Toxic People Part II: Personality Disorders continued
Toxic People Part II
Please read the article “Difficult People” on the web site first! It is important to understand that we all have functional and even dysfunctional personality traits, and at various levels of toxicity: You cannot diagnose yourself or someone else as having a Personality Disorder unless you are a properly trained, licensed and experienced clinician [like a psychiatrist or clinical psychologist].
In Part I we looked at Antisocial and Narcissistic Personalities: the causes of their defense mechanisms, the nature of the defenses and the effects on other people. In Part II we will briefly highlight Borderline and Histrionic Personality Disorders.
Borderline Personality Disorder [BPD]
One of the best books about BPD that I’ve come across is titled Stop Walking ON Eggshells! This really encapsulates the effects of the Borderline personality on others – in that you have to be extremely careful as anything you say or do may be construed as a rejection of them or an attack on them. By the way, I recommend this book to people who suffer from borderline Traits, and to their partners. It’s written in comfortable lay language and incorporates also such useful insights as revealed by transcripts of internet information groups’ communications, in which Borderline personalities and their partners freely participate.
An insightful description of the Borderline state [by one of my lecturers long ago] is that the person takes in the Good, but then feels that it has become Poisonous, and has to Get Rid of it. [And there is a degree of correlation between Borderline functioning and Bulimic functioning.] BP’s are thus in constant need for reassurance that the relationship or situation is still Good, that they are not being rejected or attacked or betrayed or lied to, or about to be rejected, etc etc…
They also watch critically or any signs of such rejection or abandonment and tend to project the fears of what may happen as actual occurrences, on significant others. If I dream my friend has gossiped about me, I may investigate the possibility, or wonder what in me made me dream such content, but the BP tends to immediately act out on the dream as if it’s reality, and will, or instance, strangle the partner while s/he is still asleep, for “having done” the betrayal.
For the BP there are no grey areas: you are either completely For them or you have Betrayed them and are an Enemy. You cannot risk having a different point of view about anything, admiring any one else even briefly [e.g. saying you like a recording by a singer – any singer of the same gender, or any singer at all, if the BP either sings or wishes s/he could], suggest that someone else’s actions may not be as evilly motivated as the BP has stated they were… They split the world into two groups: Those who are Against Me, and those who – at the moment – are On My Side and who have to keep proving it every second, but especially during one of my frequent Tests of their Unconditional Loyalty. And the BP can be so charming, loving and engaging while desperately trying to create and maintain the Those On My Side group that just about any kind of person can become ensnarled in the Borderline net.
Hence the “Walking on Eggshells” analogy: this fascinating and engaging person chooses to be with me and to be protected by me, and since s/he trusts so few, it means I’m special, so now I become extraordinarily careful not to lose him/her or cause the inevitable rejection/s [the forgive and reject cycle can repeat endlessly].
BPs tend to quickly put people who have attractive and desirable qualities [in their eyes or according to their needs] on a pedestal – which is part of their attractiveness, because the recipient of their favour is treated with adoration and attention, and we all respond favourably to that. But when s/he inevitably fails at some stage to meet increasingly higher demands for devotion and for tolerance of invasive and disruptive Borderline traits, not only is s/he cast off the pedestal but also re-defined of being cruel, selfish, nasty, untruthful, not committed enough, etc.
Typical of Borderline traits are:
- Continual instability of emotions [frequent and unpredictable mood swings];
- Continual instability of relationships, with extreme idealization and then devaluation of the same person;
- Continual instability of self-image; lack or repeated loss of sense of self;
- Continual impulsivity – generally, or associated with acts that actually or potentially harm the self, such as spending, sec, driving recklessly, using banned substances or drinking too much, binge eating;
- Self-mutilating [e.g. cutting self on thighs or arms, etc] and frequent suicidal behaviours, attempts, threats or gestures;
- Frantic attempts to prevent abandonment and rejection [real or imagined];
- Chronic feelings of emptiness;
- Irritability and constant or frequent displays of rage;
- “Micro-psychotic Episodes” like sudden and brief periods or paranoid thinking;
- Dissociative episodes [feeling uninvolved or that ”This is not really happening”], especially with heightened stress;
- Projecting previous traumatic intention and behaviours of people in previous relationships onto the present one/s.
Remember that anyone can have some of these traits in mild, moderate or severe concentration, without being fully Borderline Personality Disorder, and that the Disorder cannot be diagnosed before early adulthood. Specifically keep in mind that many of the traits also occur as a cluster in, for instance, Posttraumatic or Acute Traumatic Stress Disorder, without the person having the spectrum of Borderline traits. Also not that – as with Antisocial and Narcissistic Personality Disorder formation, the likelihood of underlying trauma in the form of physical, emotional or [frequent in BPD] sexual abuse is high.
I do not have enough years to describe the effect of these traits, especially when frequent and florid, on close relationships – with colleagues, friends or romantic partners. The terror of abandonment by anyone but especially by people who are special enough to be selected as “close” is experienced as suggestive that the BP is “bad”, and that can’t be tolerated: For the infant abandonment means death, so BPs may try to restore previously discontinued relationships for even many decades after the “loss”, while re-playing the script that makes it possible to blame the one who “left” them for the problems, never the self. What starts as surprise or confusion for the partner or friend, ends in torture of recriminations and approach-reproach cycles that can repeat endlessly even when there are new objects of affection available.
Relationally [and therapeutically] what is necessary for the BP to begin to heal is consistency, very strong boundaries, and repeated proof that the partner cannot be destroyed by the “poison inside” of the “bad” BP. And probably the resilience and skin of a rhino – for the attacks are chronic, unpredictable, irrational, and the demands for rescue are heart-rending.
While therapists have immense empathy for people with such strong and disruptive defensive structures as they understand the massive injuries to the early formation of he Self that cause them, and can set boundaries and stay consistent, therapists do not have to live 24-7 with the symptoms. People who do, are almost always overwhelmed by the exhausting and disrupting nature of the interactions over time. People with strong Borderline traits or BPD should be helped to engage in appropriate therapy so that they can be free, over time, from the hurts and the damaging defenses against the pain. This is not a disorder that can be managed by self-help techniques and there is also a significant danger that in group types of therapy that are not very carefully managed by clinical experts, the sufferer of such traits may collapse psychically, or succeed [sometimes accidentally] in destroying the self.
Histrionic Personality Disorder [HPD]
Defining metaphors: “Over The Top!”, “Drama Queen”, “Melodramatic”.
If one were to write text for a Histrionic Personality [HP] in a play, one would run out of exclamation points, and probably out of highly emotive and excessively passionate adjectives and adverbs. No, even nouns and verbs would be carefully selected to make much ado about very little, everything aimed at focussing the attention of anyone, everyone and everything [pets and cameras definitely count] solely on the HP. And should the attention be called away for a moment or even lapse [as when the baby actually falls asleep while the caregiver needs it to stare adoringly], the attention-demanding behaviours, attitudes or emotional expressions escalate, to greater flamboyance, loudness or unexpectedness.
There is usually little fact or reason that underlies strong and dramatic expressions of opinion of the HP, and hyperbolic speech is the norm. Negative events are catastrophised [“It was horrific to sit in that awful traffic for so many hours; it ruined my whole day!” = 10 minutes in mild traffic]; others’ striking qualities are minimised, and own achievements greatly enhanced or embellished.
While such persons can be amusing or even attractive to bystanders for short periods of time, they tend to wear out the capacity for giving constant attention and adoration of people in closer relationships very quickly. They also tend to be insensitive to snubs or ignoring, and have no respect for others’ needs for personal space, quiet, or consideration. People who are legally caught up in necessary continued close contact [in business, for instance, or in marriage] usually have one of two options of response, neither of which seems to have any effect on the pervasive pattern of histrionic behaviours: either flattery and fake, public adoration [as the Director supplied to the movie star] or avoidance, with clever snide remarks that can be misconstrued as compliment [as seen in several of Jane Austin’s characters].
Typical traits are:
- Excessive emotional expression and constant need to be the centre of everyone’s attention;
- Inappropriate sexual or provocative behaviour in social contact;
- Superficial but dramatic emotionality, with rapid shifts in expression and kind;
- Use of physical appearance to draw attention to the self;
- Elaborate and embellished style of speech, with little underlying substance;
- Over-dramatic, theatrical and exaggerated expression of emotion and description;
- External-directed: Easily influenced by others or by circumstances;
- Interprets relationships as closer or more intimate than they are in reality.
HPs typically lack the introspective ability, insight and motivation for change required in therapeutic journeys. It seems they either find a niche where they can be accepted or tolerated, or move in circles where superficial expression is the norm.
Persons with sufficient intellect and hurt of failed relationships may be willing to modify over-dramatic and attention-seeking behaviours while also understanding that it is a disturbance and not a talent to act in such self-absorbed ways.