Tomorrow I’m entering a new phase in a relationship I’m already uncomfortable with. The person is capricious and imbecilic at best, manipulative and abusive at worst.
Yes, it’s with the “knuckle-brained fart lozenge” as Scottish Twitter so aptly describes him. The “rotten orange fucknut” we elected to a position of unparalleled power and influence.
I decided that now was a critical time to sort how I am going to deal with him because he has already taken over several beautiful mornings in my head.
Scottish insults aside, the most helpful way I’ve come to understand his reflexive lies, fleeting moments of composure, absurd grandiosity, and aggressiveness upon confrontation is with the help of a diagnosis: Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD).
I’m at the very beginning of my journey when it comes to actually understanding what it means to have a personality disorder. Those with the benefit of more life under their belt will surely have been an acquaintance to or in a relationship with a person afflicted with a similar disorder, and have learned what works and what doesn’t. And importantly, how to enforce proper boundaries in your head when their twisted behavior starts to get the best of you.
NPD is not a term I throw out there thoughtlessly, as an insult to a politician I don’t like. If I want to insult him, I’ll call him an “onion-eyed flapdragon.” It’s more that his maddening behavior is consistent with, well, all of the diagnostic criteria for NPD.
It helps me understand the chaos that has been and will be. Without a distinct set of political values (e.g. “centrist Democrat” “neo-liberal Conservative”), I’m afraid we might have to rely on a diagnosis to both understand and predict his behavior.
The following piece (which first circulated on Facebook and can now be seen here on QZ) helped get me started about how this particular disorder in our modern political moment. I’ll copy it in full here, for posterity. And for more brilliant reading on the subject of Trump’s personality check out this Atlantic profile.
Coping with narcissistic personality disorder in the White House
By Nell Ziehl
I want to talk a little about narcissistic personality disorder. I’ve unfortunately had a great deal of experience with it, and I’m feeling badly for those of you who are trying to grapple with it for the first time because of our president-elect, who almost certainly suffers from it or a similar disorder. If I am correct, it has some very particular implications for the office. Here are a few things to keep in mind:
1. It’s not curable and it’s barely treatable.
He is who he is. There is no getting better, or learning, or adapting. He’s not going to “rise to the occasion” for more than maybe a couple hours. So just put that out of your mind.
2. He will say whatever feels most comfortable or good to him at any given time.
He will lie a lot, and say totally different things to different people. Stop being surprised by this. While it’s important to pretend “good faith” and remind him of promises, as Bernie Sanders and others are doing, that’s for his supporters, so *they* can see the inconsistency as it comes. He won’t care. So if you’re trying to reconcile or analyze his words, don’t. It’s 100% not worth your time. Only pay attention to and address his actions.
3. You can influence him by making him feel good.
There are already people like Bannon who appear ready to use him for their own ends. The GOP is excited to try. Watch them, not him. President Obama, in his wisdom, may be treating him well in hopes of influencing him and averting the worst. If he gets enough accolades for better behavior, he might continue to try it. But don’t count on it.
4. Entitlement is a key aspect of the disorder.
As we are already seeing, he will likely not observe traditional boundaries of the office. He has already stated that rules don’t apply to him. This particular attribute has huge implications for the presidency and it will be important for everyone who can to hold him to the same standards as previous presidents.
5. We should expect that he only cares about himself and those he views as extensions of himself, like his children.
People with NPD often can’t understand others as fully human or distinct.
He desires accumulation of wealth and power because it fills a hole. He will have no qualms *at all* about stealing everything he can and he’ll be happy to help others do so, if they make him feel good. He won’t view it as stealing but rather as something he’s entitled to do. This is likely the only thing he will intentionally accomplish.
6. It’s very, very confusing for non-disordered people to experience a disordered person with NPD.
While often intelligent, charismatic and charming, they do not reliably observe social conventions or demonstrate basic human empathy.
It’s very common for non-disordered people to lower their own expectations and try to normalize the behavior. DO NOT DO THIS AND DO NOT ALLOW OTHERS, ESPECIALLY THE MEDIA, TO DO THIS. If you start to feel foggy or unclear about this, step away until you recalibrate.
7. People with NPD often recruit helpers.
These are referred to as “enablers” in the literature when they allow or cover for bad behavior, and “flying monkeys” when they perpetrate bad behavior on behalf of the narcissist. Although it’s easiest to prey on malicious people, good and vulnerable people can be unwittingly recruited.
It will be important to support the good people around him if and when they attempt to stay clear or break away.
8. People with NPD often foster competition for sport in people they control.
Expect lots of chaos, firings and recriminations. He will probably behave worst toward those closest to him, but that doesn’t mean (obviously) that his actions won’t have consequences for the rest of us. He will punish enemies. He may start out, as he has with the NYT, with a confusing combination of punishing/rewarding, which is a classic abuse tactic for control. If you see your media cooperating or facilitating this behavior for rewards, call them on it.
9. Gaslighting is real and torturous.
Gaslighting : where someone tries to convince you that the reality you’ve experienced isn’t true . He will gaslight, his followers will gaslight. Many of our politicians and media figures already gaslight, so it will be hard to distinguish his amplified version from what has already been normalized. Learn the signs and find ways to stay focused on what you know to be true. Note: it is typically not helpful to argue with people who are attempting to gaslight. You will only confuse yourself. Just walk away.
10. Whenever possible, do not focus on the narcissist or give him attention.
Unfortunately we can’t and shouldn’t ignore the president, but don’t circulate his tweets or laugh at him — you are enabling him and getting his word out.
Pay attention to your own emotions: do you sort of enjoy his clowning? do you enjoy the outrage? is this kind of fun and dramatic, in a sick way? You are adding to his energy. Focus on what you can change and how you can resist, where you are.
“We are all called to be leaders now, in the absence of leadership.”
Right, so, what now?
Let’s start here. What’s my end game?
Do I want Trump to change? Can he? No. He’s an old guy at this point. His neural pathways are baked in and he just received the largest ego boost ever proffered by human civilization. He’s certainly not a willing party to therapeutic intervention, and he has a country to run. No, he’s not going to change.
Do I want Trump to resign? A person will resign from their post if they get embarrassed or exhausted. But a narcissist is hooked up entirely differently. You can’t trap a narcissist in their lies. If you’re going to spend your energy trying to shame him out of office, that’s unfortunately the farthest thing from working. Maybe you’ll get more traction with his supporters, or even his cabinet. But effectively embarrassing Trump—to the point where he goes away—will just not happen. You’re not going to exhaust him either. As long as a person with NPD has fuel in the form of emotional turmoil and victimization (which they will ensure they do), you’ll have a hate-spewing energizer bunny on your hands.
Do I want Trump to be impeached? Posing this question to myself led to an intriguing answer. The first paragraph on Wikipedia’s “Watergate scandal” tells me this:
Watergate was a major political scandal that occurred in the United States in the 1970s, following a break-in at the Democratic National Committee (DNC) headquarters at the Watergate office complex in Washington, D.C. in 1972 and President Richard Nixon’s administration’s attempted cover-up of its involvement. When the conspiracy was discovered and investigated by the U.S. Congress, the Nixon administration’s resistance to its probes led to a constitutional crisis.
Eekers. I hear a lot of bells ringing. I think it’s even a step worse that a foreign actor has done that on the President-elect’s behalf. I can discern two layers of impeachable offense already. And the tax returns aren’t even out yet.
You bet your ass I opened the link to “constitutional crisis.” I do think we have one coming. And unfortunately we’re not dealing with a very sane actor. He’ll bring the whole US government crashing down with him. Expect a very large tear in the social fabric when that happens.
So do I want him to be impeached? Yeah, I do. Why? Because he’s a “Republican”? Hell nah. Because he is ready, willing, and probably already has violated the Constitution. And there’s a reason that’s a bad thing. Denying the validity of a Constitution, which implies the intent to change a government’s fundamental structure, means mortal danger to a population. I want a larger number of political parties than two, but beyond that, we have a decent thing going for us. It’s possible to successfully pursue justice within our system, and that to me makes it worth keeping.
Again, impeachment is not something I advocate in the case of politicians from an opposing party. Take these closing remarks in the Senate acquittal of Bill Clinton:
“There is only one question before you, albeit a difficult one, one that is a question of fact and law and constitutional theory. Would it put at risk the liberties of the people to retain the President in office? Putting aside partisan animus, if you can honestly say that it would not, that those liberties are safe in his hands, then you must vote to acquit.”
In the case of Donald Trump, feeling safe in his hands is something most of us certainly don’t feel. In the rape-y way, certainly. And also in terms of the civil liberties bit (forced deportations, etc). Aaand the inevitable fiascos of international relations via Twitter. But the impeachable clincher will probably concern the influence of a foreign actor and/or his private holdings.
(GET IT, PRIVATE HOLDINGS. Ahh.)
So I’ll just wait for all that to play out, I suppose.
What about my mental energy? How do I keep this “utter cockwomble” from surprising and enraging me on an endless loop?
Long ago, my friend pointed me to one her favorite Internet pastimes: browsing the Raised by Narcissists subreddit. There are hordes of fucked up stories and some useful strategies for dealing with “narcs.” I did a bit of browsing to see what they were and to see if any of them would be applicable to a public figure.
One strategy of note is “grey rocking,” described thusly on Reddit:
“Don’t react. Don’t show any emotion, positive or negative. Just relax your face, don’t ever frown and don’t ever smile. If they see you being a normal person around other people and then becoming emotionless around them, they might just get the message and realize that they are the problem. And if they don’t, then all of their normal tactics do not work very well.”
I might recommend this to the press, politicians, and anyone else working in close range of him. But by definition, it’s not a strategy for your everyday life. We can’t grey rock each other for the next four years. The very opposite — our interpersonal vibrance should be at maximal levels.
Another tip is that it’s important to recognize the addictive qualities of having a relationship with a narcissist. The highs and lows of brain chemicals — namely the flood of adrenaline prompted by outrage — are nothing short of intoxicating. Those in the subreddit, more than anything, recommend going “no contact” (NC) to remove yourself from the endless toxicity. But since we can’t, nor should we, I guess the solution is controlling our consumption of media and recognize whenever we’re getting entranced or enthralled.
But by far the most comforting thing I’ve found comes from somewhere else entirely: from the reply tweets of Bess Kalb, a writer for Jimmy Kimmel.
She talks to him like an infinitely patient yet discipline-oriented mother of an impossible shithead 7 year old. I think she has it exactly right.
So there you have my strategies. Take what you will.
Cheers to the next four years of comedy, journalists, and the Scots helping us navigate the scandal-sodden presidency of our very own “mangled apricot hellbeast.”