In my recent blogs, I have described how high-conflict people (HCPs) avoid responsibility and blame others ("Are You a Target of Blame for a Narcissist," "...Sociopath," "…Borderline Personality"). While people with these personality disorders tend to stay stuck in life because of their lack of self-reflection and lack of change, only those who also have high-conflict personalities become preoccupied with a specific Target of Blame. High-conflict personalities tend to have four characteristics: A Target of Blame, all-or-nothing thinking, unmanaged emotions, and extreme behavior which 90 percent of people would never do. (For a list of 40 predictable behaviors of HCPs, see my book 5 Types of People Who Can Ruin Your Life.)
Their Targets of Blame are most often someone close to them, such as a spouse, girlfriend, boyfriend, parent, child, close friend, close co-worker, close neighbor, or helping professional; or someone in a position of authority, such as a supervisor, head of an organization, police, government official, school official, or hospital administrator. This appears to be an unconscious fixation and they may lash out at anyone.
However, the way you respond may make the difference between whether you become their next Target of Blame or someone they simply ignore.
1. Don’t get too close too soon.
HCPs are not obvious at first in most cases. Therefore, it’s wise to take your time getting to know anyone new at work, in dating, or elsewhere in your life. HCPs often seek fast friendships and an intense level of commitment from people to help them feel secure in the world. Alternatively, you may feel like swooping in to rescue them from their obvious self-defeating behavior.
But you may have a gut feeling that things are moving too quickly or deeply. It’s much easier to go slowly—and then stop getting any closer, if necessary—than it is to get super-close and then try to back off from a possible HCP. Sometimes they can seem very friendly and warm, but when you attempt to back off is when you are more likely to become their Target of Blame.
2. Don’t argue with their distorted thinking.
HCPs often have cognitive distortions, such as all-or-nothing thinking, jumping to conclusions, emotional reasoning, and exaggerations. They may accuse you of doing something terrible when it was really very minor or even a non-existent behavior. They may also criticize your thinking on a subject, such as in an email conversation, on social media, or another type of comment.
While it’s easy to want to argue back, it’s pretty pointless with HCPs. You are essentially inviting them to attack you more and more, based on their belief that it truly is “all your fault.” Instead, you can just say: “I don’t agree with you on this.” Or: “I see it differently.” Or: “We’ll just have to agree to disagree.”
3. Don’t blame them back.
It’s natural to want to defend yourself against unwarranted criticisms or verbal attacks. You might feel like saying: “No, you’re the *&%#$@!”
However, with HCPs, it’s not really about you. It’s about the thoughts that are in their own minds. You don’t need to defend yourself against their own distorted thinking. If you do blame them back, and especially if it’s in public, then others may think that you are a high-conflict person, too. Then, you may become the Target of Blame for the HCP’s advocates as well. It’s better to simply say: “I disagree” or just walk away from the conversation. “I need to go now.”
4. Don’t join in their schemes, or help them in blaming others.
HCPs are often at war with the world around them, and always seeking advocates to join them. You may initially get to know them in a friendly way—then, they may ask you to help defend them against another person who has treated them “terribly.” Watch out! You may become a “negative advocate,” which is someone who helps an HCP in blaming and attacking others. You may be emotionally hooked (“That’s terrible what that person did to you!”) but uninformed. (In many cases, it is the exact opposite situation, with the HCP being the one who is acting badly).
Then, it is inevitable that at some point, you will not be considered a strong enough advocate by the HCP, and he or she will then turn on you, as their new Target of Blame. You can often see this dynamic with HCPs in families, at work, in business, and in politics.
5. Be assertive about setting limits.
HCPs will often do what they can get away with. They may push you to do something for them or try to stop you from doing something for yourself. They may interrupt you, make demands on you, or ignore you when you need a response. It’s tempting to become aggressive with them (to “fight back”), or to become passive with them (“oh well, whatever”). Neither of these works well because they both reinforce the HCP’s aggressive behavior.
Instead, it’s better to try an assertive approach, which means that you stick up for yourself without trying to dominate or defer to the HCP. Using a matter-of-fact tone, you can just say: “I can’t do that for you.” Or: “I’m busy.” Or: “The rules say we can’t do that.” Be informative, rather than defensive. But also don’t just accept rude or bad behavior, because it usually will grow.
6. Disengage carefully.
If necessary, you may decide that you need to back off significantly or completely from a possible HCP. Just do it carefully. This may mean disengaging from the relationship, typically in small steps so that it isn’t a sudden shock to the person. This also means don’t make a big, dramatic announcement that will get a strong pushback. "Easy does it" is generally the best approach.
On the other hand, if you need to strongly set limits and cut ties, you should consider having some assistance—for example, if the possible HCP is a friend or family member, meeting in a therapist’s office so that the therapist can help explain and support your efforts.
In the workplace, it may mean terminating an HCP employee, who is escorted out of the office with the assistance of security. But even in that situation, it often helps to have some follow-up connection with someone, such as a Human Resources staff person, to give them information for gaining future employment somewhere else and offer some kind words to help them cope.
And if you decide to get a separation or divorce, consult with a lawyer or therapist who can help you take careful steps to not become a Target of Blame in the eyes of legal professionals or family court. HCPs are good at persuading others that it's all your fault. Yet an assertive approach (not too aggressive and not too passive) can really help.
No one chooses to have a high-conflict personality. But to some extent, you can choose to avoid becoming a Target of Blame for a high-conflict person. HCPs usually blame someone else when problems happen in their lives. They focus on specific Targets of Blame who will engage with them on an emotional and intimate level, like family members, close friends, and close professionals (like therapists, lawyers, doctors, and clergy). By following these tips, you are less likely to become someone’s Target of Blame, or you can reduce or ease out of that role as soon as possible.