Dealing with a neighbor with a personality disorder, how to navigate seemingly self-obsessed teens in this selfie generation, how to approach your spouse who helps everyone too much, and knowing when it's time to leave a long-term friendship.
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“While balance is hard to achieve and even harder to maintain, it is essential for good physical and mental health.”
"My neighbor has a personality disorder of some sort, and sometimes goes off the deep end. I offered some free passes to an event the other day, and he went crazy on me telling me to never contact him again. I have my hands full with a lot of family issues right now. He leaves me messages, emails me and sends text messages especially when I am out of town with a family member in need. I tried to explain several months ago that I don’t have any social time and my life is pretty hectic. I have been ignoring the calls and messages but he keeps on. I don’t want to be unfeeling about his condition but what can I do to make him stop contacting me?"
Signed frazzled neighbor.
You appear to have been trying to be kind to your neighbor, going the extra mile and generally being supportive. But good intentions don’t guarantee good outcomes. Whether your neighbor has a personality disorder or not, you must think about your own emotional health and how to protect it. You seem to be under a great deal of stress at the moment and unable to add more responsibility. I suspect that your neighbor wants more from you than tickets to an event. He prob- ably wants personal connection and when he doesn’t get it, he becomes angry. He is unable to understand that you are overwhelmed with family cares and concerns. What I am going to suggest may seem counter intuitive but instead of reacting to him, you could lead the way. For example, you could call him to chat for 10 minutes. When you are ready to hang up you might say, “I’ll talk to you next week when I return from caring for my relative.” Then ignore all text messages or calls but do call him for 10 minutes when you return. Set limits for yourself, no more than 10 minutes and no more than once a week. This regimen will be hard to establish and maintain but it's the only way I know to both protect yourself emotionally as well as being kind to those around you.
"I have a carpooling situation with my kids. I find myself getting the short end of the stick when I deal with the other mothers. I know I need to stand up for myself, but I always seem to be giving in to the other mothers’ schedules. How can I be more assertive without becoming a B**** ?"
Signed mini-van mother.
Our fear of becoming a B**** and “hurting other people” can effectively stop us from standing up for ourselves. We continue to be the proverbial doormat, not able to set boundaries or keep them, or to assertively place limits on what we’ll do or not do. Back in the 1970s, I taught a class in assertiveness. It was at the beginning of the feminist movement and we all recognized that the lack of assertiveness was a particular problem for women. For various reasons we believed that if we were good, that is compliant and not demanding, others would take care of our interests and us. So we tried to remain passive and not complaining until we couldn’t take it anymore and then we would blow up, embarrassing ourselves and sending us back into passivity. We were either passive or aggressive, bypassing the middle ground known as assertiveness. In your carpooling situation, words like “That doesn’t work for me”, or “My schedule doesn’t allow for that”, are simple assertive statements that essentially mean “No”. In the beginning you may have to repeat these statements more than once, as other people won’t believe you are standing up for your- self and setting a boundary. But they’ll catch on eventually as you continue to practice assertiveness.
"With the onset of the selfie generation, my children seem to be pretty self-obsessed. They are ages 8 to 14 and are all about new cell phones, the right clothes, really expensive bikes, texting constantly, and social media. How can I make sure I am not raising narcissists?"
Signed concerned parents.
Some experts blame social media, Facebook, Twitter and all of the incarnations of “selfie-centered” culture for a rise in narcissistic behavior. This may be partially true but it might also be that we are
becoming more narcissistic as a culture and that social media reflects that fact. Parental over valuation and overindulgence can cause children to develops narcissistic traits. If parents tell their children that they are better than everyone else and that ordinary rules don’t apply to them, you are well on your way to fostering narcissistic traits. Feelings of equality and good self-esteem are goals that counteract the tendency to self-centeredness.
The difference between self-esteem and narcissism is that with good self-esteem you believe you are as good as everyone around you while a narcissist believes he’s better. Many parents believe in teaching their children that they are better than average and that they’ re destined to do great things. Not that they are just equal to others but better. Those children believe that rules that apply to ordinary people don’t apply to them and that their wishes come first. But this parental love and over-valuation is conditional on his not being ordinary or average but special in some way. Children that exceed and succeed are the new parental status symbol and the pressure on the child is extreme. If they fail to live up to parental expectations, it must be someone else’s fault as they’ve been told they are exceptional. And so begins the vicious cycle we call narcissism.
In order to combat the rise of narcissism in our children we need to help them develop empathy for others. Having a pet helps us to not think about ourselves first. So does volunteering to help others learn to read or going to a church with a youth group. Instead of giving blanket approval to a child, wait until they actually do something well and then praise.
Narcissism pervades our society in the form of sexism, racism and religionism. Men are better than women, whites are better than blacks and my religion is better than yours. Cultural Narcissism exists on a large scale in the world today. We’ve been taught that we’re the best, that ordinary rules don’t apply to us and that our wishes reign supreme.
"Our 70-year-old uncle seems to be getting more and more negative about things. He has always been on the sarcastic side but seems to be getting worse all the time. He is fairly active and healthy and takes great care of him- self. Should we be concerned about this behavior?"
Signed worried niece.
I hope that “taking great care of him- self” includes visits to his doctor as changes in behavior can signal a medical problem. A diminished blood/oxygen supply to the brain needs to be addressed. But for right now, let’s talk about negativity and aging. Many years ago I read an article about the 10 rules of aging and the one I remember was, “Rant, don’t whine.” Some folks take that rule to heart in a big way. They feel that age gives them the right to NOT edit what they say. This is further enhanced by a normal thinning of the cerebral cortex, which is our brain’s editor and monitor of appropriate thoughts, word and deeds. So often what we think comes out of our mouths, unedited.
Oftentimes, as people age, they become more of who they’ve been all along. So your uncle’s sarcastic tendencies have morphed into negativity. I don’t think that confronting him about his behavior will do anything but hurt his feelings. You might use a more positive approach like, “Uncle George, I’m certain that Susan did the best she could.” Or “You’re right Uncle George, things aren’t the same as they used to be, but let’s try to solve this problem anyway.”
Your uncle is aging and he knows he’s slipping, cognitively, physically and mentally. This is frightening and can cause sadness and depression and negativity. We’ve all heard that growing old “ain’t for sissies.” Tolerance and empathy on your part will be necessary for a good relation- ship with your uncle.
"My wife has a tendency to help everyone out. If there is a stray dog, she takes it in. A friend of our teenage son, who was having problems at home, came and stayed for three weeks. If a neighbor is sick, she is cooking food for their whole family. She really exhausts herself by taking too much on most of the time. I love her for all she does, but I am just wondering how heathy this is to take on so much."
Signed concerned husband.
In the very far distant past the survival of the human race depended on people like your wife. Altruism caused us to put others before ourselves, the survival of the group before our own and caring for others was a high priority. We had a great “pack” mentality. “One for all and all for one!’ We’ve lost a lot of that now; greed and a sense of entitlement have seen to that, but let’s get back to altruism. Whether altruism is a learned trait or the result of genetic wiring, the idea that “service” is our contribution to the well being of the planet pleases me.
Some people are altruistic on a more limited scale. They care for people of their own group and not the outsider or stranger. Limited altruism can be judgmental.
Your wife is to be commended for her generosity and cautioned to maintain balance. While balance is hard to achieve and even harder to maintain, it is essential for good physical and mental health. I recently heard someone say that in an airplane when the oxygen masks are deployed, you put one on yourself before you put one on your child. She needs to care for herself so that she can care for others.
Once when I saved a little dog covered with ice and snow from a grocery store parking lot, my mother scolded me by saying, “You can’t save every stray dog on the planet!” “You’re right Mom, but I have to care for the ones that cross my path.”
"We have heard stories about our great grandfather’s swearing. He would shout out profanities in the shower and have unexpected spurts of cussing. My father’s second cousin on the same side of the family was thought to have Tourette’s Syndrome. Does Tourette’s run in families?"
Signed curious family member.
Tourette’s is a neurological condition involving uncontrolled repetitive movements such as facial grimacing as well as sounds such as grunting, always at inappropriate times. These symptoms are called “tics”. Ten percent of people with TS also have coprolalia, the swearing tic, which I suspect was your grandfather’s problem.
You can have coprolalia without having TS. There is a strong hereditary component with TS so it is important that you familiarize yourself with the subtleties of this condition by going to the TS website. It is a somewhat controllable condition but not curable. Your doctor might prescribe psychotropic drugs to help control the brain’s impulsivity and reactivity as well as psychotherapy to help with coping with this chronic condition. Relaxation techniques can also reduce mental and physical stress thought to trigger symptoms. Children with TS are often misdiagnosed as having behavior problems. Teachers don’t automatically think Tourette’s when a child starts “cussing” in class. They think principal’s office and punishment. This is where you come in to save the day and have your child checked for TS.
"I know exercise can help relieve stress but can you exercise too much?"
Signed concerned spouse.
I remember being on a hiking trip in the Dolomite Mountains in northern Italy when we met an older Austrian couple out for a Sunday walk. He was in lederhosen and she was wearing a dirndl dress, not that that’s important. They greeted us with Grüs Gott (Go with God) and off they went down the trail. It was then I understood that walking for pleasure has fallen from favor in our society. We couch our walking as exercise or as a way to lose weight or because it’s good for our hearts or bone density. But the ability to sleep, relax and live a calm, peaceful existence is a goal shared by many of us. It is the core of good mental health and can be achieved with a lifestyle that aims at being in tune with the natural world around us.
I know that I’m a great believer in walking and the many benefits it has, physical, mental and spiritual, but I know it works. An hour a day keeps the blues away! I just made that up, but it’s true; no sleep medication, no tranquilizers, and no antidepressants.
I was asked if you can exercise too much and of course you can. You can actually become an exercise-aholic. Aristotle said a long time ago, “Everything in moderation.” Walking in nature rarely exceeds the limits of good sense. The scenery, the sense of oneness with your surroundings encourages a pace that is commensurate with your abilities that are often challenged in a gym.
We all put our own individual stamp on things; some people prefer the solitude of walking alone or only with the dog. Others like the camaraderie of a group, chatting with each other as the sun rises in the east. Sleep experts often warn against strenuous evening exercise. They feel it runs counter to the desired pre-sleep state of relaxation and calmness, but if it works for you, don’t stop! Keeping your body moving while calming your mind is a great Zen exercise and can prepare you for the stresses of the day ahead.
-Romona Scholder, M.A., RNCS, Psychotherapist