We could call it “Life in a Bubble”, or just as appropriately, “Life Inside-Out.” Either way, being in a relationship with someone who deals with a personality disorder is likely to be difficult. This also holds true for relationships with family members and friends who struggle with personality disorders.
While there are several types of personality disorders, the ones that get the most attention these days are Borderline and Narcissistic Personality Disorders (closely linked with these are Antisocial, Paranoid, and Histrionic Personality Disorders).
Reality to a pathological borderline or narcissist can be similar to living life in a bubble, or inside out. Rather seeking stability, there is a subconscious pull to create chaos. Therefore, the person surrounds his/herself in a bubble of chaos. All who enter this bubble will most likely experience the chaos (usually the people closest to the person).
What’s it like inside the mind of a borderline or narcissist?
Generally, when it comes to personality disorders such as these, there’s so much internal chaos that there is an incessant urge to get rid of it. There’s a feeling of being under constant attack, and therefore they are always primed for the next attack (and often perceive attacks, even when benign). Unfortunately, the result of this is to react by putting the chaos onto others. This often comes in the form of projections, splitting, and denial, as well as various forms of acting out. Projections describe putting elements of ourselves onto someone else, as a defense against seeing and owning these parts of ourselves. For example, pointing to someone else as lazy, and not owning the fact that they themselves have a tendency to be lazy.
Splitting is a more complicated defense that tends to categorize people (as well as other things) into states of all good or all bad, idealization and devaluation, etc. Grey areas don’t exist with splitting, and the extremity of this defense alone causes abundant emotional chaos. For example, seeing one parent as the bad one, and one as the good, and not recognizing that both parents most likely have elements of positive and negative elements to them. Splits are often on the verge of flipping.
Denial is a subconscious way of avoiding parts of ourselves that we don’t want to acknowledge. Denial is different from projection in that with denial we firmly believe that the part of us doesn’t exist. There’s no other person involved in this. With projection we place the denied part onto another person to subconsciously rid ourselves of the mere concept of it in ourselves. Basically it’s the difference between saying, “I’m not angry,” and “I’m not angry, you are angry.”
Here are some common elements of the borderline or narcissist that contribute to interpersonal chaos (Just to be clear, these aren’t necessarily the sign of a personality disorder, but in someone who has a personality disorder you will likely see some, if not all, of these:
Nothing is ever good enough. . You can do 99 things out of 100 well, but the one thing you didn’t do well is what you will hear about.
Everything that goes wrong is someone else’s fault. Blaming is very common with personality disorders. Unable to handle any further internal chaos, when something goes wrong in their daily lives, it’s common to see incessant amounts of blame projected onto others around them, and no capacity to own their own role in their discomfort.
Feelings of entitlement for desires. This is a highly destructive issue with personality disorders. This isn’t just the idea that they are owed something from others, but the idea that the world owes them something or that they’re supposed to be accommodated by others in specific, pre-determined ways. When the unreasonable expectations aren’t met, they often lead to a rupture with the people who aren’t meeting the expectations they feel entitled to.
Grandiosity. Unable to process the idea of imperfection or inferiority, people with these personality disorders will have difficulty acknowledging life through someone else’s eyes, or the possibility that other perspectives, other than their own, exist. Their thoughts, feelings, and opinions hold the highest validity, and those that have other opinions are likely to be seen as worthless and banished from the bubble.
Idealizations and devaluations. Elaborating on this point, people with personality disorders tend to idealize, not just people, but also ways of life that are thought to be the “right” way. Similar to the “grandiosity” paragraph above, the idealizations of certain people, values, and lifestyle choices tend to come with the devaluation of those who make choices for themselves that don’t match up to theirs.
Perfectionism. Not just for themselves, but the expectation of it from others as well. The fear of failure and inferiority is so great than any mistake or lack of perfection (reflecting the splitting defense) can cause an automatic devaluation of the self that is too threatening to face. Being a human being who makes mistakes is unacceptable, and leads to an incessant need to be perfect. If not, it will likely be projected onto the next person for failing them, rather than taking ownership of a mistake.
Sadistic and masochistic tendencies. Even if not completely overt, there is a constant internal fight against the urges to lash out sadistically at others, while also trying to avoid acting in masochistically. This highlights the split of self-hatred and hatred towards the world.
Feelings justify negative behaviors. Rather than using an understanding of their emotions to make healthier behavioral choices, borderlines and narcissists tend to justify negative, unhealthy behaviors and negative reactions to feelings.
Building up by tearing others down. Rather than becoming the best person they can be, people with personality disorders often lack the self-confidence needed to feel they can excel. Instead, they look for ways to tear others down, often justifying or in other ways invalidating the gains and achievements of others.
Altering reality to fit the emotional state. When the actuality of a situation puts the ego at risk (e.g. making a mistake), the reality is internally rewritten, often with blame towards others, in order to fit their emotional state at the time. Basically, they rewrite reality to soothe themselves and project the blame elsewhere so they don’t have to deal with the actual reality. This leads to recalling situations quite differently than they actually happened, subconsciously ridding themselves of responsibility and accountability by doing so.
While there are other elements of personality disorders that are out there, the themes above outline the interpersonal difficulties and chaos created with specific personality types. The main theme to note is a combination of chaos and extremes. The lack of grey area makes relationships more complicated in that things will fall on one extreme or the other — the lack of middle ground forces the people around them to be the perfect images that they themselves want to be. The partners or family members are held to unrealistic standards, and are always on the verge of a flip to the other extreme. “If you’re not perfect, you’re failing me,” (which is a projection that really means, “If I’m not perfect, I’m failing myself.”).
All people have defense mechanisms. WIth personality disorders, the primary defense mechanisms tend to be one that cause more interpersonal stress. The key to any type of relationship with people who have personality disorders is to be able to manage your own place in their bubble, while keeping intact with the reality of life outside their bubble. Keeping perspective and removing yourself from the chaos at times is necessary. Acting out in anger is often a way that a borderline or narcissist feels alive. Avoiding this is unlikely, and talking it through is unlikely. If they are clearly emotionally activated, pulling back and disengaging while giving them the space to let it play out is generally the best choice.
Also, learning how to empathize with the internal fear that exists inside of someone with a personality disorder is important. The defense mechanisms and behaviors outlined above are there to defend from ego annihilation, of which a person with a personality disorder lives is in constant fear (this is often acted out by annihilating others when they feel attacked). It’s important to keep in mind these behaviors aren’t intentional or malicious, and that an upbringing filled with criticism, disappointment, pain, invalidation, abuse, among other issues, is what created this personality. It’s hard to live in constant defense mode, but feels necessary when the perception is that there’s always an impending attack. So understanding, space, and a bit of empathy can go a long way.