[This DrP article was first published on MindBodyGreen]
Seeking growth is a great thing. Anything from deeper emotional awareness to healing to new habits can help us become better people, content in ourselves and building stronger relationships. But we also run into people who seem to be seeking growth— or at least in what they say and claim to do— and yet after a substantial amount of time, we feel entrenched, stuck and frustrated in our relationships with them.
We have invested patience, hope and support in these people we love, and it feels hard to just throw in the towel. We can’t possibly give up hope in our loved ones, especially because they are trying so hard.
Or are they?
Welcome to the world of performative growth, where emotional intelligence is counterfeit, and instead wielded to trap and trick.
Because the truth is, growth isn’t just about demonstrating awareness by getting lost in the weeds of overanalysing, and slapping clinical labels on patterns of thoughts, feelings and behaviours. Yes, we all find ourselves in habitual loops courtesy of genetics and what happens to us, including our upbringing, current circumstances and trauma (and our body’s drive to survive). But really, growth is about committed action to evolve, including the ability to repair when we have done something wrong and be mindful not to repeat that. In short, growth requires that we stay accountable.
How narcissists reel you in with false promises
Using therapy speak as a Get Out Of Jail Free card
Being in therapy or coaching, devouring books and journals, and psychoanalysing 24/7 doesn’t mean anything if it’s just empty speech. The deal is, talk is cheap. There are people— especially Dark Personality Types— who show up to therapy to tick a box, to people they are doing it, and develop a more sophisticated language that ups their game. An example would be someone telling you something like “You know I have Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria and that’s why you have to understand me, again”. As compared to someone who might go, “I am sorry I felt overwhelmed when I thought I was being rejected, and did that. I will work hard not to do that again, what can I do to make it up to you”— and commits to that. Said person might also discuss how the other party can help in this process, for instance by using codewords that break the vicious cycle of spiralling into the old behaviour.
The veneer of self-awareness with clinical labels and therapy speak also evokes your empathy, and you cannot help but believe that they are working on themselves. The language gets increasingly convoluted, some even start drawing flowcharts and diagrams, co-opting the same clinical formulations they may have received in therapy whilst adding some. This way, you are not only friend and/or partner, you are also co-opted against your will as counsellor, coach and therapist.
You find your washed ashore and stuck in the snares of an accountability trap. Most of us work harder to be better people, so we assume others will do the same. Except that this courtesy cannot be applied to dark types, because accountability is what gets you hooked. And often, they may even ask that you keep them accountable. And so you keep getting hoodwinked, requesting accountability but receiving the opposite because they never intended to keep their word.
By contextualising their diagnosis as understanding why they are the way they are, dark personality types use this as an out for bad behaviour. Yes, they may have had bad experiences in the past— with previous partners or their parents— but that is no excuse, and often, these stories might be dramatised or fictitious. Or, you may factor in the fact that they are going through a hard time right now, because life happens. Sometimes, they hijack other diagnoses and personality types— common ones include neurodiverse wiring like ADHD and autism, and bipolar or borderline disorder— to look like they really cannot help it. This way, you explain things away for them.
You walk on eggshells and wonder if your behaviour might trigger them; you second-guess yourself and check your behaviour. For instance, it is appropriate to be thoughtful and be punctual, especially if your partner is anxious and misinterprets lateness as a sign of rejection. It is another thing to be checking and suppressing your behaviours, down to the most benign ones like smiling at your phone when your best friend sends you a cat video, just in case your partner gets paranoid and escalates. This way, you learn to blame yourself everytime they get triggered.
And everytime you inadvertently get distressed, are unable to sleep, and maybe suffer from muscle soreness from that huge onslaught of cortisol and adrenaline from an abusive episode, you are not allowed to say a thing. You are not even allowed to take me-time to ground yourself or soothe your (physical) pain, because how dare you remind them of your pain. Because they will spiral again. In other words, you are trained to forget, ignore and hide your own pain, and just let them be.
Becoming The EQ Expert and painting you as The EQ Idiot
Dark personality types also get sophisticated with psychology speak to look like experts in EQ. One way they do it is by understanding your triggers, deliberately pushing your buttons, and then calmly telling you that if you are upset, you must be guilty. In the name of caring about you, they may tell you to process your emotions together; or sit down for long talks to gain more intel about how you operate. At other times, they may employ spiritual terminology like ‘all is mind’, ‘you attract what you are’ and ‘be thankful for the lesson’ to make it look like you caused their bad behaviour.
They also are the maestro of confused messaging that sounds intelligent. Wielding psychology speak with words like ‘emotions’, ‘triggers’ and ‘boundaries’, they may act like they are doing something in the name of their self-care and sanity, except that this is to control you. A typical example is the term ‘boundaries’, which are your personal Hell Nos. Dark types often pervert boundaries, for instance ‘I will not be with someone who dresses in [description], that is my boundary’ and ‘I will not be with someone who has male friends because [reason about their history], and that is my boundary’. This confused messaging doesn’t happen because they are confused, but rather is employed to trick you.
Another way is that they may make cruel digs at you-- especially about the things that are important to you-- or seemingly-benign off-the-cuff comments that seem so petty if you raise them.
Except that these add up— in what I call microdosing cruelty for plausible deniability.
When you inadvertently feel hurt— remember you are already vulnerable from being repeatedly traumatised in a relationship with such a person— they tell you that you are unstable, not stepping up to grow in the relationship, or not fun anymore. They might also step in and play the saviour to the hot mess that you allegedly are.
This serves a few purposes. First, it gaslights you from your own intuition, because we all fundamentally know when something doesn’t feel right, but may not have the words or confidence to verbalise. Instead, you overrationalise why you’re being sensitive and difficult, and why they did what they did. Second, your boundaries erode further and further, and in microdoses, you are unaware. Third, you learn to blame yourself for everything, which makes it easier for them to succeed faster at future attacks. And fourth, their calmness and use of psychology speak gives them more EQ street cred, so you believe that they are right, and you are wrong.
Ultimately, you lose more and more power.
The only competent one
A curious case I’ve noticed in dark personality types is that even as a friend or co-worker, everyone else is grossly incompetent. There is a never-ending litany of tales about how everyone acts terribly as people, or are doing a crappy job at work. So they are suffering like martyrs— which means you have to be extra understanding towards them— and they are the ones who swoop in to save the day, so you have to praise them.
We all run into hiccups at work and in our social circles, but the thing is, it is often a transient episode or at the periphery of our lives. With a dark type, the drama and shit show often revolves around them, and they are hurt by it or have to work hard to rescue, all whilst they try to be understanding and intellectual about it. In other words, they are the only emotionally and technically competent ones.
How to discern the truth
There are some things to consider if growth is performative.
First, is the change piecemeal, meaning very little action or maybe a tiny part of an action. For instance, saying “I’ve put a calendar reminder to book the holidays” for six months, is only a fraction of what else that needs to be done— researching, planning, deciding, and actually committing.
Second, is the change transient? Here, dark types often make a change for a very short period of time, sometimes only hours, and brag about it. Or they boast about what they haven’t done. They might say “I haven’t hit you yet, all year”, even if it is a week into January.
Third, do you pay for the piecemeal, transient change? Dark types will punish you for any change they embark on, nevermind if it doesn’t last. Because they know which buttons to push, and they also know how to make it look like it’s your fault, they are particularly successful at this. This way, you get trained to not ask for decent treatment.
In other words, do they really mean what they say? Because talk is cheap.
Fourth, do they deliberately violate the trust, peace and respect. If there has been an agreement regarding how you will both interact, and boundaries about what you each will not do, does said person deliberately encroach on these? Some dark types are so brazen that they would say things like “You know I cannot change”, “I cannot promise you change because it’s hard”, or even laugh in your face “You should know better than to believe me’, and then later blaming it on a mental health trigger or substances.
Fifth, when they accidentally violate the trust, do they repair it? Every relationship has its inadvertent ruptures, because we are only human, and we are slowly learning about each others’ preferences and baggage. But when people are sincere and committed to growing together, they will work hard at repairing any accidental ruptures.
Sixth, are you selectively looking for evidence in their favour? The human brain suffers from a prejudice called confirmation bias— we look for proof that goes with our belief, and discard all other information. So if you believe this person loves and cares for you, and that they are committed to growth, you might inflate the few times they’ve temporarily changed. Or, you reference the times when they say all the right spiritually adept and emotionally mature things.
Seven, are you simply thinking “They’re not ALL bad” or “We have some positive interactions!”. One thing that stops people from leaving toxic relationships is going through multiple symptom checklists spanning psychopathy, narcissism, sociopathy and Machiavellianism, and declaring that said person is not ‘full-blown’. Here’s the deal, Jack The Ripper might not have been full-blown and he killed multiple people; do you need someone to be ‘full-blown’ or ‘completely psychopathic’ to recognise that they are bad for you and your future becomes bleaker with them? Also, having some positive interactions does not discount the overall picture— as the Gottman Institute has corroborated, relationships that are healthy and enduring have a ratio of five to one positive to negative interactions.
The good times tend to fall under the initial phase of love-bombing where you are bombarded with positive affection to make you feel like they’re The One and it’s you both against the world, and as intermittent reinforcement where they throw in some decent crumbs to reward you and provide evidence that they aren’t all bad.
Eight, can you trust them not to hurt you? There are people we can trust to consistently have our back— especially if we make requests for support— and be happy for us during triumphant times— these are people to keep in our lives. And then there are people we can trust not to hurt us, even if they may not be fully present in our lives because we may not be that close. When it comes to a dark personality type, the truth is, you cannot trust them not to hurt you. And when they inevitably hurt you again, you know that they will blame you.
Nine, is couples’ therapy another battleground? With the best of intentions, we may turn to couples’ therapy. But the thing about dark types is that they can be incredibly charming and sophisticated, whilst their partners have been beaten down by repeated abuse and are easily triggered, shamed and gaslighted. When a dark type tricks a mental health professional who may be none-the-wiser about that it’s all a mask, then therapy becomes another arena where the partner is further abused.
You can’t fall in love with potential
Everyone has potential, but not everyone can or wants to live up to it. Hedging your bets based on that, especially on a dark type, is a gamble you will lose. Because they cannot, and will not change.
If you were to draw a timeline based on consistent patterns of their behaviour, consider if it’s been getting progressively worse. Be honest with yourself if you are just looking at the few times that are great or okay— but overwhelmingly grateful for them that you inflate them— and dismissing the bad things. And consider if you feel bad about admitting that someone’s ‘trying’ is not enough, some of us have been raised to be ‘good’ and thereby feel guilty when we think we are criticising someone else.
In this timeline, perhaps you realise it has never been drama-free. Because the initial honeymoon phase of love-bombing in-itself was a calculated move to erode your boundaries and groom you. And overall, it has been a tumultuous ride, that you learnt to tolerate in the name of how much you’ve already invested, their promises about your awesome future, and how much they look like they’re working hard to change. Except that now you have a convoluted mess of psychology labels which you think helps you understand them better or be more patient, and you’re also exhausted.
Also, what is the pivotal moment you are holding on to, as the rock upon which this relationship is built? Just because they promised they would work on something— for instance during a grand declaration, in a special setting or momentous occasion— and you remember it, doesn’t mean they are still upholding it; consider that that might just be staged as a manipulation. Some of these relationships have felt like a battle to ‘finally be together’ because of circumstances that prevented the relationship from happening in the first place, you are grateful for the fact that ‘impossible’ became ‘possible’, and ‘tumultuous’ became ‘together’, that you keep doubling down and working harder.
There might also be other mindsets that hold you back from walking away, and becoming more tethered to persevering. Consider the other mirrors in your head— perhaps you grew up romanticising certain stories that speak of unhealthy love. Or, you watched your parents weather hard times. Playing Devil’s Advocate here, did your parents go through some episodes of hard times, but the overall journey has been consistently positive and healthy as solid partners, as compared to yours? Here, it is important to call things out for what they are— if there is abuse, then it is abuse. And whilst you signed up to grow as a person in a relationship, you did not sign up to be abused.
And finally, if you were looking at your relationship from a friend’s perspective— having seen all the nuts and bolts— would you say that it’s been positive and healthy overall? Or would you simply say there are too many intricacies and details, pulling out labels of diagnoses and psychological formulations. But blow away the smoke and smash the mirrors of psychological sophistry, is your relationship simply a relationship with dynamics that you find impossible to explain to other people, in the words of psychotherapist Terri Cole. If that’s the case, then it is a trauma bond. And a trauma bond happens in abusive relationships.
You read the stories about the rocky couples who made it, and you tell yourself it takes two hands to clap. If others could make it through, then maybe you can be the success story too.
The longer you stay, the harder it is to leave. The human brain is biased towards doubling down after investing too much emotionally, especially after having committed publicly to a decision (that others may have voiced doubt about) or having weathered losses and damage.
The truth is, emotional intelligence isn’t simply about reading others; it is about the ability to know, regulate and better yourself too. And the brand of emotional intelligence that dark personality types wield is shallow at best. Empathy isn’t just about being understanding about other people— why your partner does what they do— and giving them too many allowances. Empathy is really also about having empathy for yourself, because you have suffered.
Any form of growth sought has to be real. It doesn’t need to be on-brand 247— wrapped up in the shiny packaging of (over)analysing, and embellished with the big bow of fancy psychology names. Leave the performances to the entertainment industry.
Growth is meant to be intentionally lived and practised, where you walk your talk, and get up everytime you slip.
That is what true mental health is— not just in the therapy room or when you turn on your video call for a coaching session, nor when you are reading your self-help book.
Mental health is the tiny incremental changes that you keep practising in your daily life that pay compound interest. And when two parties intentionally practise mental health, that is when the relationship is healthy and sustainable.
Otherwise, it might be time to cut your losses and walk away to a more peaceful future.
If you’d like to get out safely from a toxic relationship for good and have peace of mind to heal and build your new life, book your free Chemistry Call here to chat about a signature 8-week program that’s tailored to your lifestyle, values and personality.