Living with Toxicity: An Introduction


If you would have told me a few years ago that our country would follow up its two term election of Barack Obama with a reality TV star whose behavior so profoundly reveals the extent to which we are capable of brokenness, I would have told you that I had some wonderful beach front property to sell you in Arizona. I may have even said you were crazy. Clearly, however, the joke has been on me/us, and—as too many persons have experienced—this is no laughing matter. In fact, the profoundly disturbing dynamics playing out on the national and geopolitical stage happen daily in the personal lives of thousands upon thousands of persons who are faced with the complex dynamics of living in a fog of relational toxicity. While the current national leader demonstrates a rather extreme case of what has commonly been described as classical pathological narcissism, persons all over the world are exposed to some variant of these behaviors in ways that are incredibly traumatizing. While I am not a psychologist, I have spent considerable time exploring this topic by initially familiarizing myself with the diagnostic criteria in both the DSM-IV (the American Psychological Association's diagnostic handbook) and the recently updated DSM-V. Unfortunately, neither speaks to the breadth of fairly consistent behaviors encountered from the perspective of persons who have found themselves in a magnetic embrace with someone who might otherwise receive such a diagnostic label. This relationship may be a romantic one, that of a parent/child, or perhaps even a co-working relationship. Having learned the hard way, what I have come to understand is that by the time one recognizes that they are embroiled in a toxic dance, they have already been subject to the poison for so long that extricating themselves from such a situation is fraught with challenges and will no doubt result in significant systemic upset. 

According to therapist Ross Rosenberg, narcissism exists on a continuum with codependence. At one end of the continuum is pathological codependence and at the other end is pathological narcissism. In between these poles are increasing levels of health as either side moves toward the middle and one becomes either less other or less self focused. Since codependence is presently not a diagnosable condition (if it were, insurance companies would surely go out of business), and since narcissism is relatively poorly defined in our diagnostic manuals, I plan on summarizing my understanding based on my own reading and experience in combination with hours of conversations with therapists whose insights and questions have helped firm up some of the ideas that will follow in this series. At the outset, it's important to offer the following disclaimer:

All persons manifest some behaviors that might be considered narcissistic in the same way that all persons may demonstrate ways of being that could be characterized as codependent.

The good news is that if one is sufficiently concerned about whether s/he embodies certain behaviors that could be characterized as narcissistic, chances are good that s/he is likely not. Narcissists, or emotional manipulators, as Rosenberg calls them, are unlikely to spend much time looking at their own behavior and tend to be terrific at creating diversions or simply projecting their own condition onto others so that they do not have to accept responsibility or risk harming their fragile egos. 

Case in point: today in Finland, our president actually criticized his own country, delegitimized the unanimity of numerous intelligence agencies, and praised the leader of an enemy foreign state known to have engaged in hacking that tilted the election in his favor. 

Anyone remember this debate exchange?

Everything I see, [Putin] has no respect for this person [Clinton],” Trump said.
“Well, that’s because he’d rather have a puppet as president of the United States,” Clinton fired back.
“No puppet. No Puppet,” said Trump, shaking his head.
“It’s pretty clear...,” Clinton continued, as Trump interrupted: “You’re the puppet!

If this feels eerily similar to any of your relationships, know that you're not alone. At least for this season of our political circus, the world has a front row seat to one way narcissism shows up in relationships. Never before has there been such unfettered access to a world that has largely existed behind the scenes and on the periphery, usually reserved for therapists' offices or personal journals. In what follows, I hope to offer some preliminary observations about how to know when you're in a toxic relationship and what your options are moving forward. 

Spoiler alert: It's not going to be easy.