Category Archives: Personality Disorders

The Truth about Pathological Lying

The line between telling the truth and telling a lie has always been the central theme of psychotherapy.

The real self (an acceptance of one’s real feelings and motivations) and the reality principle (a sober assessment of the world as it really is) has always been considered the hallmark of health or good adjustment. 

Various forms of lying, on the other hand, have been the hallmark of what we consider to be pathology or maladjustment.

When we tell a lie, we make reality conform to our ideas rather than adjust our ideas to fit reality. 

In neurosis, for example, the truth gets distorted (minimized or magnified) in the service of maintaining a certain level of psychological safety. We need reality to BE a certain way in order to feel okay with ourselves and comfortable in the world.

In psychosis, on the other hand, our lies become fully-fledged fantasies without any basis in external facts.

Pathological Lying:

Although we all need some modicum of fantasy and untruth in order to make our lives and our view of ourselves more tolerable, for a certain group of people, lying becomes the central mechanism by which they interact with others.

We can call these people pathological or compulsive liars, although in many cases, pathological lying is really more of a symptom than a definition of who I am. 

The compulsivity of pathological liars means that these are not people who choose to lie. Lying here becomes automatic. It is a mechanism for maintaining psychological safety and reducing interpersonal anxiety.

Pathological Lying as Reaction to Trauma:

In my own work with compulsive liars I have generally found that the lying is a reaction to trauma.

One person, for example, was in a physically abusive relationship where he learned that he needed to say or do things more out of a concern for maintaining the other person’s happiness, than out of a need to express his true thoughts and feelings. The truth became associated with danger and became hijacked by the more primordial need for safety. Who I am, in this scenario, becomes who I need to be in order to be liked or accepted by others. Being myself becomes a dangerous proposition, a luxury which I cannot afford. Instead my truth becomes a self-presentation I can adapt to what I think others want from me.

Another person was helped to discover that at the root of her lies was a profound fear of being abandoned if she were to be herself. Vivid examples stood out about not having been picked up after soccer practice, and otherwise being forgotten about or neglected by caregivers in many situations. Now, she had come to think of herself as mostly a burden and as someone who could only count on others to be there for her as long as she provided a benefit to them. Most of this woman’s life thus became a frantic effort to be who others needed her to be so she would not be rejected and plunged into a deep dark hole of feeling worthless and dispensable.

Truth is Only Possible When We Feel Safe:

In both of these examples, the compulsion to lie was driven by a compulsion to stay safe, and a perceived risk involved in being and expressing one’s more genuine self.

Both examples reveal to us that telling the truth is always only possible on the basis of a fundamental sense of safety in one’s relationships with others. The ability to be real with oneself and with others requires validation that one is good enough as is, and certainty that others will be able to tolerate and care for one’s unembellished unadulterated self.

In this sense, pathological lying is really just like any other neurotic defense mechanism. It serves to ward off shame, lack of self worth, and a fear of abandonment and rejection.  

image of psychodynamic therapist, Dr. Rune MoelbakAbout Me: I am Rune Moelbak, Ph.D., a psychologist who helps people get in touch with their personal truths. If you have been hurt or shaken up by the lies of someone you love, or find it difficult to relate to others without lying to them, psychotherapy can help.

Do I Have a Personality Disorder?

We all have personalities, but what does it mean to have a personality “disorder”?

What is a Personality?

A personality is a certain habitual way I deal with the world around me. When you think to yourself “boy, that person sure has a personality!”, what comes to mind is probably certain predictable characteristics that stand out about them and that don’t just blend in with the surroundings.

Our personality is a collection of enduring traits about ourselves that make us stand out as well as make us predictable. Hence, I might tend to be “the life of the party” or the “loner”, the eternal optimist or the perpetual worrier, the workaholic or the worka-phobic, the antagonist or the person who always tries to please.

Whatever the case, my personality uniquely equips me to deal with certain situations, while it puts me at a disadvantage for dealing with certain others. My greatest strength in one context – becomes my greatest weakness in another…

My personality serves as a kind of immune system that protects my own mental health from the challenges and demands of life. It consists of a collection of go-to coping mechanisms and thinking styles through which I confront the world.

My personality is my specific way of dealing with the demands of life, such as creating a satisfying social life, succeeding in my chosen career, collaborating with others, developing close relationships, and dealing with interpersonal conflicts.

When things go well in life, that is, when my traits or tendencies match with my environment, then I can likely live a symptom-free life. However, when there is not a good match, tensions will begin to rise within me, and I am likely to become depressed, anxious, angry, or otherwise unhappy.

John has a Personality Disorder:

John loves to be “the life of the party” and uses this trait to his great advantage. He becomes an actor so he can feel the thrill of being on stage, and has a very active social life that satisfies his need for attention. His personality helps him succeed in areas of his life that are important to him.

Yet John might begin to get in trouble if he ALWAYS has to be the life of the party, if he NEVER can be alone with himself, or if he ALWAYS relates to others as an entertainer, actor or performer.

He may for example meet a romantic partner he likes, but due to his chronic and excessive need for attention, may make every conversation about himself.

With his excessive focus on his own needs, John may not be able to be empathic with his partner’s needs and may not be able to maintain the mutuality required to create an intimate relationship.

When his partner begins to feel dissatisfied with John’s excessive attention-hoarding and demand that something changes, John may not be able to give in to the demand, since doing so would make him feel depressed, unloved, or empty.

He therefore instead turns the blame back on his partner whom he accuses of just not being that interesting and therefore being responsible for his own misery.

When his partner withdraws his interest in the relationship and in John, John does not have the flexibility in his personality to allow himself to notice this, so he instead “tells himself a story” and tries to convince himself and his friends that everything is fine.

When his relationship finally falls apart, John might at first become self-righteously indignant. He may seek out friends who can confirm his belief that his partner is to blame. He may also launch himself into a string of affairs to confirm to himself how lovable he is and therefore prove that “it is his partner’s loss” — not his

However, if these strategies fail, John may eventually have no way to maintain his fragile self-esteem and may finally have to engage in some painful soul-searching. At this point he is likely to become depressed, may begin to drink, or may not be able to maintain work obligations or friendships.

What is a Personality Disorder?

John would likely be diagnosed with a personality disorder.

His character traits are rigid. If people around him do not adapt to his preferred ways of dealing with situations, John cannot change his approach and adapt to the new situation.

As a result, John is bound to have many conflicts with people around him, and frequently be at odds with the demands placed on him by different tasks or role expectations.

In John’s situation, differences between personality style and environment are solved by devaluing the environment or changing the environment, which works as long as other people are ready to accommodate him.

In other personality types, such as in people with strong dependency needs or excessive fearfulness, differences may be solved by acquiescing, letting go of healthy assertiveness, or abandoning oneself.

In either case, the environment threatens the integrity of the person’s self-esteem and makes it impossible for them to learn from the situation and master a greater repertoire of skills. The person tends to always respond the same way regardless of circumstance and is thus locked into a cycle of repeating the same failed outcomes.

John, for example, may fall in love again, but his next relationship will likely have the same ending, since the need for admiration is the only way John knows to raise himself out of an ever-looming depression.

This then leads to another hallmark of people with personality disorders: They tend to run into the same problems time and again. Depending on their personality style they may show patterns of getting fired due to having trouble taking orders from a boss, falling out with friends due to inability to deal with conflicts, getting divorced on multiple occasions due to the same complaints by their spouses, and so on and so forth…

Personality Disorders are Dimensional:

We all have certain rigid and unbendable traits that can get us in trouble in life and can make it difficult to deal with the demands of particular situations. With each personality comes certain advantages and disadvantages. This is to be expected. Most of us reduce tension and discomfort by creating a life that maximizes our advantages and reduces the need to be someone we are not. This does not mean that we have a personality disorder.

Our personality only becomes a severe liability when we feel chronically deficient in the many aspects needed to live a fulfilling life. We may for example not be able to tolerate intimacy regardless of circumstances, or may not be able to EVER relax or be spontaneous, or may not be able to enter into ANY relationship without sexualizing it. It is in these cases that assigning the label of a personality disorder may be appropriate.

Having a personality disorder is therefore not simply about having a personality trait or habit that gets us in trouble. This trait must be so rigid, so exclusionary of other ways of doing things and perceiving the world, that it severely limits our ability to function effectively in life. Hence there is a difference between being perfectionistic, and not being able to complete a work assignment because one is never satisfied with the result.

Many traits only become dysfunctional when taken to a certain level of intensity or severity. In the first case, perfectionism might help me win awards for my attention to detail, while in the latter, my perfectionism might end up getting me fired.

Therapy for Personality Disorders:

If your personality prevents you from getting along with others, functioning well at work, or getting enjoyment out of life, the treatment of choice is not simply to force yourself to act differently. The rigidity of particular personality traits is often the result of bruises to self-esteem, or early developmental traumas. Particular ways of dealing with tension, psychic pain, and threats to self-esteem developed as a kind of protective armor needed to deal with threats to one’s psychological safety.

Psychodynamic therapy is particularly effective in helping people access these early experiences and traumas so they can be begin to grow from life, rather than remain stuck in the need to protect themselves from it…

About Me: I am Rune Moelbak, Ph.D., a psychodynamic therapist in Houston, TX, who helps people get to the root of their problems. Visit my website to schedule an appointment.

Borderline Personality Disorder and the Fear of Becoming Oneself

The concept of Borderline Personality Disorder is often understood as being synonymous with an impossible individual who acts out in the most ostentatious ways. The concept conjures up images of suicidal threats and acts, as well as intense anger and aggression. However, there is a more subtle kind of borderline anxiety that is less “in your face” and yet quite widespread in many romantic relationships. This kind of borderline phenomenon is not the kind that would require hospitalization, but it nevertheless has its own insidious and very destructive effects on the health of a relationship…

The kind of borderline anxiety I am talking about is different from your common garden-variety of anxiety. It is not related to the fear we can all feel sometimes of messing up an important presentation at work, or the existential fear that comes naturally when having to make an important decision about our life direction. Nor is it related to the everyday anxieties of getting a parking ticket in an area with unclear signage, or the worries about things going wrong that are outside of our control.

These kinds of anxieties are adaptive in the sense that they help us prepare better and consider risks, so that we may make better decisions. Even when these anxieties and worries become excessive and unrealistic, they are still in some sense about external things, and in this sense never pose a danger or threat so fundamental as to reach the level of the anxiety of someone with a borderline personality.

Losing Oneself to Gain Love:

Borderline Personality is in my opinion a fear of being oneself. Not the kind of fear experienced by someone with social anxiety, who may in many instances like themselves when alone and even develop a preference to spend time by themselves.

Unlike the socially phobic individual, the borderline fear of being oneself is paired with a need for others that is as fundamental as the need for oxygen.

This conflict between the need to be close and the fear of being oneself plays itself out in very destructive ways that involve not just the person who experiences these anxieties, but also their partner, who may in many instances end up suffering just as much.

For the person with borderline personality disorder or borderline anxieties, individual expression or being oneself equals loss of love and affection. The fundamental belief here is that “I am unlovable” as myself, therefore to attract and keep the love I need, I must become the object the other person needs or desires. I must obtain love by becoming a chameleon who changes and adapts to become exactly what the other person wants.

Unfortunately, this strategy, although temporarily eliminating the anxiety of being rejected, also leads to built-up of anger and resentment. The person with borderline anxiety soon starts to get annoyed, angry, and frustrated with the lack of love they ultimately receive. They feel loved not for who they are, but for who they have become to please their partner. Although their partner might enjoy having found someone who likes the very things they like or who always wants to go to the restaurants they themselves enjoy eating at, they will soon experience the anger and frustration of their partner who feels chronically love deprived.

Borderline Personality and the Fear of Choosing:

The dilemma, however, is often an impossible one, for if one were to ask the person with borderline anxieties to make a choice about where to go for dinner or where they would like to go on a day retreat, you would soon bump up against the fear of self-expression. To the person with borderline anxieties, making a decision means being exposed and risking rejection. Afterall, we are defined as people by the choices we make, and it is in the freedom of choosing that we cease being an object for another person and start to become a subject or a person in our own right.

The outcome of this dilemma is usually as follows: The person with a borderline personality makes a tentative choice, but now becomes acutely aware of any sign of disapproval. He or she scans the facial expressions and actions of their partner for signs of the loss of love, just like a person who was just robbed, would scan the environment for suspicious people.

The partner is thus often up against a certain paranoia that leads the person with borderline anxieties to attribute motivations, thoughts, and feelings to them on the basis of unfounded fears rather than facts. The borderline is always ready with interpretations such as: he’s just doing it to please me, or she really doesn’t want to be here. And ultimately jumps to the conclusion: He doesn’t care about me! OR she doesn’t love me!

The Impossible Dilemma of the Borderline’s Partner:

A movie night where the person with borderline anxieties has chosen which movie to watch might thus quickly turn into a fight: The anxious person who is already feeling guilty and bad for having made the “choice”, might quickly find a reason to think that the partner is not enjoying the movie, is not paying enough attention, or is using a tone of voice that indicates annoyance with the movie. When accused of this, however, the non-borderline partner cannot persuade their borderline partner otherwise. The conclusion has already been made in the mind of the borderline who now walks up and turns off the video, furious at the partner for the lack of interest shown.

The non-borderline partner is now left with his or her own impossible choice: to insist on watching the movie is to be accused of just humoring the other person, while to do nothing is to prove that every time the other person chooses something, the partner shows no interest.

This kind of scenario where the partner is accused and sentenced on the basis of borderline fears, and feels damned if I do and damned if I don’t, gradually conditions the partner to become fearful or anxious him or herself. He or she may now start to limit their own choices and fear their own self-expression, since it is quite unpredictable when they will incur the wrath of their borderline partner for saying the wrong thing, or making the wrong decision. It is as if by living with someone with borderline anxieties, one has to always walk on eggshells, which by the way, is the title of a popular self-help book for partners who find themselves in these dilemmas:

Stop Walking on Eggshells Book Cover
Click on book cover to read description of book

Borderline Personality and the Fight to Exist:

These kinds of impossible dilemmas, which are now transmitted to the partner, exactly mirror the impossible dilemmas at the heart of borderline pathology: I can’t be myself (without losing love) and I can’t not be myself (without feeling that I don’t exist and am not loved for who I am). I am stuck in the borderland where no choice can be made. My life is an impossible existence, where I am always teetering on the edge of disaster no matter what choice I make.

Borderline personality is thus in most cases a fight to exist, and the emotion that is most symbolic of this fight is: Anger. The person with borderline personality is angry at having to always accommodate others, and angry at having the right to their own existence stolen from them. But they are also angry that if they dare to assert themselves, make choices, and be themselves, the other person likely will lose interest in them or stop loving them.

Anger is here in some sense a sign of health, even if the situation one is angry about is created on the basis of anxiety rather than facts. The anger is a protest. It communicates a desire to be oneself, to have one’s own needs met, and to come into existence as an individual in one’s own right.

About Me: I am Rune Moelbak, a psychologist in Houston, Texas. I provide psychodynamic therapy for people who want to get to the root of their problems.