Louie; Season 1, Episode 7. “Double Date/Mom”
Louie’s narcissistic mother comes to visit unannounced.
What are personality disorders?
Personality is defined psychologically as the set of cognitive and behavioral traits that make us individuals. Simply put, how we think and act define who we are. A personality disorder is then when these thoughts and actions stray outside of societal norms. These traits can stray to varying degrees, from small out of place occurrences to fully impaired interaction with others. There is a major problem in this definition though: behaviors are classified as “disordered” based on societal expectations. Thus there is great subjectivity in determining the “oddness” of a behavior. Some of these “disordered” behaviors are harmless, some are harmful only to the person with the disorder, and some can be very damaging to those around the disordered person. So let’s talk specifics.
Personality disorders by cluster
Personality disorders are sometimes grouped into three clusters: odd, dramatic, and anxious. These clusters contain three or four distinct personality disorders a piece, but broad generalizations can be made about them.
Cluster A (Odd)
- irrational suspicion and mistrust of others
- detachment from social relationships
- restricted emotional expression
- extreme social discomfort
- distorted cognition
Cluster B (Dramatic)
- disregard for and sometimes violation of rights of others
- lack of empathy
- instability in relationships, self-image, identity, and behavior
- pattern of attention-seeking behavior and grandiosity
- need for admiration
- excessive emotion
- inability to be self-critical
Cluster C (Anxious)
- pervasive feelings of social inadequacy
- extreme sensitivity to negative evaluation
- pervasive need to be cared for by others
- rigid conformity to rules, perfectionism, and control
It is important to note that personality disorders do not have to appear in isolation, meaning they can present side by side with other psychological and neurological differences. For example, a person may have a personality disorder belonging to Cluster C and also Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), or walk the controversial line between some Cluster A disorders and schizophrenia.
While I have listed here descriptions of the personality traits of all three clusters of personality disorders, the cluster I will primarily write about will be Cluster B disorders. Why? Because this is the category I know most about. I grew up with a parent with a personality disorder in this cluster, and I have encountered many other people in my life with these traits. While it is possible to see less severe cases of Cluster B personality disorders, where self-reflection is possible and the person can work towards remission, many suffers of Cluster B disorders wreak havoc on the lives of people close to them. This has certainly been my experience.
How and why do personality disorders develop?
While genetics may play a role in some personality disorders, it is largely believed that personality disorders are caused by suffering abuse during childhood. Through a combination of learned behaviors and coping mechanisms gone wrong, an emotionally, sexually, and/or physically abused child can develop a complete personality disorder. [1,2]
With disorders such as Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD), the narcissist is created after a child suffers what is sometimes known as a narcissistic injury. Very young children go through a phase of psychological development where they see the entire world as an extension of themselves. When the child grows up with a narcissistic parent, the child is seen as an extension of the narcissist — typically either as the golden child, an extension of the narcissists’ perceived perfection, or the scapegoat, an extension of the narcissists’ self loathing. A child raised in such an environment may never fully develop out of the psychological infancy that sees the world as an extension of themselves, that is, they forever see themselves as the center of the world. Every narcissist was made by another narcissist: the cycle is vicious.
During the neurological critical period, when the child’s brain is acquiring the rules to things like language and social interaction, the child is extremely vulnerable to influence from personality disorders. This neuroplasticity (the flexibility of a brain’s neurological structure) lessens as the child grows into a teenager and then into an adult. If a child showing signs of a personality disorder is able to work with an adequate therapist, the disorder can be put into the aforementioned remission. It is also possible for a child growing up in a home with these kinds of disordered parents to absorb the thoughts and actions of the parents as “normal” and repeat them without developing a full-blown personality disorder. This is something that those of us who have grown up with parents with disorders like these have to be very aware of.
As it is relatively unheard of for personality disorders to be cured or put into remission after this teenage critical period, it seems to me that the personality disorder is in the process of being formed for the first 20 or so years of existence, and if enough normal behavior is not instilled, the disorder will take permanent hold. This is in line with basic ideas of cognitive development; that is, the brain is more flexible to change during the early years, and decreases in neuroplasticity over time. Just as it becomes harder to learn a new language after a certain age, it becomes more challenging to change one’s core personality the deeper into adulthood one is.
In the future, I will write more about NPD, the contradictory self perceptions of the narcissist, narcissists as parents, in other positions of power, and in the media. I’ll also write more about the neurological critical period and neuroplasticity.