Let’s stop calling everyone narcissists, sociopaths, etc.

There are trends in relationship-land.

It’s not surprising; humans are great at pattern-recognition. We love models that provide explanations. We love labels that reduce people into easily-predictable stereotypes. I’m as guilty of this as the next person.

But they’re trends, not diagnoses.

It’s time to stop … and to do something more effective.

There’s four big labeling trends that had an impact on my adult life: ADD/ADHD, Asperger’s, narcissism, and sociopathy. Sometimes that trend or label has gone along with a formal diagnosis, sometimes it’s been nothing more than matching lists of symptoms that one finds on the internet.

There’s a serious danger in (emotional) self-diagnosis, and it’s here that labels do the most damage.

Because someone can have aspects of a condition, but not all of them.

In the middle of Jon Ronson’s “The Psychopath Test” (highly recommended), he starts realizing that his wife has some of the qualities of a psychopath. Then, with a bit of horror, he realizes that he does as well. (He’s not one. Probably.)

These conditions – like damn near everything else having to do with human behavior – exist on a spectrum. Our models, whether in the DSM or in a listicle, have an artificial solidity that simply doesn’t exist in the real world. Someone might meet all the criteria but one – does that make their behavior okay? (No.) If we’re looking for signs of a condition, aren’t we going to be biased to try to find it? (Yes.)

While these models have been – and continue to be – useful, we must recognize their limitations as well.

So what to do instead?

Focus on behaviors.

If you’re a person who thinks they have traits like any of the above conditions (or any other), then start looking for things that helped with those behaviors or symptoms you have issues with. I have issues with sensory overload. I use some of the same strategies that people with Asperger’s (or who are on the autism spectrum) do to cope with sensory overload, even though I’m not on the spectrum.

If you’re in a relationship with or interacting with someone who exhibits (negative) behaviors from any of these models, maintain your boundaries. Focus on behaviors. Be aware of what you will and will not tolerate, and be clear about it. Be understanding, but don’t compromise yourself. Remember that just as boundaries are not rules, boundaries are not threats or ultimatums. They define who you are and what you are willing to accept.

Your boundaries will protect you more than any label.

And when the next trendy diagnosis comes along, examine it. See if it’s useful for you. See if any of the techniques associated with it are helpful in your life. See if it describes behaviors in a more understandable way.

Just don’t try to shove anyone into a label – and don’t let anyone else do it to you.

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