I’m writing about communication this morning as I had been lying awake last night running a scenario over and over in my mind. The root cause of the scenario which will probably happen at the next MIL visit over the summer is her inability to communicate clearly and directly. I think problems with communication are common to all personality disorders.
Why do we communicate? I find it helps to consider small children when trying to understand communication. They start out just making noises and learn slowly how to shape the noises and gestures into meaningful interactions. Babies develop communication in a predictable way.
First they learn to communicate basic needs. They get hungry; they cry. They are cold; they cry. The purpose of crying is to alert the caregiver who will respond in an appropriate way to cater to the baby’s need. New parents take a while to learn and anticipate a baby’s needs and they cycle through the list of possibilities (hungry, tired, cold, hot, nappy, comfort etc) before hitting on the correct response. A good enough parent will keep going through the list until the child’s need is correctly identified.
The next stage of learning to communicate is mirroring. This time the parent leads the interaction. They see the faces the baby is making and makes them back. They repeat the gurgly baby noises and play lots of hiding and appearing games. Watch anyone with a newborn and they make a huge amount of eye contact and pull all sorts of goofy faces. This response to a baby is automatic and it is very important. Just like responding to cries secures the baby’s confidence that their needs will be met, copying their facial expressions and noises shows the baby what their emotions look like and gives them the confidence to express them. They are learning a vital emotional vocabulary. (The books “The Social Baby – Understanding babies’ communication from birth” by Lynne Murray and Liz Andrews, “The Science of Parenting” by Margot Sunderland and “Why Love Matters – How affection shapes a baby’s brain” by Sue Gerhardt go into this in some detail).
Then babies start to coordinate their bodies better and can point to things they want. Their first communication through gestures is “Look! That, that!” and then “I want that, give it to me”. They draw another’s attention to something in the environment (Look! That, that!) and then they express what they want (Gimme!). So being able to clearly express your desire for something to another is something people learn very early on, from about 9 months old.
People with personality disorders don’t do this. They are not able to clearly express their desire for something to another person. Not even a basic need such as hunger or being desperate for the loo. Let’s look at why that is and how it shows up in their behaviour.
Why can’t they ask for things clearly and directly?
The key to understanding this is the interaction between the baby and the caregiver. What if the caregiver doesn’t work through all the possibilities when the baby cries? What if they ignore the baby? What if the baby is not played with and mirrored in lots of face to face interactions? What if the baby is punished for expressing their needs? These are conditions of neglect. They are conditions where the baby’s early attempts at communication are rebuffed. It is not surprising then if a baby with a parent like this would develop communication problems.
Some academics believe NPD occurs because the early interactions between the main caregiver and the baby are dysfunctional from as early as 6 months old. This is one of the reasons why post natal depression is taken so seriously by the medical establishment. Without good interactions between baby and caregiver early on the whole developmental track of the child is disrupted.
Some babies will scan their environment seeking out another responsive adult, maybe the other parent or a grandparent or child minder or even a sibling. The drive inside the baby to find a responsive caregiver is very strong. They will do better than a baby which hasn’t got an alternative adult to respond to them or who has a weaker instinct to seek one out, that misfortunate child will never learn to communicate effectively or recognise their own emotions properly. That child may end up with a personality disorder. I qualify that sentence with “may” but really you could replace the word with “will” so strong is the link between adult dysfunction and disordered care in the very early years.
The end result is someone who is incompetent in expressing themselves and actually fearful of openly and clearly making their needs and desires known. If as a child your cry for comfort was ignored or responded to with shouting or a slap you would learn pretty damn quick not to do that, not to show directly that you wanted comfort. The need for comfort would still be there. The child would learn which ways that need could be met by the unresponsive or neglectful caregiver which inevitably would mean putting what the caregiver found acceptable ahead of the baby’s instinct. This is completely arse about face, the adult caregiver should put the baby’s needs first not their own. If never adequately met, the need would remain as an immature and insatiable drive in their psyche throughout their whole life. NPD is a need to be valued and loved which becomes utterly distorted into thinking oneself more valuable and more worthy of love than anyone else.
If the child is made to feel ashamed and ungratefully demanding when they express their needs they would grow into adulthood very wary of the response they may get when expressing a need. They would skirt around the edges of what they want, attribute the desire to another, always leave themselves with some get out clause from having the need directly attributed to them. This leads to indirect and confusing communication.
How does disordered communication show itself?
I have observed several patterns of behaviour that I have come across in adults with personality disorders. All these behaviours contribute to the communication problems people have when dealing with a persona with a PD. Here I discuss indirect speech, triangulation, proxy recruitment, mind-reading, ambiguity, unique vocabulary.
- Indirect Speech: Instead of using active, first person vocabulary like “I want to go here” a more passive, third person voice is adopted “perhaps people would like to…” where it is unclear if this is the actual desire of the person involved of if they are simply hypothesising what another person’s desire may be.
- Triangulation: the person uses a third party to convey a message to someone or find out information about someone. Examples: MIL talks to SIL about a topic she wants us to know about, relying on SIL mentioning it when SIL speaks to us. MIL conveys her desires through interactions with grandchild “would Mummy let you have more sweets grandchild?” rather than ask directly. I think “accidentally” copying you into an email to someone else which talks about you is also an example of triangulation.
- Proxy recruitment: this is a more deliberately manipulative strategy than triangulation but still uses a third person to convey a message. Now the third person is recruited to act as a mouthpiece or foot soldier by the NPD person. Examples: Telling a relative how upset they are with someone’s behaviour and asking the relative to convey that to the person rather than telling them directly. Getting a subordinate to sack a member of staff or pass on bad news to management.
- Mind-Reading: expecting other people to know things without being told. Example: not saying what they would like for their birthday when asked as they expect the other to know or acting as if they have said something when they haven’t because thinking the message is so strong in their own mind they assume somehow that others must know it too.
- Ambiguity: This involves not specifying details in a conversation leaving others confused as to who or what is being alluded to. Lots of pregnant pauses, knowing looks, nudge-nudge non-verbal behaviour and use of words like someone, something, it, that, you know, thingy etc are used. Examples: “someone might get bored over the summer and … you know…”, “ever since the incident, she’s been a bit (eyebrows raised)…”.
- Unique Vocabulary: This involves the NPD person having their own unique use for common words which mean something completely different to the usual meaning of the word. Examples: “I’m not making excuses” when they are offering an explanation for behaviour in such a way as to minimise or remove any consequence, which is of course exactly what is meant by making an excuse.
I think the fundamental problem with the communication of personality disordered people is their difficulty in recognising their own needs due to a lack of mirroring as babies and an inability to express them clearly due to fear of being rejected or punished.
What is so difficult for other people involved with a PD person is that their methods for communicating are confusing, unclear and unreasonable. There is another level of interaction that follows from the disordered communication which is the anger and punishment the PD person directs at others who don’t understand their communication.
They are unclear and indirect and then punish others for not understanding what they are failing to convey.