Why Narcissism and Other High Conflict Personalities Are On the Rise
There are several books, numerous articles and blog posts about our current culture of narcissism (Lasch, 1991; Twenge and Campbell, 2010; Pinsky, 2009). Much of the recent material focuses on celebrities and the more obvious types of ego mania and entitlement, bad parenting, the boom in social media and the cheap self-esteem that’s been fostered in the last four decades. The fact that narcissism is on the rise is frightening enough, but it’s not just narcissism. All high conflict personalities are on the rise and that includes the other Cluster B disorders: Borderline Personality Disorder, Histrionic Personality Disorder and Antisocial Personality Disorder.
Not all people with the above personality disorders are prone to high conflict, but many of them are (Eddy, 2008, p. 29). As a society, we need to be concerned that this percentage of the population is increasing. Individuals who fit this pattern adversely impact the workplace, government, the court system, school systems, healthcare and just about every facet of life. The cost to society is high because their behavior doesn’t occur in a vacuum. It affects millions of people every day. They consume more than their fair share of resources, rarely respect the rights of others and continue to transmit patterns of abuse to each successive generation of their offspring.
“High Conflict People have high-conflict personalities. Conflict is part of who they are. It’s a lifelong pattern of thinking and feeling and acting. Time after time, they argue against feedback, regardless of how helpful or truthful it may be. And time after time, they try to persuade others to agree with their rigid points of view and to help them attack their Targets of Blame. The issues come and go, but their personality traits keep them in conflict. Their problems remain unresolved and the stress on those around them often increases” (Eddy, 2008, p. 16). High conflict people tend to follow a specific pattern (Eddy, 2008, p. 16):
- Rigid and uncompromising, repeating failed strategies
- Unable to accept or heal from a loss
- Negative emotions dominate their thinking
- Unable to reflect on their own behavior
- Difficulty empathizing with others
- Preoccupied with blaming others
- Avoid any responsibility for the problem or the solution
If you’re reading this, perhaps you’ve been or currently are the Target of Blame of a high-conflict spouse, girlfriend, boyfriend, ex, colleague, boss or stranger(s). Perhaps you’ve been on the receiving end of mobbing (bullying by a group instigated by one or two ringleaders) and/or a smear campaign or distortion campaign of a high-conflict person who has decided you’re to blame for her or his unhappiness. It’s a horrible position to be in, particularly because high-conflict individuals don’t seem to ever stop their blaming and malicious behaviors.
Do All High-Conflict People Have Personality Disorders?
No, some just have personality disorder traits and not a full-blown disorder(s). People with personality disorder traits are often stuck in their destructive behavior patterns, but they’re more likely to change than someone who qualifies for one or some combination of personality disorders. “However, when people who just have traits are in high-conflict situations (court litigation, dysfunctional workplaces, intense neighbor or family disputes) they appear to have personality disorders” (Eddy, 2008, p. 30).
More often than not, personality-disordered, high-conflict people fall into the, you guessed it, Cluster B continuum. Bleiberg (2001) refers to Cluster Bs as the “severe” personality disorders because they chronically engage in extreme conflict, drama and cause the most problems in society. For a brief description of the four Cluster B disorders, check out Diversified Mediation.
Why High-Conflict People Are On the Rise
In 2004, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) found that 14.8% of the US population meets the criteria to be diagnosed with at least one personality disorder from a sample of more than 43,000 interviewees. This study did not include Borderline, Narcissist or Schizotypal personality disorders. Therefore, the percentage is very likely much higher. NIH conducted the study because:
- The lack of information on personality disorders is a major gap in US health policies.
- Personality disorders seem to be significantly linked to work problems, marital/family/relationship problems and criminal activities.
The results showed a slightly larger number of personality disordered individuals in the younger age groups. The percentages diminish successively with each older generation. “Since personality disorders generally don’t change with age, this study reinforces the other indicators that personality disorders and traits are increasing in our society with each new generation” (Eddy, 2008, p. 32).
Eddy (2008, pp. 32-34) cites 6 reasons personality disorders are on the rise in modern urban cultures, some of which other authors have also noted:
- Instability in early childhood
- Diminishing social glue
- Loss of personal behavior role models
- A society of individuals
- Teaching self-centeredness
- Openness to social complaint (i.e., our frivolous law suit society)
Instability and the inability to adapt. Our core personality (temperament, introversion/extroversion, thinking/feeling, etc.) develops by the time we’re 5- to 6-years old. Healthy personalities change, evolve and adapt over the course of a lifespan, but for the most part, core characteristics are enduring. People with high-conflict personalities are usually unable to adapt and don’t evolve in a healthy way over time. Their personalities are extreme and extremely rigid. “The more stable and secure the first five or 6 years, the more secure and adaptable the person is as an adult” (Eddy, 2008, p. 32). Experiencing a high degree of instability in the first 6 years increases the likelihood of a child developing a personality disorder.
Diminishing social glue. Over the last 30 years, the US divorce rate has exploded. More children are raised in single parent families who have witnessed and experienced chaos, abuse/neglect and other disruptions and disconnections. Make fun of the “it takes a village” catch phrase all you like, but we are a hyper digitally connected and increasingly physically disconnected society. We used to know our neighbors, spend holidays with extended family and live in the same cities with our parents, aunts, uncles and cousins. We trusted teachers and other adult authority figures to discipline and model good behavior for our children. Over the last few decades, this has changed. We interact with digital devices that don’t respond with a smile, touch or disapproval for inappropriate behaviors.
Loss of personal behavioral role models. So who do we model our behaviors on? Reality stars? “A powerful part of personality development is family and community story telling about good and bad behavior” (Eddy, 2008, p.33). With our disconnected families and lack of community, people seem to be emulating the extreme high-conflict behaviors reported by the media in an escalating attempt to cover the most dramatic and extreme people and behaviors. Reality stars are rewarded with their excruciatingly long 15 + minutes of fame. These people get attention for behaving like egocentric, malicious, vindictive noise makers. When did making noise translate into making news? Recently, Laurence Fishburne’s daughter, Montana Fishburne, decided it would be a good career move to make a porno film. Sex tapes used to be the death knell of a career.
A society of individuals. We’ve become more and more socially isolated due technological advances that allow us to work and live apart from others. While telecommuting is great, interacting with an electronic device day in and day out means “we don’t depend on others as much, so we don’t have to compromise with them or even care about them. This reinforces self-centeredness and a drive for more control over our personal space and more desire for relationships with material goods” (Eddy, 2008, p. 33). People with high-conflict personalities are driven by fear: fear of being abandoned, fear of ridicule, fear of appearing inferior, fear of exposure and fear of losing control. Being socially isolated increases both the degree of fear and sense of disconnectedness that doesn’t allow them to see their impact on others. Additionally, living in a state of fear significantly contributes to the fight or flight (emphasis on the fight) mentality that high-conflict people seem to have.
Teaching self-centeredness or three generations of self-esteemers. The self-esteem movement was spawned by the mental health field in the 1970s. Forty years later, “this self-esteem focus has inadvertently given people high expectations of receiving benefits for themselves, without learning as many skills to achieve or give back to others. The effect is to teach narcissism as a cultural trait” (Eddy, 2008, p. 33). In a CNN opinion piece, Ruben Navarrette, Jr writes:
Americans have reared at least one generation of kids, or maybe two, to think of themselves as the last bottle of soda pop in the desert. We said we were building children’s self-esteem so they could be successful, but it never occurred to us that giving kids what psychologists call ‘cheap self-esteem’ could do more harm than good by making our kids think they’re 10-feet tall and bulletproof when they’re neither. Besides, what many of these parents were really doing was feeding their own egos; by telling your kids they’re special, it confirms that you’re special for having such special kids. Isn’t that special?
Ask any university professor about the degree of entitlement in recent generations of students who believe they should get A’s just for showing up. Oftentimes, when these young adults get the lower grades they deserve (e.g., poor attendance, incomplete work, poor test cores or not following assignment directions), the students complain to the professor and then escalate to the dean and right on up to the university president or, worse yet, get their outraged and enabling parents to do it for them. Additionally, recent research shows that social platforms like Facebook, Twitter and MySpace can be used to gauge narcissism and other problematic behaviors. I would love to see a study done on how social media is used to conduct distortion smear campaigns.
Openness to social complaints. Our legal system, work environments, community groups, social services and media provide a nutrient rich breeding ground for high-conflict people. High-conflict people have hijacked the concept of ‘justice for all’ and perverted it into a weapon to punish and destroy their Targets of Blame. “Our procedures of fairness and openness unintentionally encourage complaints and prolonged disputes. We thoroughly and objectively examine limited ‘facts’ without recognizing the significance of personality problems and how they can distort the ‘facts.’ This encourages those with personality disorders to seek validation for personal problems and upsets that they can’t handle inside themselves through the courts and other agencies” (Eddy, 2008, p34). Unfortunately, persuasive blamers are often believed at first or indefinitely, until or unless you can catch them in contradictions or their behaviors become so egregious that they can no longer be ignored.
This is all very discouraging, which is why this information needs to become more accessible to the mainstream. Judges, attorneys, court evaluators, police and healthcare professionals—including mental health professionals—need to understand these issues and talk about them openly. As a society, we need to set limits and create consequences for high-conflict people rather than rewarding and enabling them to continue to drain resources and recklessly harm whomever they decide to target for their unhappiness.
by Dr Tara J. Palmatier, PsyD
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- Bleiberg. (2001). Treating personality disorders in children and adolescents. New York: Guilford Press.
- Eddy, W. (2008). It’s all your fault! 12 tips for managing people who blame others for everything. HCI Press.
- Lasch, C. (1991). The culture of narcissism: American life in an age of diminishing expectations. W.W. Norton and Compay.
- Pinsky, D. (2009). The Mirror Effect: How Celebrity Narcissism is Seducing America. Harper.
- Twenge, J. and Campbell, K.W. (2010). The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement. Free Press.
- Angiemedia: BPD distortion campaigns.
- Angiemedia: What is the cost of BPD to society?
- CNN: Joe, Kanye, Serena—Aren’t they special?
- Diversified Mediation: High Conflict Personalities: How to keep them from destroying your life.
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