How Big Is This Problem Today?

© 2012 By Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq.

[Excerpted from It’s All Your Fault!]

In 2004, a study funded by the National Institutes of Health (N.I.H.) reported that 14.8% of the general population of the United States meets the criteria for the diagnosis of at least one personality disorder. Over 43,000 people were interviewed. The study covered only 7 of the 10 personality disorders. Since they didn’t include Borderline, Narcissist, or Schizotypal, the percentage is likely to be higher. A follow-up study is planned that will include these three disorders (Grant, 2004).

This study was done because the lack of information on personality disorders was considered a “major gap” in the nation’s health policies. The concern was that personality disorders seemed particularly associated with work problems, marital problems, and criminal activities. The results showed a slightly higher number of personality disorders among people living in urban areas and in younger age groups (18 to 29-year-olds had the most, then 30 to 44, then 45 to 64; 65 and older had the least). Since personality disorders generally don’t change with age, this study reinforces the other indicators that personality disorders and traits are increasing in our society with each new generation.

Why Are HCPs Increasing? People with personality disorders apparently exist in all countries and cultures, perhaps as part of the biological variety of the human race. However, I believe we’re witnessing an increasing amount of high-conflict personalities in modern urban societies, for at least five possible reasons.

1. Instability in early childhood: Personalities develop primarily in early childhood, by age 5 or 6. Stable family relationships are an essential part of this process, so a child develops healthy coping strategies for being responsible and succeeding in future social relationships. The more stable and secure the first five or six years, the more secure and adaptable the person is as an adult. It’s easy to see that young children over the last few decades have experienced an increasing amount of disruption to their important family relationships from substance abuse, divorce, child abuse, and so forth. Mental health researchers report that child abuse and neglect increase the risk of developing a personality disorder four times (Wekerle, 2006).

2. Diminishing social glue: Personality development depends on the “social glue” of many positive personal experiences throughout childhood. These include thousands of smiles, moments of empathy, hours of listening, friendly touches, praise, etc.—what I think of as “social glue bits.” Over the last few decades, community ties have weakened, families have shrunk or broken up, and electronic devices have rapidly begun replacing personal contact. Children seem to be getting fewer and fewer of these personal social glue bits. They can’t get them from television, movies, iPods, PDAs, or the Internet. Even cell phones and webcams leave out physical touch and other important in-person behavior. ATM machines, self-service gas pumps, subway turnstiles, and self-service store checkouts let us come and go without anyone giving us personal attention. Everyone experiences this, but we’re witnessing the first generations to be raised with this diminished social glue as part of their personality development.

3. Loss of personal behavior role models: A powerful part of personality development is family and community storytelling about good and bad behavior. Yet, in today’s world, print media and electronic media compete with family values and role models by providing ever-increasing drama and extreme behavior. Stories of conflict resolution that are self-centered, extreme, and/or violent make the evening news and popular shows, while normal problem-solving behavior occurs mostly out of sight. Children personally experience fewer examples and styles of resolving conflicts, and fewer opportunities to practice negotiation strategies in everyday life.

4. A society of individuals: In our urban cultures, we have created a Society of Individuals who can live and work on our own. We don’t depend on others as much, so we don’t have to compromise with them as much or even care about them. This reinforces self-centeredness and a drive for more control over our personal space and more desire for relationships with material goods. Ironically, the more socially isolated we are, the more fearful we seem to become in the world. Personality disorders and traits are significantly driven by chronic individual fears.

5. Teaching self-centeredness: Over the past 40 years our culture has placed a strong value on feeling good about ourselves. However, this self-esteem focus has inadvertently given people high expectations of receiving benefits for themselves, without learning as many skills to achieve or to give back to others. The effect is to teach narcissism as a cultural trait. Some researchers believe that when you are born is more significant than to whom you are born in forming your personality (Twenge, 2006). For some people, but not all, these cultural traits may become stuck and exaggerated in their personalities.

6. Openness to social complaints: Part of the progress of our modern society is our belief in justice for all. This means our courts, workplaces, community organizations, and others have become much more fair and open to everyone. As a society, we’re dedicated to helping victims of abuse and punishing perpetrators. This is a good thing, but it means we must learn to tell the difference between those who are true victims and those who just feel like victims and are complaining because of their personalities (although some people have personality problems and are true victims). Our procedures of fairness and openness unintentionally encourage complaints and prolonged disputes. We thoroughly and objectively examine limited “facts,” without recognizing the significance of personality problems and how they can distort the “facts.” This encourages those with personality disorders to seek validation and vindication for personal problems and upsets they can’t handle inside themselves through the courts and other agencies. They know people will listen and take them seriously.

Bill Eddy is a lawyer, therapist, and mediator. He is the co-founder and Training Director of the High Conflict Institute, a training and consultation firm that trains professionals to deal with high conflict people and situations. He is the author of several books and methods for handling high conflict personalities and high conflict disputes with the most difficult people.

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