Your “crazy ex-girlfriend” might have been a narcissist

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Lots of folks I talk to as a friend or therapist have stories about “crazy ex-girlfriends,” and what this means varies. Some are in the habit of calling all their exes crazy (red flag!) when what they mean is emotional, not a good fit or expectations they thought were unreasonable.

Most people seem more comfortable talking about their exes as being crazy or having a personality disorder than calling their behavior abusive. It’s a complicated subject, because when people are working through their own issues, it can sometimes make their behavior erratic or hurtful in ways that they aren’t necessarily in control of. That being said, most people working through mental health issues are not bad partners.

To parse a quote one of my favorite psychiatrists Maria Yang, the population who doesn’t have a diagnosable personality disorder (most people) in fact has all the personality disorders. People with personality disorders have only that one. It sort of speaks to each personality disorder being developed in one’s life as a strategy for different circumstances and moments, but most people develop adaptively to have more than one strategy.

People love to pick on those with borderline personality disorder. Those with BPD are typically profoundly sensitive and have pretty outsize emotions in response to stressors. The example I usually give is that if somebody at the smoothie bar is rude to you and they are out of pineapple and you can’t get your favorite smoothie, most days you can probably roll with that. But there has been a day where you have just HAD IT and it is NOT OKAY and you have some huge meltdown, whatever that means. Anyone with BPD usually direct harm inward, while those with narcissism direct it outward. If this has happened to you, you have some idea of what that lived experience is like.

People tend to pick up personality disorders from some combination of an initially sensitive disposition combined with some aspect of trauma or an invalidating family environment–this means that you consistently get coached growing up in not trusting your own experiences or distrusting how you feel, which makes everyone feel confused and out of control. These experiences happen to a lot of people (more than you’d think) so if it happened to you, it doesn’t mean you have a personality disorder; but you are at greater risk for taking things super personally.

So did your ex actually have a personality disorder? It’s possible, but it’s also just as likely that they had some really lousy coping mechanisms that were very hurtful to you. There can be strong overlap in personality disorders and abusive behavior, depending on the disorder in question, but they are not always the same thing.

To clarify, I think there are many ways to be hurtful in relationships, but I try to delineate between people: a) having mental health conditions that shape their capacity to be in relationships in certain ways, b) using crappy relationship skills and lousy/no coping mechanisms and, c) being an abusive partner engaging in patterns of power and control that seek to isolate their partner and cut off connections to people and resources.

It would take a lot more time and one-on-one conversations with a skilled professional to determine whether your ex was abusive/narcissistic/or just never had anyone teach her to have conflict without yelling, but you can trust your own experience to tell you what felt hurtful or unhelpful. While everybody has their own red flags or dealbreakers, here are a few I might suggest for you to take under serious consideration of unacceptable behavior. If she says to you:

“You’re crazy.”

This is particularly hurtful if you are are somebody with a history of trauma or mental health issues. These are things that inform your lived experience, but they do not change the legitimacy of your feelings or veracity of your needs.

“I didn’t say that.”

Some really deep-level manipulation happens in the place of indicating that you misremembered what actually happened and left you questioning your own memory. This is called gaslighting. While not everyone remembers everything perfectly, what matters is the emotional takeaway from the conversation, which you two can talk about even if you disagree about the specifics of the content.

“You’re so sensitive.”

Delegitimizing your feelings is a lousy way to be a girlfriend. While people may not be able to fully handle all your needs and feelings, they are entirely yours, and to be dismissed for them is hurtful.

You deserve better than that. So keep yourself safe, keep your friends accountable for how they behave in relationships and don’t take any shit.

Maria Turner-Carney is a therapist and writer in Seattle. You can follow her at seattlefeministtherapy.com/blog.

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