It’s Narcissist Friday!
I have been reading a book that ties borderline and narcissistic personality disorders together as though they are the same. The author often uses a short-hand indication—BP/NP—to refer to both disorders together. In fact, the author considers both of them to be “mental illnesses.”
There are a limited number of personality and relationship disorder symptoms. It is easy to view a set of symptoms and come to an inaccurate conclusion. Non-professionals often jump to a diagnosis based on just a few observations. Professionals, however, are not supposed to do that. This author, a psychological professional, should either have a very good reason for making a connection like this, or should stop doing it. The two disorders are quite different.
To be fair, this author acknowledges the differences. The purpose of the book is to help those who have to care for people with these disorders. The “acting out” of these problems does often look the same. Both project, manipulate, lie, and use others. The caregivers may experience very similar stresses. Yet, linking two different disorders together minimizes the peculiarities of each.
Now, I have to say at this point that I do not consider myself to be a psychological professional. I am a theologian and a counselor with many years of experience, but I do not hold advanced degrees in psychology. For me to suggest that a card-carrying professional is being irresponsible may be for me to step outside my jurisdiction. So you take my thoughts for what they are worth.
Borderline personality disorder is a recognized set of symptoms and is considered to be a mental disorder. It is characterized by emotional instability and self-damaging behavior and thinking. BPs are often considered hyper-reactive, anxious, and unpredictable by those who live with and work with them. They consider themselves to be empty and broken. They have difficulty maintaining relationships, and the relationships that continue in their lives are stressed and disturbed. BPs lean toward being self-abusive and even suicidal, with a higher degree of Munchhausen’s than the general population. They can be paranoid and impulsive. To put it in more general terms, BPs depersonalize and damage themselves. In doing so, they hurt the people around them.
Now, by all means, don’t just take my word for this. If this interests you, check it out. Just google “borderline personality disorder” and read the descriptions in Wikipedia or some of the mental health sites. Those who suffer from this disorder, along with their caregivers, suffer truly.
The jury is still out as to whether BP is a mental illness, and medications may be used to soften symptoms that would cause the person to harm themselves, but there is no treatment other than counseling and therapy. Some of the types of therapy used with BP are also used with narcissism. That appears to be the primary link between the two disorders.
Narcissism, on the other hand, is rarely considered a mental illness by professionals. In fact, some seem to doubt that it is even a disorder in the same way BP and others are. Some professionals consider narcissism to be more of a choice or a style, a personality type. The reason for this is that narcissists don’t appear to be in any danger of hurting themselves and can live healthy, even productive, lives as narcissists. The fact that others are hurt along the way is an “unfortunate consequence” of narcissistic choices.
Yes, there are similarities. Both narcissists and borderlines seem impulsive, emotionally unstable, and self-focused. But the differences are significant. Narcissists hurt others with intent to protect themselves. BPs hurt others as they hurt themselves. Narcissists will not admit to their brokenness. BPs see themselves as broken and act on that belief. While I suspect that many narcissists view life and relationships as empty, I doubt they view themselves in that light. BPs will often refer to being and feeling empty. Both dabble in magical thinking, fantasies of how life ought to be. In the narcissist’s dreams, however, we are all servants making his/her world great. BPs just long for a world that feels good.
If I had to pick one difference to underscore as definitive, I would say this: Borderlines depersonalize themselves. Narcissists depersonalize others. Perhaps an argument could be made that these are just two different ways of handling the same inner fears, but the people who deal with these disorders in relationships will see them as quite distinct.
Here’s another way of saying it: Narcissists have victims, while borderlines are victims. We don’t say that the narcissist is a victim of his disorder. His victims are the people he uses. But borderlines use and abuse others only because they are so victimized themselves.
This is simplistic and professionals would probably not like my assessments. My point here is that it helps no one to combine two obviously distinct disorders as though they were the same. It would be easy for me to believe that BP is a mental illness. The self-destructive behaviors alone indicate illness, rather than choice. Narcissism, on the other hand, seems so much more like a self-protective choice, a life where others are used and abused without regret in search of some personal goal.
Perhaps someday I will be proved wrong, but I still believe narcissism is a choice. Yes, it was made in response to early challenges. Yet it has been maintained by choice. Abusive and self-serving thinking seems right to the narcissist. The pain of others means nothing, because others mean nothing.
And every narcissist act is a choice.