Editor’s note: The following guest post was written by Bruce Rubenstein, M.D., a psychiatrist based in New York City.
Knowing how I know myself, and others …
By Bruce Rubenstein, M.D.
In this piece, when referring to psychopaths, sociopaths, the personality disordered, malignant narcissists, etc, I shall refer to them as pronouns in italics, as I believe they are all one and the same on a continuum. The various widely used terms to designate them (e.g., sociopath, malignant narcissist, etc.), mostly all clinical in derivation, all carry with them associations and assumptions of which I believe much is incorrect and misleading. So rather than evoking those associations, I will just use italicized pronouns as a stylistic way to separate them from us.
In the journey to understand ourselves and them, and in order to heal from relationships with them, one must go through an anguishing process of re-evaluating everything we thought to be true. We must transcend the chaos and confusion they infused through manipulation and distortion in order to attain clarity using our rational minds. As one very wise person who grew up with them as parents once remarked about the healing process: “Start with the head; the heart will catch up later.” We want to understand the TRUTH, but it is crucial to take a moment to contemplate how we know things. At first glance, the question may seem abstract and overly philosophical. However, it is not. Take a moment to think about your experiences with them. Once you thought you knew them. Now you know them differently. Which is the TRUTH? The answer is in understanding “how” we know things. In philosophy, this is called epistemology. Others study how we know things in the fields of consciousness, psychology and neuroscience. Let’s focus on two closely related aspects of how we know things.
The first is what we REALLY mean when we say, “I know.” What we REALLY mean is that we’ve made something or someone familiar to us. In other languages, there are distinct verbs that convey this difference: French connâitre or Spanish conocer—“to be familiar with,” such as a person, versus French savoir or Spanish saber, meaning “to know” intellectually. Thus, when we encounter something or someone new, we will frequently use metaphor or simile, both ways of relating “new” to “familiar.” The first time you taste rabbit, for example, you might say, “It tastes just like chicken” (“rabbit” is new; “chicken” is familiar). Or, perhaps you might be walking down a Parisian street and comment, “This is sublime.” Here too you are relating something new, i.e., the sentient experience whilst walking in Paris, with a feeling with which you are already familiar: sublimity. So, too, of encounters with others. Upon perceiving various aspects of someone’s personality, you will frequently relate your responses to something familiar to you and then over time have the sense that you “know” that person. We all do it, but it is worthwhile to take a few moments to appreciate how frequently we take something/someone new, make it familiar to us, and then say to ourselves, “I know it,” or “I know him/her.”
The process by which we relate something or someone to the realm of familiarity is a product of consciousness. Consciousness is the state of being aware of what we are perceiving as opposed to other animals that, to the best of our knowledge, do not have consciousness. Whilst awake, we “live” in our conscious minds almost always. Ninety-nine percent of the time, after we perceive something, we “translate” it into something our consciousness understands. Here is a critical point: Our consciousness understands thoughts and their representation—words or symbols. We are quite sophisticated in that we have the ability to combine many words and many thoughts and string them together into theories, basic assumptions, narratives, and so on.
But this realm of consciousness is quite limited for several reasons. First, there is a limit to how many “things” it can contemplate and put together at one time. Let’s use a flower as an example of something we are contemplating. When we contemplate that flower in any one moment in time, there are lots of things going on in the roots, stem, petals, etc. In the non-visual realm, photosynthesis and metabolic processes are occurring. Our conscious brain, however, cannot “think” about everything going on in that flower at one time. We focus on one thing or the other, despite the fact that the actual flower’s existence is not broken down into parts—it is a complete, whole being. Our conscious mind’s process of breaking things down into parts thus creates an artificial sense of what the flower truly is. Of course, we can acknowledge this point but in truth, our limited conscious mind cannot contemplate the entire or whole existence of the flower at one point in time.
Moreover, even the notion of “time” is a product of the limitations of consciousness. For example, we cannot “think” about a flower’s entire lifecycle all at once: sprouting, growing, blooming and then fading. We break it down into chunks of time. But in reality, that flower’s “real existence” is not broken down into arbitrary or artificial time segments. It’s a continuum of life.
[To imagine what it would be like to not exist “consciously,” think about dreaming. In dreams everything is all jumbled. You are everyone in your dream and everyone is you. Time is relative. In the dream you had last night, perhaps you crossed the country in one minute. Perhaps you were in one place with one group of people and in the very next moment, you were somewhere else with entirely different people.]
Memory and concentration studies bear out this point by demonstrating that we can only reliably think about roughly six to eight things at one time. We have known this for quite some time, and it is the reason that your telephone number has seven digits. The telephone company did studies back in the 1950s to see how many digits an individual could remember as one “phone number” and the ideal number was seven. (Please remember that it was before area codes. In those days, if you wanted to phone a different “area code,” you’d have to phone the operator.) Today some countries, like France, have instituted eight digit numbers. However, the ideal number of digits is seven.
But life’s challenges obviously involve much more than recalling seven digits. We deal with more input or perception by creating “buckets” or “categories” in our minds. An example: living things. We have created “buckets” like animals, plants, micro-organisms, etc. But if you really think about it, no such buckets exist in nature, in reality. We simply categorize things in order for us to consciously digest them. An analogy might be our digestive systems—we eat “food,” but then break it down into “chunks” (i.e., fats, amino acids, etc.) that are digestible.
It’s crucial to consider this, to consider our own limitations. And consider the fact that each person will probably create different “buckets,” depending on that person’s nature, experiences, etc. For example, someone who is quite concrete and overwhelmed by too many choices will create fewer buckets, possibly even only two buckets, like “Good and Bad,” or “Pretty and Ugly.” The more buckets, though, the more variation based on individual factors. For example, you may have had a talk and shared your experience of them with a friend who is very concrete and never had such an unfortunate experience. That talk was probably unsatisfying and frustrating because your friend puts people into two buckets: “Good” and “Bad.” But after your terrible experience, you now know that it’s not quite so simple. You now have several buckets with varying degrees of “goodness” and “badness.” And not to complicate it even further, but consider the fact that nearly all those who read Lovefraud, and who have had similar experiences, likely have slightly different buckets. Therefore, the important point here is to keep in mind that we create buckets in order to be able to think about things in a distilled form.
As things get more complex, we create different levels or strata of buckets. This is where we get into organizing principles, theories, ways to see the world, and particularly how we experience other people. But these systems of buckets must change over time as we observe things that don’t “fit” with our underlying assumptions, our underlying “buckets.” As one example, Freud created an enormously complex theoretical base to explain all of human mental life and behavior. Frankly, it’s nearly impossible to integrate what we observe about them into Freud’s ideas. Hard core Freudians will go to great lengths to make this square peg fit into one of Freud’s round holes. The reason is that we get very attached to our basic assumptions. That’s human nature, to prefer the “known,” the “familiar,” or to stay in our comfort zone. And the more elaborate that base theoretical construct is, the more we can manipulate it and convince ourselves that it really does explain everything. I’m not picking on Freud, although his theory is quite elaborate. I could have chosen any theoretical approach to understanding human nature, e.g., object relations, Jungian theory, even what they call “strict neuroscience,” looking at neurons and neurotransmitters.
One more important point on consciousness—it tends to either exclude or metaphorize any perception that cannot be put into a thought or word. Thus, everything that deals with intuition is immediately either dismissed or shoved into another construct. But intuition is very real. Think about how many aspects of them you perceive and then make you say to yourself, “What the hell is this?” Well, so much of what we see in them is utterly irrational, unthinkable and indescribable. Our conscious mind, that “tool” we use to think about EVERYTHING, including ourselves and others, doesn’t do well in the realm of irrationality. What then drives us crazy is that despite the irrational nature of their behavior, they all behave in a similar, predictable manner (i.e., lying, cheating, etc.). That is one reason that trying to understand them is so crazy making. The fact that you can predict and observe consistent behaviors in them suggests a cause-effect or rational template to them. We “should” be able to create “buckets” to understand. But it’s NOT rational. Rather, we have all of these other observations about them—those that are more “intuitive,” but for which we lack the words or we lack the ability to incorporate those perceptions in our “rational” conscious mind. The result is confusion—that anguishing confusion every person experiences after interaction with them.
No matter which basic assumptions or theories you use, even a combination of theories, understanding them and how we get involved with them is elusive. We don’t realize how much of our thinking is based on years and years and years of all sorts of basic assumptions, or “buckets,” that we automatically invoke in order to understand or make them familiar to how we are USED to thinking about ourselves, others, goodness and even evil. You may not even have had an “evil” bucket at all. Trying to fit the square pegs of our observations of them into our pre-existing round holes requires far too much time and energy. The healing process, therefore, involves the very difficult and frequently anguishing journey of getting rid of pre-existing “buckets” and creating new ones. By the way, one could call this process, “Personal Growth” or the “Search for Truth.”
As I mentioned at the beginning, the healing process necessarily requires achieving clarity using our rational minds. It is thus helpful to begin with only two buckets, and they are:
1) This makes sense
2) This doesn’t make sense
At first this simple binary delineation may prove harder than you think. This is because you are so used to your old “buckets” that you will find yourself tempted by them. Try to resist the temptation. Try to tolerate the discomfort of not knowing “right now.” To quote a colleague of mine, the process is “tolerating discomfort for the sake of growth.” Over time it will get easier. But even initially, you will begin to feel a certain freedom that will arise as a result of you beginning to trust yourself again. At the core, all good people have good instincts.
There is another important point to make in this regard: Never throw out a perception, even if it doesn’t make sense right now. Many people run into problems by equating a perception that doesn’t make sense with something that is not true. For example, one frequently hears, “I loved him/her.” That observation will go into bucket #2: “It doesn’t make sense to love someone who is not reciprocal, who is hurting me.” But it doesn’t mean it is not true, rather, it doesn’t make sense now. As an alternative, spend some time thinking about what it means when we say, “I love someone.” It turns out it can mean many things to many people. Then keep the observation (“I loved him/her“) on hold. Don’t discard it as not true just because now it isn’t making sense to you. Allow for the possibility that it doesn’t make “rational” sense right now, but at one time it did make sense. It doesn’t change the reality of your clearer mind today that it doesn’t make sense. You can come back to it later. In the meanwhile, without you even noticing, you are learning to be more accepting of what you do not “know,” or of what is not familiar to you. Clearly mistreating others should NEVER be familiar to you. Learning to accept that which we do not understand right now is not only crucial to healing, but also exigent to what it means to be most human throughout our lives. Patience and acceptance bring peace.
After letting the ideas presented here percolate for a while, it may be clear to you why I use the “buckets” of italicized pronouns (e.g., he, she, them) rather than using terms such as sociopath, narcissist, etc. Even the way in which we write or read about them is part of how we “know” them.