Living with Toxicity: We're Only Human
For those who have been through the mind bending, reality distorting experience of a toxic relationship, there are so many steps and missteps along the way toward recovery and wholeheartedness. Once one has made it through the gauntlet between despair and restoration (and eventually maintenance), there remains a philosophical (and theological) question that survivors must address that revolves around what it means to be human. To move from experience to theory, which is what practical theology and philosophy does, survivors of toxic relationships are initially faced with a phenomenon of cognitive dissonance when the emotional abuse begins. Moving from, "This isn't happening," to "What is wrong with me that I can't make this person happy?" to "Is it possible there is something wrong with this person I love?" can take years. The move to that final question is especially difficult to make because the majority of persons who find themselves in these situations project a profound level of goodness onto their partners. They put them on pedestals, they speak admiringly of them to others, and they may even wonder how they got so lucky to be connected to them. All of these tendencies are common among codependent persons who assume goodness in others, who place others before themselves, and who take responsibility for the majority of problems in a relationship. The shame core that often leads to such a posture in the relational world blinds such persons from the hard reality that evil exists, and it may be closer to us than we realized. By evil I don't mean some stereotypically dastardly person who is clearly off the beaten path of the imago Dei. Nor am I talking about the day to day phenomenon of being human that is littered with miscommunication, honest mistakes, and unmet needs that surface through hurt feelings. Instead, more cunning toxic persons are wolves in sheep's clothing. They present well, are liked by all, can be incredibly persuasive, and may even be quite involved in volunteer organizations or faith communities. They want you to know how amazing they are. Our current social media driven culture throws gas on the fire for toxic persons because they can now communicate far and wide with persons who have no idea what it's like to be with this person behind closed doors. However, for those unlucky enough to be in that enclosed space, you know—as Mary Poppins sings—a cover is not the book.
I prefer to use the word toxic because I am not a mental health professional, but persons more qualified than myself would speak of these kinds of persons as having personality disorders. They are considered characterological disorders because they seem to have permeated the outer layer of the self and seeped into the very nature of who that person is at their deepest core. In other words, there is an infection or disorder of the character of such people. Since my research has been primarily relegated to narcissistic and borderline personality disorders (NPD and BPD, respectively), I will say that there is solid evidence that persons with BPD can make significant progress through dialectical behavior therapy, which uses mindfulness practices to help persons manage their low distress tolerance and emotional regulation issues while encouraging them to develop greater capacity for both/and thinking. Persons with BPD are usually able to employ empathy (some even call it hyper-empathy), and recent research confirms that persons with BPD are actually especially good at reading others' emotions by looking at their eyes (significantly better than persons without BPD). They tend to personalize what they read in others, however, which likely contributes to patterns of relational discord. For persons with NPD, one of the hallmark features is a lack of empathy. We see this glaringly in our current president, and perhaps you have experienced it with others. It can look a number of different ways, including an inability to see how one's actions impact others, a struggle to access emotional attunement in the face of others' pain or joy, or difficulty placing oneself in the other's shoes to try to see the world as they see it. There is some disagreement about whether or not persons with NPD have the capacity for empathy, and much of it centers on the differences in the kinds of empathy described above. As I've mentioned earlier, there is cognitive empathy (the ability to mentally inhabit the experience of another) and affective empathy (the ability to emotionally resonate congruently with the emotions of others). Some therapists and researchers believe that persons with NPD actually have the ability to cognitively empathize because they use that skill to take stock of their targets' particular insecurities and personality traits so that they can use this "inside information" to take the person out from the inside. This Ant Man-like ability to go into the emotional quantum realm of another for nefarious reasons is likely what leads people to wonder about the anthropological and theological implications of toxic persons' behavior.
Things I have either heard from others or thought myself in relation to this include:
"It's like the person isn't human. While I cried, they just stared at me blankly, almost as if my emotions were annoying to them."
"It felt as if they knew exactly what they were doing and were literally playing with me like a cat would with a mouse. At my lowest moment, I remember seeing a smirk on their face that scared me deeply."
"I remember the day their mask dropped, and what I felt was something truly evil. I did not feel safe to be in the same space as them anymore. It was like they weren't even human."
Those opening and closing observations about what humanity looks like—or perhaps, what qualifies as human—have been with me for some time because they raise questions about how to understand both the experience of emotional abuse and how to make room for a more complex understanding of relational evil. Persons who have been through these experiences talk about how they didn't have a category for this kind of behavior prior to their awareness of having been emotionally abused and discarded. There was a functional naïveté that led them to assume that they were both playing by the same rules, only to find that the other had their fingers crossed behind their backs the whole time. Characterological disorders raise difficult questions because they are not commonly understood to arise from a neurobiological imbalance like some medical understandings of depression, bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia. That is to say, there is no pharmacological intervention for someone with NPD. One theory is that persons develop such maladaptive behaviors and ways of seeing the world in response to early childhood experiences that were especially traumatic or that threatened the child's sense of attachment to their primary caregivers. What makes NPD especially difficult is that not only is there very little evidence of effective treatment, the likelihood of someone with NPD ever acknowledging a need for such help is quite small. To do this, persons must be able to take stock of their behavior, acknowledge how it harms others, and desire to change. Persons with NPD are so concerned with protecting their egos that they cannot see their own reflection (regardless of how long they spend in front of the mirror), have no appreciation for their impact on others, and since they see all problems as external to the self feel no compulsion to move toward self-awareness or apology and repentance.
If someone cannot see their own limitations or even appreciate the very fact of their participation in the beautiful brokenness that we call humanity, how does that impact their openness to grace? What is humanity if not the courageous embrace of our perfect imperfection? On a small scale I have seen what happens in groups when persons share their limitations, their fears, their celebrations and defeats. It co-creates and participates in something sacred that connects each member to the other and to the group as a whole, for in that space of shared humanity grace is accessed, shared, and received. The same might be said of two relatively healthy partners who achieve intimacy because of their ability to be present to the understandable missteps that are sure to occur when divergent histories, needs, and expectations collide in the experiment of sharing a life together. Safety in these settings does not mean that conflict is absent; in fact, there may be more conflict than one expected as peers or partners learn how this particular constellation of contained energy impacts and is impacted by others. However, if there is one person or partner who throws a wrench into the basic ground rules for what it means to be human, namely, the acceptance of one's limitations and desire to repair with self awareness when necessary, a lack of safety is created and intimacy is threatened. In toxic relationships, intimacy is almost always at risk because the toxic partner cannot engage in the self-reflexivity required for negotiation and compromise to flourish. Self-awareness is terrifying for them because they lack a solid sense of self and are banking on the fact that the other will continue to accept responsibility for their relationship problems. Once the mask drops or they are caught in one of their myriad lies, it is as if Legion surfaces with no pigs in sight.
It is no wonder that persons who have faced such seeming demonic possession carry the trauma in their body for years to come. I don't use that phrase lightly especially given my historical agnosticism about evil and demon possession, but there is no other language at my disposal that speaks to the experience of what it feels like is happening within the toxic person. They are not recognizable in those moments. We do not share the same spiritual DNA in those moments. And that scares me.
I wish I could say, "See your psychiatrist, they can give you something for that," but there isn't anything neurobiologically wrong, as far as we know.
I wish I could say, "Encourage them to seek therapy," but they won't do that anymore than a cat will draw its own bath.
I wish I could say, "Just sit down and explain how you're feeling," but they don't have the empathic capacity to consider how their behavior impacts others and follow through with change.
I wish I could say, "Try to repair this. It takes two to tango. Apologize for your part, and they will meet you in that humility," but they only know winning at all cost and are not capable of authentic apology.
If it's not something impacting their agency (like depression), cannot be treated through therapy, is incapable of agency and receptivity, and cannot engage in authentic repair I don't know what to call it.
Call it toxicity.
Call it a characterological disorder.
Call it covert narcissism.
Call it crazy making.
Call it emotional manipulation.
Call it persuasive blaming.
Call it soul killing.
But for the sake of all that is sacred, don't call it human.