Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Stress and External Pressures Amplify Personality Disorder Symptoms

Personality disorders exist on a continuum from mild (traits) to more severe (disorders) relative to how prevalent and to what extent the symptoms of the personality disorder are demonstrated. While people can live pretty normal lives with mild personality disorders (or more simply, personality traits), during times of increased stress or external pressures (work, family, a new relationship, etc.), the symptoms of the personality disorder magnify and can seriously interfere with emotional and psychological functioning. Those with a personality disorder possess several distinct psychological features including :
  • disturbances in self-image
  • inability to have successful interpersonal relationships
  • inappropriate range of emotion
  • misperceptions of themselves and the world
  • difficulty possessing proper impulse control
Personality disorders are a group of disorders characterized by pathological trends in personality structure. In other words, on an ordinary day the individual can display a lack of good judgment or poor relationships, accompanied by little anxiety and no personal sense of distress. Imagine how this can intensify during times of stress and pressure? A personality disorder in itself is an inflexible and maladaptive pattern of behavior on an ordinary day; however, in times of increased stress or pressure, that inability to be flexible and adapt is further amplified.

The rigid and on-going patterns of thoughts and actions causes the individual with the personality disorder to become even more rigid and further spiral into dysfunctional, destructive, or delusional patterns of thoughts and actions. Due to the chronic use of inappropriate, stereotyped, and maladaptive coping mechanisms on an average day, increased stress and external pressures can cause even greater inappropriate and maladaptive reactions. These deeply ingrained and inflexible patterns of relating, perceiving and behaving are serious enough to cause distress or impaired functioning on a typical day-- imagine the result when increased stress or external pressure is present? Now imagine if that increased stress or external pressure is long-term?

My parents have personality disorders (mother= Borderline Personality Disorder; Dad = Narcissistic Personality Disorder). I have had periods of time with each that were copacetic and happy. However, their personalities became amplified, challenging to handle, and increasingly dysfunctional during times of increased stress or external pressure. Holidays, birthdays, and major life-changing events like graduations and weddings have also proven to be times when emotional and psychological functioning becomes further impaired; thus, conflict and challenges erupt and escalate.

Increased stress and external pressures directly correlate with flare-ups of my parents' personality disorders. Whether my mother is exhibiting unhealthy emotional and psychological functioning due to my Dad's business trips, parents passing, extramarital affairs and divorce, child leaving for college, or a child getting married -or- my Dad is exhibiting dysfunctional emotional and psychological function during the divorce (use of Parental Alienation Syndrome), retirement, child moving, or child having a baby, each parent became dysfunctional, delusional, and destructive at times. During major holidays and birthdays, their personality disorders flare-up and frequently conflicts, challenges, and maladaptive behaviors are exhibited Let's compare experiences with my parents against personality disorder psychological features listed above with a few examples:

Disturbances in self-image

When my mother gained weight from her illness, she stopped going out of the house (basically hermit-ed herself) saying that she doesn't recognize herself in the mirror, that she can't believe her husband stays with her because she's so ugly and fat, and degrading things about her body, hair, and face. She didn't do anything to assist with feeling better or losing weight, rather she spiraled into a junk food eating frenzy, obsessively online shopping, hording, and sleeping long periods.

My Dad's image is ingrained in his power, or the sense of power he believes he wields. When he retired, that control over others and the environment was decreased, and thus, he started treating his family like his former employees / clients. His self image is greatly rooted in his narcissistic viewpoints of himself, creating a larger than life persona of himself in his mind.

Inability to have successful interpersonal relationships

My mother is estranged from her sister, son, daughter, step-grandmother, and father. Further, she has a group of friends, and then after a period of time, she completely disconnects from that group and reforms a new group, from which she will later disconnect. When she disconnects, typically she has created a reason (imaginary) to be upset with the person, thus the group because she views them as loyal to the person and not her, and she retreats.

My Dad doesn't see his grandchildren from either his son (my brother) or daughter (me). He sends cards and occasionally presents but doesn't invest in formulating meaningful relationships with any of the 5 children. He does, however, have relationships with his two step-grandchildren.

Inappropriate range of emotion

This category is a BIG ONE in regard to my BPD mother. Her inappropriate range of emotion is brought-on predominately by her BPD's fear of abandonment and rejection: (1) when I was a child and my Dad would go on a business trip, prior to the trip my mother would lock herself in her room and cry about how he can't leave (2) when my mother's mother died, my mother locked herself in a dark room and took Valium. She didn't attend the funeral, which included not taking her two children to the funeral (my brother and me) . When my grandfather died, she didn't attend the funeral either-- nor when her grandmother died at 103 years old did she attend her funeral (3) during the divorce from my Dad, my mother was obsessed with hurting my Dad in court and otherwise, later claiming that **he left her ** since he was the one to walk away after she revealed her affair with his friend (4) when I left for college, she blew up when I returned to town and didn't spend time with her one weekend. She instructed me to not come home for Thanksgiving and Christmas then ultimately left all my possessions on the street. We were estranged for almost a half decade thereafter (5) When I announced my engagement, my mother became enraged and said she was out of my wedding (although my fiance and I hadn't even progressed into the planning stage yet!) when I didn't agree with her ideas of how to handle the extended families. We haven't spoken since.

My Dad's inappropriate range of emotion is avoidance (deep-sixing to avoid or controlling to avoid): (1) after my parents announced they were getting a divorce, my Dad took us to see a movie. My Dad continued to use this distraction technique when stressful situations arose. I always found this very strange that when a huge, life changing situation occurs, we go off to see some comedy at the movie theater-- surreal times. (2) My Dad retired around the time I became pregnant and my husband took a new position. My husband's new position paid higher but was approximately 15 minutes further from my Dad's house. My Dad didn't congratulate my husband but became upset and very critical causing a great deal of distension. He continues to gossip to friends / family about my husband's job change to this day. (3) When my newborn baby cried when my Dad held her, my Dad claimed she's not "normal". He carried on about this every time he saw her, exaggerating to friends / family that he hadn't held her since she was 3 months old... then 3 weeks old... then 3 days old.

Misperceptions of themselves and the world

My mother thinks she is the victim at all times. She also champions campaigns of denigration, is a crusader, and a conspiracy theorist trying to uncover the conspiracy. She has gotten high ranked executives fired, thought that my grandfather was murdered, thought that her father-in-law attempted to kill her mother-in-law, went after her sister in regard to the inheritance from their father, and battled my Dad in court for almost a decade. Additionally, she thinks she is socially engaging when she is actually socially inappropriate (vulgar, sexual, intrusive in nature).

My Dad is highly narcissistic and thus thinks he is much more important in situations and relationships than in reality. He loves when people need him (even if those people are actually using him) and loves to be the center of attention.

Difficulty possessing proper impulse control

This category is another big one in regard to my mother. Her actions and words illustrate her lack of impulse control, ranging back to when she was a young girl. She married her 1st husband to get out of living with her parent. She divorced husband #1 when I was a few months old after she had an affair with her high school sweetheart (his man adopted me and became my Dad). My mother had an affair with husband #2 (my Dad) with his best friend and subsequently divorced my Dad to marry husband #3. She jumped from one college to another, never finishing until her 30's. Also, she is a compulsive spender, buying all sorts of unnecessary items and hording. Additionally, she does not screen what she says causing some very awkward and embarrassing times for those around her (which she is clueless).

My Dad clearly exhibited impaired emotional and psychological functioning (controlling, manipulative, brain-washing, utilizing Parental Alienation Syndrome) during the divorce from my mother. The results of PAS have been long term and very damaging to my brother and me. Decades have passed and we are still sorting-out and coming to terms with what happened to us.

These personal examples are only a few and only superficial in detail. Looking back at my life when the distention arose, I can clearly see a pattern where my parents dysfunction was magnified when times were more stressful and with greater external pressure. Holidays and special events always seemed to be riddled with negativity, judgment, and criticism. Happy times often turned sour due to unexpected and sudden shifts in a parent's attitude, perception, or expectations. I remember so many times feeling crushed from wanting to please my parent but only being saddened by their reactions. Now I understand that their ways of handling stress and pressure was not a result of anything I did-- they are accountable and responsible for their actions and reactions. I also realize that if their personality disorders manifest in pathological trends on ordinary day, then the pathological trends are certainly amplified on stressful and pressure filled days / weeks / months-- so I know what to expect to an extent.

If you are involved with a person that has a personality disorder or trait, keep in mind that increased stress or external pressures can intensify the dysfunctional, already impaired behavior. Understanding that the pathological trends can be even further intensified gives you the ability to prepare yourself.

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