I have a problem with our new trend of slinging around labels like "narcissistic" and "borderline personality" and even "abuse". I had the misfortune to observe up close several relationships that imploded under mutual accusations of abuse and personality disorder labels. And in many of those cases, I got it wrong. I backed the wrong horse. I heard the accusations and I chose a side to "believe the victim" and it turned out that the "victim" was not what they appeared to be.
To be fair, both sides in all the dramas that I watched *did* do some terrible things to each other. We all hurt others when we are hurting ourselves. But, when all the cards finally got laid on the table, the people I backed as "victims" were solidly, unquestionably, abusive and they were so either first (leading to their victim to lash out in whatever legitimately toxic ways the abuser accused their victim of doing) or were so worse (not that it justifies the other side if the other side was, in fact, abusive, but it does *not* justify my misplaced support of them).
Remember that post I made about abuse being about beliefs, not feelings? Here's the problem: in every case, the abuser honestly, truly, genuinely, sincerely believed that what they did was right and they ALSO honestly, truly, genuinely, sincerely believe, to this day, that they were the victims. Even when I *witnessed*, in person, live, someone gaslighting another, they sincerely believe that they have never gaslighted anyone and that their victim was really a narcissist who abused *them*. In that case, the gaslighter uses science articles about faulty memories as armor and accuses *me* of not seeing what I saw because they keep emails (nevermind that this all happened in person, not in email).
I had someone contact me once, crying, hysterical you might even say, over some disagreement they had. One person accused the other of doing something "wrong". So the one who did the thing was terribly upset over the idea that they had harmed their partner and was a horrible person. What they did, in my opinion, was not "wrong". In my opinion, the demand that they not do the thing is what was "wrong" because it was a controlling act. So, they were upset. Later, I confronted the other person, who tried to tell me that they were totally in the right over demanding to control the other in this way, and besides, the other is OK with it so keep my nose out of their business.
I told them that the other was most definitey NOT OK with the controlling behaviour, I saw how not-ok they were myself. So they called the other person over and said "now tell Joreth that we worked this out and everything is OK." So they said to me "It's totally not a big deal, we talked about it, and I really wasn't all that upset anyway." Uh, yes you were. I SAW you. You had a total and complete meltdown. You were barely even verbal, you were so upset. But no, the abuser had the victim convinced that, not only was the thing they were doing not a big deal, but that the victim wasn't even as upset over it as they really were.
So now, years later, I've had a chance to see how all these different people have evolved after their experiences in these doomed relationships. And here's the problem that I have: without exception, all the people I have now identified as "abusive" still believe that they were the victims and that they were abused. There are even therapists involved! Yet no therapist that I'm aware of in these cases has told anyone that they are using abusive tactics or holding them accountable for controlling behaviour. Although, and here's the really scary part, at least one therapist *has* told a victim that *they* were the abuser. And remember, this is one of the cases where I personally was able to witness and observe the relationship over time, and one of the cases where I originally would have agreed with the therapist until I saw the abuse myself, instead of the rewritten reality that is presented to the public after the abuse happens.
These abusers sincerely believe that they were victims. They hold onto this belief years later. They are attempting to "move forward" as if they are recovering from abuse. They have tons of sympathetic followers on social media, sending them *hugs* and "I believe you" comments. Meanwhile, their victims suffer in quiet isolation, forced to withdraw from social media and to slowly build up their support networks in person again, until they feel that they can creep back onto social media with fake names or locked down profiles or they keep only their work-related profiles active and hide their more personal activity.
How do we tell the difference from the outside? This is a rhetorical question because I guarantee that any answers anyone attempts to post in spite of the fact that it's rhetorical, I guarantee that those methods can be applied towards the abusers' stories and we can still interpret their side in their favor. I guarantee that because I'm watching it happen with these cases. Their friends lists remain large. Their comments remain sympathetic. People still "hear you" and "believe you" and "sending you sympathies" and "understanding" and "it will get better" at them. And the really ironic part? More than one of them have built a reputation for "ethical relating" and still post about consent and abuse in relationships. From the *victim's* point of view. Some of them have quite large audiences. Some of them even still get media attention for their writing about relationships.
So I see all these "they're a narcissist!" posts and I really want to support the victims and provide safe spaces for them, but all I can think of when I see these posts is "how can I trust that this time, your accusation is the real one and not the abuser calling his victim a narcissist?" Because, without exception, every case I have personally observed, the one who I believe is the real abuser, every one of them really and truly believes that they are the one who was harmed.
And I don't know what to do about it. I have no answers for this. Every bit of advice or research I've managed to dig up or had someone share doesn't help the outside observer like me because of those sincerely held beliefs. They honestly believe they have been wronged. So unless I was there to see the gaslighting happen, or to see them attempt to control another, from the outide or after the fact the stories they tell sound totally believable because *they* believe them. They can *tell* me a list of things that their true victim supposedly did, and it will sound exactly like narcissistic abuse or whatever. And their pain will be real. As I said in that other post, abusers are people in pain and fear. Their feelings are *real*, which is why abuse is not about "feelings" but about the belief that it is OK to address their feelings and fears using the abusive tactics that they employ, and why I strongly dislike the phrase "all feelings are valid" because of the slippery definition of the term "valid".
So I don't know what to do about all this, and that's the problem I have with our communities flinging around terms like "narcissism", "psychopath", "abuse", etc. I can look at all the checklists and I can say "yep, these are horrible things" and I can listen to someone tell me their grievances and I can say "yep, that sounds awful". But, if we stop there, then apparently EVERYONE is the victim, even when they're actually the perpetrators.
And THEN, on the very rare occasion when someone does come forward and admit to mistakes and makes changes or seeks help, since they're the only ones admitting to wrongdoing, that just confirms who the villain is and our collective response to villains is to ban them from community support and remove their platorms. And I'm not even saying this is wrong in all cases. I'm saying that we do not have the answers to handle abuse in our communities now that we are attempting to identify it. Now we know what abuse *is*, but we still have trouble identifying it and we definitely don't know what to do about it.
I don't have any answers and, as I said, the answers people keep giving me don't help with the first step, which is in telling apart two conflicting sides. "Believe the victim" is good advice to support victims, but only after we have identified the victim. I "believed the victim" several times when the "victim" I believed was actually an abuser. I am currently watching several abusers have major community platforms with hordes of fans and friends who believe them as "victims". Even they, themselves, genuinely believe themselves to be victims (or, at least, not in the wrong). So I have a problem with all these posts because, when I see them, all I can think now is "yes, that really sucks, but what if I'm wrong again and your sincerely held belief does not match reality? And all you did is just remove the support from someone who really needs it because the article you shared describes a horrible person and we're all supposed to 'believe' you automatically?"
And that's a terrible environment for everyone to exist in, but especially people who are on the receiving end of abusive behaviours.