16-year-old Bruce is feeling lonely and bored on this Saturday. After buying a soda and candy bar for breakfast at the convenience store, he stops by his only friend Joe’s house to hang out. A couple of hours later, he starts to feel annoyed by Joe’s “childish” sense of humor. After several irritating jokes from Joe, Bruce loses his temper. “Grow up you loser. You’re boring,” he blurts suddenly on his way out the door, leaving a surprised and hurt Joe behind him.
Bruce walks slowly around the neighborhood, bored again. “Maybe I should go home and play my guitar,” he thinks. But then realizes that his mom may be up by now, and he doesn’t want to run into her. No telling what mood she might be in. So he decides to try to sneak in and up to his room by going in the back door. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work.
“Where the h— have you been you lazy little punk?!” his mother yells from the kitchen when she hears his footsteps. Bruce turns on his heel and goes straight back out the door. Back to Joe’s house, he knocks on the door, walks in and says, “What’s up?” as if this morning’s hurtful insult never happened.
Think back. Have you ever known someone who seems to feel things so deeply that their emotional reactions are overly intense? Someone who can be unpredictable? Who hurts your feelings, and then acts as if nothing happened? Who perceives threat when there is none? Who has an excessive need to control others? Who goes back and forth between distancing from you and desperately needing you?
If so, then there is a good possibility that you have known someone who has a personality disorder.
A 2008 Study reported by the National Institute of Health found that 5.9% of the population has borderline personality disorder. Another NIH 2008 study found that 6.2% of the U.S. population has narcissistic personality disorder.
Despite these surprisingly high percentages, most people have very little knowledge or understanding of personality disorders: what they are, what causes them, or how to tell if they or someone they care about has one. And, even more importantly, few people (even mental health professionals) talk about how to prevent them.
Yet they are highly preventable. As in the story of Bruce, most people with borderline or narcissistic personality disorder grew up in an unpredictable household with excessive anger, verbal, emotional or physical abuse, and/or a shortage of parental attention and emotional validation (Childhood Emotional Neglect).
Bruce is well on his way. Chances are, as an adult, he will treat his child as his mother treats him, and as he treated Joe. And so on and so on, around and around the circle goes through one generation after another.
If I could talk to Bruce, here is what I would say to him:
- You are not alone. There are many others who feel as you do, and who live as you do.
- Your mother has a personality disorder. It’s not her choice.
- Her personality disorder was caused by a combination of genetics and how she was treated as a child.
- If your mother knew this, she could get help. She could learn what is wrong and why. She could learn how to better manage her emotions, and how her expression of her feelings affects you. She could work to become more predictable for you.
- You are now treating others (example Joe) as your mother treats you. You must learn the same skills that your mother must learn, or you will be at risk of treating your own children this way.
- It will not be easy, but you can break the cycle.
Despite the stigma and lack of attention to personality disorder (or perhaps because of it), there is incredible grass-roots interest in understanding, coping with, and preventing them.
An organization called Personality Disorder Awareness Network (PDAN) was begun as an effort to raise awareness and prevention. When I became a volunteer administrator for the PDAN Facebook Page in 2013, there were 50,000 followers. Today, there are 164,398 members, and it’s growing fast.
If you identify with Bruce, his mother, or Joe, you can find support, understanding, and information on PDAN’s website and Facebook Page. You can also join in PDAN’s efforts to educate parents, teens and families about the causes, treatments and preventative measures that we should all be taking.
Personality disorders cause a lot of people a lot of pain. PDAN is a wonderful example of how we can work together to help those who are suffering; and make this world a happier and healthier place for us all. Let’s support each other and learn more. Let’s start preventing. Let’s break the cycle.
Especially for the children.
Borderline Personality Disorder Symptoms on PsychCentral