Inflexible Behavior in Personality Disorders

People hide parts of themselves through extremely rigid behavior.

Posted Feb 01, 2016

Flickr, "Straight Jacket" by PhotoAteller, CC by 2.0
Source: Flickr, "Straight Jacket" by PhotoAteller, CC by 2.0

In my post Public Faces Vs. Private Thoughts: the Actor's Paradox, I wrote that patients with personality disorders are very adept at acting in certain ways that may be a mask or cover-up of what they are really thinking, feeling or trying to accomplish. They have a false self.

I also mentioned that they often give themselves away to knowing therapists, however, precisely because their behavior is so polarized  — characterized by a combination of extremeness and inflexibility. They act as if they absolutely must act a certain way all the time even when external circumstances would seem to require something entirely different.

In this post, I will elaborate on that idea. Looking for polarized behavior is one among several of the ways that therapists can uncover a patient's true self when the patient is strongly inclined to hide it. Like the Germans say in World War II movies, "Ve haff vays of making zem talk!" 

That sounds ominous, of course, but the process is really quite benign. Good therapists are quite empathic with patients' need to hide parts of themselves. 

So what are some other examples of polarized behavior? The types of behaviors that are most frequently affected can be thought of and listed as pairs of extreme opposites. When people always behave at either one or the other of the extremes, or if they behave at one extreme for a while and then suddenly switch to the opposite extreme, the therapist suspects that a false self is being covered up through rigid adherence to the opposite of the underlying impulse.

Psychoanalysts called this process a reaction formation. It was thought to be a manifestation of an internal conflict within the mind of persons over wanting to express certain aspects of themselves or indulge desires that were prohibited by the person's conscience, the superego. This conflict was thought of as being indicative of a conflict between individuals' internal desires and their internalized value system — a value system that was derived from the values of their parents and culture.

The idea that the parents may themselves also be conflicted over these very same desires did not enter into the psychoanalyst's thinking, but I have found that in most cases of patients with significant personality disorder, this is indeed the case. The conflict is one shared by the entire family.

In the minds of the analysts, most of the forbidden impulses involved sex and aggression. I think that is a far too narrow view of which impulses or self-aspects may become subject to internal and family conflicts.

The following is a list of some of the more commonly seen polarizations in patients with personality disorders. Many of them overlap or are subcategories of one another. I make no pretense that the list is anywhere near complete.

  1. Spontaneous versus planned activity. 
  2. Giving versus taking. 
  3. Career versus family life. 
  4. Work versus play. 
  5. Emotionality versus stoicism. 
  6. Activity versus passivity. 
  7. Dependence versus independence. 
  8. Dominance versus submission. 
  9. Sexual expression versus sexual inhibition. 
  10. Caretaking versus caregiving. 
  11. Saving for the future versus spending for the moment. 
  12. Attention seeking versus remaining inconspicuous. 
  13. Taking all the blame versus blaming others. 
  14. Responsibility versus irresponsibility. 
  15. Competence versus incompetence. 
  16. Geographical and social mobility versus staying put. 
  17. Changing unhappy circumstances versus learning to accept them. 
  18. Change for the sake of change versus constancy and continuity. 
  19. Togetherness versus allowing "space" in relationships. 
  20. Ambition versus lack of ambition. 
  21. Loyalty versus disloyalty. 
  22. Respect for authority versus freethinking or rebelliousness. 
  23. Curiosity versus lack of curiosity. 
  24. Sociability versus preferring one's own company. 
  25. Priority for children versus priority for parents’ needs.