Last time we talked a bit about digital thinking: that is a situation in which a person sees the world in only two states—right/wrong, good/bad, etc.—with no room for nuance. These are rigid-minded people who see the world only in terms of their own personal sense of morality and who view terms like “situational ethics” pejoratively because they cannot conceptualize the idea that ethics, like so many other things in life, actually are situational: they depend on context.
It shouldn’t surprise you that many (most?) narcissists are digital thinkers. They live in the black-and-white world of “if you aren’t with me, you are against me,” or “my way or the highway.” They are notoriously difficult to prove wrong, at least in their own eyes, clinging to even the most absurd beliefs despite mountains of evidence to the contrary.
One could write this off to such things as “filters,” saying we all have them, but for the digital thinker, those filters don’t change. They may evolve to be even more rigid than in the past, but no amount of reason can get them to change. My own parents exemplify both sides of this.
My mother was a racist. She wasn’t pro-active about it—she didn’t go around proselytizing and trying to win others to her racist ways—but she never passed up an opportunity when it was dropped in her lap, either. Nor was her racism rational. I understood from childhood that I wasn’t supposed to play with black or Mexican or Asian children—and it was easy for me to tell these children apart from “white” kids like myself—but I had never heard her speak out against Jews. When, in my last year of high school, she discovered that my best friend of six years was Jewish, she hit the roof, informing me that I couldn’t have the girl in her house ever again. The proof that her racism was entire irrational was right there under her nose: the girl had been my friend since 7th grade and it was not until she was told the girl was Jewish that she knew. She couldn’t tell on her own, she had never been able to tell, and until that moment, the girl had been wholly acceptable as a friend for me.
On the other hand, my father’s racism was tempered, considering the times. In the mid-Fifties to mid-Sixties, before the Civil Rights Movement got under way, my father’s racism was rather mild by the standards of the day. He believed it was fine to have black neighbours, co-workers and friends. He drew the line at dating and marrying out of your race because, in his estimation, the children of such a union would not be accepted by either the black or the white community. But the early 1980s saw my sister marrying a black man and by the time my father met his newest grandson, he had put his racist inclinations behind him.
My mother, the narcissist, was a digital thinker: even if you couldn’t tell a person was of another race, even if the person had been a good friend for more than five years, once their race was revealed it was the relationship with the person that changed, not the belief that was just proven to be insupportable. My father, on the other hand, was not a digital thinker and when it was shown to him that his original premise was faulty, he abandoned it in favour of one that more accurately reflected reality.
People who think digitally often have an answer for everything, even things that haven’t come up yet. When something new comes along they are unlikely to give much thought to the position they take and once they have taken a position, they are unyielding in defending it and standing behind it. The position they take will often be in alignment with other positions they have taken in the past that have some peripheral relationship. An in-the-news example is the current controversy about kneeling during the national anthem at sporting events. This originated as a protest against injustice as exemplified by a common meme that says “Rosa Parks, wasn’t protesting the busses, Bostonians weren’t protesting the tea, Gandhi wasn’t protesting the food, the players are not protesting the anthem: protesting injustice is an American tradition.” Digital thinkers who are racists, for example, will see dark-skinned people kneeling in front of the flag while the national anthem is being played and come to the erroneous conclusion that these people are disrespecting the flag for no reason at all. Explaining that standing to salute the flag is not legally required, pointing out that they don’t stand and salute the flag in their family rooms while watching football on their big screen, clarifying that the protest is legal and appropriate because the flag symbolizes the country that is heaping injustice upon people of colour, even enlightening them that kneeling has, for centuries, been a gesture of respect: when you pray and ask something of God, you kneel, when you ask a woman to be your wife, you take a knee, when you receive an honour from a monarch, you go down on one knee, and in many situations a symbolic kneel, in the form of genuflecting or a curtsey, is a sign of respec—none of these things penetrate the mind of the digital thinker because she has already made up her mind.
Even if the person is a supporter of Tim Tebow, the quarterback who famously made a habit of taking a knee at the beginning of football games, the foregoing information will not phase the digital thinker who has decided these kneeling athletes are disrespecting the flag. “That’s different,” he will say, and stubbornly defend his belief that the kneeling athletes are just being disrespectful even after the athletes themselves explain the reasons for their actions. No, once the digital thinker’s mind is made up, no amount of information to the contrary is going to budge him from his position, not even testimony from the very person the digital thinker has made incorrect assumptions about.
Why is this important? Because you are going to come across these people and their bull-headed insistence that they are right and you need to understand where they are coming from. It is they who are coming from a place of disrespect because they have substituted their perceptions for reality even after the reality has been revealed to them.
You are going to come across this in personal relations, in family relations, at work, church, social gatherings—everywhere. You are going to try to tell people things about your life—people you believe to be sympathetic, understanding individuals or you would not open up to them. You might think they need to know because you are in an increasingly intimate relationship, or because they are providing a service that somehow provokes your anxieties. There comes a time for most of us that we cannot keep our dysfunctional upbringings under wraps any longer—perhaps you need some help or to explain an N drive-by to someone important to you—but despite the necessity of our revelations, we are still at the mercy of those to whom we reveal.
The problem is, too many of those people don’t just lack empathy, they have filters in place that create knee-jerk reactions. You tell someone that you don’t like being hugged from behind because your NF used to do that to you and frighten and hurt you—the “hug” was an excuse to inappropriately grope your chest—you have left yourself open to being read through the hugger's filters. Most of us find it very difficult to just say “Don’t do that, I don’t like it,” we feel like we need to give a reason, so we say “Someone in my childhood used to sneak up on me like that and then hurt me. It makes me jumpy.”
What do you expect after a revelation like that? Well, I would expect “Oh, I’m sorry! I really didn’t mean to alarm you. I won’t do it again. Are you okay?” All too often we get, instead, “That was a long time ago, get over it already!” or “You can’t seriously think I was going to hurt you?” or—my favourite clueless response—“Aren’t you a little old to still be feeling sorry for yourself for something that happened when you were a kid?”
I have been told by some, after factually relating some event or another in my past, that I was angry or bitter or feeling sorry for myself when, in fact, I was feeling none of those things. I have been accused of holding a “pity party” when sharing an event from my past. Any emotion I put into—or withhold from—the telling is given more weight by this kind of thinker than the actual event being related. “My mother used to beat me with a thin leather whip…” “That was a long time ago, why are you still so angry about it?” “I was a helpless little kid—she used to beat me with a thin leather whip and leave long red welts on my body…” “You should get over it and stop feeling sorry for yourself…”
What prompts those kinds of responses? Well, obliviousness is one thing but it goes deeper than that. These people have a filter that, whenever they are challenged for doing whatever it is they want to do, whether it is to hit on you or give you a wedgie, or say something hurtful, makes them right and you wrong. The digital thinkers have only two states of thinking: I am right and I am wrong. But narcissists cannot conceive of the second state even existing so for them, the mantra is “I am right, you are wrong,” and every experience in their lives is passed through this filter. It is because this filter colours and adjusts every experience that we find ourselves staring at the most bizarre and unbelievable contortions of logic and memory when we listen to a narcissist’s version of something. That filter—the “I am always in the right” filter—is where reality get twisted and distorted, where the rationalizations, justifications, specious logic and lies all happen. And for many (most?) narcissists, it all happens subconsciously and all that comes to their conscious brain—and out their mouths—is the finished product: blaming you.
The process works something like this: you have said something that would prompt a normal, empathetic person to feel something for you. That feeling would prompt a person of normal empathy to say something comforting—“I’m sorry that happened to you”—or validating, like “That was abusive! She was out of line to do that!” and maybe even offer an empathetic gesture like a pat on the arm or a hug. The more giving people may offer some kind of assistance, like the name of a therapist or a good website or a book, a ride to a women’s shelter or a cup of coffee or even their phone number so you can come to them for comfort and support.
But for digital thinkers, some of whom may respond emotionally to your words, there are only two states of being, right/good and wrong/bad. If they have an emotional response to your words, they can perceive it as demand for action—from you. So you get responses from them like “What do you expect me to do about it?” or “I can’t help you with that.” Or, they may go on the attack because if they can see you as being in the wrong, then they can see you as underserving of their intercession: “Aren’t you a little old to be whining about stuff that happened when you were a little kid?” or “All kids get spankings,” or, my personal favourite, “What did you do to make your mother that mad?” As soon as they can make your pain out to be unreasonable, irrational, or your own fault, they no longer feel an obligation to do anything: remember, in any circumstance they see only two, opposing options—in this scenario, if you are truly a victim, then they have “comfort you” and “ignore you” as their choices. Which of those choice is good or bad depends on whether you deserved the punishment or not: if you didn’t deserve it, then ignoring you is bad—which would make them bad for ignoring you. But if you are wrong in any way: you are holding on to things you should have let go by now, you are complaining about what he perceives to be a normal part of childhood (so you are whining) or you actually provoked a loving mother into beating you until you had stripes, then you are not a victim and he can safely ignore you without feeling he did something bad. In fact, he can twist it further into seeing it as him doing something good, teaching you that you can’t play victim and expect sympathy, at least not from them.
If, at a later date, they discover that you weren’t playing them, they still won’t take responsibility for their lack of compassion for you: either they will exonerate themselves with something like “How was I supposed to know that was true? You have to admit it sounded pretty far-fetched…” or outright blame you for not convincing them. They will never feel wrong for not taking an appropriate action because they will never acknowledge responsibility.
And so you find yourself talking to someone—maybe a family member you haven’t seen in a long, long time—and she asks “How are things with you?” and for whatever reason you decide that you aren’t going to play the lying game anymore, you aren’t going to gloss over the abuse and let your N off the hook anymore, you aren’t going to be the scapegoat, always in the wrong, and you tell her the truth: “Not so good right now. I am in therapy a couple of times a week to deal with anxiety and depression,” and she narrows her eyes and says “What do you have to be anxious or depressed about? You have a nice house, a good job and a family who loves you…” And if you don’t take that as a sign that you don’t have a sympathetic ear and you press on with “It’s more about my upbringing and the abuse I suffered…” you get one of two basic responses: defence of your parent(s) or attacked for feeling sorry for yourself—or both.
That is because this person is a digital thinker: if she acknowledges that your parent was abusive and did nothing to intercede, then she might have to acknowledge that she was wrong to not step in—or, more importantly, other people might think she was in the wrong not to step in. Acknowledging your abuse could mean she feels like she is betraying your abuser which could make her feel either wrong or put her at risk of becoming a victim herself. If she can believe either that you were not abused in childhood or take the position that you should be “over it” by now, then she can believe that the fact that you aren’t over it means you are feeling sorry for yourself and then she can feel exonerated—and safe.
I come across this on my blog on occasion, when I write something about the abusive behaviours of my mother and someone emails me privately telling me that I was using the internet to get a lot of people to feel sorry for me. If I engage such a person in an exchange of emails, they often go further, accusing me of deserving the abuse, based on the fact that I will not accept their point of view: I am being stubborn and contrary and “difficult” and if I was like that as a child, no wonder my mother lost it and beat me black and blue. This kind of person not only lacks empathy for that terrified child laying rigid on a bed waiting for the next lash to fall on her bare flesh, this person has made himself my self-appointed superior because if I don’t agree with him, he feels perfectly justified in decreeing my assault a just punishment for being defiant. I find this very interesting because this is, without exception, a person who didn’t witness the assault, has no idea what led up to it, and—worse of all—a person who thinks that a legitimate reason exists to whip a small child and leave long red whip marks that turn into big painful bruises and last for days.
I have learned to be careful who I talk to and to gauge their reactions carefully because, for most people, the kinds of abuse we suffer is outside their experience. Most people can identify with losing their patience with a child and smacking the kid but few can identify with deliberately and methodically laying lashes on a quivering, terrified child not once but repeated times over a period of years. They take the narrative into themselves and, knowing they would never do such a thing, find it not believable. Or, if they are the kind of person who could do such a thing, they take it into themselves and know the degree of provocation it would take them to beat a child in that way and assume that is what you did to your mother. Either way, the abuser is exonerated in their minds, making the victim responsible.
With ACoNs, we are so accustomed to having others define our behaviour and feelings for us that coming up against such a person can actually make us doubt ourselves. We see it as a perspective we hadn’t considered and, unlike the digital thinker who goes to extraordinary lengths to protect and reinforce his perception, we too readily assume that we are wrong and worry that the motives we thought we had were, in fact, just a cover for a deeper, more nefarious purpose: attention and/or sympathy seeking. That our listener may be projecting—because that would be her motive for such a revelation—never enters our minds because we naïvely assume they are no less sincere as we are.
So the next time you reveal some facts about your history and someone accuses you of feeling sorry for yourself or being bitter and angry, or they tell you that you need to “let it go” or “forgive” those who hurt you, don’t leap immediately to feeling guilty or shamed—recognize that this is projection from a person who really isn’t hearing you. This person has his own agenda, and that agenda has no room for you or your feelings in it, only his perceptions, regardless of their validity. Trying to explain yourself to this person will be like explaining string theory to a chimpanzee: the capacity to understand just isn’t there.
And it’s not your fault.