Compassion for High Conflict People

© 2011 By Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq.

As the year draws to a close and we focus on holiday celebrations, wethink about others including the less fortunate. All year long, at our websiteand in seminars we talk about high conflict people (HCPs) and how to deal withthem. Sometimes we forget to emphasize compassion for them as well.

No one chooses to be a high conflict person or to have a personalitydisorder (there’s a lot of overlap). High conflict people have a lot ofall-or-nothing thinking, unmanaged emotions, extreme behaviors and arepreoccupied with a Target of Blame. From my experience, they are highly distressed and lack the skills for satisfying relationships. They get stuck inconflict because they feel on the defensive, not because their goal is to makeother people miserable. They have great difficulty healing and accepting loss.It is too painful, so instead they fight to avoid losses and defeats – eveninsignificant ones. I think of having a high conflict personality as a serious relationship disability.

They tend sabotage themselves by pushing people away in an effort toavoid being abandoned (borderline HCPs), insulted (narcissistic HCPs), ignored(histrionic HCPs), dominated (antisocial HCPs) or betrayed (paranoid HCPs).They cannot see their part in this problem, so they often escalate theirself-defeating behavior – and therefore experience even more distress.

Just because many high conflict people are successful at something intheir lives does not mean they do not feel pain and lack meaningfulrelationships. It’s easy to pick on them when they seem to be successful on thesurface, such as having wealth, power, incredible beauty or other superficialrewards. Of course, most high conflict people do not have wealth, power,incredible beauty or other superficial rewards. The research shows that personalitydisorders are more prevalent among low-income people.

Over a century ago, Sigmund Freud wrote that love and work are the most important aspects of a human life. Yet close relationships in love and work are where high conflict people have the most difficulty. In his book “The Social Animal,” David Brooks points out that close relationships are far more successful at making people happy than work, money or real estate. The deeperthe relationships, the happier the person. How tragic it is that we seem to have a growing population of high conflict people who will not be satisfied and don’t know why.

While it’s easy to be critical of them and want to screen out high conflict people from our lives, it’s important for us to work on this issue as a society. Since people with personality disorders appear to be increasing (and most high conflict people seem to have personality disorders or traits, which means they don’t have insight into their own behavior and don’t change their dysfunctional behavior), this problem is not one we can ignore. With HighConflict Institute we are committed to educating professionals and the general public about these problems and how to set limits on high conflict behavior –while also having more empathy, attention, and respect for high conflict people themselves.

Tis the season for compassion. We wish you and yours – and all the HCPs in our lives – a pleasant holiday season!

Bill Eddy is a lawyer, therapist, and mediator. He is the co-founder and Training Director of the High Conflict Institute, a training and consultation firm that trains professionals to deal with high conflict people and situations. He is the author of several books and methods for handling high conflict personalities and high conflict disputes with the most difficult people.