Living with Toxicity: The Person Behind the Mask

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In the lead up to the election, there were numerous incidents that would have prevented any other presidential candidate from continuing their campaign. The most notable example was the infamous Access Hollywood tape that was leaked. In that tape the current president, then a reality TV star, is talking to Billy Bush about his sexual voracity.

Trump: "I better use some Tic Tacs just in case I start kissing her. You know I'm automatically attracted to beautiful... I just start kissing them. It's like a magnet. Just kiss. I don't even wait. And when you're a star they let you do it. You can do anything."
Bush: "Whatever you want."
Trump: "Grab them by the p****. You can do anything."

During the presidential campaign when this tape was released, WikiLeaks mysteriously released John Podesta's e-mails within thirty minutes to create a smokescreen to mitigate against the potential uproar that should have resulted from a possible presidential candidate discussing sexual assault in such a nonchalant way. What was important about the release of that tape was that it pulled back the curtain on who many already knew the current president to be in private. By all accounts, Trump has a rather sordid history of objectifying women (even his own daughter), engaging in affairs, and then doing everything he can to prevent that information from becoming public by paying them off and having them sign non-disclosure agreements. If you believe James Comey's account, the thing our president was most upset about in their conversation about the Steele dossier was its unverified account of Trump's unusual request of two Russian sex workers. According to Comey, the president was obsessed about disproving this allegation, often appealing to the fact that he wouldn't need to hire sex workers, was actually too germaphobic to have involved himself in such an act, and hadn't even spent the night in Russia that night. Despite the fact that we now know that he did, in fact, spend the night in Moscow that evening, persons exhibiting narcissism to this degree easily find themselves engaging in revisionist history. The primary reason behind the smokescreens, the payouts, the NDAs, and the rewriting history is all in the service of upholding a very fragile persona or mask. The frightening reality for our country is that our president's mask drops repeatedly, and the public has come to either accept (through a wicked form of desensitization) his childish and often frightening behaviors or feels powerless to do much about it. 

This mask looks different for different people. For most narcissists, the mask they wear is one that is often quite charming. The behaviors that most persons demonstrate from a place of grounded integrity are approximated by toxic persons based on what they have seen in others. That is, they simulate what is real and—for all intents and purposes—live their lives on a stage of their own making. If all narcissists were as profoundly pathological as the current president, it would be easier to avoid becoming entangled in their web of deceit. Unfortunately, some of these people (especially covert narcissists) are often uncommonly persuasive, have a keen ability to give the impression that they are thoughtful, and may even engage in acts of generosity and kindness. All of these behaviors, however, are for the purpose of giving a specific impression and to keep the mask firmly in place. Under stress, however, the mask often begins to slip. With our current president, that mask is often dangling from his elaborate comb over as he engages in bouts of word salad meant to absolve himself from the latest threat to his legitimacy or by creating controversy to distract from the very serious developments in Mueller's investigations or his latest geopolitical gaffe.

In interpersonal relationships, all of us operate with some level of persona. Persona, coined by Carl Jung, is the term used to describe the projection of a particular way of being in the world that changes somewhat based on the variety of contexts in which we find ourselves. We learn early on through acculturation and through the null curriculum of what narrative theorists call dominant discourses about what is acceptable and what is unacceptable in certain social situations and social locations. That there are discrepancies between our persona and what Jung understood as the self is normal. The goal is integrating these inner states over time as we approach greater individuation. For persons who are considered characterologically challenged (another term for persons who find a home within the Cluster B personality disorders as defined by the DSM-IV and DSM-V), the persona (or mask) is more profoundly disconnected from the self. From a Jungian perspective, these people experience more dis-integration internally as they are unable to relate to their own shadow. The inability to relate to or integrate their shadow leaves them vulnerable to splitting (seeing themselves as all good and another as all bad) and projecting their shadow onto others. They falsely equate the mask with the self, which works well until they either become sloppy and allow the mask to slip or when they are close to discarding their target and begin to let the the mask drop completely. The metaphorical face behind the mask of most narcissists is usually horrifying, as the person they present to the world bears little to no resemblance to the person they become in interpersonal relationships. The common distinguishing marker between someone who is perfectly imperfect and an emotional manipulator is how they respond when the persona is dramatically out of line with their behavior.

"Normal" persons are just as likely to to say things they regret or act in maladaptive ways under stress, but after the initial adrenaline has worn off and they're no longer emotionally flooded, they can come back to a relationship to repair by apologizing. If you are waiting for an apology from a narcissist, it's unlikely to happen. The issue is that if they were to apologize, it would disconfirm some fundamental aspects of their self-understanding and the mask that keeps those beliefs in place. They would be forced to take responsibility, and we all know that nothing is ever their fault. Persuasive blamers continue to engage in the charade that they are blameless precisely because such an admission would do immeasurable damage to their carefully maintained mask and leave them vulnerable to embracing their humanity, something that seems especially difficult—if not utterly repugnant—to accept. 

Bethany and William dated for four years before moving in with one another. Their relationship started like a wildfire. William was confident and hopeful when he met Bethany. She was outgoing and jovial, quick to laugh, and capable of joining nearly any social situation with ease. They seemed to share a number of interests and enjoyed time together. Shortly after moving in together, William and Bethany began to negotiate disagreements about how to live in the same space. Some of their disagreements, however, got out of hand, and William found himself having to defend himself from her physically. 

"You a**hole!" she shouted as she punched William as hard as she could.

William, in disbelief that Bethany actually just hit him, yelled at Bethany and told her to keep her hands to herself. Bethany continued to glare at William with a look that he had never seen before in their relationship up to that point. Her eyes seemed dead. She epitomized hatred. Not wanting to get into it further, William decided to go to bed and planned on trying to talk about it in the morning. When William woke up, Bethany was already in the kitchen making breakfast. Upbeat music was playing on the stereo.

"Good morning, Bethany," he managed, still angry about the previous night's interaction.

"Good morning, love!" Bethany responded in her most cheerful voice.

Confused, William said, "I think we need to talk about last night."

"What is there to talk about? I'm fine," she replied with a smile.

William was nervous and bewildered by her sunny disposition given the fact that he was still smarting from the punch he had received the night before. At the same time, he was always pretty conflict avoidant, and if she was OK, he figured he should be also. He had provoked her, he thought to himself.

"Huh. OK, well, I'm going to take a shower," he replied.

These kinds of interactions happened periodically throughout their relationship, and each time Bethany's mask slipped, William found reasons to excuse her behaviors or to take responsibility for having made her upset enough that she seemed to become a different person.

Toward the end of their relationship, as Bethany's behavior became increasingly distant and uncharacteristically condescending, William asked her, "What's gotten into you lately? This isn't the Bethany I have come to know." Offended and unable to answer, Bethany's face contorted with a look that could only be described as pure evil as she got up from the couch, grabbed her purse, and began to walk toward the door before turning around and yelling, "Well, welcome to the new me!" As the door slammed, William sat dumbfounded and scared of whoever/whatever had taken over his partner. While he had become somewhat accustomed to her episodic mask slippage, William, now a shell of his former self, was truly terrified of this person, for whoever he thought she was, or whoever she had portrayed herself to be, did not cohere with what he had just experienced. When her mask dropped this time, it shattered along with their relationship.

Narcissists are generally able to keep the mask on firmly during the beginning of relationships. Remember, their charm has the effect of disarming even some of the most discerning persons. They are presidents of the PTA, on the church board, Pinterest parents of the year, popular coaches for their children's sports teams, and still have time to deliver meals to shut ins. When the mask slips, however, it's so out of character that most people are more than willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. It's only when it begins to happen with increasing regularity (usually behind closed doors with intimate partners) that people begin to realize that they've made a deal with the devil. By the time a toxic partner's mask is tossed aside, targets have been laid bare through gaslighting, projection, smear campaigns, countless lies, and have more than likely already been replaced by the narcissist who has moved on to their next source of supply. Having finally exposed themselves, however, the target must be destroyed one way or another because it's terribly inconvenient for someone to have seen them for who they truly are. In all seriousness, if you find yourself in this situation, do whatever you must to protect yourself, as toxic people will stop at nothing to punish you, including attempting to ruin your reputation, filing false claims of abuse, engaging in parental alienation if there are children involved, and, in some terribly tragic instances, trying to solve conflicts through violence.

In this political season, we are bombarded with examples of the unbecoming qualities of our chump in chief. The mask dropped long ago. We are now in the political version of the discard stage of a toxic relationship. It's highly likely that he will continue to sell out the country in order to keep certain people quiet. If we're not careful, we will keep acting as if this behavior is within the range of normal or foolishly hold out hope that he is capable of redeeming himself. I assure you that we do so at our own expense. True metanoia, or change, is only possible for those who can access a sober view themselves, something virtually impossible for our fearful leader and those with similarly tragic and twisted characterological disorders. In times like these, whether politically or relationally, may we remember the wisdom of the late sage and poet Maya Angelou. 

"When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time."