Lesson Number Three

Labelling: it’s what you do, not what you are.

I don’t expect that (my husband) Chris, would ever come in to see you, but I’m hoping to be able to change things from my side. Probably I am wasting my time.

I want to kill him for so many things, but I lose it totally when, if I ask him to examine what he does, he says, “Well, you’ve always known I’m a narcissist – and my online test profile proves it.

So, he’s a narcissist. So what? He’s also a father and husband – and a Catholic. He doesn’t use those to justify causing pain; or for not being accountable. I’m not sure that I like him very much; even if I still love him.

Aside from Claire asking herself whether she actually liked her partner, I was impressed that she had dissected down for herself a fundamental flaw in the use of labelling.

One of the more unfortunate byproducts of the popularity of self-help books about personality types and disorders is that it becomes so easy to fit yourself (or your partner) into the category described in the book title (alright, sometimes with a little difficulty). But there are few (if any) hints given about how to change matters for them or for you.

The label thus becomes a one-way street: you are an X or Y – and that’s it. There is a huge debate in the literature about whether much can be offered to help those with personality disorders. If Chris truly is a narcissist it may be there that is little to be expected in the way of change.

But, even trickier, when Chris labels himself as narcissistic, he is declaring to Claire that the label means that he cannot change anything. He asserts that she is wasting her time in trying to remonstrate with him on any of his shortcomings because of his personality disorder – so, would she please let him continue with what he wants to do (or not do) without interference? It isn’t his fault!

As she pointed out to me, “Chris is doing to me what he is does to others at his work when they want something from him, or when they want to change something – or when they are unhappy. He just gives them a message of, “Take it or leave it. It’s my way or the highway.” It’s not a very nice characteristic… I often don’t think that he is a nice human being. He has just worked out that he can block me by saying that he can’t help being badly behaved.

This sums up a key problem with labelling. Both sides are entangled in the label and with whatever comes with the label. To make matters even worse, those who are given a label, according to the sociologists, seem to live up to the label more and more.

So, whatever the advantages there might just about be in being able to label one’s partner (at least you know that you are not alone; and that it isn’t all you; and that you are not crazy and a failure in feeling the way you do), the label can so often be a deal-breaker. Difficulties causing pain need to be sorted – whatever the label given to the perpetrator or the partner.

I try to move away from the label – to examining the actions. From a pragmatic perspective it is not that an individual is a narcissist (or has a narcissistic personality disorder). Rather, it is that their mindset and their actions reflect their rampant prioritising of their own needs and feelings. In effect, they do narcissism.

If so, the challenge becomes the process of identifying those circumstances and situations when Chris will be compelled to not ‘do’ narcissism. It is a question of Claire modifying her style and approach.

Despite the emerging tendency to throw the label at everyone who seems self-centred or uncaring about the discomfort of others, not all that many people have the characteristics of narcissistic personality disorder as defined by psychiatrists and psychologists. Unfortunately, the term has been co-opted to cover a spectrum ranging from those lacking empathy to those who, indeed, believe that they are somehow special or unique – chosen to be allowed to ignore the worlds of others.

So, if we move away from the idea that the other person is something of a narcissist, to a view that it is a verb – somebody is doing narcissism – a solution starts to emerge. In therapy, this is a much easier place to start. In a relationship, it is an essential place to start.

Thus, Chris’ argument that he can somehow justify his behaviour because he is a narcissist has very little legitimacy. Being accountable by meeting family commitments – and easing up on his long list of alternative preferred courses of activity (golf, television, drinking and five-a-side football) – is still a responsibility, narcissist or not.

Labelling is a tool, and a useful one. However, we need to be cautious to avoid using them to attack another person – or to defend our own unconscionable actions.

I have lost count of the number of times in which couples have entrenched the difficulties between them by the characterising of their partner – as being neurotic, menopausal, hyperchondriacal, bipolar, spoilt, self-absorbed amongst many others. None of these descriptions are greatly useful in terms of change. Indeed, I am often tempted to think that labelling is one of the most important means by which change is prevented from occurring.

Names have been changed.