Communicating with disorder

Trying to solve problems or make any type of progress with individuals with personality disorders can be very difficult.  Virtually every communication is insulting, repetitive, and circular.  They are seemingly unable to stay on topic and have propensities for driving others off topic.  Covering the same ground to no avail can be exhausting for the non-disordered participants, as they tend to push relentlessly for our participation in their arguments.

It is easy to fall into their communication traps and become engaged in their attempts for power.  However, with knowledge and diligence, we can re-train ourselves to successfully stand our ground by controlling our own behaviors.

A few simple steps 

1.  Eliminate emotion from the communication

There are times when we must communicate with individuals with personality disorders.  Often, they see these times as opportunities to abuse, manipulate, and engage us.  If it’s fun to make us angry, they will likely try.  Taking our emotions out of the communication equation, however, will make for less interesting interactions.  So, regardless of what they may include in their communication, we must keep it all business.

2.  Communicate using facts and few words

We should not employ a running commentary on their behavior, our issues with their behavior, or our feelings and wishes.  We should also avoid any type of advice.  We are best served by keeping communication short, simple, and factual.

3.  Stay on topic, communicating only regarding the issue at hand

We tend to write or speak in effort to come to a solution or make collaborative decisions.  We tend to not get anywhere, however, when we are dealing with those with personality disorders.  Frequently, they refuse to answer even direct questions, refuse to directly discuss the issue being addressed, or shift the topic altogether.  Not only are non-responses frustrating and useless wastes of time, but they keep us engaged.  We must learn to communicate regarding relevant material only.

4.  If the other party attempts to shift the topic without resolution, re-direct at once

Naturally, they often try to shift the topic without reaching a conclusion.  Why?  Because a resolution is not what they are looking for and it usually keeps us reeling.  They are not looking to solve matters, in spite of the fact that they will tell us they are.  Rather, the discussion constitutes engagement and opportunity to attack us further or fuel their “supply.”  Resist contributing to this and re-direct them at once.  Do not get lost in their name calling or desire for back and forth.

5.  Communicate stance, but do not repeat

We must say what we mean and mean what we say.  We must resist making threats or presenting ultimatums.  We should make our positions clear in as non-confrontational a way as possible and resist repeatedly covering the same ground with no results.  Typically, we are effective communicators.  Our failure to progress on an issue with a disordered individual is usually not our fault.

6.  Do not waver from that stance due to bullying, set boundaries

Sometimes, if we feel bullied, we may back down in an effort to ameliorate the situation.  That almost never works.  If legitimate facts come to light and we change our positions based on something concrete, that is different.  We need not be bull headed.  However, we should not change our positions simply to keep peace with these personalities.  While under normal circumstances, compromise works well, with them, we will only be seen as weak and they will exploit us at the next opportunity.  And they will see to it that there is a “next opportunity.”  Set boundaries as soon as possible.

7.  Do not worry about what they think

What they think of us will not change.  They view us negatively, and unlike with the non-disordered, our actions will not change that.  Try very hard not to become involved in the debate about responsibility and who is right or wrong.  It is futile.

8.  Do not allow their lies and projection to become part of the truth

Individuals with personality disorders tend to enjoy putting others on the defensive.  That is not a desirable place for us to be.  However, we can choose not to participate.  That does not mean that we should allow their lies to become “facts” either.  We should state the truth once to the audience who needs to hear the truth.  That’s usually enough.  If we carry on for too long, we run the risk of allowing them to alter the “facts.”

9.  Plan ahead for these types of struggles

For the most part, unless being “nice” to us directly benefits them or their cause, it’s safe to say we will not be treated well in these exchanges.  We must accept that and not allow the mistreatment to hurt our feelings or catch us off guard.  Time and a solid understanding of what happens in these exchanges will eventually place them so far away from us emotionally that none of this will matter.

However, in the interim, we must stop looking to them for validation or approval.  It is not coming.  Why do we care what someone overflowing with disorder thinks?  When someone distorts most of their surroundings, would we expect them to properly interpret us?  No.  As mysterious as they seem, the majority of their behavior becomes fairly predictable, once we become experienced.  Further, they all operate similarly enough for us to be able to plan ahead to some extent.

Exhausted yet?

This all takes practice.  We should not expect that we are immediately good at this.  Without question, I have made my share of mistakes.  Retrospectively, I look back at some of the ways I handled certain circumstances and wonder what the heck I was thinking.  The truth is that I simply did not know what to do at the time.  I thought that expressing myself would help bring about positive change.  I thought my words would help better explain things.  Not with these folks.  We do nothing more than give them more to twist.  So avoid excess.  Once we learn, we can operate more effectively and in ways in which we know we will be beneficial.

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33 Comments on "Communicating with disorder"

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My husband and I have gone “no contact” with our only child. It has been the hardest thing I have ever done in my life. I hadn’t heard from him in almost 4 years and than I get a “congratulations you’re grandparents” email from him! (congratulating us on an illegimate child he had! Though never hearing from him when he abandoned his wife, etc! Too much to list! There has been a 14 year history of ying and deceiving with him!) Everything you list in your article is true and can be done though you have to really be on guard because the SP is so very good at what they do. It is so much harder to sever your connection with a child than a spouse. My son is my flesh and blood and I truly believe it is so very different severing the connection/ties with a child. I feel like my heart has been ripped out. I am having to do what is so unnatural for a mother-not have him in my heart. It is a vicous circle. We can’t be in his life because of what he is and what he has done. But than my heart aches for my love for him. I know this can’t be so we are back to having to try and forget him. It is so unnatural-and very painful…I am always crying and questioning if we are taking the right stand in separating ourselves from him. It is destructive either way..

Heartbroken Mom of 1 – I am so sorry that you’ve had to make such a difficult decision. You are in my thoughts. I hope you and your husband can find peace.

Dear Heart Broken Mom of 1-

I have walked in your shoes. My son and I have been estranged for 5 years. I didn’t think I could ever feel joy in my life for the first 3 years. When it’s the child you adore, the anguish is suffocating and every dawn renews the cycle of depression. It’s yet another day with the deliberate absence of your child. Thank the good lord you have a husband to share this grief with.

My son’s father is a psychopath. All they say about a genetic pre-disposition is true and it is heartening to see that this knowledge is becoming available to the public. It is also true that a genetic pre-dispostion does not have to exist for this disorder to rear its ugly head.

Unfortunately, there is nothing you can do to change the mindset of an adult son. If he had little to no “affective empathy” by the time he was 8 years old, it’s unlikely he would gain it, and his behavior would simply reflect this gap in his morality to a greater and greater degree as he aged. Had you had the benefit of the knowledge that exists today about raising at-risk kids, you may have been able to do something, but you didn’t, and you can’t go back in time.

Lying, cheating, stealing, bullying, etc. are many of the horrid behaviors that I’m sure you’ve been subjected to. And having him in your life will simply subject you to more. Unfortunately, it is unlikely that he will ever change, but it’s for sure, enabling him by being there for him despite his behavior will only put you at risk. It will not cure him. Only he has control of whether he will ever improve.

I’ve come to realize that nothing is forever in life. We can lose our children due to accidental death or illness. Unfortunately, some of us lose them because of the genetic or emotional issues that exist. Grieving the loss of a child who continues to live is enormously painful, and ongoing. The death of a child is finite. The loss of a living child renews itself day after painful day. The good news is that he seems healthy, and you love him. It’s okay to feel that love in your heart at the same time that you understand that you can’t put yourself at risk by being around him.

You may want to keep in contact with your child’s child. It’s unlikely that your son will for very long and the baby is your grandchild. You may feel better by making a difference in the baby’s life. If you’re unable to do so, it will be yet another loss that you will need to grieve.

My heartfelt condolences for your loss.


Heartbroken, I walk in your shoes too except my son’s father is disordered too….It’s anguish pure and simple. Their behavior reflects everything a good parent teaches their child not to do. Lie, Cheat, Hurt others….that’s my pain!! Deeply acknowledging that we have NO control over them or over their choices is the only way. It is so so difficult to do!!!

Great advice, much of which I learned the hard way! Boundaries are the key- decide what you are willing to put up with and what you are not and then stick to it! Flexibility is only seen as a weakness by the spath. If they get you to give in, they only see you as a fool.

I don’t see why you shouldn’t issue ultimatums- either you change or I’m outta here. What’s wrong with that? For me, it was my ticket to freedom.

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