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We are living in an era that is committed to progress in most dimensions of our lives, and society as a whole. In the past couple of years, mental health is one major subject matter that has been widely discussed across different platforms. Psychologists, medical experts, the media and those affected and impacted, have normalised conversations that aim to educate and encourage talking about mental health disorders. Illnesses such as depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, bipolar, among others have been in the spotlight. Myths and stigmas have also being addressed and corrected. 

However, one thing we seldom talk about is the potential damage that mental health disorders can have on relationships when pain is inflicted on the support system that is on the receiving end. 

When it comes to fostering relationships, whether it’s with a colleague, neighbour, family member, friend, or romantic partner, it is often easy to misinterpret the behaviour of someone with a mental disorder and this can make it a little bit difficult to navigate through and can lead to incorrect expectations within these relationships and possibly cause miscommunication, conflict, and lack of compassion. 

So how can we navigate these relationships while managing our mental well-being?

Clinical Psychologist, Viwe Dweba helps us better understand how we can manage, set boundaries, and identify unhealthy dynamics that come with supporting and fostering a relationship with a loved one diagnosed with a personality disorder.

Prioritising Mental Health For Healthier Relationships 

“This subject matter is incredibly important because part of managing mental illness is also about taking responsibility for ourselves and our part in our relationships. We are no good to the people who need us if we are not in a healthy enough space to provide that support”, says Dweba. 

Dweba further explains how historically (and to a lesser extent, presently) mental health had been a neglected and stigmatised part of our health. “We emphasise in treatment that one of the factors that contribute to a positive prognosis is the presence of a support system in whatever form – friends, family, partner, etc. However, with the more characterological disorders like personality disorders, these significantly impact relationships. Being part of that support system can be very challenging, and in unfortunate cases, damaging to the supporter’s mental health”, she highlights.

Understanding Personality Disorders And Their Impact On Relationships

“The term “personality disorder” is often used very loosely and in discriminatory ways. It is important to understand that a personality disorder is not a descriptor for people in our lives whose behaviour bothers us”, says Dweba as she further explains that it is a diagnosable mental illness that can only be diagnosed by a mental healthcare professional. “Dealing with the stigma around mental illness and having compassion for those living with mental illness also extends to people living with personality disorders”, she adds. 

“At their core, personality disorders distort the way one experiences themselves, the world, and their relationships. These distortions are carried into relationships, affecting how the other person is seen and how they’re treated when they inadvertently ‘push a button’. This can create very unhealthy dynamics in the relationships that are characterised by impulsive reactivity rather than self-reflection and healthy communication”, she explains.

According to Dweba, for the most part, personality disorders tend to go undiagnosed because they’re what we call ego-syntonic (symptoms feel consistent with who you are so your behaviour doesn’t look or feel strange to you). “This means that people often don’t seek help unless there’s severe stress or a comorbid condition such as depression or anxiety. We must speak and think about personality disorders with as much compassion as we would have for depression or anxiety or PTSD because personality pathology is borne of very early trauma and becomes the way someone’s personality copes with that pain. It is also true that we must take responsibility for caring for our mental health, just as we must care for every other part of our health”, she shares.

Maintaining Healthy Boundaries

Dweba says that one can have compassion for someone else’s afflictions while maintaining healthy boundaries and that kindness does not mean that we keep ourselves in harm’s way because we are avoiding hurting someone’s feelings. “Figure out what boundaries need to be put in place to protect you. Remember, boundaries are not punitive, they are protective”, she adds. 

How To Establish A Better Or Functional Relationship With Someone Whose Actions Offend Or Hurt You:

Dweba shares the following tips:

  1. Communicate How You Are Feeling

Often, people are not aware of the fact that they are doing something that is harming or hurting you in one way or the other, because you have not communicated it. People take the lead from us, in terms of what is okay and what isn’t. The onus is on us to communicate how we are experiencing something and vocalise it. 

  1. Avoid Using An Accusatory Tone 

When we are hurt or enraged, we feel the need to let the person inflicting the pain know that their actions are their fault. It’s important to take responsibility for our own feelings and to communicate the fact that something that is happening is hurtful, without communicating it in an accusatory tone. That is not productive at all when it comes from a point of anger, therefore, using that approach is not useful in terms of conflict resolution in a relationship.

  1. Set Healthy Boundaries 

I cannot emphasise this enough. Often, we think of boundaries as punitive and as a harsh ‘NO’. A boundary is about creating rules of engagement that honour your safety and sense of self – or teach you ways to engage in a way that is not harmful. It’s important for us to communicate our boundaries. Again, people take the lead from us on how to engage and behave in our interactions. 

  1. Follow Through On Your Boundaries 

This is something incredibly important that we tend to ignore. These are the steps I recommend:

  • Firstly, identify an area where a boundary is needed and be clear on it.
  • Secondly, communicate the boundary to the person – letting them know that their behaviour is not okay. 
  • Lastly, communicate the consequence to the transgression of the boundary and if that person violates your boundary, there has to be consequences followed through. That person needs to know that, that boundary is non-negotiable because it’s an act of self-love. 
  1. Get A Second Pair of Eyes / Someone You Can Speak To

You may have a trusted friend or sibling that can help you to look at the relationship from the outside. Often when we’re in a relationship, we don’t see things clearly, especially when we’re tangled in an unhealthy dynamic. A second pair of eyes can be incredibly helpful, although the feedback may be difficult to hear but, a second opinion can make a huge difference to help us really see what is going on. 

Final Thoughts

Every day provides an opportunity to learn something new and this also includes being self-aware and responsible for our thoughts and feelings – whether you are diagnosed with a mental health condition or supporting a loved one who may display undesirable projections on you. However, educating and extending compassion while setting boundaries to protect oneself, as well, is very important. What is also crucial is to seek professional help, in order to successfully navigate these relationships better.