Social media, personality disorders and their relationship to domestic abuse dynamics

What is the relationship between social media and personality disorders? What similarities are there with domestic abuse dynamics? About how harassment and attention grabbing on social media, are linked to character traits and personality disorders.

In the days before the web, the social environment around an individual acted as a limiter to unwanted thoughts and expressions. A wrong thought or bad idea, would simply die out most of the time. With the arrival of the internet, that has changed: every idea, every expression of behavior, no matter how strange or how wrong, can count on support on the web. There is a community for every desire or belief, no matter how wild.

Social media reinforces the positive feedback loop of people who agree with you, supported by algorithms and features that allow you to keep opinions you don’t like from your message wall.

If you have an open personality and are not very accommodating, you tend to develop narcissistic traits in such an environment because there is no one around to limit you. All regulation for people with these traits, has to come from outside, because they cannot regulate themselves internally. Social media rewards people with these characteristics and removes the boundaries altogether.

Social media encourages narcissistic traits

Narcissism, emotional instability, public rage: they are on the rise, especially among students. To what extent do social media encourage, consider and generate histrionic personality disorders and overly melodramatic behavior in all of us?

Social media makes us communicate in an artificial way: it takes away the context because of the way the medium is designed, it removes the tone of voice since you’re often just typing, and you’re not sitting in a room with these other folks, so you don’t get to see their body language.

It gives easy access to ‘brand me’ and is set up to thrive on big emotions. Even the nicest people who never lose their temper are pushed by this media. That can cause good people to suddenly act like bad people.

It can help people who are having a bad day. But it is without a doubt the lifeblood of narcissistically inclined people.

The similarity of social media tactics with domestic abuse dynamics

If you’re starting to feel that the same tactics are being used in your social circles, online and offline, that are common in family households where domestic abuse occurs, that’s not a coincidence.

People who have these traits use social media tactics to manipulate or intimidate others. Tactics that scale easily in the virtual world: “We can’t take you on directly, but we can take you out behind the scenes.”. If you think back to your teenage years, you probably know how that works.

The kind of twisted dynamics, the lack of emotional control, the narcissistic exploitation, they’re part of domestic abuse dynamics and it’s spread to the public at an alarming rate.

Cancel culture is nothing but social murder. It’s exclusion. Ancient human behavior. When people are shunned, they are stripped of their moral status, their sense of identity.

A journalist is told: “Hey, you are trying to harm this person, you are trying to cancel this person!”. But then that journalist goes public to say that the criticism has given the journalist a post-traumatic stress disorder. It is a reversal of victim and perpetrator that we also see in domestic abuse dynamics, where the perpetrator tries to excuse the domestic abuse by blaming the victim.

Projection of your own trauma onto the world

Many people project their bad experiences onto the world: “I had a bad experience with my father, therefore all men are bad.” Projection is something all humans do, but it has become so popular over the past decade that we are now experiencing clinical, dysfunctional levels of narcissism.

We see it reflected as a projection of internal anger onto other people, but also as an exaggerated victim signaling to score “virtue points.”

And you can profit from it

You can build a brand for yourself by being a victim, and many people have done that. Being a victim can also pay off in something other than money: ‘narcissistic capital’, a term that comes from addiction care. You get a craving and then the attention gets you high.

And it gives you social status: the more victimized you are, the higher you are on the symbolic hierarchy ladder. For many people, that social attention is more attractive than the money.

In concrete terms: which personality traits are there and how do you recognize the traits in yourself and in others?

The ‘Dark Triad’ is a theory that states that there are three personality traits that together cause certain problems in social life: narcissism, psychopathy and Machiavellianism. The ‘Dark Tetrad’ is a recent extension of the Dark Triad and includes four personality traits: narcissism, Machiavellianism, psychopathy, and now sadism. Each of these traits has distinct characteristics that contribute to harmful and exploitative behaviors.

They do not necessarily reveal themselves as Cluster B personality disorders. Often the properties are less extreme and therefore harder to recognize. The “Dark Tetrad” classifies four traits under the common personality trait of “antagonism,” or low agreeableness.

1. Narcissism

We basically divide two types of narcissism: the form you are probably most familiar with has characteristics such as: dominant, arrogant, wanting to exploit others and exhibitionism.

The second variant is a form of narcissism that we often do not recognize and has characteristics such as: shy, suspicious, an unstable mood and excessively self-critical. Research around the Dark Triad mainly focuses on the first form of narcissism.

2. Psychopathy

Psychopathy overlaps with narcissism in some ways. We see characteristics such as: violating social norms, insensitivity, lack of empathy, impulsiveness, irresponsible behavior, superficial charm, manipulative and superficial affection.

Virtually anyone with psychopathy would qualify from a clinical perspective for a diagnosis of antisocial personality disorder, but only a few people with antisocial personality disorder would qualify for the psychopathy category.

Psychopathy also fits into the Dark Tetrad, but we’re talking about a spectrum in this case, all the way down to clinical psychopathy.

3. Machiavellianism

Machiavellianism is not very common in the clinical literature, but we see it reflected in information about careers: being manipulative, callous, negatively goal-oriented, but also having a good degree of impulsive control. That makes it different from psychopathy and this antisocial behavior appears in the form of fraud and deceit for example.

Machiavellianism is not considered a clinical concept. They are traits that together create problems, negatively impacting environments such as the workplace. You see them reflected in poor leadership or low productivity for example.

Machiavellianism could possibly also fall under psychopathy. So the Dark Tetrad is not necessarily about personality disorders, but about characteristics that seem to come together in a special way to create problems.

4. Sadism

Sadism is newly added to the Dark Triad, creating the Dark Tetrad. Sadistic individuals derive pleasure from inflicting pain, suffering, or humiliation on others. Online platforms can provide a fertile ground for them to engage in cyberbullying, harassment, or trolling behaviors.

Cluster B personality disorders: the more extreme versions

When we talk about mental illness, most people think of, for example: major depression, anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) and perhaps schizophrenia. However, personality disorders could be seen as a different kind of mental illness.

In general, you can think of a person suffering from depression or anxiety as having a kind of dark aura. That makes the person feel a lot of negativity, and that doesn’t make it pleasant to be around that person. But it comes and goes, and it can be treated. However, personality disorders are not like that. They are disorders of personality, of character.

They are ingrained, dysfunctional ways in which you have come to think and relate to yourself and others over the long term. They do not go away and thus remain consistently present factors in all the different areas of your life.

The disorders may not be the same for everyone, but we are talking about fundamental character problems, which affect how we relate to other people and are unfortunately very resistant to treatment. We group these personality disorders under the ‘Cluster B personality disorders’.

The Cluster B Personality Disorders:

  • Borderline personality disorder
  • Narcissistic personality disorder
  • Histrionic personality disorder
  • Antisocial personality disorder (sociopathy or psychopathy)

These are dramatic and erratic personality disorders. Emotional disruption and exploitative behavior, even towards your own children. These kinds of characteristics are therefore common in people with domestic abuse backgrounds, but they have somehow gone viral.

How many people actually have a personality disorder?

Our inability to regulate our emotions, our lack of self-esteem: the pathological people who have these problems consistently and to the extreme, don’t always notice that they have these traits. But how many people actually have a full-fledged personality disorder?

All personality or mental illness traits are about human traits. We all have a bit of them. Some of it is healthy, some of it isn’t. However, we are talking about excess in this context.

In the literature we see statistics of somewhere under 10% of all people. There should be more people who can be diagnosed and there will be more who are encouraged to exhibit the associated features.

Beware of emotional vampires

Dwelling on the thought that there is a conspiracy going on against you, is not a sign that you are crazy. But many things that people think are conspiracies, are not conspiracies. Often there is a grain of truth in it: “The system is against me”, “I am being discriminated against.” But the explanation will be too simplistic and emotionally disordered.

They will often be predictable patterns in the way things interact and produce certain outcomes. Attractive ideas that serve certain interests, and preferably attract the kind of people who consciously or unconsciously exploit the dynamics for their own social or monetary gain.

If you want attention, if you want a story written about you, if you want your tweet to go viral, then you have to claim victimhood: someone said something to you that was racist, someone said something to you that was transphobic, someone didn’t respect your pronouns…

The level of insult given to these things is excessive and it seems we are culturally conditioned to respond mildly to them.

We’ve been told to be nice people, decent and ethical. The word “judge” has taken on a negative connotation, as has the word “discrimination.” It is almost impossible to use these words in their original meaning because people think it is bad to discriminate against people. But the ability to discern in healthy and logical ways is necessary.

Binary thinking is very seductive when we are afraid, and typical of the borderline personality thinking style: “I hate you, don’t leave me.” Moving between these extremes is typical of borderline, and it’s often how we talk about politics.

Cult thinking is also Cluster B: authoritarian, parental thinking, all elements are present. However, we don’t need a charismatic leader on social media. If people there are afraid, they can cling to a group identity.

What if you recognize these traits?

To assume that people on the other side of the table are morally flawed, is absurd. And we make small things bigger than they need to be: a hallmark of histrionic borderline. Wouldn’t it be better to just stop labeling, to avoid imposing behavioral expectations on ourselves?

We have normalized personality disorder style relationships. We applaud and actively affirm, “I’m going to say this no matter what, because I’m [x]!”, and the more melodramatic your tone of voice, the more applause you’ll get.

To avoid this behavior, listen a lot to people who are different from you, have long conversations with them, expose yourself to different points of view for a long time. So that you get all the nuances, so that you take the time to learn other ways of understanding, to give yourself the chance to make better connections and think critically in a healthy way.

You’re not crazy if you notice

Do you notice that someone around you reacts differently than you would expect? When you realize that your partner, or friend, has Cluster B personality disorder, talk to other people who are in your situation. Read about Cluster B personality disorders, read the experiences of survivors of domestic abuse on forums. This will give you more clarity about the shared characteristics and dynamics. Seek professional help if you need it.

You are not the horrible person who made it happen, in the way the person who offended you put it. That’s the main takeaway from all of this.

Reference and more informations:

Dutch Trimbos Institute (Nemesis Trends in Dutch)

NEMESIS: ‘the Netherlands Mental Health Survey and Incidence Study’. NEMESIS is a national study of the mental health and well-being of adult Dutch people. The aim of the study is to determine how often mental disorders occur and what the differences are between groups in the population. This is established with structured interviews at the participants’ homes.

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