Friday, July 29, 2016

Borderline Personality Disorder: The Doll People

Have you ever encountered someone who seems to fit in with a group perfectly? As you get to know them better, do you find that they seem to mesh well with another, very different group? Does the person seem to abandon projects and relationships after a while? Do they pick up the relationships sometimes as if nothing really happened in between? Do they seem to expect you to be there for them any time they call? These are some of the trademark characteristics of Borderline Personality Disorder.

Borderline Personality Disorder: a pattern of instability in interpersonal relationships, self-image, and affects, and marked impulsivity. (DSM-IV) This is part of the Cluster B grouping of personality disorders, which appear as dramatic, emotional, and/or erratic behavior. Included in this group are also Antisocial, Histrionic, and Narcissistic Personality Disorders.

Many individuals with Borderline Personality Disorder appear to be fully-functioning, especially in social settings. This is mostly due to their need for social interaction and approval and a deep fear of abandonment. They may begin a relationship (friendship or romance) intensely and seem to invest a lot of time and effort into it. However, after a while, they may abandon the relationship in pursuit of a new one. Once the new relationship wanes for them, they may either seek another relationship or attempt to rekindle a recent one. However, Borderline individuals are not very good at maintaining long-term relationships. They expect others to do all the work without realizing that this is their expectation.

Most fully-functioning individuals understand that maintaining a relationship requires both parties to keep the lines of communication open, both parties to make an effort to keep in touch. A Borderline individual usually makes no effort to contact "old" relationships unless they are desperate for some kind of contact from anyone because their current relationships are not meeting their needs. This is why I refer to them as the "doll people". They seem to "put you on a shelf" when they don't need you and expect you to stay in place just in case they need you again. Fully-functioning individuals understand that others do have lives outside of their relationships. Fully-functioning individuals understand that if another person is not instantly available it is not necessarily a personal affront but simply the other person being busy. A Borderline individual does not seem to be able to grasp this concept and they may become very upset if you are not readily available when they want to interact with you.

Another characteristic of Borderline Personality disorder is the intensity with which they begin a project or hobby. They may seem to be consumed by the project, and any social interaction surrounding the new activity such as online forums or local interest clubs. However, their intense interest will quickly fall to the wayside, not necessarily because something else comes along but because they are not capable of maintaining the intensity of interest for extended periods of time. This sprinting of interest also extends to potentially harmful behaviors like over-spending, sexual promiscuity, substance abuse, alcohol consumption, overeating, gambling, or reckless driving. The plus side is that their extreme interests in these detrimental behaviors will be short-lived. The down side is that some damage may already be experienced before the disinterest occurs.

Borderline individuals may experience moments of intense dissatisfaction and disinterest with life, irritability, or anxiety about abandonment. These moments do not generally last longer than a couple of days, however. The individual may also experience chronic feelings of emptiness between these episodes. Occasionally, they may have problems controlling their anger, frequently displaying intense temper tantrums or even violent fits of rage at inappropriate times. They may not always have a full grasp of the actual source of their anger, either.

They may engage in frantic or desperate behaviors to avoid real or imagined abandonment, sometimes to the extreme of "dumping" a person before they are dumped themselves. They may also engage in suicidal behavior--threats, gestures, self-mutilation--that are not necessarily related to depression or suicidal desires. Rather, these behaviors may be an attempt to pull a person into a care-giving position for the Borderline individual. The suicidal behaviors may (or may not) also be related to the Borderline individual's identity disturbance--unstable self-image or sense of self--which is where the label derives its meaning. They are "borderline" because their personality is not stabilized. It is dependent upon their relationships with others, even though they are not capable of maintaining those relationships themselves. A Borderline individual may also experience paranoia regarding another person's abandonment of them.

What makes Borderline Personality Disorder a dangerous situation is the volatility of the behavior of the individual. The unpredictability and their constant shifting of interest from intense to complete disinterest makes them mostly unpredictable. You don't always know when they may explode or abandon you because they don't know. You may feel like they are the perfect lover, husband, wife, mother, father, or friend one moment, and the next moment they drop you like a hot potato to pursue another relationship. If things don't go smoothly in that new relationship, they may call you up as if nothing really happened between you. They require a stabilizing force in their lives in order to solidify their personality, but the very nature of their personality disorder prevents them from maintaining the stable relationships.

Unless you have saint-like patience and devotion, beware the doll-people.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Midlife Crisis: Perpetually Persistent Myth

Ah, the midlife crisis! We often envision a man in his 40s, possibly pushing 50, who wakes up one morning to realize that half his life is passed. He panics in an existential crisis, bemoaning the lost youth and missed opportunities. Then he decides to try to turn back the clock by ditching his wife of 20 years and their children, dying his hair, hitting the gym every day or enrolling in extreme recreation (e.g. sky diving), trading in the family mini van for a brand new Mustang, and dating his 22-year-old secretary.

If we're being gender-equal, then perhaps we see a woman in the same age range (45-55) who decides to get some plastic surgery, dye her hair, get some piercings or tattoos, leave her husband to date the 20-year-old pool boy, and take monthly or quarterly booze cruises with her fellow mid-life crisis girl friends.

The truth of the matter is that the midlife crisis is more of a mythical excuse to behave immaturely instead of dealing with the realities of aging and adult responsibilities. Two primary psychosocial developmental theories that address this age range are Carl Jung's and Erik Erikson's. I will discuss Erik Erikson's theory in a future blog post. Most of the other developmental theories cover childhood, not any part of adulthood. Let's take a look at the original theory, the one that actually mentions the midlife crisis: Carl Jung.

Stage 1: Childhood (age 0 to 25 years). This is the dawn of life. Jung believed that human personality emerges from the Universal (i.e. collective) Unconscious at birth and returns to it at death. We spend childhood learning the ins and outs of the world and growing (emotionally, psychologically, physically) so that we have the skills and abilities to handle the requirements of adulthood.

Stage 2: Youth (age 20-38). This is the morning of life. We set out on our independent life-careers, acquiring whatever we think we need for our happiness and well-being. According to Jung, people in this life stage usually define life goals in terms of family, money, social position, and career success. Basically, this time is spent in acquiring "stuff" and focusing on personal needs.

Midlife crisis: age 37-43 years. This is what Jung called the noon of life, a time of spiritual bankruptcy. According to Jung, life ceases to have any meaning for most individuals at this stage, especially for men. [NOTE: most of Carl Jung's patients were affluent men in the post-Victorian era.] At this point in life, individuals begin to focus on their transpersonal needs--tenderness and caring in families, intimate friendships and challenging companions, moments of deep conversation and quiet intimacy, appreciation of nature.
Jung did propose a "midlife crisis" of sorts for women of this age as well. Unlike men, however, he hypothesized that women spend their Youth concentrating on meeting the needs of others, enjoying intimate conversations with other women, and enjoying nature and spirituality. During midlife, they devote their time and efforts to new career goals outside of their nurturing role. In other words, for Carl Jung women and men switch their life focus during this Noon of life.

Stage 3: Maturity (age 42-69). The afternoon of life, this is the time in which our focus shifts from getting "stuff" to devoting our efforts toward suprapersonal values, developing our relationships with others. People see their grown children as worthy of mutual respect and friendship. They spend more time sharing activities with their spouse, going on vacations, visiting friends and relatives. This is also a time in which an individual becomes his/her own person. They finish deciphering who they want to be and pursue their own non-material needs and express their own values.

Stage 4: Old Age (retirement to death). This is the evening of life, a time when a person accepts the waning of their years with grace and no regrets. They prepare to reemerge into the Universal Unconscious, to add their personal life experiences to the collective unconscious so that it can become fodder for future generations. This is a time for the aged to attempt to pass on their wisdom to future generations, though chances are pretty good that the youth aren't listening.

So, while Carl Jung did take it for granted that the majority of men in their late 30s to early 40s would experience some sort of midlife crisis, he saw it as more of a turning point to realign priorities from youthful selfish materialism to mature wisdom of spiritual growth and social relationships. This is not a time to try to turn back the clock, as is the typical scenario for what we expect of a midlife crisis according to modern media. The fact is that even what we usually think of as a midlife crisis (see the examples above) is pretty rare. Most individuals in middle adulthood transition fairly well from their youthful days into mature responsibilities. It is primarily persons suffering from some form of psychological malady--depression, personality disorders, anxiety disorders--who behave so irrationally. Aging is a part of life. Many of us accept it for what it is. We maintain the positive aspects of youth--optimism, enthusiasm, curiosity--and supplement them with the new benefits of maturity--nurturing, responsibility, forward-thinking.

Friday, June 3, 2016

What's Your Purpose? Goal v. Objective, Mission v. Vision

It is good for our psychological well-being to have direction and purpose in life. Social interactions of any kind (business, friendship, courtship, etc.) also have more substance when there is meaning behind the activities. This being said, I occasionally come across someone who confuses "goal" and "objective" or who uses them interchangeably. There are a couple of distinct differences between these two concepts. In order to round out the organizational directives, I also included the differences between a mission statement and a vision statement. So, let's take a look at these ideas and perhaps understand why they are confused so often.

Objective: something that one's actions or efforts are intended to attain or accomplish. On the surface, I can almost see why someone would treat an objective as a goal. However, an objective is more of an end result, kind of like a destination that you will eventually get to, but you're not really in a rush to get there. It's an "I'll know it when I see it" type of thing. Examples of objectives include:
  • being the best kazoo player on the west coast
  • owning your own home with a swimming pool and garage
  • learning a new language
  • being able to recite the US Declaration of Independence from memory
Notice that these examples are fairly vague. It doesn't matter how or when they are accomplished, only that they are ultimately achieved.

Goal: the result of achievement toward which effort is directed. The goal is SMART--specific, measurable, actionable, and (most importantly) time-limited. Objectives can easily be converted into goals with some important tweaking. For example, "learning a new language" becomes a goal when we
a) make it specific--Learn to speak and read French
b) make it measurable--Learn to speak and read French with at least 85% proficiency/fluency
c) make it actionable--Learn to speak and read French with at least 85% proficiency/fluency by taking online French language classes
d) make it time-limited--Learn to speak and read French with at least 85% proficiency/fluency withing 6 months by taking online French language classes

Although the last sentence may seem cumbersome, it is an ideal goal statement because it gives the individual (and anyone else) the ability to determine the progress made toward goal accomplishment. It also allows for adjustments to be made if the progress seems to be faster or slower than originally anticipated. There should be fewer questions about how the goal will be achieved and whether it can be met. Too often have I seen individuals state "goals" when they are really identifying their objectives. Objectives tend to be ongoing, whereas goals have an identifiable end.

Vision Statement: the declaration of an organization's objectives and purpose for existence. The vision statement is usually a broad, sweeping statement of why the organization exists and how the organization fits into the larger realm of society.

Mission Statement: an official document that sets out the function, purpose, and goals of an organization. The mission statement outlines how the organization intends to achieve its vision. For example, if an organization's vision is for a brighter tomorrow, it's mission statement may include the ways in which it will bring light to the world. Let me try sculpting this a little better.

Example Vision Statement:
Hathaway Global is an organization committed to forming a brighter tomorrow. We are dedicated to ensuring that the world's population enjoys a future full of promise and we strive to provide a warm environment for our employees.
Example Mission Statement:
Hathaway Global endeavors to bring light to the world by providing quality ceramic light bulbs to low-income areas around the world. We are dedicated to using all-natural, recyclable materials that will enable us to keep costs low while ensuring a longer life-time to our products.

I admit that there is a bit of overlap in these concepts. Many organizations combine the vision and mission statement, either because they don't know any better or because they feel that only one statement is necessary. Some organizations opt for only a vision statement or only a mission statement. Some companies even include a value statement, which is even more vague than a vision statement. Many individuals have their own vision, mission, objectives, and goals. Writing and formalizing these can be a good practice, helping to give you a sense of purpose. Perhaps if more people did that, there would be fewer cases of "midlife crisis." Then again, maybe not.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Is there Such a Thing as a Sadistic Masochist?

I hear people accusing themselves and others quite often of being either a sadist or a masochist. Sometimes the terms are used correctly (on the surface, not in principle). Sometimes they are turned around or used backwards.

Sadist: An individual who derives pleasure from inflicting pain upon others. Though sadism is usually related to sexual pleasure, there is a sub-set of sadism that revolves around joy in knowing that you have caused others to suffer. Sexual sadists often begin simply--spanking, nibbling, slapping--in order to "spice up" their sexual encounters. As they progress, they may find that they have difficulty becoming aroused or achieving orgasm unless they seen true pain in the eyes of their partners. If left unchecked, a sadist, sexual or otherwise, could become addicted to the pleasure they derive from inflicting pain. This may lead them to commit unspeakable crimes or acts of torture.

Masochist: An individual who derives pleasure from receiving pain from others. Again, masochism as a psychological term primarily refers to the paraphilia--abnormal and/or unsanctioned sexual behaviors. In this case, a sexual masochist may begin with role-playing similar to the sadist, only on the receiving end of the spankings, nibbling, etc. These behaviors become a psychological condition when the masochist finds that they have difficulty becoming aroused or achieving orgasm unless they experience some form of physical pain. The severe masochist may experience irreparable harm at the hands of their partners, especially if they become involved with an unchecked sadist. The results could be devastating for the masochist and overly encouraging for the sadist. A non-sexual masochist may find that they seek pain to help them "feel alive." Masochism should not be confused with cutting or other forms of self-mutilation, as masochism involves activation of the pleasure center of the brain but cutting does not.

Cutting (self-mutilation): The act of causing physical harm, usually leaving visible scarring, to one's self. Unlike masochism, there is no sexual component to self-harm or self-mutilation. The individual does not typically experience the rush of positive endorphins that we associate with pleasure. Instead, much self-mutilation is an act of penance in which the individual feels that they have done something wrong or are not worthy of something, so they harm themselves in an attempt to atone for it. They may cut or burn themselves enough to leave a scar as a punishment and a visible reminder. Again, there is no pleasure associated with these acts, only pain.

Here are a couple things to keep in mind. A mean person is not necessarily a sadist. They may be lashing out to cover up some other feelings of insecurity. A "glutton for punishment"--someone who seems to have a hard time saying "no" or who tends to take on challenges that may go beyond their abilities--is not necessarily a masochist. They may have a need to be challenged or they may feel too insecure to turn down a request from someone. Bondage and domineering can be healthy sexual role-playing behaviors when adequate safeguards (safe words, mutual respect, time spent afterward reassuring the dominated partner of their worth) are in place. Self-harm is a serious cry for help. Although not a complete guarantee, many cutters end up attempting suicide at least once before anyone realizes that they need help. They tend to be really good at hiding the evidence of their self-mutilation so that others cannot detect the growing depression or anxiety that lead to the harmful behaviors.

As for the sadistic masochist, the two concepts cancel out each other. 
     Sadist==>"someone else"
Even with a split personality, receiving pain yourself is not causing physical pain to someone else, outside of the realms of science fiction.

Friday, May 6, 2016

Conflict Management Styles: How Do You Handle Disagreements?

As my last post was about the misunderstanding that surrounds the word "conflict," I thought I would round things out with a brief look at conflict management. I'm sure that many people understand that conflict management is the way in which an individual handles interpersonal conflict. In fact, I rarely come across anyone who misuses the term "conflict management" itself. Yet, there is a little confusion about the meaning of a couple of the typical styles of conflict management.

[Note: The majority of the following information on conflict management styles is based on Jay Hall's Conflict Management Survey: A Survey of One's Characteristic Reaction to and Handling of Conflict Between Himself and Others (The Woodlands, Texas: Telemetrics International 1969).]

Let's look at two dimensions of conflict management: 1) your concern for your own personal goals (concern for self); 2) your concern for others and/or the relationship you have with the other party with whom you have the disagreement (concern for others). We can rate a person's interest as high, moderate, or low on each of these dimensions, resulting in five basic conflict management styles.

  • Avoiding: low concern for self, low concern for others. An avoider either does not really care about the conflict and its outcome, or they do not care about the the relationship they have with the person with whom they have the conflict. When the avoider is in a lower position than the other person, the withdrawal from the conflict usually indicates fear of upsetting the individual. When the avoider is in a higher position, the withdrawal prevents the other person from being able to air their concerns. In either instance, avoidance tends to breed frustration and resentment and the conflict is very rarely resolved without some sort of emotional explosion involved. There are times, however, when avoiding a conflict may be the wisest course of action, especially when dealing with a very stubborn individual and/or when the conflict itself does not merit too much investment of time or effort because it is truly a minor disagreement.
  • Accommodating: low concern for self, high concern for others. The accommodator has a tendency to give priority to the needs and wishes of the other party. One of the downsides of accommodating, however, is that it does not foster creative thinking and effective solutions to an issue at hand. By bowing to the wishes of another, an accommodator may be short-changing themselves and their ability to effectively solve problems. In addition, the other person may be blinded by their own ideas to the solution to the disagreement, which they take to be wholly valid because no one is arguing with them, that they may miss some crucial data that would help them make a better decision. Resentment and a feeling of martyrdom may arise in the accommodator if this conflict management style is used to excess. This technique is fine, though, when the accommodator truly has not strong preferences as to the resolution or if they truly believe the other person is correct.
  • Compromising: moderate concern for self, moderate concern for others. This is the conflict management style term that has a tendency to be misused. Many individuals believe that a compromise is the win-win scenario. True, it does tend to represent a middle ground in which the needs and desires of both parties are taken into consideration. However, the resolution to the conflict results in a win/lose-win/lose scenario. In order for both parties to win something, they must also be willing to lose or concede something else to the other person. Both parties walk away with some measure of contribution to the solution to their conflict, but at an ego price that may be small or large, depending upon how far they were willing to go toward satisfying the other person. While compromise is a better solution than either one individual winning at the complete expense of another, there is still a more beneficial conflict management style that allows both parties to save face.
  • Competing: high concern for self, low concern for others. This is another term that sometimes gets thrown around a lot in many different contexts. In the realm of conflict management, there is nothing friendly about a competitor. Like accommodating, competing stifles the generation of creative solutions to the interpersonal conflict. This style has a tendency to lead to tension, resentment, and hostility between parties and these feelings may also leach out toward others in the environment. A person's need to always "win" an argument turns people away from engaging in what would otherwise have been fruitful conversations because no other ideas are allowed to be discussed. The competing conflict management style may prove beneficial in an instance in which the individual truly is the intellectual authority on a subject and the other parties involved have no real idea as to viable solutions. This style is also typically used when the relationship between the disagreeing parties is not vital or important and/or the necessity to accomplish a specific goal outweighs personal feelings.
  • Collaborating: high concern for self, high concern for others. This final conflict management style is the true win-win scenario. In this instance, both parties work toward a solution to their conflict that is satisfying to everyone involved. Users of this style tend to view conflict as a mutual problem to be solved and they encourage openness and honesty with each other so that a mutually beneficial resolution can be reached. Ideas may be criticized as the parties seek to find a maximally, and mutually, satisfying solution, but the persons involved are not criticized. Collaboration is the ideal method of conflict resolution. However, it is not used quite as often as compromising in part because it is difficult for individuals to set aside personal differences when involved in an interpersonal conflict. For this method to work, both parties have to concentrate on the empirical problem at hand, leaving out their personal feelings and egos. This style is also most likely to occur when the relationship between the arguing individuals is built on mutual trust.
For those of you who are visual, here is a chart that helps to summarize these five conflict management styles.

All individuals have a preferred conflict management style. For example, I admittedly lean toward the avoider style because I don't particularly like arguments, especially ones involving very stubborn individuals. However, I do strive toward a win-win or compromise scenario if 1) I see that the other person is willing to bend, 2) the issue is very important to me, and/or 3) I recognize that not standing up for myself could lead to being bulldozed down the line. A successful conflict management strategist recognizes the strengths and weaknesses of each style, reads the situation and the other party effectively, understands their own strengths and weaknesses, recognizes and understands their own preferred conflict management style, and knows when a particular style would be more successful to finding the best solution to the problem at hand.

On a side note, I find it a fascinating exercise to try to identify the conflict management styles of politicians, especially during an election year.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Conflict: It's Not Always What You Think It Is

Many people believe interpersonal conflict is automatically a bad thing. Like many other concepts, the negativity of conflict stems mostly from a person's interpretation of it. As usual, let us begin by formally defining the term.

Interpersonal conflict: a situation in which two or more people disagree

As you can see, there does not have to be anything world-shattering in conflict. You feel that pizza is the best dinner choice and someone else feels like burgers are better. This is a conflict. One person thinks Ben Afleck was the best Batman, another believes it was Adam West. This is an interpersonal conflict. Misunderstandings, incompatible goals, differing values and beliefs, and unaligned attitudes can all lead to some kind of conflict between individuals, sometimes groups.

There are many types of conflict, each of which may determine not only how we deal with the particular disagreement, but also how potentially negative or positive it may be.

  • Pseudoconflict: a false conflict from game playing or joking. The key is being able to recognize whether or not it is a "game" and not allowing yourself to be drawn in or baited, especially if you have no desire to argue over non-substantial things.
  • Fact-based conflict: a disagreement about factual issues, such as who was the prime minister of Canada in 1973 or the life-time batting average of Babe Ruth. To reduce the negativity surrounding this kind of conflict, check the facts and do not dwell on who was right or who was wrong.
  • Policy conflict: a disagreement about how to handle a situation. This is a type of conflict that has the potential to get very personal, very quickly. Success in handling this conflict depends on finding a solution that addresses the problem itself while keeping in mind the feelings of the parties involved.
  • Value-based conflict: a disagreement that occurs when people hold opposing values on things such as religion, politics, social and aesthetic issues. These types of conflict are very personal because sometimes the argument is about something that is core to a person's identity. If the issues cannot be resolved, if the argument is not a philosophical one but one that involves the necessity of action (e.g. passing a law that might infringe on personal freedoms in order to increase public safety), the situation has the potential to become particularly heated. In your own personal life, you can maintain your relationship with an individual with whom you have a value-based conflict by taking turns obliging each other's views and beliefs. In general, we tend to form relationships with people who have similar values as ourselves in order to minimize the possibility of encountering these conflicts.
  • Ego-based conflict: a disagreement in which the emphasis is on winning over resolving the actual conflict. This may have started as one of the previously mentioned types of conflict above, but one or both of the parties view the outcome as a measure of self-worth. They feel as if they are putting their reputation on the line. At that point winning becomes more important than the issue itself. It is important to recognize early on when any disagreement becomes ego-based. Moving it back to a content level may help diffuse the personal nature of the conflict so that the parties involved do not take winning or losing as a personal attack.

Interpersonal conflict does not have to be a negative event, nor does it necessarily have to lead to the end of a relationship. If we consistently view conflict negatively, then we will have a tendency to avoid dealing with disagreements. If the relationship is unimportant or the cost of confrontation is too high, then this might be an acceptable option. However, if this is an important relationship, then dealing constructively with conflict can actually generate beneficial outcomes. Issues that are aired out and resolved remove psychological burdens and anxieties. A problem is nearly impossible to solve if it is not actually addressed. Dealing with a disagreement can also end chronic sources of discontent in a relationship. If something is bothering you, then talking about it with the individual will shed light on the situation that they may not even know existed until you said something. A conflict can also bring new insights by highlight divergent viewpoints, allowing you to see the issue at hand from a fresh perspective.

The best way to deal constructively with interpersonal conflict is to communicate openly and honestly and focus on specific details rather than general statements about the other person. Avoid the use of loaded, or trigger, words and use tact and grace. Approach the disagreement positively, as an opportunity to see differences with a goal to resolving the issue in a way that will allow all parties to keep their egos intact. My next post will take a look at conflict management styles that may or may not be successful, depending upon the type of conflict and one's personal preference for dealing with disagreements.