The Fragility of the Borderline and Narcissistic Person
As I’ve grown as a person and a therapist, I’ve realized that my father suffered from borderline and narcissistic personality disorder. Underneath the perceived authoritative monster he was to me, my father had a profound fear of abandonment and feelings of fragility and anxiety. He always thought he was being treated unjustly. His self-esteem was shattered, so he projected his own feelings of worthlessness onto me, accusing me of treating him disrespectfully. When we interacted, as far as he was concerned, he was always right. Why? Because he truly believed he couldn’t be wrong. That was his only way to cope with self-doubt and shame. I was not the only recipient of his accusations of unjust behavior. My father had a list of “bad” people who had insulted, injured, or treated him unfairly. If you’re reading this article, you most likely contend with a family member who also chronically feels he or she is being treated unjustly and demands that you…. and others…. walk on eggshells when interacting with them.
The Small Child Inside the BPD/NPD Person
In my therapy practice, I hear stories from patients living with the challenges and struggles of having an outward-attacking borderline or narcissistic personality in their life. Not just living with this family member, but chronically feeling bullied and being attacked for crimes both real and imaginary. The aggressive behavior of some people diagnosed with these disorders makes it difficult for us to understand that usually this person is profoundly needy, anxious, easily wounded, and chronically fearful of acknowledging weakness. While they masquerade as a giant, they feel like a kid living in a world of Goliaths.
Walking on Eggshells
Our experience of “walking on eggshells” around borderlines and narcissists is quite accurate. What is more difficult to understand is that the eggshells we walk upon are also descriptive of the tormented inner world of our family member: someone who may be, in fact, as brittle and easily breakable as an eggshell. Because this feeling of fragility is too threatening to be acknowledged, the rage that ensues is akin to the cries and tantrums of a small child. In fact, developmentally they may have the defenses of a toddler. This does not mean, of course, that our strategies of living with this person should be to try to meet their needs. That’s because their needs are endless and internally generated, making it impossible for us (or any other individual) to “cure” them with love and attention, no matter how well intentioned.
Central Concerns of the Borderline/Narcissist Person
It’s helpful to remember that people with BPD/NPD, be they a spouse, parent, sibling, boss, or friend, contend with three central concerns:
1. What they feel people did to them that was unnecessarily mean, hurtful, and thoughtless.
2. What they believe other people did not do for them that they feel they should have done.
3. Times when they feel that someone in their life hasn’t done enough for them.
Ten Alternatives to People Pleasing
We’ve all tried to please the borderline or narcissist in our lives, and we know this isn’t helpful in managing the relationship. It’s not good for us psychologically: it diminishes our self-esteem, is self-denigrating, and only invites further abuse. There are, however, other methods that aren’t instinctual to people pleasers that you can use to help make life more manageable, and even, at times, satisfying, with the difficult and explosive person in our life. Try replacing your people-pleasing behaviors with these tips:
1. Look closely at yourself and your behavior.
2. Mark a fearless inventory of your dysfunctional traits and
3. Learn to temper and control these behaviors to improve your relationship with the difficult person or people in your life.
4. Say genuine positive, loving and reassuring things when there’s calm and peace in the relationship. This will build an alliance that is not so easily shattered. Try to make this a habit, because spontaneous and loving words promote the same actions.
5. Let your family member know that you and she or he are on the same team, working for the greater good of your relationship with each other. WE statements (like, “I know we’re both upset right now, but our relationship is important to both of us, and WE will get through this together”) are reassuring. Build strength in the relationship by planning shared activities in which conflict can be avoided and feelings become secondary to the joint enjoyment of the activity.
6. Negotiate boundaries so that they’re not experienced as barriers. Emphasize how your role in creating the boundary is for the preservation of the relationship rather than creating walls between the two of you. Try to let them know a boundary is not a barrier.
7. Be careful with jokes. Borderlines and narcissists may not have the ability to laugh at themselves. My sons joke with me that their sister is my favorite child, but I can joke back because I’m confident they know that I love them all equally. If I had joked to my borderline father that my sister was his favorite child, he would have perceived it as a savage assault on him and flown into a rage.
8. Zip it: It’s often counter-productive to share your feelings, opinions, and advice with a borderline or narcissist. When you give them advice, they take it as a narcissistic assault, and your advice will most likely be met with a barrage of rage and contempt.
9. Use creative postponing: When your family member makes provocative or critical statements on the phone, withdraw from the conversation by saying that there’s someone at the door. Don’t respond to a provocative email or text immediately. Wait and write: “I think you emailed me but now I can’t find it. Anyway, wanted to say hi and tell you I love you and hope you’re well. Speak to you soon.” These delaying techniques allow the person more time to get control of their emotions.
10. Remember that what you see is what you get: Cease making any efforts to change your family member. We all need to remember that the only person we can change is ourself. Trying to change another person only makes our self-esteem plummet because it always fails. Empathy is a most important tool for managing the anxiety and fragility of our family member. Our normal reaction to their behavior is, “He is a miserable, mean human being. I can’t take it anymore.”