The idea that narcissism is abuse and the kind of abuse that extends to even sexual abuse and harassment, is obvious to me. However, I find it’s not as much a part of the public discourse as I think it should be. We talk about the abusers and harassers as people who hunger for power, or who are sexually addicted. But at the bottom of their actions is a deep and pervasive lack of empathy which sits at the core of every narcissist. These abusers have no feeling for the object of their abuse or harassment. They are entitled to sexual favors because they cannot put themselves in the shoes of those they abuse. The most fundamental aspects of human experience, those of empathy, sympathy, connection to others, is denied to them. Narcissists aren’t “born that way”, they are created, usually by narcissistic or otherwise personality disordered parents. This doesn’t let them off the hook by any means. My heart isn’t bleeding for the perpetrators here, but I do recognize that they are also, most likely, victims.
Legally, we have to prosecute. Professionally we have to condemn and remove perpetrators from the office, boardroom, and all branches of government, entertainment and business. But psychologically we need to address the pervasiveness of our narcissistic culture if we are ever to overcome this scourge. The #MeToo movement is about people speaking out. Mostly, it’s been about speaking out about things that have already happened. But we need also to speak out and say “NO” to acts of abuse and harassment that are currently happening. We need to move away from shame. It is not shameful to be the object of abuse or harassment. It is shameful to be the abuser.
This issue is complex to say the least. It requires that we look at our values. I know keeping one’s job is extremely important. But so is keeping one’s dignity and mental health. The consequences to submitting to the blackmail of a sexual harasser are as devastating as resisting them. To submit can expose you to a life of fear, intimidation, resentment, low self-esteem, mistrust, shame, anxiety and depression. How do those things stack up against job loss? Jobs, even careers, are more easily replaced than a solid loving sense of self.
Lastly, we need to believe the women and girls who tell us that they have been or are being abused, harassed or blackmailed. The recent exposure and conviction of the doctor for the women’s gymnastics program has been particularly difficult for me. I wonder how many of those girls told their parents that they were uncomfortable with what the doctor was doing to them and how many of their parents or coaches dismissed the allegations as misunderstandings, exaggerations or simply fabrications. I was sexually abused by a male doctor when I was seven years old. Dr. Wallace, now most likely long dead, lived across the street from us in Southern California, which made the situation even more difficult. I told my mother that I was uncomfortable but I don’t remember if I could articulate precisely why. I don’t know if she believed me, but I do know that I no longer had to see him as my physician. We continued to socialize with the doctor and his family and the subject was never brought up to me again. I was not asked to elaborate on my perceptions and feelings. I was rescued but not validated. There were no consequences to the doctor. My mother’s instinct was obviously to protect me, but her evident sense of awe and respect for the “doctor”, prevented her from taking further action. After all, he as not only a doctor, but a man and in the fifties, that counted for a lot. The conviction of Dr. Nassar and the sentencing of 175 years in prison gives me hope that “the times, they are a changing”.