I was brought up in what may be aptly termed as reigned chaos. I have a borderline mother, narcissistic father, schizophrenic middle brother and narcissistic elder brother. Don’t laugh.
Thanking my lucky somethings, I have managed to muddle through life sans personality disorder; but not without a few healthy scoops of complex PTSD, depression and anxiety to boot along the road. To add a cherry atop my scoops, I married my university sweetheart, who 2.5 years ago, was diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder.
You might be noticing a recurrent theme here — yes, I am like a magnet for the personality disordered. Bear with me.
My husband and I severed ties not long after his diagnosis. The loss of our marriage sent me spiraling head-first into the dark abyss where finally I needed to confront the many recurrent themes in my life: why I kept making the same mistakes with friends and family, again and again, and again. Flatly, I was caught up in the crazy dance of repetition-compulsion — or in simple terms, repeating the relationships of my childhood in my adult life in order to finally achieve some mastery over what is rooted in a time many moons ago.
There are common themes among the Cluster B Personality Disorders. They are emotionally manipulative, cunningly stealthy and motivated by their own gains and agenda. They gaslight, bulldoze, exploit, groom, demean, begrudge, triangulate; and so very much more. Growing up under the authority of parents who embody these characteristics leaves you either cultivating a similar personality type — or going the other way, becoming highly attuned and sensitised to the abuse from these disordered caregivers — adapting and re-shaping one’s self in order to please and/or avoid further abuse. People Pleasing Extraordinaire if you will.
The Damage Inflicted By Cluster B Personality Disorders
There are two sets of victims impacted by the damage — those on the receiving end of abuse, and the individual with the disorder them-self.
On the receiving end, if you are unaware that the person has a disorder, you will likely believe that you are to blame. Impulsive, out-of-the-blue verbal tirades, outbursts and gaslighting leave you defenseless and confused as to who really is at fault. The chopping-and-changing between nice behaviour and abuse magnifies the damage and confusion; the occasional morsels of love from these people make us hungry for more — we scramble like headless chickens, trying to crack the code — how to keep them happy; how to keep their anger at bay.
We become slaves to the art of people pleasing — hard-wired and highly attuned to even the smallest shifts in mood. And so we shape-shift, adapt, to fit the mould, to prevent an outburst, to avoid the inevitable meltdown that we know subliminally, is just around the corner. We invariably end up hyper-vigilant and fearful of further onslaught.
The upshot of all this? We lose ourselves in the name of damage-control-and-prevention. Mostly in the name of fear. Slowly over time, the insidious and treacherous micro-climate that occupies the space of the personality-disordered, starts to break down our psyche and the defining features of our once robust character. We end up a shell of our former selves if we are not careful (I’ll come back to what careful means in a minute).
When the Personality Disordered is Your Parent
When the personality disordered person is a caregiver the damage can be catastrophic. As the child, you experience severe betrayal bonds.
It is the consistency with which our parents mirror our internal emotions and feelings, responsiveness to our pleas for help and warmth, and their permission of the natural development of our blossoming selves to evolve with the natural course of time, that promotes a sense of safety within. It is the sum of all this that ultimately what gives us the springboard to leap into the world with independence, individuality and vitality. Impermeable, attuned love gives us space to flourish, take risks, safe in the knowledge that if we trip up, our parent will be there with arms open to cocoon us in their love and all its restorative qualities.
When this is absent, or abuse exists as the ambient temperature of the family home, the child, teenager or adolescent becomes completely enmeshed (and unwittingly complicit) in the cyclical nature of the PD’s behaviour patterns.
When our parents’ emotional needs or demands rail-road our own, we develop a mask that is intuitively designed to meet the needs of our parent. This mask is devised to ensure we still receive some modicum of love or attention but sadly results in the inevitable blurring of boundaries — a petri dish for enmeshment to unfold itself.
For children that grow with the backdrop of neglect or abuse, they sadly grow up too fast, change their true self, shape-shift in order to be deserving of love and praise. The effects on self-worth are far-reaching, not least because the child unconsciously comes to discover that their natural way of being does not rouse the safety, validation and love that they so need.
Insane, familial loyalty bonds us to our parents. The trauma of these betrayals lead inevitably to a sense of risk, hyperarousal, fear and chronic anxiety. Consistent patterns of betrayal and abuse leave victims with severe lifelong wounds. In my case the wounds were ultimately responsible for the repetition-compulsion of choosing my ex-husband.
They Suffer Too
For those with the disorder, they too suffer, believe it or not. Take my Mother — she is an artful manipulator who disguises herself as a heroine and martyr. But here is the truth: 50% of the time (loosely), she does not realise what she is doing. She is functioning the only way that she knows how and a lot of her defective behaviours are entirely unconscious.
She lacks a strong core, or essence, so she has to beg borrow and steal her personality from others. In this sense, she is what I can only call a fraud a lot of the time. Her sense of self is terribly fragile and brittle, because it is entirely contingent on how she perceives the state of her relationships. The minute she gets a whiff of perceived abandonment, she turns into Cruella De Vil. And when this transformation occurs she is brutal — savagely unkind, mastermindingly manipulative, and totally and utterly self-obsessed.
When I was a child, teenager and adolescent she used to win in this game of push-pull. In my child’s mind, I thought she was beautiful, she was my mother after all. So I blamed myself, it must be my fault that she rejects me, that she does not love me.
These days I know better, and as sad as it is, have decided to take a undetermined hiatus from our relationship. Now it is me that is winning, as my life is without toxicity, manipulation and sadness — albeit I am bereft of a mother which of course I yearn for but this is my choice. Now it is she that is suffering; I have a beautiful four year old girl which she barely knows save through my ex husband (although we are constrained by our geographical distance, my mother lives in Europe, I live in Asia).
I know that she is also saddened by the state of our relationship — evidenced by the occasional abusive email that comes through threatening once more to ‘never forgive’ me for ostracizing her from my life. My fault of course! She truly, honestly, does not know what she has done wrong. And I find this deeply sad, for her most of all. It has taken me eighteen years (from the point when I first started to suspect all was not right), to finally let go — release myself from the clutches of cognitive dissonance and insane bonding.
My ex husband also suffers. On a few occasions during our marriage, he confided in me that he felt like he was a fraud; that people didn’t like him. He knew that the empathetic, sensitive and loving core in me would protect and allay these fears ad nauseum — I did. I look back now and of course I see why he harboured these fears. Because he knew that he was, and is indeed — as all narcissists are — a wolf in sheep’s clothing. And so he suffers — he does not experience the depth of love, joy, connection that the beautiful fruits of companionship bear — because he doesn’t love in quite the same way you or I do.
Honoring Yourself When Dealing with a Personality Disorder — Tread Carefully.
If I could re-write my past, and equip myself with what I know now, here are the tools I would furnish my emotional and psychological toolbox with, I hope you can pack a few into yours:
- Listen to your intuition. If like me, you have the tendency to only see the beauty in people then watch your step. Listen to your intuition, if you feel exploited, confused, or exhausted every time you deal or speak with a specific someone, then take a step back to observe them with others. Analyse how they make you feel.
- Keep your distance. The penny has dropped — you realise the wolf is in sheep’s clothing. Now what? Arms length my friend. Or you will get swept up in the tornado of confusion and then be spat out as merely a fragment of who you once were.
- Say No. No is a complete sentence, trust me. Cluster B personalities will schmooze, charm and emotionally-manipulate you in order to get what they want. Set your boundary, say no, and keep raising that boundary until the message is clear.
- Be mindful of your own personality traits and behaviours getting in the way of objectivity and self-protection. One of my greatest epiphanies was realising that I derive great pleasure (and sense of self) from giving to others, not just because I was conditioned to do so in childhood. But because this psychological trait was so embedded in my psyche, it eclipsed my ability to be objective when it came to protecting myself from toxic behaviour and people.
- DO NOT believe for one second that you can change them. It took me months to disentangle myself from my ex-husband, to accept that we were no more. I loved him deeply but I had to accept that he will never change. Personality disorders are complex structures of deeply embedded behaviours and traits formed in very early childhood — the structures are fortified with steel — you cannot and will not break them down.
- Know that people with personality disorders have good qualities too. As with all disorders, irrespective of Cluster, individuals will sit on a spectrum of severity. Those who have disorder traits as opposed to the full-blown personality disorder will be far less damaging and toxic than those who have a cast iron throne on the spec. My ex-husband, my family members, all have qualities that are likable, but sadly the bad outweighed the good significantly and as a consequence in placing priority on my sanity and happiness, I am no longer in contact with them.
The trick is to decide which of these qualities, if any, that you want in your life — and what role they play, or purpose they serve. If in weighing up the good and the bad that the bad feels to be untenable then quite simply, remove them from your life and witness the weight and oppression of their former presence simply fall away into the ether. In doing this, show yourself compassion for the strength and bravery you take in prioritizing your own well-being before that of anybody else.
This is our birth-right and anybody that wishes to take it from you does not deserve a place in your life.