People who have been hurt in a certain kind of way develop similar ways of coping with or approaching the world. They have enough similar and common sets of behaviors to be described as having a personality disorder. These sets of behaviors can be thought of as a constellation of personality traits. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders describes nine such personality clusters.
Many people react with discomfort (as did I during graduate school while becoming a psychotherapist) to this sort of diagnosing or labeling. When you use labels to target people, dismiss them, ostracize them, or reject them, you are using the destructive power of diagnosis. However, in my experience, there is truth in this idea: certain injuries cause a certain type of harm that manifests as certain types of symptoms.
People who have been diagnosed with a borderline personality disorder (BPD) have had extremely toxic childhoods. Generally, they have been abused, either sexually, physically, or emotionally. They have suffered severe trauma at the hands of other people who claimed to love them. Most often these people did love them but also suffered from some kind of problem, such as substance abuse, mental health issues, or anger management difficulties.
Psychologist Marsha M. Linehan says that people with personality disorders have a “pervasive disorder of emotion dysregulation.” She would further say they have a biologic vulnerability, which is to say they are extremely sensitive to emotional stimuli.
Linehan described the upbringing of those with BPD as a “pervasively invalidating environment,” which invalidates even valid behavior. The child grows up not knowing how to label his or her experience—since the parent says it’s not what it is—and doesn’t learn how to regulate emotions or trust his or her own judgement. In addition to rejecting the emotions associated with the child’s private experience, the parent punishes emotional displays. Therefore, the child learns to have flat emotions, and that the way to get help is to ratchet emotions way up. Parents don’t help the child figure out the small steps to get to the big goal. The child doesn’t learn how to tolerate distress or be pleased with little steps. The child ends up with high expectations for him/herself and doesn’t learn how to tolerate failure.
People with BPD often feel that no one understands them. They frequently feel betrayal, breaches of trust, and distortions of reality. As adults, they crave loving relationships with people they can trust, yet also are quick to perceive others as bad or evil and as sources of threat. They may quickly adore or idolize a new person who appears “good” (i.e. safe), but then hyper-vigilantly monitor the other’s behavior and react with a vicious attack when their perception of the person changes.
Because of their previous hyper-vigilance, they have noticed more about another person than most people; when they go into attack mode, they know where that person feels most vulnerable or self-critical. This behavior is one reason why therapists commonly dread this kind of client—because these clients are the ones who can viciously attack while someone is actually trying to help them! Because they have alienated many people throughout their lives, they are often (though not always) filled with remorse immediately after such an attack. Friendships, intimate relationships, and often even family ties cannot survive the ups and downs of the “I love you; now I hate you” flip-flop.
Borderline Personality Disorder in a Friends meeting
I want to describe how someone with BPD might behave in a group because it is important for Quaker meetings to recognize what is going on. I use male pronouns in the following description for the sake of simplicity, but BPD affects both men and women. Because the person with BPD is always vigilantly looking for people he considers unsafe, he tends to have a bad-versus-good view, seeing everyone he knows as falling into these two camps. He has low tolerance for someone disagreeing with him, so issues in the meeting will often quickly lead him to demonize a particular person, usually someone he perceives to have power. He will tend to have strong, intense opinions about issues before the meeting and to communicate and conduct himself in ways that severely polarize an issue or people. As it is hard for him to trust that power is ever wielded nondestructively, this scenario will frequently play out as an attack by him on a leader or an important committee of the meeting.
He will try to disempower those he distrusts through indirect polarizing methods, such as gossip, complaint channels, or nomination processes. He may flip-flop on his own position, adding further chaos to the situation. Once he convinces a few others to share his concern, or carry forward the concern he has put in motion, the problems in the meeting take on a life of their own, a life which may outlive the interest of the BPD person. Because he is quite perceptive about people, his attacks often carry significant elements of the truth, which are interwoven with half truths, distortions, innuendoes, and fears. This mixture is especially confusing for others since they often recognize part of it to be true and part of it to be false and thus don’t know what to make of the total presentation.
Reasons Friends are particularly vulnerable to these behaviors
Because we believe there is that of God in everyone, we are reluctant to cast out or even censor individuals in the group, even when we recognize an individual’s behavior as destructive to the group. Because we are seekers of the Truth, we are confused when we hear truths interspersed with lies. Because consensus practice teaches us to listen to the truth in each speaker’s position, we can easily allow a disturbed person to take the lion’s share of the meeting’s attention on an issue while we listen. Because we are pacifists, many among us seem to confuse pacifism with not setting limits or not confronting behaviors. In fact, many of us seek to avoid conflict at all costs. Someone with a personality disorder will engender conflict in the meeting as a matter of course. We often try to ignore the problem until it gets much worse and more difficult to address.
We have, for the most part, laid down eldering practices, which in previous times would have resulted in the person with BPD being called on conduct that does not follow Quaker practice. Persons with BPD tend to distrust or flout authorities. Because Quakers historically have disobeyed authorities in cases of conscience (freedom to worship; refusal to serve in the military, take oaths, remove hats, pay military taxes, and on and on), we as a group are also suspicious of authority. As a result of our suspicion of authority, we can too easily get sucked into the BPD’s suspicion or attack upon our own leadership. I am not suggesting that Friends change any of the above named traits; I am simply suggesting that these traits make us more vulnerable to the disruptive impact of someone with BPD.
What do we need to do?
One of the most important things to do with those suffering from BPD is to set clear limits and stick to them. People with BPDs do a lot of testing of limits, just as two-year-olds do and for the same reasons: they want to see if the limits are real. It is an appropriate and loving limit to keep them from destroying the worship community of countless other people as well as themselves. It would actually be harmful to them to allow them to do that.
Interestingly enough, the prescribed “right order of Friends” would naturally avoid many problems. If we trusted our leaders because they were nominated in a discernment process and if we likewise trusted our committees because they were also nominated and have seasoned the work they bring to the larger group, we would avoid many of these conflicts.
Insisting that Friends in the meeting follow gospel order would also allow us to avoid the destruction that happens through gossip or behind-the-scenes comments. In this practice, we ask that developing conflicts be brought directly to the person with whom there’s a problem, and that the two in conflict find a mediator to address continuing issues before bringing it to the entire meeting.
After someone says something that sets one up against another, we can go to the person and enter into dialogue, avoiding a conflict stirred up by the third party. If we did not allow members of our community to take shortcuts through agreed-upon processes because they “have a good reason,” we would not create the messes those processes were designed to avoid. In fact, if we check practice before content, we can avoid getting sucked into provocative and destructive issues.
One of the most helpful things meetings can do is have strong processes in place before a polarizing person arrives. Good nominating and effective business practice help protect the meeting community. Conflict can be minimized if members avoid gossip about a third person and advise gossipers to talk directly to the person with whom they are upset.
The meeting can also be educated about the dangers of splitting into camps which reinforce one position as good and the other camp’s actions as “the problem.” (Parents will recognize this dynamic.) If the meeting has a clear process in place for responding to people who disrupt worship or business meeting process, then it can prevent the accusation that the process was developed ad hoc to punish a particular individual.
It is helpful to confront disruptive behaviors as soon as possible, not by labeling them (which only increases defensiveness) but by clearly explaining what part of the behavior is disruptive, and then setting clear personal and meeting limits. It is helpful to let the person know that he or she is good even though his or her behavior is unacceptable.
All parts of the meeting must agree to a unified message: breaking limits once set will lead to more testing and pushing behavior. If there are consequences for behaviors, they must be clearly stated ahead of time, up to and including disownment.
It has happened that individuals struggling with personality disorders have left one meeting and gone on to create similar havoc in another. Friends have had the tradition of requiring a letter of transfer. Continuing to attend to this tradition allows the first meeting to know where the former member has traveled to and to share information with the second meeting about what lines of accountability were used in the past, what was effective, and what was not. This practice helps create accountability within the Religious Society of Friends between meetings.
Three Meetings Respond to Mental Health Issues
A large urban Friends meeting
A schizophrenic and actively delusional man began visiting a large city meeting and delivering weekly messages of increasing length; the content was delusional, paranoid, and very distressing. (Schizophrenia is completely different from personality disorder but is also very disruptive.)
The meeting’s Ministry and Oversight Committee talked with him and learned that he had been diagnosed as schizophrenic but, as he described it, he did not need to take his medication because God was saving him. The committee explained the meeting’s shared expectations for ministry and informed him that he was not following the ministry guidelines. When subsequent messages reached 15 minutes in length, they told him that he would have to worship in the library with members of the committee until he could agree to keep to the guidelines, and that they would seek a restraining order against him if he did not follow these guidelines. He worshipped once in the library, then declared that Satan had taken over the meeting and stopped returning. A small, Midwestern U.S. worship group with a BPD member was able to use similar guidelines to keep her behavior in meeting for worship within boundaries for years until she died.
A small meeting in Washington state
An attender with BPD had symptoms that surfaced when her boyfriend (also an attender) broke up with her. She began making strange accusations against him and told the meeting that she shouldn’t have to worship in the same room with him; she also frequently called members of the meeting’s Ministry and Oversight Committee. The committee decided that he would not be asked to leave and informed her that her grievances were personal and not ones that the meeting shared. Committee members rotated who would call her every day and put time limits on the calls. She kept within these boundaries but eventually left the meeting.
A large urban Midwestern meeting
This meeting had experienced a series of mentally ill attenders for varying lengths of time, including two tumultuous and painful experiences with sex offenders that had left its members full of hurt and anger. When an attender with mental health issues arrived and began to be disruptive, the meeting acted quickly to make boundaries, set expectations, and insist on appropriate behaviors. The clerk of the meeting told me: “We had learned from our year of suffering that we cannot fix all the broken people in the world, but that we must keep our worship sacred and safe. . . . We learned finally that our needs were just as important and worthy of tending to as the needs of all those wounded who come in our midst.”
Sometimes we Friends feel like we should be able to handle anything that comes in the door in a spirit of love. But the reality is sometimes we do not know how to handle all the problems our meetings can encounter.
We can think that as Christians we should be required to love everyone—which gets interpreted to mean we should put up with any behavior. But Jesus still had expectations and would say no to that which he saw as wrong. We also sometimes believe it is a form of violence to do anything against someone’s will; this kind of thinking wrongly confuses boundary-setting with violence.
It is helpful to remember that our meeting is sacred, a prize that cannot be replaced at any price. It is good and necessary to treat others with compassion and patience, but to allow one person to destroy a sacred space is to dishonor the needs of all the other members of meeting.