deserve to be mistreated; trusting we will hear the abuser was ‘wrong’ and even if we reacted to aggression, the abuser is accountable. Most victims of narcissists are already praying the burden of shame will be lifted from their shoulders through those who are willing to bear witness to their suffering and recognize their attempts overcoming victimization.

Writing and empathizing with one another's story is a way to identify parts of ourselves by extending compassion to those with similar experiences. It may appear to be victim commiseration, or perhaps a moralizing attempt to demonize narcissists, but as Magritte has illustrated: Everything is not as it seems.

For psychologists who extend compassion to both sides of an abusive relationship, it is likely exhausting to witness venting and arguing and complaining or maybe even reading blogs that are replete with exclamation marks and pejorative name-calling. Our frustrated attempts to restore dignity and self-worth might appear to be the pot calling the kettle black.
“The conflict between the will to deny horrible events and the will to proclaim them aloud is the central dialectic of psychological trauma. People who have survived atrocities often tell their stories in a highly emotional, contradictory, and fragmented manner that undermines their credibility and thereby serves the twin imperatives of truth-telling and secrecy. When the truth is finally recognized, survivors can begin their recovery. But far too often secrecy prevails, and the story of the traumatic event surfaces not as a verbal narrative but as a symptom.” ~Judith Herman
It is very difficult for bystanders to empathize with victims, even professionals who may tire of their repetitive complaints. But appeasement does not work…even when the victim appeases her psychologist in a self-destructive attempt to please; or to have her relationship included in the ‘successful statistics’ of happy families surviving crisis.

The Healing Process

While there are no absolutes guiding a healing process, Judith Herman has outlined a general process aligning with my experience both as an individual and a witness. I will paraphrase my understanding of her basic principles:

1- the path to recovery begins with the ability to name the problem and disclose personal experience to others. The reconstruction and witnessing of story, both teaches and informs in tandem.

2- creating a safety plan. Learning to protect oneself, establish boundaries, secure a safe place, make a decision about leaving or staying with the narcissist is her decision and her right to make the best choice she can

3-a restoration of connections between survivors and community after feeling isolated (physically or psychologically from others whom we perceive as being ‘different’ from ourselves)

These three processes are facilitated through blogging or group participation in support forums. In general, people are unwilling to disclose intimate facts in face-to-face relationships. For very good reasons. Let’s call this “Healthy Boundaries”. Anonymous postings on the Internet are a viable alternative to public criticism, shame, and further isolation.

Most people, even in the throes of relational dispute, hesitate harming a partner’s reputation, if only for the sake of their children.

The alternative to public shaming and blaming is the Internet where feelings are expelled, ‘claimed’ and the healing process ensues with more rigorous honesty than can be safely expressed in public. Most victims of narcissists desire neither revenge nor vengeance. What we desire is a degree of justice via validation by those who understand and allow us to embrace our requisite anger as a first step towards self-respect. Our anger initiates a grieving process supported by compassionate people who do not fear our incompetence coping with losses.

People who know that self-help is the only help there is.

Blogging: Naming the problem and self-disclosure

Victims must have a 'name' for what they cannot put into words. It is how we 'claim' our experience. Just ask Adam how valuable it was naming the animals in God’s Eden. Well, this Eve has a few names for the animals she has known and loved, too. Rat Bazturd comes to mind. Piss Ant is another. Horse’s ass is a close third running neck in neck with Pig head for fourth place. A narcissist is reduced to his place in the animal kingdom with many names preachy folks tell us is unworthy of our true selves. Are victims so narcissistic as to ignore the fact that even mercenary narcissists are God’s chilluns, too?

Victims must diminish the aggressor's perceived superior status to a realistic perception. In other words, questioning the perception of the narcissist as a her ‘god’ and seeing him as a fallible human being may require shattering idealization and projective identification.

In my lay-person-and-therefore-unprofessional-experience, those who have been traumatized are required to demythologize the abuser in order to kick-start healing. As long as the narcissist remains a Powerful Figure in the mind of the victim ( a normal reaction to oppression and abuse), fear overrides love and the lack of love hinders compassion. From Rat Bazturd to a man with a mental disorder, understanding and compassion are given birth.

The true victim identity is not the person who faces trauma, nor the one who reaches out to others with an open hand (not a fist). The true victim mentality is that of the Abuser. The one who perceives threat where there is none, who feels entitled and superior, whose sense of revenge supersedes reason, whose exploitation is both callous and destructive; i.e. 301.81 in the DSM-IV-TR. Five out of nine criteria and we have a name for that which was nameless. Now even those criteria are in dispute by 'professionals' who question how to define a narcissistic personality disorder without stigmatizing the narcissist.

If they read the stories of those of us who lived with narcissists, perhaps they'd learn something---rather than pontificating about our cancerous souls.

Most women are skilled in cleaning up messes. I can spit-polish my soul to a brilliant glow. As long as making a diagnosis remains verboten unless an authority figure approves of our pitiful attempts to seek reason (and therefore understanding), womens' souls are in serious trouble.

It is never comfortable to witness a woman becoming her own authority.

Shaming for Naming

One reason women have been writing extensively about personal experiences is because we are confronting social prohibitions against speaking 'ill' of others. Even abusive others. We silence ourselves, and our children silence themselves because otherwise, we're subjected to reprimand, such as I felt after reading Stosny’s chastisement. It was so similar to what most church leaders have preached to women behind the safety and certainty of their pulpits that I felt an urge to don a hat and Sunday shoes. I felt chastened. Threatened as a spiritual heretic for betraying my core values. Now my desire to Break The Silence was diagnosed as a cancer on my soul.

And Stosny hasn't even met me.

A cancerous soul? How about calling that cancer a zit that will eventually go away with or without sermons from the psychological community?

Somebody please find the duct tape and cover my mouth. I've been caretaking my soul for decades and now it's threatened with malignancy simply because my fingers are doing the talking.

I re-read Stosny's blog entry (plus a few other scornful entries by professional psychologists who arrogantly dismiss lay folks the way kings dismissed servants) and reached for my rose-colored glasses. The rose-colored glasses with mirrors on the backside, forcing me to examine myself for flaws and protect the abuser who was in more dire need of my compassion than myself.

Until learning about pathology based on DSM criteria, my compassion was limited by confusion and hurt. After finding a 'name' for my experience, my heart was 'freed' to shoot love beams all day long, without fear of being bamboozled by a complex mental disorder. Naming a mental disorder that precluded emotional development and empathy and a solid self-identity that is not threatened by failure or success, allowed me to be more understanding and compassionate towards those with mental illnesses and disorders.

I could sit in church all day long and listen to sermons about love and devotion to family and how a good wife ought support her husband's weakness, but until reading the DSM-IV (Oh, how dare a layperson assume she is competent to make a diagnosis?), I was trapped in a surreal space---somewhere between reality and spiritual denial.

I had to read in black and white just as thousands of my peers have had to read in black-and-white, that narcissism is a serious pathology that cannot be cured by a supportive relationship. That the person most deserving of compassion is ourselves.

Let the therapist be compassionate towards the narcissistic client, but please don’t shame victims into silencing suffering and grief.
"Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak whispers the o’er-fraught heart and bids it break." ~William Shakespeare
And so women write. And we read. And we share the stories of our lives. We find safety in anonymity, reestablishing connections between self and community. We re-member the fragmented self, split between subordination and self-authority.

We identify with one another's story and find ourselves in a reciprocal process of validation. We write to inform our daughters. We write to inform our sons. And by our actions, we teach children to recognize self-worth and claim their authority, and never preserve secrets more than the preservation of their souls.

Hugs to all my fellow bloggers,

p.s. I write from a woman's perspective because I am a woman and dare not claim to represent the male point of view, nor his experience with female narcissists.


Steven Stosny. Victim Identity: I'm not Okay, You're More Not Okay, published February 18, 2010

Judith Herman, Trauma and Recovery.

About Judith Herman on The Narcissistic Continuum

Samizdat and Victimless Crimes on The Narcissistic Continuum


  1. i remember reading somewhere that psychiatrist's secretaries were as good at diagnosing patients as psychiatrists, accroding to a couple of studies, though I can't remember where I read them. I remember that whenever I read about how important it is to get an expert diagnosis.

    I agree that it woudl be wrong if I were trumpeting my diagnosis to the Ex's friends, colleagues, family, etc., in the absence of any professional consultation. But on my blog? All it needs to do there is help me make sense of the situation, avoid it in the future, figure out what I could ahve done differently and what I'm not responsible for, etc. What on earth is the harm?

  2. CZBZ
    Your write so beautifully, so eloquently. I often feel that you have been inside my head, reading the thoughts that I would love to be able to articulate as touchingly as you do. I feel honoured to be a devoted reader of your wonderfully wise words.
    Thank You

  3. I am posting another comment by Stormchild since blogger won't let her post it herself.

    Thanks, Storm!



    Hi CZ

    Brava! again.

    You tell 'em, girl.

    I am sorry to say it but it has to be said:

    this business about how "mere laypersons must never, ever, ever dare to label" has a strong aroma of racket-protecting about it.

    hugs 2u2


  4. Hi Maeve!

    I read a book by Paula J. Caplan titled, "They Say You're Crazy: How The World's Most Powerful Psychiatrists Decide Who's Normal."

    If you ever wanna stay up reading all night, check out Caplan's book, "They Say You're Crazy: How The World's Most Powerful Psychiatrists Decide Who's Normal." It's quite the page-turner and eye-opener!

    According a study in her book, two psychologists agree on the same diagnosis a little more than half the time.

    I have deep respect for the psychiatric community, as anyone knows if they've read my blog. Geez...we keep a bowl of Prozac in the center of the family kitchen table, for heaven's sakes.

    I have been reading blogs and websites for several years and so far, my soul is in better shape than ever. But when I read Stosny's blog, I wondered how his article would have impacted me in 2002 and I could not, in good conscience, shut my mouth and ignore what might be very silencing to other people who are finally claiming their right to speak.


  5. Thank you so much, Ex-Mrs Jekyll and Hyde!

    It's lovely hearing from you and especially lovely being complimented. It delights me no end when someone says my writing speaks for them; that my words say exactly what they feel in their hearts.

    Although, it also makes me sad because that means other people have suffered the same losses as myself.

    I cannot imagine going through the past few years without the Internet, can you? A woman really can't knock on her neighbor's door and say, "Hello. I'm having a panic attack. Got any Oreos?"



  6. Our marriage counselor (a psychologist) recently diagnosed my husband as an NPD with alexithemia. My husband rejected this, but once I started researching the subject, I realized our counselor was right. The more I read, the more I'm able to reframe events, which never made sense to me, into context. My husband is as calculating as he is impulsive and, as one might imagine, this has caused some mighty strange situations. My role is to clean up his messes, and be supportive all the while, because God help me should I object, much less point out the error of his ways, I am somehow to blame for whatever happened.

    I'm not as easy for my husband to fool. Having a diagnosis has done wonders for me. As I learn about NPD and process the information, the web enshrouding my soul slowly sloughs off.

    After several intriguing and classically narcissistic conversations with him,and recognizing them as such,I now regard him as a man with character problems that are not my fault.

    The spell is broken. Though I mourn for the man he could've and should've been (and thought he was for the longest time), I've stopped ruminating over gazillions of "if onlies".

    I'm not mad at him anymore; I'm sad for him. It's heartbreaking to realize that where I'm capable and willing to do the work necessary to repair myself, he is not.

    In the meantime, thanks to this diagnosis, I'm able to treat him with kindness- as I slowly edge out the door.

    I love your blog and writing. It's immensely helpful, as are the links, while I figure this out. Thank you.

  7. "I'm not mad at him anymore; I'm sad for him. It's heartbreaking to realize that where I'm capable and willing to do the work necessary to repair myself, he is not."

    Having a 'name' for our experience stops the obsession, allows us to separate the person from the 'disorder', disentangles us from the enmeshed relationship and allows us to see OURSELVES with clarity.

    I am all for 'labels' when it comes to empowering people.

    Using a 'label' to abuse someone is not what my blog is about. Hopefully, people understand that diagnosing someone as "A Narcissist" is using a 'label' to understand and therein grant power to ourselves again.

    The narcissistic relationship is highly destructive to other people when they do NOT understand what they are dealing with. The N acts, we react and pretty soon the argument escalates beyond reason.

    I love how you said that 'the spell is broken'. That's exactly how it seems, isn't it? It's not that people are idiots to have loved a narcissist but it kinda feels that way once we SEE what we could not name before.

    We learn about NPD and:

    Everything falls into place.

    Old arguments make sense.

    Odd experiences become clear.

    We keep the Ns behavior in context.

    We restore our sense of reality and our self-worth!

    I have not and do not use the NPD diagnosis to cause further harm to anyone.

    However, I also know from personal experience that without a 'label' that captured narcissistic dynamics and character traits, I could only REACT to his narcissism because I didn't understand it. And that left me feeling 'outside myself'.

    I am, as you already know, dedicated to helping people understand pathological narcissism. Not to destroy their relationship or tell them what they must DO with their relationship; but to offer people enough clarity to make healthy decisions for themselves.

    thank you for writing such a lovely comment. I am so happy to know that you are working through the complexities of your relationship and finding a way to feel compassion for him and even more compassion for yourself.


  8. CZ -- thank you for this. I started reading some of Stosny's stuff and it wasn't sitting well with me, I didn't know why. You expressed this all perfectly. Thank you. Persephone.


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