Stop Walking on Eggshells

When someone in your life has borderline or narcissistic personality disorder

"High Conflict People" Drive Disputes at Home, School, Work

Some high conflict people have borderline or narcissistic personality disorder

By Randi Kreger and therapist, attorney, and mediator Bill Eddy

Some people make life miserable for others. They blame you for their own problems, have no empathy, and always seem to be conjuring up trouble. A subset of them are called "high conflict people," and they often have some kind of personality disorder--usually borderline or narcissistic personality disorder. Some high-conflict people have some maladaptive personality traits, but not enough to have a full-blown personality disorder. They may have some self-awareness and make some efforts to change.

Keep in mind that not all people with BPD and NPD are HCPs, and not all HCPs have a personality disorder. Some just have the traits. And in fact, a hefty segment of people with BPD try to stay away from conflict entirely and are more likely to harm themselves than anyone else. But the overlap is great, and the term helps us focus on the behaviors (rather than the reason for them) and guides us in responding more effectively.

Avoiding Responsibility

HCPs have a life-long personality pattern of distorted thoughts, emotions, and actions. Time after time, they avoid taking responsibility for their problems. They repeatedly argue against feedback, regardless of how helpful and truthful it may be. And over and over again, they try to persuade others to agree with their rigid points of view and help them attack their targets of blame.

High-conflict people consider themselves as an injured party; a victim, even, of the shortcomings of others. The issues may come and go, but their personality traits keep them in conflict. They never learn from their experiences. The cliché “He would cut off his own nose to spite his face” was written for them, especially in legal disputes

HCPs are prone to the following thoughts, feelings, and actions:

  • They split, or engage in all-or-nothing thinking

  • Their negative feelings shape their reality (“feelings equal facts”)

  • For the most part, their emotions are intense and fluctuate rapidly

  • They have difficulty empathizing with others

  • They have a hard time accepting and healing from a loss

  • Their behaviors are extreme, in keeping with their distorted thoughts and feelings

  • They’re preoccupied with blaming others and don’t take responsibility for their actions

HCP Traits

They split, or engage in all-or-nothing thinking

HCPs live in a black and white world. They may not analyze situations, hear different points of view, or consider possible solutions. Things must be their way, and they’re not willing to be flexible or compromise because it feels like everything is at stake. This especially comes out during divorce proceedings.

Their negative feelings shape their reality (“feelings equal facts”)

They base their view of themselves, situations, and others on what they’re feeling at that moment rather than objective reality. This appears irrational to those around them, who are baffled by the HCP’s raging, blaming, or self-destructive actions.

For the most part, their emotions are intense and fluctuate rapidly

This is practically the definition of BPD and typical of vulnerable NPs. An exception is grandiose NPs, who manage their own shallow feelings while manipulating others to do their bidding. Their arrogance and insensitivity devastates and angers those around them while the HCP remains clueless about why others are making such a fuss. A grandiose HCP might think, "This person is trying to insult me, but I'm so superior that it doesn't bother me at all. I'll just point out her stupidity at our next meeting."

They have difficulty empathizing with others

People with BPD are too self-involved, and people with NPD see others as chess pieces on the black and white chessboard of their life.

They have a hard time accepting and healing from a loss

According to Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, people facing huge losses go through the following stages of the grieving process:

1) Denial (“This can’t be happening to me!”)

2) Anger (“If this is happening, I’m going to fight it every inch of the way!”)

3) Bargaining (“I’ll totally change my life so this doesn’t happen.”

4) Depression (Turning inward and feeling the sadness of the loss.)

5) Acceptance (Finally feeling a sense of peace about the loss. While you still feel the pain from time to time, it doesn’t stop you in your tracks and doesn’t dominate your life anymore.)

High conflict people seem stuck in the anger stage. They will fight for years to prevent the feeling of loss in a relationship. Even decades later, being reminded of a prior abandonment can trigger intense emotions almost as if it was yesterday. An HCP might engage in:

  • Stalking
  • Getting revenge on those who leave (such as destroying possessions or threatening a family pet)
  • Prolonging divorce and custody proceedings
  • Continually changing their mind about ending the relationship
  • Promising big changes at the last minute to keep the other person from leaving a relationship
  • Threatening to leave the relationship in an attempt to scare the other person into begging them to stay.

They engage in extreme behaviors

They are preoccupied with a “target of blame” and take aggressive action against their target. This may include shoving or hitting, spreading rumors or outright lies, obsessive stalking, or the silent treatment. Many of their excessive behaviors are related to losing control over their emotions. Others are related to their drive to control or dominate you. This might include hiding your personal items, keeping you from leaving a conversation, or threatening extreme action if you don’t agree with them.

Playing the blame game unconsciously helps them feel safer, stronger, and better about themselves. They’re constantly in distress and oblivious of the negative, self-defeating effects of their own behavior. In a sense they are emotionally blind. Since HCPs can’t see the connection between their actions and their consequences, their difficult behavior continues and their conflicts grow.

HCPs persuade others to be “negative advocates” against their targets

This ability to engage negative advocates enables HCPs to avoid confronting their own behavior. So nothing changes and their high-conflict situations continue.

Negative advocates are usually family, friends, or professionals who help in blaming the target and escalating the conflict. If the HCP is your partner, typical negative advocates usually include your partner’s immediate (and usually dysfunctional) family, who are convinced you’re an abusive person to their innocent child, sister, or other family member.

Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell

We recommend having a private working theory that someone may be an HCP. But be careful! Don’t tell the person and you don’t assume you must be right. Don’t ask them to look at the criteria to see if they spot themselves. We can guarantee this will make you an enemy. Instead, focus on strategies to help you be more effective in managing your relationship.

Randi Kreger is the co-author of Stop Walking on Eggshells.

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