Jealousy, judgment, and the real reason friendships end

No one tells you that ending a close friendship will haunt you for so long, even if you initiated it for the sake of your health and know it was the right thing to do.

I think everybody has some jealousy of others. It’s a normal human emotion that can only be overcome with a lot of work on yourself. Admitting your jealousies does not mean that you can’t get past them or that you hold resentments against another person. Instead, admitting jealousy is just being open about it. You can only work through the things you acknowledge. Pretending you don’t have any jealousies means they go unaddressed.

Similarly, I think everyone is a little bit judgmental in their own way. I’ve lost friends who were very open-minded about sexuality but super judgmental about people going to church, for example. Again, it’s a normal and common human trait to judge. It can be overcome with a lot of effort or peace with yourself but it’s not easy.

My religious struggles have always been within myself, as I tried to work out what I believed. I never pushed religion on anyone in the slightest. How could I, when I wasn’t sure what I believed myself? It was just one place I sought answers and ultimately didn’t find them there, anyway.

I always believe people can change but sometimes it’s not enough. You don’t owe anyone endless chances if they’re bad for you. I had to let a friend go last year, not because I was jealous or judgmental of her, and not because I wasn’t giving her a chance to change. And I still miss her anyway.

Though I suppose maybe that was true that I was done waiting for her to change, but it wasn’t for the reasons she thought. It was completely about not seeing much change in her drama and anger. My husband pointed out that she was the only friend I was consistently scared to see, which isn’t supposed to be part of friendships. But it was her anger that scared me away, not my jealousy or insecurity.

I had to protect myself. I was frequently abandoned (or outright attacked, in the case of when I moved down here) when I most needed a friend. If something really good happened to me, she was extremely jealous and usually used that time to attack.

She frequently had crises that she needed to work through with someone immediately and I was always there. It was the intensity and urgency of her reactions that made it more than just being a listening ear. Responding to it made me feel stressed out. It was taking a toll on my mental and physical health. I have tendencies of trying to be the rescuer and I fell into that role too often. That was my issue and I couldn’t resolve it in a friendship with her.

It wasn’t just the frequent crises that made me decide to cut it off, though, because we had been friends for almost 20 years. It’s that I never knew when she would blow up and attack me with messages upon messages calling me names and accusing me of things that weren’t true. I needed to see progress made toward emotional stability and self-awareness on her part and I just wasn’t seeing the effort.

We also talked a lot about our various health problems (I joined in with my own, which I admit), which made me feel sicker and more scared of my health. I complained more and felt more miserable because our conversations were so focused on it.

But she said I wasn’t being honest when I wrote here that we just grew apart. At the time, I said we were just too different. And that was the truth: I always struggled to keep conversations going that weren’t about our problems because our interests were too different. All that was true and I was just trying to be mature in saying no one was to blame.

Still, she was right that I had other reasons I wasn’t talking about. It wasn’t because I was jealous of her privileged upbringing, like she believed. I just had enough of her being angry and constantly in crisis mode. But there was no point in telling her that because she was too angry to really listen to me.

Almost 20 years and it was still the same. I was just done. And once I’m done with someone that’s usually final.

I am trying hard to change and improve myself. I examine myself and my motives a lot, which isn’t always easy. I’m trying to get in touch with my own feelings. A lot of people who know me well say they can tell that I’m changing and that my moods are more stable. I have to keep working on that because my first priority is myself and trying to be a better person. I have relatively few close friends, but they’re people I trust and our conversations aren’t shallow or focused on complaining.

I was always the first to apologize after our huge blowout fights, some months later whenever I missed her. But I can’t this time and I don’t think she’ll ever do it herself either. I don’t know if she even does regret how she went off on me. She said I wasn’t letting her change, but the fact that she went off on me like she did was proof that she hadn’t changed. Her explosive anger has always been my biggest issue with her.

I still love her and miss her but I have to prioritize myself. If someone makes me feel worse rather than better, I can’t have that in my life, especially right now. I’m pretty tough and can get through things without a crowd of friends; I often process things better that way. To be honest, I can’t imagine she would offer much comfort as my husband is going through chemo, the scariest time of my life.

I wish she had learned to control her rage and didn’t always resort to using things I told her against me, but I hope that someday she will change those things for the sake of others in her life. It would’ve been nice if the friendship wasn’t so lopsided with me always doing more for her than she did for me, too. But I don’t think that will happen and it’s sometimes hard to let go.

I doubt she’ll ever apologize to me for the torrent of abuse she unleashed on me last year, though I would welcome it. But for all I know, she still thinks I wronged her. But I have to prioritize my own health and if something is bad for it, I have to focus on my own healing first. Even if that means letting go of someone I love. I finally gave myself closure.

When it feels like nobody loves you

When it feels like nobody loves you, it’s usually a sign that you don’t love yourself enough. But the answer isn’t that you need to find new people. It’s to realize that you’re looking in the wrong place for your validation.

Recently, one of my very best friends was briefly back in town after having moved out of state. She and I made plans to get together, which I really looked forward to because I hadn’t seen her in over a year.

At the literal last minute, she had to cancel our plans. And honestly, I was pretty crushed. I really wanted to see her. I knew that because of how far away she lives, it may be years before I have another chance.

But I had to pull myself out of my first reaction of extreme disappointment. It turned out that the reason for her canceling had nothing to do with me at all. She had some really genuinely shitty things happen that day that made her feel like she just couldn’t face anyone, even someone she wanted to see (i.e. me.)

See, most of my closest friends have some tendencies toward depression and anxiety. Many people have those problems, and I have them too. Like seeks like. So I get that.

Yes, I’ve been guilty of isolating myself to “protect” others from my depression. I often assume that people just don’t want to deal with it. There are also certain people who just exacerbate my anxiety, so I try to limit time around them to protect my own mental health. I have had outbursts over seemingly small things, though not as often recently.

But this brings me to another story. I’ve loved a friend for years and still do, but I can’t have her in my life until she works on healing herself. In a very large way, she’s part of why I want to become a therapist.

She is loved by so many people but usually feels unloved. She feels like she gives more love than what is returned to her, though I wouldn’t necessarily agree. I usually did not feel particularly loved by her, I just felt like I was disappointing her.

The difference is that she gets deeply attached to people, often very early after meeting them. She gets excited about meeting a new person she likes and feels very strongly bonded to them, maybe more quickly than the other person feels. This puts a lot of pressure on the other person and makes her more likely to be hurt.

If anyone needs time to deal with their own stuff and tells her no or backs off for a bit, she feels unloved and wonders what’s wrong with her. In truth, nothing’s wrong with her, other than how much she needs from others and how she reacts when people can’t meet her needs.

Because she looks to her friends and loved ones to validate her, rather than being able to validate herself, she’s very sensitive to rejection. When she feels rejected, she often gets hatefully mean. But overall, she’s not a bad person, just needs more from people than anyone can give.

I’ve observed this repeated spiral of idealizing someone, wanting to spend every minute talking with them, then feeling unloved when the other person has too much on their plate and needs to step back. Or taking it very personally if someone is having a bad day of their own and doesn’t have time for her.

Being almost aggressively needy in this way pushes people away. It’s not her big personality, which can be a lot of fun, that’s pushing people away. It’s that others have to protect themselves from burnout. Almost nobody can meet that high level of need. It’s very draining.

When you think about it, nearly everyone has their own problems they’re dealing with. Sometimes they just can’t take on more, even of people they love. Sometimes they don’t find it helpful to commiserate but instead, need to deal with their own stuff on their own terms.

Because as with my story of my friend visiting from out of state, her not having time for me wasn’t actually a rejection of me at all. She was just in an emotional place where she had to deal with her own feelings and with the shit going on in her own life. I gently tried to convince her that going out might make her feel better, but she had her own coping mechanisms that were different. And that’s okay. She owes more to herself than she does to me.

If you have friends who have any sort of mental illness at all, they’re going to be even more prone to burnout. If they’re working on addressing their own mental health issues (as I am), that often makes them less able to take on someone else’s, not more.

But being burned out and needing time to get yourself right isn’t a rejection of the other people who would like to be with you. Unconditional love doesn’t mean that someone will always be there for you, at any moment of night or day. Unconditional love doesn’t mean that someone won’t ever cancel plans with you.

A lot of those things are just boundaries and self-care. People can love you very much, even unconditionally, and still set boundaries. In fact, it’s healthier when they do set boundaries because they are prioritizing themselves and their own mental health.

Putting myself first is one of the most challenging things I’ve ever learned and sometimes it’s still a struggle. I’m learning how to set boundaries to protect my own mental and physical health.

I’ve learned that nobody else can make me whole–only I can do that. Incidentally, I find that the more I work on loving myself, the better I am at loving others, too. But loving others includes, yes, boundaries. As they say, you can’t pour from an empty cup.

If I look to other people to make me feel whole and to fill in where I feel empty or lonely or bored, inevitably they will let me down.

Ultimately, nobody can be there 100 percent of the time for someone else unless they put their own needs last. And that’s not unconditional love. That’s actually really emotionally unhealthy.

I will forever wish I could have helped my friend. I still miss her and probably always will. I just couldn’t meet her particular definition of unconditional love because too often it meant ignoring my own needs in favor of trying to meet hers.

Hopefully, I’ll be able to help others find strength in themselves through therapy. I’m making a lot of progress with setting boundaries with people and I think I’m doing well in understanding why people do what they do.

Whether I can help them become comfortable with meeting more of their own needs–which ultimately requires comfort with self and with distress–remains to be seen. Luckily I have two years of training ahead to help me learn that.

The link between narcissists and empaths

I saw something today addressed to someone I know to be a textbook narcissist. It was a meme about what it’s like to be an empath, and it was heavily implying that this person–the known narcissist–was actually an empath.

And that’s the problem with labels.

There’s this other meme that goes around a lot that says the narcissist’s worst nightmare is an educated empath. I don’t think it’s really that simple. And I don’t think there’s as much difference between both narcissists and empaths.

But now that there’s so much discussion about narcissists and empaths, I know for sure that some narcissists actually see themselves as empaths. I know this at the very least because the person I stayed with the longest when I moved down here described herself as a highly sensitive person and an empath. But if you looked at her actual behavior, it was much more narcissistic in nature.

I have no doubt that she truly saw herself as an empath and a highly sensitive person. She saw herself as a victim of other people, her now ex-husband in particular. And she always talked about how much people sought her out because she was so empathic, and I saw no evidence of that at all. Just because someone sees themselves as a victim doesn’t mean they really are.

As I said recently, we all think we’re the heroes in our own narratives. Surely we would never have any bad traits. Us good, them bad. Except it’s never that black and white.

However, the above graphic shows that there is such a thing as a narcissist. I’m definitely not saying there isn’t. Just that even narcissists can see themselves as far more innocent and blameless than a lot of the memes say.

Note that I am in no way saying that I think there’s no such thing as an empath or highly sensitive person. Nor am I saying that all narcissists think of themselves as empaths.

The truth is that these labels are very non-specific and not that useful. I believe that some people, maybe a lot of people, are both narcissists and empaths. They are at the very least opposite sides of the same coin and neither one is healthy.

You can still deeply feel the pain of others but not let it affect your behavior. Or you can selectively feel the pain of only certain people (or animals) but be completely oblivious to how your actions make people feel.

I think a couple things are true about the whole topic of narcissists and empaths:

Yes, I think you can be both. But not everyone is both.

You can have some narcissistic traits and work to get better if you’re self-aware enough and committed to the effort.

A lot of people just have unhealthy relationship dynamics. Trying to paint a picture in which all your exceptionally good qualities make you the victim of someone evil and manipulative is missing the point entirely.

Any time you start saying, “I am good and so sensitive that evil people take advantage of me,” you need to step back and start working on yourself. In relationships, nothing is ever only one person’s fault. Even if one person is more selfish or more difficult than the other.

You have no obligation to stay with someone who mistreats you. That’s definitely not what I’m saying.

What I am saying is that if you’re in a screwed up relationship with someone who seems to have real problems, you have to ask yourself why you’re sticking around.

All relationships have dynamics. Unless at least one person makes an effort to change, you can reasonably expect that dynamic to continue.

When you change, the relationship will inevitably change, too. Sometimes it will get better. But sometimes it will also get worse.

There’s no point in getting hung up on labels. I do think narcissists and highly sensitive people tend to be attracted to each other, but I think narcissists have far less sinister intent than people say they do.

Does that mean we should feel sorry for narcissists or excuse what they do? No, definitely not. Boundaries are good. If someone makes you feel bad and makes no effort to change, you have no obligation to stay.

But sometimes these relationship dynamics are just the way two people connect. Some relationships are just unhealthy. We don’t have to pathologize one person while declaring the other the victim.

Self-awareness is the key here. If you think you’re highly sensitive but also suspect you have narcissistic traits, then work on overcoming the narcissism.

I’m pretty convinced that narcissists aren’t roaming our cities, looking for highly sensitive empaths to victimize and suck the life out of. They’re just people who don’t know how to have healthy relationships. And the people they’re in relationships with probably also don’t know how to have a healthy connection.

Neither one is off the hook. Neither one is doomed. All it takes is enough self-awareness and reflection to work on it. And honestly, I think that both “narcissists” and “empaths” need to work on themselves because neither one is a healthy way to live.

Setting boundaries

I suck at many aspects of setting boundaries. Typically, if someone’s behavior bothers me, I’m more likely to just distance myself from them than to establish that imaginary fence of boundaries.

Setting boundaries requires effort because they will inevitably be challenged and you have to deal with the fallout if people don’t react well to them. When you grow up in an environment where you don’t see people having appropriate boundaries, it’s scary to think of standing up for yourself because you think you’ll lose people.

My failure to set boundaries hurt a lot of my relationships. I saw it most in a couple of friendships and in my relationship with my mom. I had a couple friends over the years who wanted me to be available to them 24/7. I know it’s very reasonable to set limits on your time and not respond to every issue. But I couldn’t stick up for myself and say that.

With my mom, it was really bad early in my marriage. She would often try to guilt-trip me into doing things I didn’t want to do. Or she’d call me, wanting to fight, saying that the whole family agreed with her that I was an ungrateful brat.

I felt like I couldn’t win with my parents because it was never clear what was expected of me, they just told me what I was doing wrong. That’s an area where we all would have benefited from some healthy and appropriate boundaries and some open communication.

I’d sometimes try to set some boundaries–like when my best friend at the time was calling me 5 or 6 times a day while I was working in an office on the Dow breast implant lawsuits. That was not an environment where personal calls were really permitted unless it was an emergency. I tried to tell her the calls were too much. But when I got some pushback, I dropped it–and eventually her, too.

From a string of bad dating experiences in high school where I let myself get pressured into sexual things I didn’t want to do, to not standing up for myself when my oldest child was very hurtful to me, it’s clear all over the place that I needed to set and enforce boundaries. Boundaries can solve a lot of problems. The absence of them creates problems.

Yet setting boundaries often doesn’t feel good. The people you need to establish boundaries with are often the very same people who react badly to them. That’s usually because your relationship has a dynamic where one person behaves badly and the other one just takes it. When you flip the script, it often goes poorly.

But this goes both ways. Being a person with poor boundaries doesn’t just mean I let people push me around; it also means that I’ve been prone to pushing others around at times in the past. When that’s the only model you’ve ever really seen for wielding power, your views get kinda skewed.

I realize that people have set boundaries with me as well when I was being too needy or annoying. They were much needed boundaries, even if I didn’t like them.

The harder part is realizing that I had a big part in the ending of many friendships because of my lack of boundaries. Just as I found it easier to walk away from people than set boundaries with them, I can guess that people likely did the same with me.

Nobody wants to be that obnoxious person who’s hard to be friends with. But sometimes we are that obnoxious person, especially if we haven’t even acknowledged our problems (let alone tried to heal from them.)

So I’m working on getting better. In recent years, when I’ve had things that felt like crises, I’ve worked on dealing with more of them on my own. When I do reach out to someone, I keep my complaints more limited in intensity and duration than I used to.

I’ve figured out that just because something feels like an emergency to me, it doesn’t mean others will see it the same way. The fact that they don’t see my emergency as their emergency to deal with doesn’t mean they’re not my friend. It means they have healthy boundaries.

Even people who deeply care about you can get burned out of supporting you through constant crises. Eventually you either need to stop having so many crises or to realize that other people can’t solve them for you.

I’m learning to keep my emotions calmer than they used to be. That’s been a process I’ve worked on for at least a couple years and is still ongoing. I can tell I’m getting better, but I can also tell I’ll still be working on it for a long time.

I used to think these things were like an on/off switch: that as soon as you decided to change, everything was instantly all good, forever. The people you pissed off before would come running back. The people in your life who needed boundaries would automatically respect them.

But the truth is that it’s more of a gradual unfolding. Setting boundaries requires first believing that you have the right to have them. Tolerating behaviors that you said you wouldn’t usually means you don’t feel you have the right to enforce them.

Or you think that people will leave you if you set boundaries with them. And for sure, some people will leave rather than change their behavior. But the ones who don’t leave are the ones who truly respect you or are willing to work on it with you.

You can’t undo the past. You can’t fix all relationships that were damaged by a lack of boundaries, yours or theirs. If you were the one who didn’t respect boundaries (as I have been at times in the past), you don’t necessarily get to have a relationship with them again.

The challenge is to learn from that so it doesn’t happen again in all your relationships. To get over your defensiveness and moderate your reactions to distress. To realize that if you set boundaries with someone or they set them with you, it doesn’t mean they dislike you or vice-versa.

But some of us weren’t brought up knowing how to do this. Many of us weren’t raised with any kind of emotional intelligence and are trying to figure it out now. We don’t want to be toxic people even if we acknowledge having some toxic traits. It’s really the commitment to keep getting better that counts; not just saying words but doing the work to respond well to boundaries and having the self-respect to set them.

Even if what you learned was screwed up, the only true failure is refusal to change.

Borderline personality secrets

I think I’m more likely to use my masters degree in a social work or rehab setting than as strictly as a private personal therapist. That said, though, I’ve come up with some thoughts about borderline personality disorder based on all my research about it, people I’ve known with it, and traits in myself.

First of all, the label is really useless. As evidenced by the fictional portrayal on “My Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” knowing that one has been given the label can cause despair…especially if you go online and research it. Everything you read about it says it’s supposedly so incurable.

I disagree. Maybe I’m overly naive because I never met enough of the criteria to be officially diagnosed with it, but I had a couple traits. And what I have to say is that it’s a battle with yourself, definitely. But it’s one that I believe can be won if you put in consistent effort.

You have to be willing to examine yourself and your behavior. That can be painful, especially if you unintentionally hurt people. Here’s what I do know for sure about that: hurt people hurt people. Scratch the surface of someone who’s angry and difficult to be around and there’s almost always some kind of trauma.

That doesn’t mean you have to subject yourself to that behavior in someone else. If it’s destructive to you, know that they’re the only ones who can fix themselves. If you’re a “fixer” or “problem solver” type like I am, well, I see a lot of pain in your future until you can get some distance. You can’t and shouldn’t try to fix anyone else, especially at the expense of yourself.

At the same time, though, that doesn’t mean the person who’s been labeled “borderline” or has the behaviors is unfixable. It’s just an inside job that only the person can do for themselves.

The place to start is learning to moderate your emotional reactions. I know that when you’re coming from a place of intense pain, the idea that you can control that feeling sounds laughable. But it’s true, and with a combination of meditation and journaling and specific Dialectical Behavioral Therapy exercises, you can reduce the intensity of your experiences.

I know a lot of people with these issues feel that being told they can change their reactions is a failure to be truly accepted as they are. But it’s actually the opposite because it’s a form of self-love to realize that the approval you’re so desperately seeking is within you. The one who’s in pain has to accept themselves. Once they do, they realize that the intensity of their emotions is not who they are as a person.

But the thing is that you can’t make anybody change until they’re ready, and I believe that’s what is at the root of why borderline and other personality disorders are said to be untreatable. People have to want treatment. You have to be willing to give up the extreme highs if you also want to stop experiencing the extreme lows. That doesn’t mean things will become boring. But I know that some of the borderline people I’ve known did indeed think stability would be boring.

The other thing you have to do if you really want to heal from these issues is to stop being afraid to face pain. Particularly for people who have faced significant pain or trauma, they often fear that all suffering will feel as bad as their worst moments. That’s usually not true. But even to the extent that it might be, when you’re facing it with the goal of eliminating it, it’s a more controlled environment. The pain has a purpose and is shorter-lived.

Sadly I don’t think there’s any way to get better without being willing to face your pain and without the willingness to give up the extreme highs. I know the extreme highs can feel really good. That heightened state of passion and euphoria feels like a drug. But like any drug, you have to come down. You can’t seek a constant high.

Everything in nature seeks balance. That’s why if you have extremely high feelings of euphoria, you’ll also have to have devastating lows to balance it out. The pendulum always swings back.

But when you seek balance and seek calm, you don’t get as far from center. That doesn’t mean you don’t ever have moments of either happiness or sadness. Just that when you have one, you don’t have to brace for the extreme backlash to follow.

I believe that nearly everyone is fixable. The question is, do they really want to do what it takes to be fixed?

Complex PTSD, borderline personality disorder and the value of labels

Sometimes labels are good and necessary if they can help us find the right treatment. But I’m also not entirely sure they’re helpful, either, and may be overused.

I’ve read a lot about the link between Complex PTSD and borderline personality disorder, and how the difference between the two can be complicated even for therapists to distinguish.

My husband often thinks that my interest in the topic of personality disorders is unhealthy, especially since I’m so often trying to diagnose myself with one. I can kind of see his point.

The truth is that aspects of my childhood were pretty fucked up. I have since made peace with and forgiven my parents because I now understand that they were doing the best they knew how and didn’t intend to hurt me. At the same time, that forgiveness doesn’t erase the fact that some things I experienced did hurt me in lasting ways.

Socially, my environment was even worse. Being one of the brightest but poorest kids in a wealthy magnet school exposed me to a lot of bullying. I very definitely have complex PTSD from that, no questions about it.

These things are now my issues to heal from. Blaming people won’t fix me. Recognizing where my struggles came from just points me in a direction for healing.

My meeting with the neuropsychologist last week was also very enlightening. He said that given my verbal IQ, if I’d had a more nurturing home environment and my talents were allowed to bloom at school (rather than being the reason for my bullying, causing me to hide them), I likely would have grown up to become very professionally successful. He said that I had a very strong core capability that, properly developed, would have enabled me to earn graduate degrees and have a career that used them.

The ironic thing is that I wanted to be a doctor when my oldest child was a baby, but I thought I was too old to get started at 24. (Ha!) I still regret that I didn’t do it; I would’ve been good at it. And I have a theory that my MS wouldn’t have required me to stop working if I had gone that route.

When I went back to finish my degree, I graduated magna cum laude and I very definitely wanted to go on to even earn a doctorate. I never intended to stop at a bachelor’s degree but I did. That now leaves me with what all of my kids see as a “useless degree,” a cautionary tale rather than an achievement.

But the opportunities for grad school just weren’t there. Not where we lived at the time and it would have taken a Herculean effort to relocate for school with a husband, three kids, and no money. My husband and I talked about this extensively at the time. It was a dream I had to consciously give up.

And my brain was already so used to the cycle of trying and getting defeated that I couldn’t overcome it at that point.

Graduating college with a 3.76 and thinking I’d go on to graduate school and a great career got my hopes up. Being stuck in that crappy town and not being able to get any job until I got in part-time at Starbucks 8 months after graduation was par for the course of my life. The success in school was the anomaly.

It’s really clear why I’m depressed. Maybe I truly have had dysthymia/”persistent depressive disorder” since kindergarten. Maybe it’s a chemical imbalance in my brain that needs to be drugged all to hell until I can’t feel anything anymore.

Maybe I have a personality disorder because I need a lot of reassurance and fear rejection and I just really want to be liked but expect that I won’t be.

Or maybe it’s that I was a plant potted in hostile soil, trying hard to bloom and flourish in spite of where I was and what I was up against.

Getting back down here to Texas where there are more job opportunities was part of my perpetual effort to keep getting back up and trying again. I went really big that time. I had some crucial help from friends, but like college, it was also a time where I put in a huge amount of effort to achieve a goal.

Yet somehow I wound up back at home again with a low-paying patchwork “job” that I didn’t want. Just like in the place I left.

Up until my horrific MS relapse in August 2017, I was still trying to rebuild. I still had hope that I could do something with my life that mattered. I got my acceptance into a Masters of Social Work program while I was lying in the hospital. I obviously had to turn it down. At first, I thought I was just postponing it, but now it’s pretty clear that I’m not going back.

The degree of memory loss this disease has caused me has pretty firmly nailed shut the doors to grad school and all my career plans.

If I’m depressed, is that really biochemical? Or am I just still in mourning? Things were always hard, ever since I was a young kid. And I always kept getting back up, heroically trying anyway. Fighting against whatever harsh circumstances I was put into. And it doesn’t look like that will change for me anytime soon.

So bringing this back to the topic at hand: does it really matter what label you give to someone with mental illness? You may see the outward manifestation of it and that might be very disruptive and unpleasant. But if you scratch the surface, there’s almost always some type of unhealed trauma. There’s almost always some other explanation.

In earlier generations, there was less awareness of personality disorders. Anais Nin, for example, is a textbook case of histrionic personality disorder. She was manipulative and selfish and thought her diaries were fascinating just because they were her thoughts. She cheated on people repeatedly, even being married to two men at once. Her incestuous relationship with her father was clearly the trauma that explained why her behavior was so destructive to others. But back then, they just said she was “eccentric” and “libertine.”

The grandfather I knew who had now-obvious undiagnosed and untreated PTSD upon returning from the war just terrorized his family. They didn’t know what PTSD was back then. There wasn’t any psychological support for him or his family. It just was what it was and they just tried to cope.

I don’t actually think any more people have personality disorders now than they did before. (I do think that certain things in our modern culture celebrate traits that could be called narcissistic, though. Selfie culture is normalized but not healthy.)

We do have more depression now, in part because our social support networks have all eroded. And because the internet (lovely, lovely internet…) has made it easier to be isolated and have hundreds of “friends” we may never meet.

But I believe the same basic traits have always been present in society. There have always been people who jumped from one relationship to another in short succession, but now we might look for other coexisting traits so we can assign a label like borderline personality disorder. It’s still considered largely incurable, so what is the point of the label?

We don’t have more personality-disordered people now. We’ve just come up with ways to classify people who have always existed. The people who could be defined as having these “disorders” always thought they were fine the way they were before. Even if their traits made their lives harder and caused pain to their loved ones, it was just who they were. In that regard, most people with so-called personality disorders haven’t changed much. The people who don’t want help won’t seek it out.

But the worst thing is seeing any of these traits in yourself and wanting to get rid of them. Sometimes all that requires is time to grow up and mature a little bit. But sometimes it also needs therapy, lots and lots of therapy. And this society’s mental health fabric is absolute shit, so only people with enough disposable income will get the help they need. And the rest of us are left fighting hard against occasional suicidal impulses, trying our best with sketchy DIY treatments that don’t work very well.

The rest of us will muddle along, trying to get better, trying to both cause and experience less pain. If that’s you, like it is me, I don’t have any good advice. But in case nobody’s told you today, it’s okay. It’s all okay. You’re doing the best you can in a world that’s sometimes pretty harsh. Breathe.

Mental illness recovery and self-love struggles

I was a mess when I was younger. It’s gradually dawned on me over the years that I needed to get better. I had some traits that definitely fit within the borderline and histrionic personality disorder categories.

As an aside, I’ve written a lot about the demise of my longest friendship, which was ultimately very destructive for me. I had a very unique link with her that I could never quite understand. And I’ve finally put my finger on it: we both had tendencies toward borderline and histrionic personality disorder when we met.

I figured it out and was ashamed of my past behavior but I wanted to get better. I made the changes I could and still work on it, although that has so far been limited by my lack of access to good therapy. I changed a lot and took it upon myself to also help her, which wasn’t my job and wasn’t appreciated. Part of that is that I enjoy helping people, but part of it was also a bit codependent (assuming I believe codependency is real, which I’m not sure I do.)

On the other hand, she doubled down on those attention-seeking and dramatic traits in herself. Defended them. Avoided therapy. Her life got more chaotic, her personality more outlandish, her closest relationships more broken.

I felt like being in frequent contact frustrated me immensely to see how little positive growth she had made. In many ways, she was still looking back to her teen years as the best time of her life. Even though she got married last year, it seemed afterward like she wanted to recapture the freedom of youth rather than settle down.

I’ve read a ton of stuff about these personality disorders over the past several months; I could probably write a book about the subject. I know that few people with these disorders want help or seek it.

I also know that people with these disorders are not bad people and they often feel a great deal of pain about the thought of hurting others. So instead of dealing with it and trying to change, they’re more likely to shove it down deep and pretend it doesn’t exist.

I’ve never been officially diagnosed with this, so maybe they’re just a couple of selfish traits I have (and had to a greater degree when I was younger.) I do know that I have gotten better and I want to continue getting better. But I also feel a lot of shame over how my actions affected people I love and it’s hard to forgive myself for that.

Interestingly, though, I got a lot more attention when I was less aware of what I was doing to others. I was less self-conscious. I was actively a much more selfish person, but I had a lot more people I regularly interacted with, especially online.

I don’t know if that’s just because the internet itself has changed so much since the early days. When my kids were small, blogging was still very new. It wasn’t as hard to get an audience as it is today. Now everything has moved to social media and is a lot more visual.

Ironically, being narcissistic and putting your life on display is way more acceptable now. It’s nearly impossible to get much of a following unless you do so. Only now, what people want is to see selfies and pictures and YouTube vlogs and to hear your voice rambling on a podcast.

Even traditional old-school blog entries are now supposed to be short and interspersed with lots of pictures. It’s way less introvert-friendly now. And I just don’t have the desire to put myself out there that much. I’m not big on attention-seeking.

In part because I am self-conscious and in part because of the damage to my self-esteem from that one friendship, I’m isolating myself. I feel like I don’t know how to be the kind of person people want to be around, especially because I’m still often so depressed.

I don’t know how to get better until I can find a good therapist, which I have no hope of affording any time soon. I know that cognitive behavioral therapy is my best bet. I also have a dialectical behavioral therapy workbook that helps with emotional regulation, but to be honest, that’s the part I had already done a lot of work on.

I’m in this weird space of not being enough of a train wreck myself to be interesting anymore, but not yet healed enough to be wise and ready to heal others.

At the same time, I also wonder about how many of my issues were or are related to my brain illness. Was I mildly personality disordered just because I grew up in an emotionally neglectful home? Was it that I was relatively normal and just way too young when I got married (since my worst behavior was in my teens and the first five years of marriage) and I’ve grown up since then?

Or was it that my brain was already damaged by the MS? Based on when I first felt like I had symptoms, that was 18 years ago. My brain could have been damaged all along.

I guess ultimately it doesn’t matter why I am the way I am or even if I have a diagnosable personality disorder.

I need to learn how to forgive myself and love myself, first and foremost. I’m not sure how to do that. My husband used religion to heal himself, but it’s not completely connecting for me in the same way. Faith is a component of my healing and sometimes a source of comfort, but I’m not internalizing it as giving me a sense of self-worth.

And while the fact that he is treating me much better than he did before is helpful and appreciated, he can’t fix me. It’s still my job to learn how to fix myself.

Considering the fact that he is both my best friend and the caregiver for me in my illness, that makes us a bit enmeshed. But I don’t want to be dependent on him in an unhealthy way and sometimes fear that I am a bit already. I want to be healthy and independent and self-actualized, to whatever degree my illness will let me. Finding that particular balance is tough.

I have to learn how to get better. I know what needs to be done, and I’ve already made a lot of progress. But I’m not sure how much more of this can be a do-it-yourself effort. I think I need some help.

The dialogue around mental health

I have determined after a great deal of research that most of the information online about how to deal with mental illness and especially personality disorders is incomplete or downright inaccurate.

I read a lot about how antidepressants and therapy are the only way anyone can get better with mental health issues. And to be clear, these methods help a lot of people and I’m not knocking them or trying to say there’s a better way. We all do what we have to do and mental illness is nasty enough to live with as it is.

But at the same time, they don’t help everybody. It can be hard to figure out what will help. A lot of the stuff online is extremely discouraging, especially with regard to personality disorders. That’s even truer when it comes to the famously difficult “cluster B” personality disorders: narcissistic, borderline, histrionic, antisocial. Most of what you read about any of these would make you think that if you get diagnosed with one, you might as well give up because you’re untreatable (and by the way, you’re also ruining everyone else’s lives.) That’s what the things online say about them, but I am not sure it’s accurate.

This all started because I had a friendship with someone who was almost definitely somewhere on that spectrum. She convinced me that she was fine and didn’t need to change anything, and I was the one with the dysfunction, not her. So I set out to learn everything I could and to try to see if I fit the definition. (I didn’t meet the diagnostic criteria for any of them, but did have a couple traits on the list which I trace back to depression and emotional immaturity, both of which I’m trying to manage. I think I might have fit more of them when I was younger.)

Even though I think she may have those issues (only a professional could know for sure), I think she could get better if she put in the effort rather than denying the problem. In fact, I know this is a bold statement, but I believe a lot of people with the “Cluster B” personality disorders could get better. It comes down to having the courage to face your issues and then work on them, which is the real obstacle. But maybe if we gave people hope that improvement was possible, they might actually try.

Are there people who are truly narcissistic, who ruin their closest relationships? Yes, of course. Are there people who have been on the receiving end of this behavior and been scarred by it, even left with PTSD over it? Absolutely. The people on the extremes can be dangerous.

I do know someone who I believe to be a full-fledged narcissist (not the same person I mentioned above) who is getting worse with age, not better. It’s very difficult to have a relationship with her because it’s so one-sided. She doesn’t seem to be aware of her behavior or how she affects people. But I believe that if she was aware of them, she could get better – even if the process was slow and incremental. People like her might never be “normal” but I think they could have healthier relationships with more give-and-take if they worked on it.

But at the same time, I think we’re overusing terms like narcissistic and gaslighting and bipolar and borderline.

What we really have is a growing number of people who aren’t able to cope with the world, who don’t know how to have healthy social relationships, who are encouraged by social media to live their lives in a very shallow way. The outcomes of all of these behaviors are now very normalized in society, but many of them may look like personality disorders at first glance. But that doesn’t mean that they’re hopeless. It doesn’t mean they won’t ever get better if they really try.

I see a lot of people online who have been diagnosed with one of these infamous Cluster B personality disorders (especially at Quora) and many of them do feel bad and want to change. I don’t think the mental health community and the unqualified members of the public are helping by issuing these blanket statements that people are untreatable and will never get better.

Can you imagine hearing that? Given that one of the hallmarks of most personality disorders is poor emotional regulation (and many have suicidal impulses as well), I can’t imagine how devastating it would be to get that diagnosis and still have the courage to hold yourself together.

Maybe I’m naive or maybe I’m a Pollyanna (I probably am) but I think all people deserve better than to be told they’re hopeless. I think there’s hope for nearly everyone to get better. Even if people are difficult, they didn’t make themselves that way.

That’s not to say it’s always a good thing to be in a relationship with someone who is broken in this type of way. It can break you in the process, too, so you should definitely get away if you recognize you’re being hurt. Just because they have things to work through, doesn’t mean you have to be along for the ride.

But I think we should change how we talk about people with personality disorders and mental health issues. The most important factor, from what I’ve seen, is the person’s desire to change. If they have that, there’s hope they can get better.

Mental health is only getting worse around the world for so many reasons. And yeah, sometimes other people’s illnesses have collateral damage. But they’re still human underneath it all. So maybe we should just have more compassion for those who are struggling to overcome issues. Worldwide mental health is likely to continue to get worse from everything I’ve read.

So we need to change the dialogue. Be hopeful and encouraging to those who are trying to heal. Sometimes for our own sakes, we might have to lend that support from a safe distance. But I think we need to do a lot less telling people they have unfixable illnesses. There’s always hope that even the blindest, most destructive narcissist will come to realize what they’re doing and work on getting better. What good does it do to tell them improvement is impossible?