A Short Course for Overcoming Narcissism and BPD
People with so-called personality disorders can learn and grow.
Posted April 30, 2012 | Reviewed by Matt Huston
Narcissistic and borderline personality patterns can make married life tortuous. They typically manifest in partnership skill deficits that breed fighting instead of talking, creating high levels of depression and anxiety in both partners.
A potential partner with a borderline personality disorder, which in some people may appear as an abusive personality, is likely to be quick to anger.
Even people without borderline personality disorder can manifest some of its tendencies. Do people say they find you difficult to interact with because of your hyper-emotional reactivity, particularly when you are at home? Or do people in your inner circle note that you have excessive emotional outbursts?
If you or your partner have these tendencies, habits, or stances, here are some suggestions for launching a growth spurt that can increase the sunshine, decrease the storms, sustain longer connections in your relationships at home and at work, and make you more likely to succeed as a marriage partner.
Overcoming Borderline Personality Patterns
For folks who show borderline personality styles of interacting, the first arena for growth is to develop new attitudes toward anger. If you don't want to fall into the borderline diagnostic basket, learn to step out and calm down instead of blowing up. Beware, too, of getting too mad at yourself, which may produce depression.
Anger is a hallmark of BPD. It's what drives the continual chaos and drama that earns many BPD folks the titles of Drama Queen or King and High Maintenance partner.
The Fast BPD Upgrade
Learn to stay in the calm zone. If you are the partner, interact only when both of you are cool.
A first step in the direction of staying in the calm zone is to learn about the nature of anger and the damage it does. BPD anger outbursts can often become bullying. "If you don't do what I want, you are hurting my feelings—so I'm going to get back at you!" Anger creates relationships based on coercion, not love or cooperation.
If you erupt often into anger, you may believe that it's because you are the victim. "I've been hurt, so I have a right to hurt you back" is a typical BPD belief. Alas, it's a belief that can contribute to an inability to sustain positive, gratifying relationships.
Replace anger interactions with the development of exit and self-soothing routines. Learn to recognize early cues that indicate it's time to remove yourself from a situation you can't handle. Remove yourself like a pot from a stove. Calm down. Return to the dialogue when you feel calm enough to stay calm and collaborative.
Narcissists focus on themselves primarily, set themselves above their partner, listen poorly, insist they are always right, and typically have poor skills for living as a life partner.
Narcissists, by definition, are folks who succumb to an "it's all about me" orientation to life. This orientation blocks their ability to hear others. Somewhere along the line, narcissists failed to grow out of the toddler's ego-centric assumption that what they want is all that matters.
Narcissists can be very generous. When it comes to disagreements, however, their opinion or what they want blocks absorption of information from others about their opinions and preferences. Thinking in either-or, winner-loser patterns worsens this problem. "I don't want to hear what you want or think because then I may not get my way or win the discussion."
Because narcissistic people listen poorly to others, they may be difficult to live with no matter how handsome, beautiful, and financially successful they may appear to be.
(To rate yourself and others on narcissism, you might want to check out my blog post on 6 Sure Signs of Narcissism.)
The Fast Narcissism Upgrade
A key approach to narcissism is to train yourself to take others' perspectives seriously. Learn the art and skills of listening, a topic I write about in an earlier PT posting. Retrain yourself to ask others what they think and feel. Seek to understand and become responsive to others' concerns when they differ from your own.
As others answer your questions, focus on what makes sense about their perspective. Listen for what you can agree with. Comment favorably on what you can agree with before moving forward to add your own perspective.
To accomplish true listening, you'll need to dump but from your vocabulary. But negates your prior agreement. It subtracts, dismisses, and eliminates whatever came before, undoing your initial good efforts to understand others' points. Instead of using but, link others' thoughts and yours with either and or and at the same time. That way, instead of indulging in the narcissistic patterns of ignoring and disputing others' viewpoints, you will begin to be able to add others' viewpoints to your own. Thus, you will begin to shift from narcissistic "My viewpoints are the only ones that count" to "There's two of us here and both of our perspectives matter."
Narcissism tends especially to block information about others' feelings. When a partner feels sad, anxious, or upset, the narcissistic response is to personalize—that is, to take the others' feelings as critical statements about themselves. If "it's all about me," what you feel must be about me as well. Narcissists, therefore, get mad instead of supportive when their partner expresses negative emotions like pain or sadness.
It may be that narcissists feel helpless when their partner feels upset, in part because soothing responsiveness may not be in their repertoire. Fortunately, positive responses for helping distressed others can be learned.
The Partner's Role
If you are going to try to build a satisfying relationship with a husband, wife, partner, or work colleague who has narcissistic or BPD tendencies, these skills can help.
1. Implement early exits from conversations at the first signs of emerging anger.
If you cease to engage in arguments, there will no longer be arguments. By contrast, if you stay and keep talking with someone who shows signs of anger, you are taking an enabling role toward their anger.
To exit, stand, start walking, pleasantly excuse yourself to go get a drink of water, and exit the room. Return as soon as you feel calmed. Initiate positive conversation on a safe topic before returning eventually to the difficult issue.
2. When your partner does not listen to what you said, first digest aloud and validate his or her alternative perspective.
Then, put yours back on the table. Become an expert in "Yes, and at the same time..."
A: "I'd love to go out to see a funny movie tonight."
B: "There's no way I want to go out. I'm too tired."
A: "Yes, I can see you're tired. And at the same time, I'm up for enjoying something funny. I'd be glad to pick a movie we could watch together at home. Then, if you're too tired, you could just go to sleep. How would you feel about watching an old Charlie Chaplin flick with me?"
This agree and add strategy enables you to give your partner a second and even third opportunity to hear you. Most folks do better on their later drafts of writing; the same is true of listening.
In addition, after your not-so-good-at-listening partner feels heard, she is more likely to be able to relax enough to be able to hear your perspective as well.
3. Radiate sunshine.
Narcissists and individuals with BPD—and all of us, for that matter—relax when we feel loved and valued. The more agreement, appreciation, smiles, sexual affection, hugs, and other positives you shower on each other, the happier you both will be.
Check out Dr. Heitler's book, Prescriptions Without Pills.