I have heard from many who grew up with dysfunction, abuse, or narcissistic control how upset they feel by Donald Trump’s election. As one person told me, “It feels like a nightmare. An egomaniac who cares little for my welfare is taking over my country and there is nothing I can do about it. I feel like I did as a kid when my autocratic dad had total control over all of us.”
Said another, “It’s like my family’s dysfunctional drama is being played out in the entire nation. I have a sick feeling about the next four years.”
Part of what may be upsetting to those from dysfunctional families, or who have endured unhealthy adult relationships, is that Trump campaigned with divisive tactics and half-truths yet was rewarded with the world’s most powerful job. If you’ve suffered at the hands of a self-absorbed parent or coercive partner, the rewarding of dysfunctional behavior on a national level can be galling beyond words.
Trump’s election has raised anxiety among many. Reports during and after the election found feelings of trauma. Alarm has risen among women, Muslims, African-Americans, Mexican-Americans, school children, immigrants, and LGBT youth.
For Americans who have never experienced a close relationship with someone who has a bullying style, Trump’s actions may be baffling. Yet if your parent or partner lied, demanded attention, lacked empathy, or rarely took responsibility for his or her actions, Trump’s behaviors may seem eerily familiar. Those raised in dysfunctional or narcissistic families may feel in a parallel process that riles up long-dormant or still-active issues.
If you’re feeling anxious or despondent, remember: Emotions are messengers. The opportunity is to decode the message. Read a Salon article about why your feelings may make sense.
Some writers have suggested that President-elect Trump may have narcissistic personality disorder, even including three Harvard and UCSF-affiliated psychiatrists who asked President Obama to facilitate a psychiatric exam of Trump.
Without conducting a thorough clinical assessment, neither I nor any therapist can ethically diagnose another person. I cannot know what is in Donald Trump’s heart and mind. My observations are based on his public statements and actions, which necessarily give only a partial view of any individual.
But I can talk about observable behavior. Many of Trump’s actions parallel behaviors used by people in dysfunctional relationships. For example:
- Blaming and denying responsibility instead of tolerating criticism and admitting mistakes.
Trump denies dividing America
- Holding one’s self as above the rules.
I could ‘shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters’
- Viewing one’s self as uniquely gifted.
‘I alone can fix it’
- Being vindictive and exploiting others’ vulnerabilities instead of being compassionate and respectful of differences.
The 289 people, places, and things Donald Trump has insulted on Twitter
- Dishing out shame
Trump unloads on Hillary
- Seeming oblivious to the consequences of his actions on others
Trump’s lack of empathy
- Loudly crying foul over put-downs
Trump can’t let go of perceived slights
- Seeking attention and approval ahead of focusing on the greater good
Donald Trump’s demand for love
- Focusing on winning instead of promoting equality and honesty
Trump says he wants unity but does not promote it
- Needing to be right
Trump takes credit for being right after Orlando shooting
- Seeming to always have an opponent
List of people Trump has threatened to sue
- Fostering confusion
15 flip-flops in 15 days
Such tactics yield powerful benefits to the user. Vindictiveness can intimidate others from speaking up. Demanding approval can lead others to put their own needs last. Blaming and denying responsibility puts others on the defensive. Cultivating an aura of superiority may lead others to second-guess their innate instincts. An Us-vs.-Them mentality isolates people from information that might lead them to question the leader. Scapegoating embroils group members and keeps the leader above the fray. Changeability and shaming can keep people off balance and in the dark.
Despite the anxiety sparked by Trump’s election, living through past dysfunctional behavior in your family or other relationships may offer a silver lining. The perspectives and experiences that helped you cope in past relationships can empower you as well as help others who may be mystified or anxious. So what can you do?
1) Recognize and call out dysfunctional behavior
Perspective brings power. Some thought-provoking takes on our incoming president:
- Washington Post opinion piece on how America fell for a dazzling egotist
- Nell Ziehl’s post about 10 things to expect from a Trump presidency
- Paul Krugman on how Trump learned that lack of transparency pays off
- The New Yorker on Trump’s big con
- Atlantic article suggesting Trump may not register the difference between truth and lie
- Herman and K. Schwartz on decoding Trump’s tweets
2) Honor your values
Trump appears to promote conflict, a win-lose model, and self-aggrandizement. His alternating wheedling and bullying have hijacked our national dialogue. Over time we risk becoming inured to how extreme such actions are. One way to combat this erosion is to reject any dialogue that carries you away from yourself and instead return to your deepest values — perhaps compassion, win-win solutions, or pursuing a higher purpose. New York Times columnist Charles Blow writes about not going silently into the night.
3) Take action
To avoid feeling helpless or hopeless — particularly if that was a predominant experience in your family or other significant relationship — take actions that empower you. Some suggestions:
- The New York Review of Books on rules for surviving an autocrat
- Nicholas Kristof’s 12- step program for coping
- New York Times op-ed on patriotic opposition
Regardless of whom you supported this election, one truth remains: In our democratic system, the president works for us, governing only with our permission — not the other way around. Read Evan McMullin’s New York Times column.