The following article is written by Alex Z. Cameron, whom regular readers of Shrink4Men may recognize from his participation in the comments of past articles.
In his first piece, Alex connects the dots from his undiagnosed personality disordered parents to his attraction for toxic, abusive personality-disordered women and the impact relationships with personality-disordered individuals has had on his life to an examination of personality disorders and the concepts of order vs. disorder and good and evil.
My sincere thanks to Alex for allowing me to publish his work. – Dr. T
When I look back now after thirty years of wandering, distressed wondering, and decades of self-diagnosis, the answer only ever gets clearer. Of course the partners I ended up with had personality disorders or serious problems, because both my parents have personality disorders.
That revelation was less of the grand enlightenment that others seem to experience, and more of an increasing acuity to the eventual fact that nothing would help, and nothing will change.
I’d spent thirty years wondering what was wrong with me, when in fact, the heartbreak of relationship failure after relationship failure forced me to understand in detail what personality disorders are and how to spot them – in short, what was wrong with them, and what it did to me.
The sharper edge of the sword in my case was the horror when I realised both my mother and father had undiagnosed personality disorders (PDs), and the implications for my identity, emotional life, and future. Liberation comes at a price.
Learning to recognise the telltale signs of these stigmatised mental health issues, like Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) and the recently-declassified Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD), in my experience, is closer to an art than a science. Nobody teaches it in school, the behavioural symptoms are often cultural norms, and then of course, there is the incredible strength of denial.
Whether you believe their behaviour to be malicious, or just plain absurd, there is no doubting that forewarned is forearmed. I wasn’t. And you need emotional acumen to detect emotional predators, just like animals need it to escape from real ones in the wild.
Possibly the strangest phenomenon about abusive individuals from whatever cloth they are cut, is that they literally use the same words, phrases, and justifications, like they are reading from the same textbook. They don’t have any new ideas. It’s old news happening to new people.
The first thing to understand is that both parties (i.e., you, the “victim,” and the predator) are equally looking to play out a childhood role, or a partner in a twisted dance. They’re looking for you, and you’re looking for them.
Not consciously, but you’re looking for what feels like love – the example of “love” that was modelled for you when you were small. You may just be “wanting” to be abused and/or encouraging your own victimisation because it’s what you remember “love” feeling like.
I’ve always felt that the best way to understand personality-disordered people is as a sprawling mess of chaotic coping mechanisms that have turned malignantly pathological. The inert blandness of denial becomes a delusional prerequisite to gaslighting. Criticising others is only a step away from outright projection.
The other crucial principle to establish in your soul, heart, and mind is that almost all personality-disordered people look entirely normal to the outside world, as their illness is relational and only appears in private. They have spent a lifetime hiding their disability from the other human beings around them, disguising and camouflaging themselves so they fit in with their surroundings. The “self” they project to the outside world is absolutely false, but expertly acted to the untrained eye.
They rightly know that being exposed for what they are means almost certain rejection, humiliation, shame, stigma, and pariah status. They operate on the basis that ultimately, at some point, they will be rejected – somewhere deep in the silent abyss of their heart, they believe they can only get what they need by getting around the defences of others.
The ancient Greek mythology that gave us the illustration of Narcissus of Thespiae also helps us to answer the Piper’s dance invitation to self-destruction with the story of the Sirens; dangerous seductresses who lured mariners to ruin with their intoxicating music and voices. The Sirens’ call of personality-disordered, abusive, and toxic people everywhere, in every language, is the universal heartstring-puller of pity. Pity for themselves, pity for others, projected distress and pain of all the unfairness that ails and grieves them; their pathetic inability to behave like an adult, and their “victim” routine.
To put it bluntly, the toxic pheromone of disordered people, or how they attract you, is feeling sorry for them, as you would for any normal human being.
The attack posture of this kind of urban predator is the baited trap. They emit their loud Sirens’ call to attract their prey — who feel sorry for them — and then simply lure them in closer by an appearance of pathetic weakness. Once you’re within their jaws and feeling comfortable, the fangs inject into their prey so slowly it barely registers.
The classic combination of the “Damsel in Distress” and the old-fashioned “bait ‘n’ switch” is tried, tested, and field-proven.
The reason they are predators is not just because they’re “feeding;” it’s because they don’t care how their behaviour affects the other person. They hold them in contempt, because it’s the only way they can rationalise their own sick behaviour next to their Holy image of themselves inside.
As I know to my own cost, some personality-disordered people are so expert at camouflage that they successfully smother their victims with the stigma of dysfunction, whilst appearing as pillars of the local community. When you meet one, that still small voice inside, or the strange feeling you have that tells you something is wrong but you can’t put your finger on it, is your primeval animal instinct registering that you have detected a predator that is camouflaged.
At that point, those reptilian instincts are signalling something doesn’t fit; it doesn’t work. Something’s strange, incoherent. There’s something strange about the person. But like any normal person would, you simply give them the benefit of the doubt. Your brain needs coherence. Small incongruencies are fixed by denial and rationalisation.
And that is where complications arise. You want, and desperately try, to treat a personality-disordered person like a normal, ordinary person. They don’t look howling-at-the-moon insane as their illness is socially transparent.
Most maintain the appearance that they have an enormous happiness for their life, are surrounded by close friends, and are busied by a huge array of interests, hobbies and ideas. The sad truth is that is only an appearance; an important social veneer.
They have friends, but none are actually close to any degree of significant intimacy. They talk about being interested in interests, but never have any substance for them. Their hobbies almost always exist solely to glorify them somehow, or offer social cover (e.g., church).
If you’re unlucky enough to be trapped in their proximity, it’s not long before you come face-to-face with the terrifying reality that they are inevitably totally convinced that, within specific boundary lines of demarcation, they are entitled to treat you as they see fit. For example, “It’s my house!” is abuser-speak justification that because they own the roof, they are entitled fairly to abuse you, or anyone else: children, animals or adults. Because they’re in a relationship with you, they’re especially entitled to irradiate you with their toxic emissions, because that’s your role. They’ll even abuse you for leaving.
Whether they are men or women, you begin to notice that most personality-disordered people exhibit a similar suite of behaviours that are subtle clues to the mess inside that they would sacrifice their own lives (or yours) to prevent anyone seeing. Healthy people avoid them unconsciously, and once you have spent a good length of time coping with their quasi-transparent insanity, they begin to stick out as if they had a large real estate sign above their head.
Yes, their illness is genetic/hereditary and runs in families, like physical illness. There’s a very good chance one of their parents also has/had a personality disorder.
A sense of frustrating childishness.
Dealing with personality-disordered people is confusing. Despite the fact you’re looking at an adult, you can’t help but feel that the way they think, talk, and act, is incredibly childish. Adults acting like children are all too common, but the difference is that even their behaviour reaches some kind of mature resolution. It goes away. The grown-up appears eventually. The only “maturity” a personality-disordered person emits is for public show, as you’ll find out in the next argument.
The distinguishing feature between child and adult is the ability to accept responsibility for oneself. An inability to accept responsibility for your own behaviour indicates a lack of maturity and/or dysfunction. In normal, healthy people it can be deferred temporarily. In disorder, it never appears and you will be waiting forever.
Pushy, pushy and more yet more pushiness.
Personality-disordered people are relentlessly pushy in every area of their lives and the lives of those around them. They push you away. They push their way into your life. They push to get what they want. Boundaries have no meaning to them other than being their victim’s selfish device to “hurt” them.
They operate on the basis that they will 100% be rejected at some point in the future, and so must find their way around their target’s defences, and control or contain anything they think, feel, believe or experience.
Natural drive respects boundaries; abuse doesn’t. Relationships have a natural “flow” about them, starting with a natural, healthy cautiousness – a luxury you are only afforded in a PD relationship if it’s providing additional social “camouflage.” Disordered peoples’ “relationships” are jerky, violent, pushy and chaotic combinations of demands, defences, and incoherence that are just below the threshold that triggers the “flight” response.
An endless influx needing immediate disarmament.
To a personality-disordered person, the world is a terrifying abyss of danger; threats around every corner, overwhelming feelings, the unpredictability of other people. Over a lifetime of never-ending “trauma” they’ve exhausted themselves trying to cope with, they all develop exactly the same system of defence: the desperate need to “disarm” anything that looks like it may induce bad, uncomfortable, or distressing feelings in them.
Their knee-jerk response is to devalue, demean, denigrate and/or just plain ignore the “thing” or “person.” The theory is sound. By devaluing the person, or what they think/say, they remove its “power” over them. Remove the value or meaning, and you disarm what it is. Discredit the source, and the threat loses all meaning.
Turning your escape into a prison.
Perhaps one of the most disturbing moments you will have in dealing with a personality-disordered person is their near-telepathic ability to sense the exact basis of your aversion to them. For example, if you consider them “toxic,” somehow you’ll soon find yourself being called “toxic” — by them.
And God forbid they discover any self-help books or personal development materials (e.g., websites), because it’s a 100% certainty they will be used against you. Your notes on boundaries will be transformed into you not respecting their boundaries, or your motivations for reading self-help material will be to “manipulate” them with “mind tricks.”
In disarming the “threat” of your means of escape, they create enough self-doubt through guilt to dig their fangs in deeper.
Perpetual misery that only a toxic waste dump could transmit.
Fundamentally, despite all their pretentions and protestations to the contrary, personality-disordered people are incredibly negative and depressive people who drain the life from you when you try to relate to them normally. They live in a state of continual fear of the world that’s entrenched and pathological. The “happiness” they project to the world is merely “contentment” of not being in pain.
The simple fact is they are profoundly unhappy and character-weak people who are endlessly distressed. But perhaps the most telling sign of their inner darkness is their absolute contempt for others, and the viciousness in how they talk about the feelings, thoughts, or cares or those they supposedly care about. When they’re pressured, their true nature appears, so clear particularly in their tone of their voice – a nasty defensive arrogance, devaluing and deriding anything that might require something of them with utter contempt in order to disarm it.
Spoken or unspoken, it’s your fault.
Listen to any unrepentant criminal who’s been convicted by a jury, and you have absolutely no doubt whatsoever when they complain their victim was to blame, that they are wrong, but also delusional. The trouble is personality-disordered people are mostly undiagnosed.
Any ordinary person who is blamed for a wrong naturally becomes reflective and introspective in order to healthily examine their possible guilt. Like the burglar who blames his victim for being “stupid enough not to close the curtains,” all abusers preach the philosophy that others somehow “caused” them to abuse, and that they are the real victims – often pre-emptively before you make a claim.
What separates personality-disordered people from the healthy norm is their terrifying lack of awareness – or willful blindness – of how their behaviour affects others. They are so completely unable to see their own behaviour because they are childishly enthralled in themselves.
Terrorised by criticism or accountability.
One of the most effective tests you can conduct if you need a degree of “proof” as to whether someone suffers with a personality disorder is to deliberately use criticism in a group dynamic. A disordered person cannot cope with even the slightest criticism without exploding into a hysterical routine, be it internally (e.g., red cheeks, silence, holding down panic and anger), or physically (e.g., raised voice, backing away) and reacting very badly indeed. Most normal healthy people, whilst disliking criticism, are able to “adsorb” it, whereas a personality-disordered person will act in panic to desperately “keep it away.”
On the other hand, they also suffer enormous provocation when they are in proximity of others being praised. Narcissists are particularly vulnerable to spurting a tidal wave of devaluation of the person who has stolen “their” attention. The quieter it is, the more advanced and adapted they have become at blending in with their surroundings, and hiding their dysfunction. Anger is something often expressed in a socially “acceptable” way, or passively.
An unfulfilled universal need for coherence.
Lastly, it is useful to admit to yourself that, on whatever level, we all have an emotional and spiritual need for coherence. We need order; be it routine, structured learning, or beliefs that are consistent with who we are. We need it in others. Words, feelings and behaviour that are incoherent cause an ordinary person confusion in the least, but typically, considerable distress.
Personality-disordered people are, as the name suggests, fundamentally disordered. They have little or no integrity. Their beliefs, logic, and cognitive processes make little or no sense. Arguing with them leaves a normal person entirely frustrated and confused.
Their arguments are disordered, their logic is illogical, and the easily-rationalised adult life in front of you is completely irrational. Yet they look adult, socially respectable, claim to be responsible, and refuse to admit their difficulties or make any effort to get any better. Stubborn, outrageous hypocrisy is the norm. Double-standards are their principles.
You slowly come to accept that you are only frustrating yourself by expecting and assuming a personality-disordered person to react and/or engage as an ordinary, healthy person would. An argument, debate, or healthy confrontation always, always, always becomes a meltdown, or game played to “get the upper hand.”
Their inner world and private life never reflects, or aligns with integrity with, their public persona. Who they are outside to others at arm’s length is entirely different to who they are behind closed doors to those they are supposed to love and care about. There is no integrity or coherence. Empathy, introspection, and compassion are the reserve of healthy normal people, whereas to the personality-disordered, they are important theatrical gestures.
Being fundamentally disordered means you can’t recognise your own disorder, or even order itself. To do so would trigger pain. And that, to the personality-disordered person, comprises their only philosophy in life: To avoid pain at all costs. The obnoxious, toxic, and vile behaviours you experience are their attempts to avoid pain using defence mechanisms that have become pathological responses.
The basis of all morality is that all life has value. If we accept that there is good, we accept there is also evil.
To distinguish between them, we understand there needs to be “moral law.” Natural law says that our choices have consequences; moral law says there is right/wrong and good/evil. Our world is built on order, whether it be the laws of nature, or moral law. That order reflects that, because we have intrinsic value, by extension, who we are is sacred. Our heart, mind, soul, being, property and relationships are all sacred. No-one has the right to violate them, and we have no right to violate those of others.
It’s easy to write-off the sins of personality-disordered people on the basis of involuntary mental illness (i.e., excusing it as not deliberate), but our conscience is what helps us navigate the choices we face every day (i.e., ethics). It’s not reasonable to suggest that someone is “good” despite all evidence to the contrary.
Moreover, it’s ridiculous to believe that someone’s soul is separately ordered “good” when the rest of them is disordered – one is connected to the other. It’s easy to wrap up therapy in the clinical blanket of objective reasoning about “character” and “dysfunction.”
The painful and inescapable truth that becomes harder and harder to run from is that there is something morally evil in personality disorder, not just social dysfunction (evil itself is defined as a violation of the natural, sacred order or a moral code). The behaviour is just outright wrong, as in right/wrong.
Narcissism, scripture tells us, was the first original sin – the root that begat all the others. A politician’s private infidelity easily becomes fraud in taxpayer accounts because the root is dishonesty; integrity means that which happens in the private dark is the same that happens in public view.
The foundation of our recovery from the damage caused by personality-disordered people needs to be firmly anchored in moral and natural law, before we even begin to deal with the therapeutic platitudes. We must live according to conscience, with character.
As comforting as it is to re-railroad ourselves with the list of sins and betrayals committed against us, we have to begin by understanding there is a law higher than ourselves that has been violated. Life is about “we,” not just “me” – it is our collective experience.
Disorder favours fog. Those who demand blind obedience are usually planning to abuse it, and the perfect world for a personality-disordered person to cloak their behaviour is one where everything is relative; one where boundaries are flexible, and a permissive system where good, evil and moral law do not exist. A world where they can do whatever they want because everything is permitted, and higher law is superseded by concern for the self, or even just plain survival.
However, there are absolutes, and disordered “philosophy” is invariably incoherent. Truth is simple.
A lifetime of dealing with personality-disordered people teaches you to not only recognise an absence of conscience and morality, but also the critical weakness of dictators, despots, tyrants, criminals, abusers and fanatics everywhere from the beginning of time immemorial: A complete inability to tolerate plurality and the idea that we accept more than one idea. The concept that we accept there is more than one point of view.
But the most telling trait of a personality disorder? The fact that they could read this whole article –or a whole library, in fact, and not begin to suspect for a second, let alone recognise, that it could be about them.
Much gratitude to Alex for sharing such a thought provoking work. – Dr T
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