I had a very challenging married couple come in to the counseling office last week who were both clearly emotionally disturbed. They seemed to share some negative personality characteristics that presented as a strange combination of Narcissistic and Borderline Personality Disorders. On the Narcissistic side, they both struggled with an inflated opinion about the validity of their own perspective. Basically, they were both convinced that their opinion was the only correct way to think and they had very little capacity to see things from the other’s perspective. Empathy was a big problem. In fact, if one of them expressed even a slightly different opinion the other would get angry, attempt to correct, or at some points, shame and belittle. And like all good Narcissists, this duo was self-entitled. They both felt as if they deserved special treatment from the other person and were indignant if they felt judged or criticized in any way. In regard to the Borderline Personality traits, this couple had some very prominent Borderline features. They were intensely emotional and reactive to one another and had intense anger. Especially during moments where they didn’t agree with one another, the anger came quickly and was dispensed in a condescending and contemptuous manner. Perhaps the most concerning aspect of this couple’s Borderline traits was their tendency to implement what psychologists call “Splitting”. When people “Split” it means that they see the world in categorical terms. It means that someone is either good or they are bad. There are no good people who make mistakes. There are no bad people who are nice sometimes. Life is black and white, and people are all good or all bad. Taking into consideration these personality problems, consider whether or not you think this couple needed to address their issues therapeutically. I’m guessing you have responded much like I would have in the clinical office: These people need some serious help! They are messed up, right?
Now it’s time for me to play my hand. I really didn’t have a couple come into my office that presented with these issues last week. But you and I have been watching people interact with Narcissistic and Borderline traits all around us for the last several years. Something has happened culturally where many people approach others with a Narcissistic inflated opinion about the validity of their own perspective, convinced that they are correct, and with little capacity for empathy. It’s not uncommon for us to see intense anger come quickly whether we are driving around town, talking with friends about politics, or interacting with people online. Our cultural crash into personality disturbance is most obvious in our politics. We have an increasingly polarized society of conservatives and liberals in which our Borderline Personality traits of anger come quickly and are dispensed in a condescending and contemptuous manner. Civility is gone. Kindness is a thing of the past. And empathy is dead. Culturally we have implemented the Borderline strategy of Splitting and therefore see the world in categorical terms. Political leaders are either good or they are bad. There are no good leaders who make mistakes. There are no bad legislators who actually have decent ideas. Life is black and white, and our politicians are all good or all bad. When I asked you to think about whether or not the couple I described above needed counseling, my hunch is that almost every reader joined me in my opinion that they needed some serious help. Those people needed therapy, right? If it’s obvious that a couple that is struggling with Narcissistic and Borderline tendencies needs intervention, it should be clear that our cultural Narcissistic and Borderline Personality needs to be addressed immediately.
Now let me be clear. I’m not under any delusion that this article can change the way other people behave. We can’t change the lack of civility displayed by angry drivers on the road. We can’t make entitled people on Facebook grow up and accept that it’s OK if other people have a different opinion. And we definitely can’t control whether or not Donald Trump, Nancy Pelosi, and all the other politicians in Washington utilize Splitting as a way to cope with complicated situations and people. The only thing we can control in all of this is us. I can control me and my choices and you can control you and the choices you make. So while we can’t affect change in our entire culture today, my hope is that this article is a catalyst that encourages you and me to fight back against the cultural Narcissism and Borderline traits that we face every day.
If you’re with me and you’re willing to be a part of the solution for what ails us as a society, our first step is to focus on the most basic principles, starting with the Golden Rule. Treat people the way you want to be treated. It’s that simple. If we could all make the decision to get outside of our self, long enough to recognize that the civil thing to do is to treat other people with respect and dignity, then a lot of our problems as a culture go away. Step two is a little more complicated. We have to make the decision together that we will provide people who are approaching others using Narcissistic and Borderline Strategies with corrective feedback. In other words, sometimes the Golden Rule will necessitate that we look at other people and speak the truth in love. How they respond to that is irrelevant. Our job is to do the next healthy thing and to trust that the peace that will come to us as individuals will trump whatever backlash our culture throws at us.