It’s certainly possible to make distinctions between jerks, narcissists and psychopaths (aka sociopaths). But how necessary is it? It’s certainly plausible to posit a continuum somewhere along which we locate jerk terrain, then moving higher up the continuum establishing increasingly seriously narcissistic terrain, above which, as we climb towards the continuum’s apex, we locate the especially sinister province of the psychopath.
But we’re prone to lapsing into a fixation with labels, into desperation to determine with certitude, “Is my partner just a jerk, or much worse? How can I be sure he or she’s not a narcissist? Or a psychopath? I need to know!”
But why? We can get lost in “diagnosis searching,” in our hunger for (and insistence on) diagnostic certitude. Here’s a much simpler criterion I share with my clients: when you’re involved with someone, or contemplating a relationship (or whether to stay in one), ask yourself, “Does this person generally love me? Treat me with respect? Thoughtfulness? Can I count on this person not to attack me? Not to treat me, and my concerns, with indifference and contempt? When he or she hurts me, and knows it, do I feel in my bones that he or she cares? Does this person show interest and patience to understand me? Is this person controlling with the intent to restrict my freedom of thought, feelings, movement?”
These are very basic questions, but far more important than questions like, “Am I involved with a narcissist? A psychopath? Or, mercifully, maybe just a jerk?”
Yet the latter questions can become a basis for an “obsession to know,” a “demand to know” that can divert us (often purposefully) from confronting the more telling questions. Why might we seek refuge in the obsessive search to officially “nail-down” our partners’ diagnoses? Among other reasons, it can delay our coming to conclusions that we pretend we’re ready to reach, when we’re not. The search for a precise diagnosis, while seeming to reflect a responsible research process (which, in some sense, it is) can contain avoidant elements and motives.
Yes, it’s an excellent idea to educate ourselves about narcissistic and psychopathic personality. What we learn can be revelatory and epiphanous. But in the end, as I suggest, it’s not necessary to locate with precision where our partners belong on the “‘Is this person good or bad for me’ spectrum?”
I remind you how liberating it can be simply to go back to the most basic inquiry. If you’re involved with someone who isn’t consistently nice to you, who abuses your vulnerability, who is ever violent towards you emotionally or physically, who as a pattern dismisses, trivializes and/or invalidates your experience, who lies and deceives, who is unreliable, who mismanages his or her disappointment/frustration by getting nasty, mean, accusatory or blaming, who doesn’t make time to discuss what you’re upset about, who lacks empathy for his or her hurtfulness…then guess what?
You’ve got your answer. Wrong partner.
Now…instead of devolving obsessively into the tangled, tortured pursuit of a definitive diagnosis, you can admit, “I know everything I need to know (and more) about the wrongness of this person for me. I didn’t, and don’t, require any sort of official diagnosis to know it. Maybe my partner’s a jerk, a narcissist, or a psychopath, or some unknown proportion of these profiles. I just need to know if he or she is wrong for me. And now I know.”
And now, if and when you’re ready, you can decide what to do about it.