Borderline Personality Disorder or Sociopathy?

Reader’s Question

I am seeking advice on how to deal with an emotionally abusive family member.

My older sister displays all the symptoms of a borderline personality disorder or possibly even sociopathy. After dealing with the lies, guilt, manipulations, aggression, and financial dependency for as long as I can remember, I cut off contact with her 2 years ago. However, for our mother cutting ties is not an option. Our mother is a widow and tends to rely on me for emotional support. Her need for such support is largely due to the emotional stress of dealing with my sister. Hearing about the continuous cycle of financial demands, guilt and lies (even third hand) not only affects me but also makes me concerned about the well being of our mother, who is 70 years-old.

My sister has always blamed my mother for every ill in her life and uses this type of guilt to constantly get money from her. Another ongoing problem is the lies she has told. When the lies are found out my sister often tells my mother that she (mom) imagined or exaggerated the things she said. I am not sure how much more my mother can take (emotionally or financially), and I don’t know how to help. Can you offer any advice or suggest any resources that provide guidance on how to deal with this type of family member? A lot of literature advises having no contact with a sociopath, but what about when you are the parent of one?

Psychologist’s Reply

Women who display the kinds of behaviors most frequently associated with sociopathy (constant lying, manipulating, parasitic lifestyle, remorseless use and abuse of others, etc.) are more often viewed — even by professionals — as having disorders (e.g., Borderline Personality Disorder) other than sociopathy. And dealing with a person with significant character pathology is always challenging or difficult. Although some advise that the only solution is no contact, the real solution is in recognizing all the dysfunctional behavior patterns, manipulation tactics, etc. and maintaining a firm commitment not to be taken in by them. This is hard at first because the disordered character will frame the abused party’s desire to set firm limits and boundaries as rejecting or possibly even abusive behavior, thus tugging at the abused party’s heartstrings. Nonetheless, if one is to avoid being taken advantage of, one has to be firm and enforce limits and boundaries rigidly.

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You are right that your mother needs support. Much of that support can come in the form of encouragement and understanding from you for her willingness to take a firmer stand and not allow herself to be exploited or abused. And, when it comes to hearing third-hand about all the manipulations that cause distress, you can set a limit, too. Merely respond that your sister is a grown adult capable of taking responsibility for her own life and then change the subject. In time, your mom will get the message.

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