Clearly a growing trend, we are discussing “personality disorders” in ways we have not in the past. In just this past year, Psychology Today has run three cover stories on personality disorders. Clients who come to see me are now more educated and familiar with narcissistic, sociopathic and borderline personality. More and more, we are using these words on the common vernacular.
Regardless of what we “label” a person, you know something is “off” when you get stuck in someone else’s constant quagmire of chaos. You experience their drama and the never ending sense that you need to” fix it”. And, of course, you try, while walking “on egg shells”. Because anyone who has tried to have a healthy relationship with an unhealthy person knows- you are only a second away from a humongous blow up.
And while you walk on egg shells, they flagrantly break all the rules, displaying little or no regard for your feelings, consequences or even authority. So while you are panicky and stressed and worrying if you are going to get “in trouble”, they seem to thrive on the chaos of trouble. You have watched them push the envelope right to the edge and seen the pleasure in their eyes! “Bring it on!”, seems to be their mantra. The messier and more upset you get, the more engaged they appear. While most of us of conflict avoidant, these folks seem to thrive on the drama and chaos- at least it is where they choose to put their energy.
In thinking about this dynamic; that is what makes these folks so powerful that we quiver and feel childlike in all our interactions with them- I searched for a common denominator in all these relationships/labels/diagnosis. I tried out words like arrogant, entitlement, conceited, control freaks and they all fell flat. What is this? I found myself wondering; What is this absolute and unerring conviction that one is right and everyone else needs to comply? What about this disregard for compliance with the rules? And have you noticed that even if they do “win” they seem disappointed, resentful and often find a way to continue the conflict? Perhaps even more frustrating, compromise is unacceptable to these chaos makers.
It nagged at me that I could not wrap my brain around this destructive interpersonal style.
Then on an extremely rainy afternoon while driving on unfamiliar back roads, I shut off my audio book to give my complete focus to the storm raging around me. It was in that hyper- concentration on the clatter of rain, thunder and water-covered country roads, the word popped into my head. Humility! These people lack Humility!
Later that day I googled Humility and came across the work of St. Jose Maria. In the Catholic Tradition, I found my answer! He listed 17 characteristics of someone who lacks humility. I will list the ones I find most relevant here. (The other three were religious in nature). You can view the entire list by clicking here.
- Thinking that what you do or say is better than what others do or say
- Always wanting to get your own way
- Arguing when you are not right or — when you are — insisting stubbornly or with bad manners
- Giving your opinion without being asked for it, when charity does not demand you to do so
- Despising the point of view of others
- Mentioning yourself as an example in conversation
- Speaking badly about yourself, so that they may form a good opinion of you, or contradict you
- Making excuses when rebuked
- Hiding some humiliating faults from others, so that they do not lose the good opinion he has of you
- Being hurt that others are held in greater esteem than you
- Refusing to carry out menial tasks
- Seeking or wanting to be singled out
- Letting drop words of self-praise in conversation, or words that might show your honesty, your wit or skill, your professional prestige
- Being ashamed of not having certain possessions
Humility! While this is not a word that shows up often in my line of work, this seemed to be the most accurate term for the single trait all these difficult folks had in common. I ran it past a couple of friends and colleagues and they all saw the connection. One said, “I did not realize this before, but all the people I don’t get along with lack humility!”
Here’s the big problem- without humility, there can be no conflict resolution. Consider the above list and how each of these characteristics would inhibit someone willing to come to resolution. Lacks of humility and conflict resolution do not mix very well. The very characteristics one requires to work toward conflict resolution such as empathy, compassion, the ability to admit when wrong- are absent from the above list.
So, what do we do? Of course, it depends on the relationship-divorced co- parents are caught in the cycle may have the most difficult as co-parenting requires cooperation and conflict resolution. If one party lacks humility, it will be a long tough slough until the kids turn 18 (and even beyond). Fasten your seat belts for a bumpy ride. In familial relationships- with a parent, child, sibling-sometimes it may be in our best interest to simply walk away. Accepting that without humility, there is no conflict resolution, you are destined to a relationship where you constantly self- guess, walk on eggshells and wait for the other shoe to fall.
Of course, cutting a person from your life is not easy; if it is a relative or friend that lives far away you can set some boundaries by limiting contact and expectation. But that won’t keep you completely safe from their outbursts and unfair requests. With bosses and colleagues, these relationships can poison your work life. If possible, consider if you need to be working somewhere else.
All hard choices, yet once we have tried every possible thing imaginable, including going to therapy to make sure it isn’t “our problem”, maybe it is simply time to recognize that leaving the relationship may be the hardest thing to do, but it also may be the healthiest.
© 2013 Donna F. Ferber, LPC, LADC is a psychotherapist in private practice in Farmington, CT since 1986. She is the author of the award winning From Ex-Wife to Exceptional Life: A Woman’s Journey through Divorce now available in Kindle format for $9.99 as well as in paperback