This guest blog is by Mark Sichel, a psychotherapist, writer, and speaker based in New York City. He is also the author of the popular self-help book, Healing from Family Rifts. (McGraw-Hill, 2004). He has dealt with BPD and NPD on both a personal and professional basis.
When we live with someone who has the outward-acting type of borderline or narcissistic personality disorder, we learn to tolerate ongoing oppression by an abusive bully. I felt this way growing up with a borderline father who used me (figuratively) as his punching bag. I experienced him as powerful and frightening and went to great lengths to dodge his bullets. I also put great effort into pleasing him, a futile tactic family members use (especially the people pleasers) to contain conflict. In this blog post, we'll talk about why this doesn't work and go over some alternatives.
The Fragility of the BPD/NPD Person
As I’ve grown as a person and a therapist, I've realized that underneath the perceived authoritative monster my father had a profound fear of abandonment and feelings of fragility and anxiety. He always thought he was being treated unjustly. His self-esteem was shattered, so he projected his own feelings of worthlessness onto me, accusing me of treating him disrespectfully.
When we interacted, as far as he was concerned he was always right. Why? Because he truly believed he couldn't be wrong. That was his only way to cope with self-doubt and shame.
I was not the only recipient of his accusations of unjust behavior. My father had a list of "bad" people who had insulted, injured, or treated him unfairly.
The Small Child Inside the BPD/NPD Person
In my therapy practice, I hear similar stories from patients living with the challenges and struggles of having an outward-attacking borderline or narcissistic personality in their life (as opposed to those of the conventional type who are more inwardly focused, needy, and self-hating).
The aggressive behavior of some people diagnosed with these disorders makes it difficult for us to understand that usually this person is profoundly needy, anxious, easily wounded, and chronically fearful of acknowledging weakness. While they masquerade as a giant, they feel like a kid living in a world of Goliaths.
Our experience of “walking on eggshells” around some BPs/NPs is quite accurate. What is more difficult to understand is that the eggshells we walk upon are also descriptive of the tormented inner world of our family member: someone who may be, in fact, as brittle and easily breakable as an eggshell.
Because this feeling of fragility is too threatening to be acknowledged, the rage that ensues is akin to the cries and tantrums of a small child. In fact, developmentally they may have the defenses (such as splitting) of a toddler.
This does not mean, of course, that our strategies of living with this person should be to try to meet their needs. That's because their needs are endless and internally generated, making it impossible for us (or any other individual) to "cure" them with love and attention, no matter how well intentioned.
No matter what your actions, your borderline or narcissistic family member remains fixated on real or imagined unforgiveable insults and slights.
Central Concerns of the Borderline/Narcissist Person
It’s helpful to remember that people with BPD/NPD, be they a spouse, parent, sibling, boss, or friend, contend with three central concerns:
1. What they feel people did to them that was unnecessarily mean, hurtful, and thoughtless.
2. What they believe other people did not do for them that they feel they should have done.
3. Times when they feel that someone in their life hasn't done enough for them.
There is no way to anyone else to satisfy them because their discomfort comes from inside them. No matter what you do, it will never be enough.
Ten Alternatives to People Pleasing
We’ve all tried to please the borderline or narcissist in our lives, and we know this isn't helpful in managing the relationship. It’s not good for us psychologically: it diminishes our self-esteem, is self-denigrating, and only invites further abuse.
There are, however, other methods that aren't instinctual to people pleasers that you can use to help make life more manageable, and even, at times, satisfying, with the difficult and explosive person in our life. Try replacing your people-pleasing behaviors with these tips:
- Look closely at yourself and your behavior. Make a fearless inventory of your dysfunctional traits and learn to temper and control these behaviors to improve your relationship with the difficult person or people in your life.
- Say genuine positive, loving and reassuring things when there’s calm and peace in the relationship. This will build an alliance that is not so easily shattered. Try to make this a habit, because spontaneous and loving words promote the same actions.
- Let your family member know that you and she are on the same team, working for the greater good of your relationship with each other. WE statements (like, “I know we’re both upset right now, but our relationship is important to both of us, and WE will get through this together”) are reassuring.
- Build strength in the relationship by planning shared activities in which conflict can be avoided and feelings become secondary to the joint enjoyment of the activity.
- Negotiate boundaries so that they’re not experienced as barriers. Emphasize how your role in creating the boundary is for the preservation of the relationship rather than creating walls between the two of you. “I appreciate your offer of letting me stay in your home when I come to visit from out of town, but I’m much more comfortable staying in a hotel. You’re very hospitable and generous to want to share your beautiful home, but you know me, I’m peculiar about being in my own space, not disturbing anyone with my habits like staying up late, watching TV and snacking in the middle of the night. I’m just much more comfortable not imposing this on you and feel it’s better for US."
- Be careful with jokes. Borderlines and narcissists may not have the ability to laugh at themselves. My sons joke with me that their sister is my favorite child, but I can joke back because I’m confident they know that I love them all equally. If I had joked to my borderline father that my sister was his favorite child, he would have perceived it as a savage assault on him and flown into a rage.
- Zip it: It’s often counter-productive to share your feelings, opinions, and advice with a borderline or narcissist. When you give them advice, they take it as a narcissistic assault, and your advice will most likely be met with a barrage of rage and contempt.
- Use creative postponing: When your family member makes provocative or critical statements on the phone, withdraw from the conversation by saying that there’s someone at the door. Don’t respond to a provocative email or text immediately. Wait and write: “I think you emailed me but now I can’t find it. Anyway, wanted to say hi and tell you I love you and hope you’re well. Speak to you soon.” These delaying techniques also the person more time to get control of their emotions.
- Remember that what you see is what you get: Cease making any efforts to change your family member. We all need to remember that the only person we can change is ourselves. Trying to change another person only makes our self-esteem plummet because it always fails.
- Empathy is a most important tool for managing the anxiety and fragility of our family member. Our normal reaction to their behavior is, “He is a miserable, mean human being. I can’t take it anymore.” Remind yourself that their behavior is miserable and mean, but it’s due to their overwhelming anxiety and fragility. That way you can manage the wild mood swings and attacks as you’d manage a small child, not a frightening powerful bully.
Psychotherapist Mark Sichel is a graduate of the Hunter College School of Social Work, Mark has been admitted to the Academy of Certified Social Workers, and is also a Board Certified Diplomate of the American Board of Examiners in Clinical Social Work. He taught psychopathology and treatment of the borderline and narcissistic patient at the Postgraduate Center for Mental Health for many years. Mark is also the founder and editor of the award winning online self-help site www.psybersquare.com.
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