And I found it all both helpful and frustrating.
The thing is, without Hashem and a spiritual eye, the big picture simply cannot be seen.
For example, I object to the hair-splicing delineations of personality disorders:
“This one is Narcissist, but she’s a Borderline, yet this one suffers from Histrionic Personality Disorder, oh but THIS must be Passive-Aggressive Personality Disorder…”
And so on.
You can even find entire discussions and books dedicated to hair-splitting over whether someone is Narcissist or Borderline.
Eventually, it became clear to me that the different categories were simply the effects of different personalities reflecting the same disorder.
Unfortunately, the field of mental health tends to depersonalize human beings. Whether people are emotionally healthy or not, we all tend to have different personalities with different skills, talents, strengths, and weaknesses.
For example, a more introverted person suffering from personality disorder would express it as “a covert narcissist” or be diagnosed with “Passive-Aggressive Personality Disorder.”
An extrovert? Narcissist!
An emoting, melodramatic extrovert? Histrionic!
Furthermore, just the fact that experts realized that men tend to be diagnosed with Narcissist Personality Disorder while women are more likely to be diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder indicated to me that again, the difference in diagnosis tends to be in its expression.
Women tend to emote more than men, can be moodier, and so on, thus the diagnosis of Borderline in a personality disordered woman. And vice-versa regarding men, who tend to be more aggressive and see themselves as better-looking than they actually are, and so on.
In fact, if you look at a list of Borderline indications, it reads like a collection of negative feminine attributes while a list of Narcissist indications reads like a collection of negative masculine attributes.
Why? Well, to quote paleontologist Jack Horner: “Scientists have egos. They like to name things.”
So if your mind works that way, then you end up in highly detailed analyses which you then categorize under different labels.
And like anything else, this kind of mind its advantages and disadvantages.
But human beings simply don’t fit into these neat little boxes. The human soul is too profound and exalted, much to the frustration of much of the psychiatric and mental health community.
People with personality disorders can be:
- highly intelligent or borderline retarded
- math geniuses or renowned painters or bums on the street
- very secular or seem extremely religious
- impulsive flamboyant party animals or uptight disciplined ascetics
- disorganized messy dwellers or maintain picture-perfect homes with a flair for style
- outgoing and friendly or they can be shy and even snobby
Black-on-White Thinking about Colorful People
- “They fear intimacy, so they can’t let you close.”
- “They just want to manipulate you.”
- “They consider themselves perfect and never wrong, so YOU must be wrong and to blame for everything.”
- “They need to be at the center of everything and control the relationships around them, so that’s why they triangulate.”
- “They fly into a rage when you show them incontrovertible proof of their misdeeds or manipulations because they hate being found out.”
- "They think of themselves as perfect. So if there's something wrong, it must be somebody's else fault."
It’s all true, but it’s generally only true on the unconscious level.
(Note: There is something labeled as “malignant narcissism,” which isn’t so different than actual sociopathy/psychopathy. Malignant narcissists do tend to be more aware and devious about how they are hurting people, but they still feel they are acting out of some sort of self-defense. They believe that they are somehow victims.)
For example, when a PD individual flies into a rage upon being confronted with obvious proof of his dysfunction, he isn’t thinking, “Oh no, I’ve been found out! But I still want to continue being secretly evil! So now I will fly into a rage in order to intimidate my confronter into denial!”
Instead, the rage comes instinctively. And this is also why they and their lies are so convincing: They genuinely believe they have been treated unfairly. In their heart of hearts, they believe that you have been mean and that you are actually victimizing them. No joke and no exaggeration.
If you ask a PD individual, "Do you think you're perfect?" They'll likely look taken aback and snap, "Of course not! Nobody's perfect. What do you think I am, a Narcissist?"
All the passive-aggressive things they do—and may even do with a smirk—are usually not as intentional as many people like to think. Discomfiting and even hurting people simply feels right to them. It doesn’t feel “evil” or “abusive.”
So all this language of “They want, they think, they need” is an imperfect expression of what’s really going on. Because they aren’t actually thinking or consciously wanting or needing anything beyond what they say.
Also, speaking this way reinforces the idea that the personality disordered person is aware, devious, and intentional in a way that they usually aren’t. People with personality disorders are infuriating enough to deal with. The situation doesn’t need to be made worse by implying an awareness and conscious effort that simply isn’t there.
(Although if it really is there, then that needs to be dealt with. But usually, it's not.)
For example, when personality disordered people start feeling a bond with you after you’ve treated them with kindness and warmth, they don’t think to themselves, “Oh no! I’m starting to feel close to this person! I’m even starting to trust this person! Gosh, that’s way too scary for me to handle! So I guess I’ll just kick her in the face! ANYTHING so as not to be tormented by this threatening feeling of trust and intimacy!”
No, they rarely think at all. Or, if they do think about it, it’s not in those terms. Instead, because it feels all wrong and unpleasant, they might start thinking:
“Gosh, this person is such a wimp/so fake/so weird/so pathetic/such a loser.”
And then they might start to consciously calculate how to play mindgames with you. They may even hone in on a flaw you have or something wrong (real or imagined) you did, which makes you a victimizer in their mind and gives them the right to target you.
Or not. They might just reflexively do or say something that shoves you away.
In addition, personality disorder of any kind is just a diagnosis.
It doesn’t mean it’s true.
It’s basically the view of the person diagnosing you, and who knows if that person is really qualified to judge you?
Finally, in my admittedly limited research, the diagnosis does little good.
The PDer is just fed into the victim mentality (“It’s a mental illness and therefore, not my fault”), even as they parrot all the right phrases of healthy accountability while other people (if knowledgeable in personality disorders) either dismiss the person as hopeless because personality disorders can’t be cured according to psychology OR (if not knowledgeable about personality disorders) innocent people will use the diagnosis to justify and excuse any negative behavior committed by the Narcissist/Borderline/Whatever because “it’s a mental illness, so they can’t help it, so let’s just feel sorry for them and try to be more understanding and accommodating.”
So I use the term “personality disorder” or “personality disordered” or “PD” colloquially. For me, it’s a short cut to describe a certain kind of mindset.
And oftentimes, I just say "consistently dysfunctional" or "consistently difficult" or "impossible people" something like that.
The Jewish View
Yet it does utilize other ideas that are true and more helpful than what specialists will tell you about personality disorders and how to handle them.
Chazakah is the idea of doing something 3 times, making it a “chazakah.” You can do this for good behavior. You can ingrain good habits by repeating them consistently. For example, I noticed that if I can force a healthy response 3 times in a row, the formerly bad response breaks. (Yet that third time will be one heck of doozy! So a lot of times, I’ve managed two, then crashed on the third try. But if I do make it, then there’s a nice leap of improvement.) And it’s suddenly easier to respond properly from then onward.
Yet the same is true in a negative sense. And Judaism acknowledges this by saying the first time you sin, it feels bad. The second time, you feel it’s permissible. The third time you commit that same sin, it’s already a mitzvah.
This is why PDers feel no conscious guilt for their misdeeds. (Even though deep down, they are consumed with shame, which is why they fight against taking any accountability for their bad actions.) It’s a mitzvah! They’re not only right, but righteous!
Their auto-responses are deeply, deeply ingrained from years of poor decisions, thought patterns, and actions.
Victim Mentality vs. Gratitude
If I genuinely see myself as a victim of your victimization, then that makes me good and innocent while making you evil and cruel. This automatically means that I can use any means at my disposal to stop you and even punish you.
This is why the Nazis saw themselves as victims even as they threw newborn babies into bonfires and buried them alive in pits.
This is why the Communists decried the “privileged” status of their “oppressors” even as they starved, tortured, enslaved, and mowed down millions of people—including children.
(More is written about Nazis and victimhood in: How Ingratitude Leads to Genocide.)
Judaism (Yahadut) literally comes from the word “thanks”: hoda’ah or hodeh. We are all called Yehudim after Leah Imeinu’s fourth son, Yehudah.
Our prayers are literally brimming with praise and thanksgiving.
We even bless Hashem for the bad stuff (Baruch Dayan Emet—Blessed is the Judge of Truth) and in the future, we will say today's blessing for good (Baruch Hatov v’Hametiv—Blessed is the Good One and the One Who Does Good) over the bad, too.
You cannot feel gratitude and victimhood at the same time.
If you feel that everything is from Hashem, and that bad people are just agents of Hashem, and that suffering is somehow for your benefit (atonement, a type of cleansing that enables you to experience a truly wonderful Eternal Life, a message, an impetus to improve, etc.), then you will not feel like a victim.
You will not become consumed with rage nor seek revenge.
This is why I strongly encourage people (especially myself) to just start thanking Hashem, whether it’s writing down 20 gratitudes a day, or sitting there and telling Hashem what you’re thankful for, or singing piyutim or zemirot to Him from your heart.
It doesn’t matter whether you have a personality disorder or not.
Just the action of expressing gratitude automatically lifts you to a spiritually healthier place.
This is, in fact, what I originally did not understand about Rabbeinu Bachya’s Gate of Self-Accounting. If you look at it, much of it is about contemplating how lucky you are to have what you have and also how lucky you are to not suffer from, say, attacks by wild animals, leprosy, and more.
Very little of it is what we normally think of as "doing teshuvah" or taking stock of oneself.
Anyone who actually contemplates what Rabbeinu Bachya advises you to contemplate will automatically become a better person, and a person with stronger emuna and gratitude.
You Literally Cannot Trust Anyone Except Hashem. No One Can.
One of the very frustrating aspects of dealing with personality disorders is the helplessness.
Well-meaning people often advise setting boundaries and being assertive, yet this really does NOT work. PDs HATE boundaries on their behavior. Boundaries feel like rejection and assault to PDers. Again, this is instinctive. While adherents of “Just stand your ground and they’ll eventually adjust!” truly believe that if you are clear and consistent with your boundaries for long enough, the PDer will eventually give in…this just isn’t true. Every time you set a boundary, no matter how gently and diplomatically, they’ll fight it in some way because they feel like they’re being slapped. They need to protect themselves, either by fighting, avenging, or distancing (withholding, stonewalling, slandering you quietly behind your back, etc.).
I personally saw people who considered themselves very strong, assertive, consistent, and “I don’t put up with slop from anyone” get their legs chopped out from under them by PDers. True, the PDers didn’t confront them head on, but set things up to damage the person’s career while appearing oh-so helpful! Or they started quietly stonewalling and withholding. And all the time, the assertive and consistent person felt like their method was working because they never realized they were under attack.
Also, if any kind of closeness or intimacy genuinely feels bad, wrong, uncomfortable, or threatening to them…then what can you ever do about it?
If someone said to you, “The only way we can have a good marriage/positive working relationship/healthy friendship is if you walk on nails with your bare feet,” would you do it? Would you be ABLE to do it, even if you desperately wanted a good marriage/positive working relationship/healthy friendship?
No, of course not.
(This why love and patience never heals personality disorders.)
Furthermore, as I wrote The Secret to Judging Favorably, no human being can be perfectly trustworthy. We simply don’t have the power. Gate of Trust in Duties of the Heart details a list of qualities necessary in order to truly trust and rely on someone, and Rabbeinu Bachya makes it clear that human beings simply do not have such capabilities.
Only Hashem does.
So trying to “love” personality disordered people into good mental health is tinged with unconscious gaava (pride). Yes, it’s also mixed with the good intentions emanating from your soul, a sincere soul desire to heal and bond with your fellow Jew.
But only Hashem can fulfill the personality disordered person’s (or any person’s) physical and emotional needs.
Not you and not me.
Tefillah: The ONLY Effective Response
I remember whenever I would hear about the Times of Mashiach, people also mentioned all the bad things that would happen. And they attributed many problems nowadays (marital problems, child-rearing hardships, social upheaval, chronic or fatal illnesses) to this being Times of Mashiach.
And for a long time, I didn’t understand why. Is Hashem just a Big Meanie, chas v’shalom? What’s the point of all that emotional, social, and physical upheaval?
The thing is, when nothing else works, people tend to turn to Hashem.
And our generation is particularly stiff-necked about doing so. (And I used to be very stiff-necked about this and still struggle with this, even though I’ve gotten better.) Even many in the frum community prefer professional consultations with experts, medication (anti-depressants, sedatives, etc.), material feel-good measures (“You just need a new custom shaitel and a stunning makeover!”), escapism (workaholism or vacations), constant outpourings “to get it off my chest” to friends, spouses, family members, and so on, to sitting and doing a cheshbon hanefesh or talking stuff out with Hashem.
(NOTE: Please don’t assume that I’m above indulging in some of the above. Also, I personally have no problem with anyone indulging in the occasional consultation, pill, cigarette, makeover, new outfit “just because,” vacation, career, or heart-to-heart talk, etc. To me, it’s not different than taking Advil for a headache.
But the point is: Repeatedly turning to the above as a crutch to ignore Hashem is a problem. That's all.)
And I really believe that the very impossibility, incurability, and indefinability of personality disorders is to get us to turn to Hashem.
I personally have seen improvement in impossible people who were passionately prayed for.
Again, I’m glad I read all the literature because the observations and elucidations were helpful and validating. However, the answers are (as usual) within Torah literature.