March 08, 2010

Labels, Stereotypes and the Armchair Diagnosis

Little Girl in a Blue Armchair by Mary Cassatt

I apologize for writing such long posts on my blog. Experts advise people to write short and simple entries; otherwise non-returning readers won’t increase our status on search engines. That’s true. When time is short, I skip long entries on blogs, too. Since there is no way to condense the topics I write about, I have given up on my google status. It’s a necessary sacrifice for a woman who figures out what she ‘thinks’ by the time she’s finished writing.

There I go again---writing in third person. Another Red Flag for narcissism. Would that narcissism could be so easily spotted as writing in third person or using first-person-“I’s”. (Any narcissist worth his or her diagnosis will avoid the capital “I” now that people are counting “I’s” as a means to define a narcissistic personality.) The more people define Red Flags, the quicker manipulators disguise their behavior. That’s fair to say even though it’s not comforting to someone who barely survived the narcissistic relationship and is terrified of a second trip through Hell. We want certainty, not more ambiguity!

I write from the layperson’s perspective since I’m not a professional and so far, it’s been incredibly valuable reading psychological literature and applying it to my life. "Making sense of nonsense" is how laypeople put it. This is how we ‘use’ psychological information to better our lives.

Speaking of bettering our lives through easy access to psychological information, I’d like to comment on the “armchair diagnosis” by people who misuse DSM criteria. We’ve all seen this happen and maybe some of us have suffered from the Red Flag Syndrome at some point in our learning, seeing a narcissist where there isn’t one. When you’re afraid, and when you’re suffering, and when you’re protecting yourself as best you can, it’s easy to see narcissism in anyone with a crumb of self-confidence. Our hyper-vigilance may lead us down the sorry road of victimizing others because we fear being victimized ourselves. So here’s a Red Flag: Be aware of the Red Flag Syndrome. We all get it. But it passes.

For my family and I, who loved my x-husbaNd dearly, access to psychological information encouraged compassion and yes, even forgiveness. Our compassion has resulted from a deeper understanding of his difficulty discerning love from idealized love. We stopped taking his rejection personally and that has been a great gift from easy access to psychological information about narcissism.

People Label People
People label people whether it’s an official label or not. Like calling someone a ‘black sheep’ because they react differently to life than the rest of the wooly clan. Isn’t ‘black sheep’ a label that stigmatizes people, explaining their behavior in a way that interferes with empathic connection? When we don’t understand why someone behaves the way they do, and if we have tried time and time again to sympathize with their problems, we may resort to using labels from the common lingo. Like “Jerk” for example. Or “Romeo”. Or “Jezebel”. Or “He’s a Marlboro man”, or maybe even “She’s a Doormat.” Each of those labels provides a meaningful exchange of information in a social context.

Since my family has a history of ADD cropping up in successive generations, we formerly called ADD relatives “Rebels” because they defied the rules of family members who did not have ADD. With a psychological diagnosis though, our closed hearts were opened. We learned about ADD, recognized the challenges someone with ADD faced that the rest of us didn’t, and confronted our judgmental attitudes resulting from ignorance and of course, frustration.

When we’re helpless to help someone we care about, it’s easier to blame than it is to face powerlessness.

The Armchair Diagnosis
Now, some psychologists hate it when the public uses diagnostic labels. Especially labels like NPD, BPD, Histrionic, or any of the personality disorders defined in the DSM-IV, now available to layfolk because of the Internet. I can understand psychologists’ resistance; especially when criteria for personality disorders leads to animosity, polarization, a lack of compassion, increased hostility rationalized as justifiable.

The faulty reasoning in this argument against psychological labels is that people stereotype and categorize with or without the DSM. I also believe that the stereotypes and labels formerly ascribed to people who contradicted morals and values of a particular society or family clan, were ever bit as much if not morepejorative than a psychological label. That’s because there was no understanding or explanation for someone’s behavior that was eventually reduced to being "A Rebel."

What people like myself are trying to do is make sense of someone’s behavior whether we called them jerks, or more accurately: narcissists. In fact, (and yes, I am biased in favor of psychological labels), understanding why someone behaves the way they do opens a pathway for empathy and eventually, compassion. We may be angry at first, we may go through a period of hating how a pathological person impacted our lives, but eventually, we say: “There but for the grace of God, go I”.

Psychological information explaining behavior that causes so much suffering for others, propitiates our natural tendency to empathize and forgive…even someone who may be unable to reciprocate empathy or take responsibility for the harm they have caused others.

A Leather Chair?
However, there are those who abuse DSM criteria with an “armchair diagnosis” maligning people’s character, discrediting them as leaders, and blaming them for having maliciously abused people’s trust or taken advantage of people’s naivet√©. I see this frequently on blogs and websites using DSM criteria to dethrone powerful authority figures, celebrity figures, politicians, anyone in the public spotlight. Even psychologists have joined in the mobbing with their own ‘leather chair diagnosis’ which unfortunately, carries a lot of weight with laypeople who trust psychologists’ credibility as reliable and objective experts.

When a layperson suggests someone has a disorder, most people recognize their subjectivity as an attempt to make sense of their relationship; but when a psychologist suggests someone has a disorder, they are basing it on professional authority. I do not like it when psychologists throw their weight around with a purely subjective interpretation, using their credentials like anchors in a sea of public opinion.

That’s my two cents on “Leather Chair Diagnoses on the Internet” and a professional concern about damage caused by the layperson’s "Armchair Diagnosis".



  1. First of all, as always, loved the picture.

    Please continue to write away. I used to read self help book upon self help book, and now I just look foward to your writings. They are forever amazing, and always help me, make me laugh, and touch my heart!


  2. I love that picture so much, it's hanging on my wall. *grin*

    Writing is my Self-Help Therapy. It's the best way to figure out what we think and why.

    I appreciate your validation so much, Anon! I've read a pile of self-help books myself...but it's one thing to read words and it's another to apply those words to your life.

    Have you noticed that when someone tells a story, the principle or information suddenly becomes more accessible? Maybe that's why I love reading blogs to see how people are using the information everyone else is reading, too.

    I'm thinking of gluing a huge stack of self-help books together and making an artistic nightstand.

    The book on the bottom of the pile will be "The Proper Care and Feeding of Husbands."


    Love and hugs back,

  3. Love the nightstand idea. I even had a picture of it in my head, all colorful and different sizes. You truly put the right book on the bottom!

  4. Hi, 'The Gift of Fear'

    Does this book address violence from women to men? as someone who has sufered these attacks Im considerign buying the book but a lot of reviews on amazon tend to be from female perspectives.
    great site and please keep up the good work

  5. "Does this book address violence from women to men?"

    Most vignettes are written about a woman ignoring her intuition warning her that she was in danger----second-guessing her intuitive warning that she needed to get away.

    Even though, as I recall, most anecdotes are female, that does not necessarily exclude men. You'll have to universalize 'women' to mean all human beings.

    The author is male and he manages a crime-prevention business. Google his name (Gavin deBecker) and you will quickly see that he is talking to ALL people, not women exclusively.

    My sense is that publishers predict their market for a particular book. Fewer men buy self-help books than women and therefore, the publisher controls how the book is marketed. I know this because of a friend published her self-help book with a large publishing company. The title, the anecdotes, etc. HAD to be gender based because that's how the publisher could guarantee a profit.

    Try to keep that in mind when you're a man looking for books in the self-help market.

    This book is frequently recommended to clients by their psychologists. It's a great book and by no means focuses solely on women being abused, brutalized and killed by men.

    I think you'll like it, David. If you read it, please tell me what you think!

    I hope to write a few articles about the dangerous women men 'hook up' with.

    Gender stereotypes lead men to assume that every woman is a caretaking nurturer. That she is empathic and loving. That she is harmless. Well, that's a crock of you-know-what!

    I know how hard it is for men to speak openly about being abused. People are ignorant or in denial about abusive (even physically violent) females.

    This makes it especially difficult for an abused man to receive the kind of support he needs.

    Men also have 'intuition', this is not limited to women. Once a man breaks through his fantasy of the harmless, loving and devoted female, he will be able to rely on his intuition as a guide. That is my sense of what Gavin DeBecker hopes to achieve with his book, "The Gift of Fear".

    I am interested in hearing from men who were with abusive women. Did you feel an internal warning that something was 'off' and a relationship with her might not be safe? Women write about this frequently but I rarely hear men commenting on their Internal Warning System.


  6. Hi its David_d, tried posting my comment but it says my password is incorrect ?? so had to post anon!

    Ive ordered the book anyway, its hardly expensive and as Ive got adult kids, it will be available to them as a resource too.
    "I am interested in hearing from men who were with abusive women. Did you feel an internal warning that something was 'off' and a relationship with her might not be safe? Women write about this frequently but I rarely hear men commenting on their Internal Warning System."
    I knew this owman and her 'history' prior to getting involved, I have to say the red flags were in place, but being the vulnerable, sweet lttle thing that she was, the illusion took over and I jsut walked right into it!
    she even took pleasure in telling me how, when her ex was sat at the table, she picked up a large book, ran up behind him and smacked him int he back of the head with it! 'he must have deserved it' was the crazy rational, he must have doen something really bad to upset her'!!!
    What was I thinking???
    looking back she is clearly a spiteful and vindictive angry person, totally in contrast to the public facade which is so well cultivated.
    I was still incredibly shocked when she attacked me, twice, while driving! no damage done but the consequences and what ifs are unthinkable.
    for the most part the abuse was verbal and emotional, I wasnt prepared for that, and you are soo right about breaking through the harmless fantasy we have about women, the scales have fallen from my eyes and I now see the carnage she has left from previous relationships (none of which is any of her fault of course) and the person for who she really is. its been a long time and a hard struggle emotionally to accept this, Ive felt crazy at times, so much emotional crap had been dumped on me, so much blame and guilt.
    Sites like this are invaluable, they really are, you can talk to freinds family etc until your blue in the face and they just dont get it, it feels like they dont believe you, that the problem is yours because you cant move on she has!


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