Most of us have had someone in our lives who stirs up trouble. Think of the co-worker who undermines colleagues. Or the parent who’s the master of emotional blackmail, alternately giving, then taking away love and approval. Or the perpetually hostile ex-wife who keeps dragging her former husband back into court.
Mood disorders and other psychiatric conditions can fuel chaotic behaviors. But if the same patterns persist in spite of medication, the underlying issue may be a personality disorder.
Individuals with personality disorders have rigid ways of interacting and no insight into their own behavior. Any difference of opinion feels like a personal affront and their response is to attack whoever is threatening their worldview. Because they cannot make space for other perspectives, they employ maladaptive strategies to maintain the illusion that other people exist to serve their needs.
Personality-disordered individuals are splitters. They believe that all the “good” is with them, and all the “bad” is with whoever has the misfortune to disagree with them. Because they see threats where there are none, they tend to create conflict and chaos.
People with personality disorders make you doubt your reality. They insist something didn’t really happen when it did. They act in ways that violate your trust, then accuse you of being paranoid when you confront them. They project their own misdeeds (stealing, lying) on you, insisting that you have done the very things that they have done. These techniques are crazy-making because you begin to question your judgment and sanity.
“It’s All Your Fault”
Because people with personality disorders believe they are all good and anyone who disagrees with them is all bad, they refuse to own their part in problems. “It’s your fault the child support check is late, because you didn’t remind me to send it.” “How did you expect me not to cheat when our sex life is so vanilla?” “If my parents hadn’t gotten divorced, I’d have my life together.” Blamers use these tactics to gain sympathy, money, sex, and power — and avoid ever having to be accountable for their poor choices.
People with personality disorders wrest control by boxing other people in and limiting their choices. Think of the entitled child who pits two parents against each other. Or the ex-wife who threatens to kill herself if Dad takes the kids for his regular weekend visit. Or the father who threatens to leave an adult daughter out of his will if she marries the man he doesn’t approve of. No matter what you do in these situations, the personality-disordered individual creates chaos in order to run the show.
Strategies for Managing the Crazy-Maker
Because personality-disordered individuals cause so much damage, the ideal solution is to sever all contact. However, this may not be possible or advisable if you share custody, are legally responsible for an out-of-control child, or are part of a family business, among other situations.
In these cases, the only way to survive with your sanity in tact is to come up with strategies to manage your interactions with difficult people. Here are some ways to help you manage the crazy:
- Don’t engage. People with personality disorders are like bullies. They want to upset you. If you cry, yell, or otherwise show you’re distressed, they’ll know they’ve won and continue their tactics.
- Keep communication simple. Do not apologize, defend yourself, or spend time explaining why something should be a certain way. You cannot reason with unreasonable people. Just stick to the facts and avoid bringing your emotions into the conversation.
- Don’t take it personally. Being on the receiving end of hostility and false accusations is traumatizing. Think of a tantrumming child: what you hear is not reality; it’s the noise of an entitled individual trying to get her way.
- It’s not your job to make them happy. They are responsible for their own bad choices. It is not your job to fix them, rescue them, appease them, or gain their approval (which you will never gain anyway).
- Get support. People with personality disorders suck all the air out of the room — and, if you’re not careful, out of your life. If you find yourself chronically drained and resentful, seek help through therapy, 12-step programs, or online support groups.
- Nurture yourself. Do not let your crazy-maker keep you from living your life. Make sure you eat right and get enough sleep. Pursue hobbies and creative endeavors. Maintain relationships with people who build you up, not tear you down.
You may not be able to divest yourself of people who want to make you crazy, but you can learn to manage your own actions and emotions so you regain control of your life.
By Virginia Gilbert, MFT
Follow Virginia on Twitter at @VGilbertMFT