Ahhh – a complex question indeed. When we are looking at the grouping of personality disorders referred to clinically in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Illness – V (DSM-V) as Cluster B disorders, we often want to know WHY these people ARE the way they are. Why can’t they be healthy, mentally and emotionally? Why do they seem to crave and create emotionally damaging drama? Why can’t they just be more like US and if not like us exactly, at least understand our sides of things? Well, there are very good reasons for this. While complex and often overlapping, we can safely bet that some if not all of the following factors we discuss here are present to some degree. For clarity, I will be discussing causes and factors indicative of Anti-Social Personality Disorder (ASPD) and Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD). It is my hope that learning about some of these very important factors will imprint upon you that change is not possible, that abuse will continue and get worse over time, and there isn’t one single thing you can do to change someone with a personality disorder. We simply must make adjustments in our lives to at best eliminate abuse, or at least minimize its impact.
“There is no need to try to ‘help’ someone with a Cluster B Personality Disorder be different or change; it is widely accepted that standard clinical therapeutic modalities are ineffective. We are much better served accepting the whole of the person; then adjusting our lives to minimize negative affects.” L.A. Gilliam
So, let’s take a look at the existing factors in the creation of an anti-social personality and/or narcissist. There may be some who question nature vs. nurture; thinking it must be one or the other. These days via in-depth research and a stance I also hold, is that it is BOTH nature AND nurture. I firmly believe, and research backs this opinion, that ASPD and NPD are caused by both ‘nature and nurture’ factors. To varying degrees, we ALL may have some of these factors present, but when the ‘perfect’ blend of factors come together in just the ‘right’ way, a personality disorder develops. Some of these factors (briefly outlined) are:
- Faulty parental-child attachments. There is no question the early childhood years, 1 – 5 (some may even limit these years to 1-3), are of paramount importance to a child’s overall stability and mental / emotional development and health. In the case of physically and/or emotionally absent parents, the child may lack true and natural loving bonds with the parent; the very person responsible for overtly demonstrating care for the child, showing the child that even if the world is a harsh place, there is safety and loving care at home with the parent(s). Perhaps one or both parents are physically and/or emotionally absent. Perhaps one or both parents are themselves lacking in the nurturing traits a young child needs. Addiction / alcoholism can also play a part here; perhaps one or both parents have substance abuse issues, affecting their parenting styles. Whatever the cause, the very lack of strong, secure, and PREDICTABLE parental care and attachment plays a strong role in the development of a personality disorder. Research has shown that infants who are left alone, disregarded, and their needs not met (both emotionally and physically), tend to have faulty parental attachments which may follow them into adulthood. On the other hand, research has shown that with even one strong and supportive caring adult in the child’s world, the development of mental and emotional issues can be lessened. Often in families however, there are layer upon layer of dysfunction, radiating outward to affect all family members to some degree. As the infant / young child develops, is it the unpredictable nature of lacking and genuine comfort, care, and safety needs not being met that are large contributors to the development of a personality disorder. It is the very accumulation over and over of not having the child’s needs met where we see a delicate psyche ripe for the formation of a personality disorder. It goes without saying that childhood abuse, neglect, and abandonment are critically devastating to a child’s development.
- Brain structure, function, and communication abnormalities. As complex as the human brain is, there are structures within that play a significant role in emotional development and regulation, as well as the critical thought process thought of as uniquely “human”. Among these structures are the Amygdala, which is responsible largely for the emotional regulation in humans. Additionally, the Frontal Cortex is responsible for planning and organizing behavior and emotional reactions, critical, and logical thought processes. Next is the Limbic System, largely responsible for managing emotions, reactions, and is the seat of irrational, and instinctive behavior. As you can see between these three structures, abnormalities would hugely impact someone’s emotional health and response systems. It is widely accepted that in an anti-social / narcissist these structures do not function normally, nor do they communicate normally with each other. What research illustrates is that often the ‘impulse centers’ are non-reactive to what a ‘normal’ person would experience, thereby creating the need for more stimulation in order to produce a level of acceptable ’emotion’. What this means, and is shown throughout abusive relationships, that while someone claims to ‘abhor drama’ and make statements such as “I just want a peaceful life”, their ACTIONS create and maintain a higher level of emotional arousal than what a normal person would enjoy. This heightened state of arousal is often necessary for the Cluster B personality disordered individual to feel ANYTHING at all, due to the abnormalities of these brain structures. If you know someone with a Cluster B personality disorder, you know someone who LIVES IN DRAMA nearly constantly. Sadly, the victims of people with these disorders understand that there is much ‘acting out / bad behavior’ done behind closed doors that allows the disordered person to FEEL, yet is socially unacceptable behavior – at the victim’s expense. This is one of the main reasons the abuse is relegated to only the victim and rarely shown to the world at large; to do so would be a commitment to a mental health facility or prison. It is the side of psychopathy and sociopathy that allows the said disordered individual to ‘pick and choose’ whom will be abused, when and under what circumstances. *It must be stated here also that Pre-Frontal Cortex development can be stunted in the teenage / puberty years, through abuse and neglect, stress, depression, drug use and other factors. The environment will always play a role in development.
- Maladaptive coping mechanisms. As the child who may be deemed more vulnerable than those who do not have the first two indicators, development of maladaptive, manipulative, yet effective coping strategies may be developed. At the root of all, there are significant and devastating feelings of worthlessness, emptiness, and a very fragile self-esteem. Due to not having the strong familial backing to help the child develop normally, the child will then turn to anti-social and maladaptive techniques and strategies to get their needs met. This may take the form of throwing temper tantrums, acting out aggressively, even overpowering younger siblings in the home, fantasy thinking over overpowering and controlling others, etc. Without positive intervention showing the child how to handles stressors normally, positively, and at least serving the individual’s needs temporarily, these strategies are then strengthened. The child learns these strategies are effective, and continues to use these coping strategies well into older childhood and adulthood. Replacement behaviors are not learned, the stressors still exist and become more acute as time passes, and the now young adult falls back to what they know; manipulation, overcompensation for a lack of feelings of positive internal strength and worthiness, aggression, with attempts at power and control over others. Going back to early childhood, often the infant and child are not taught self-soothing behaviors, largely because the parent(s) is absent, lacking skills themselves, or just not interested or able to provide and teach these skills to the child. The inability to calm one’s self, to self-soothe, can be a precursor to aggressive, overtly demonstrative and maladaptive behavior. It is just this lack of socially accepted coping mechanisms, having never learned them in the first place, that may lead to aggressive, abusive, and harmful behavior in an effort to get needs met.
Whew. Take a deep, deep breath. If you have a Cluster B personality disordered individual in your life, it is likely you have someone who has a blend of all of the above factors, as well as other contributors as well. While somewhat technical, this is very important (simplified) information related to OUR understanding of “What Makes Them That Way”, and to further development of strategies on OUR side for making necessary life adjustments to limit, or eliminate, abuse from our lives. Obviously, there is no changing brain structure and function abnormalities. There just isn’t. As stated, all of us may have/had some blend of the above factors also, but perhaps had OTHER strengthening, fortifying, healthy influences also. There may be yet unknown influences at play as the research into anti-social disorders continues. What I would like to leave you with now however, is the understanding that there is NOTHING any of us can do to CHANGE what has been outlined here. We will not change someone’s early childhood, their brain, or faulty coping mechanisms. Chances are these influences are long standing, and actually serve a purpose for the anti-social / narcissist; believe me when I say they see nothing wrong with themselves, and blame everything and everyone ELSE for any difficulties. It will be up to you to decide what to do from here. It is my hope that at minimum, some of these very important factors will imprint upon you that change is not possible, that abuse will continue and get worse over time, and there isn’t one single thing you can do to change someone with a personality disorder. Adjust YOUR life to at best eliminate abuse, or at least minimize its impact in YOUR life. Best, L.A.