The self is relatedness [. . .]. Only when the self mirrors itself in so many mirrors does it really exist—then it has roots. You can never come to your self by building a meditation hut on top of Mount Everest; you will only be visited by your own ghosts and that is not individuation: you are all alone with yourself and the self doesn’t exist [. . .]. Not that you are, but that you do is the self. The self appears in your deeds, and deeds always mean relationship. (Carl Jung, Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, p. 795).
A friend is in the middle of a family drama in which the behaviors of a family member threaten the destruction of the entire family system. I am quick to point out that what is happening is the result of a personality disorder from which my friend and other family members hoping to return to stable relatedness must extricate themselves.
My friend’s plight reminded me that most folks from families that function normally or “as if” they’re normal lack experience with personality disorders. As a result they don’t know anything about them, nor do they consider what are acceptable and tolerable levels of conflict, drama, or eccentricity among a family members, friends, co-workers, or neighbors. People may stay involved in impossible relationships far longer than they ought, at a risk to their own happiness and health.
What is a Personality Disorder?
A personality disorder is an inflexible, unyielding, and ongoing pattern of feeling, thinking, and behavior that doesn’t work for a person relationally but is continued anyway. The pattern was probably set in motion during childhood or adolescence for survival needs, suggesting that the child had something to survive. Problems arise after the child has survived but continues the patterns anyway. Patterns designed for surviving in a sick system continue to be applied in healthy ones, with disastrous results. As Jesus said, people who are well don’t need a physician. We don’t medicate the well, but the ill. Therefore, using old methods needed in a sick system in new relationships in healthy systems can never work.
The personality disordered person doesn’t understand that new methods exist, much less that they are needed. They can’t stop their own patterns because of their unconsciousness to their own situation, so continue because they have deep beliefs in the rightness of the pattern. It helped them survive the first 20 years, therefore why not the next 20? And so the wheel turns and turns.
What did the personality disordered person survive? She survived something, because “where there’s smoke, there’s fire.” Research has proved that a childhood history of sexual, physical, or emotional abuse or neglect is associated with personality disorder. The severity of the abuse, interestingly enough, is not a predictor of personality disorder; merely the fact of some kind of childhood trauma is a significant predictor. Based on this, we can theorize that the personality of the child also has something to do with how abuse is experienced. Two children in the same family experiencing the same abuse can (and usually do) respond differently. I know of a large family in which the father was physically and emotionally abusive and the mother had depression, and of all the children only two were symptomatic in adulthood. One child developed a major psychiatric illness and the other an addiction. This is often how it works, making it even harder to identify the disorders in the parents. “Most of us turned out just fine,” the hero child will brag, “we had great parents.”
Children who were sexually abused in some way, regardless of the severity of the abuse, are among the most likely to develop a personality disorder in adulthood. Here again, the severity of the sexual abuse is not as significant as the fact that some kind of sexual violation occurred. People often have the misapprehension that the severity of sexual abuse predicts the severity of later symptoms, but this isn’t the case according to research. A friend of mine did her doctoral research on resilient survivors of sexual abuse and discovered that the child’s innate personality contributes as much to later outcomes as does the type of sexual abuse.
A great many people who find themselves in the therapist’s office in adulthood or who are diagnosed with depression or anxiety disorders had at least one personality disordered or mentally ill parent and didn’t know it. They may, in fact, continue to be in a relationship with a disordered parent, which can exacerbate the problem. Such folks often go on to marry someone who is guaranteed to recreate for them the family of origin dynamics. The parent’s problem was foundational to the family system built on it, so building one’s own family system on a similar foundation will come naturally. The child grows up to discover that not only must she tear down her entire life, but she must dig up the foundations as well and build again. An undertaking like this is awe-inspiring because of the amount of courage, dedication, and strength it demands.
The Deeds of the Disordered
People with personality disorders usually pass for normal in everyday society. They go to the bank, shop for groceries, marry and have children, hold down jobs. Upon closer inspection, though, their relationships are not normal. As Jung wrote, “the self appears in your deeds, and deeds always mean relationship.” A person can hide a lot and fake a lot, but they can’t stop doing deeds. Deeds are acted out in relationships with others, so the truth inevitably comes out in primary relationships: with spouse and children, boss and subordinates, friends. How does a person interact with a peer, such as a best friend or spouse? How about subordinates, such as children, pupils or students, employees? Finally, how are relations with superiors, such as bosses, government entities, or religious authorities? A disordered relationship to reality and the Self will always be seen in one category of human relations or another. A person with a Grand Romance inside the marriage is often a terrible parent or treats his own mother or father shamefully. Or, a stellar performer at work pleases his boss, but neglects his wife. A woman may be great with her kids but terrible with her husband or friends.
The personality disordered are categorized along three lines: those with odd or eccentric behaviors; those with dramatic, emotional, or erratic behaviors; and those with anxious or fearful behaviors. The main aspects of personality disorder manifest as:
- ways of perceiving and interpreting events, things, or people differ markedly from those of other observers or from what is culturally expected
- range, intensity, and appropriateness of emotion are unusual
- lack of impulse control
- inappropriate need gratification
- dysfunctional ways of relating to others and handling relationships
- inflexible, unyielding behaviors or attitude; there is no negotiating
The results of any or all of these behaviors or attitudes is distress on a personal and relational level: the personality disordered person feels distress, and one or more people in close relationship to the personality disordered person feels distress. The suffering caused is the second half of the personality disorder equation.
Not all personality disorders are created equal; some are easier to recognize than others. A person with Borderline Personality Disorder is easier to recognize and probably causes more immediate drama than the one with Narcissistic Personality Disorder, and the latter may even be rewarded in our culture, up to a point. Even so, the end of the story is sadder than the beginning, and it usually takes years before the personality disordered begin to reap what they sow. This is because it takes time and numerous relationship encounters to establish a pattern. As Jungian analyst and author James Hollis has written, “One must have gone around a track a few times to even know if it is a circle or an oval. Patterns, with their costs and side-effects, can only be discerned as patterns when one has suffered them more than once” (The Middle Passage, p. 20).
Personality Disorder Lite
There is a sort of person who has what I call a “personality disorder lite.” This person may fall short on one or two of the diagnostic criteria required for diagnosing a disorder, or perhaps the intensity or duration isn’t there. A pattern may be developing, or the person may have just narrowly escaped a breakdown, hospitalization, jail time, or other crisis trumpeting a Real Problem. The addict, for instance, often has a crisis or three leading to the threat of jail without actually being sentenced. Everyone breathes a sigh of relief because they can now reassure themselves that, just as the addict insists, “it was just a mistake; it could have happened to anybody.”
Or maybe a person has a good excuse for the drama they’ve caused, or the boss or co-worker, neighbor or adult child or spouse or parent is the one in the wrong, and there’s just enough doubt in the situation that one finds in favor of the personality disordered person and sides with him in blaming the victim. This clever or high-functioning survivor is a “personality disordered lite,” and whether a full-blown disorder develops or not, will cause about as much pain and suffering as a diagnosable person can–he’ll just do it with more finesse.
Some other signals of possible personality disorder, many of which I have written about with regularity at Third Eve, are:
- lack of reciprocity: you give, they take, and boy are they mad when you require them to trade
- lack of empathy: they just can’t imagine how or why you feel as you do
- many shallow relationships, only one or no ‘close’ ones
- inflexibility, will not negotiate
- cannot admit wrong and therefore cannot make amends to others
- blame: it’s always someone else’s fault or faulty perception
- a pattern of dishonesty, deviousness, and manipulation
- using people like objects
- using objects like people
- appearances with no substance
- inability to trust or lack of appropriate trust, and as a result…
- suspicious of others
- emotional detachment; lack of appropriate fondness, loyalty, and connectedness
- restricted range of emotional expression: when a normal person would ‘blow,’ she just stares at you
- way too much emotion: when a normal person could take a deep breath or walk away, she blows–over and over again
- cognitive or perceptual distortions: “It didn’t happen that way,” and “You misunderstood me,” and “I didn’t mean it that way.”
- strange behaviors or beliefs, with almost magical proportions
- unstable interpersonal relationships: conflict, or people come and go, or last year’s idealized hero is replaced with this year’s
- few or no long-term, intimate relationships, but possibly lots of shallow Facebook type ones
- too much emotion or not enough
- attention-seeking; sucks the life out of you, sucks the air out of the room
- can’t take criticism; defensive
- too submissive, too clinging, too needy; the couple with one head
- can’t take turns, can’t serve others, needs to be first and get the most and the best
- lack of empathy; did I mention that?
- a childish need for admiration and approval
- seductive; makes you feel special, more alive, more something; you can’t get enough (and you can’t do enough)
- the “brand name” life to the nth degree; life is about stuff, achievements, and status
- arrogant, proud, thinks he’s right and better than others, and will say so; snobbery out the wazoo
- something in his or her life is much more important than you, at the same time that you’re supposed to keep them close to the top on your priority list