In Response to the Guardian's 'Personality Disorders at Work'
For the last fifteen years or so I have had a successful career in the education sector, starting in junior posts and working my way up to senior management roles. I have always received excellent feedback, with positive appraisals and awards for exceptional work. I am trusted by my managers, and am known to be a good diplomat and negotiator, working well with colleagues at all levels. Much more importantly to me, those I have managed have said how supported they felt, and how much they enjoyed working with me. My bosses have also noticed the mentorship and encouragement I provide for my staff. I am known amongst my colleagues for being a cheerful, motivating, and stabilising influence in the office, staying calm under pressure and having an open door policy where I am always ready to listen, support, and advise.
Why am I telling you this? Because as well as being a successful manager, I have Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD), and according to an article in yesterday’s Guardian which has now been removed (entitled ‘Personality Disorders at work: how to spot them and what you can do’) it’s not good news if you work with ‘one of them’ (that is, individuals with personality disorders). According to the article ‘they’ are ‘divisive, use power tactics, show intense or inappropriate anger, and regard others as either all good or all bad’. As an example, the article states that a person with BPD ‘would admit to ignoring the presence of particular co-workers when they passed them in an empty hallway to intimidate them’. Individuals with personality disorders (the article also ‘covers’ Narcissistic Personality Disorder) are effectively equated with workplace bullies who will ‘inevitably’ blame others for their behaviours.
I’m not here to convince you that all those with BPD are excellent colleagues and managers – to do so would be to make the same invidious error as the original article, as it would be an unwarranted generalisation that ignores individuality and defines people (either for good or ill) by a diagnosis. Neither am I here to convince you that no one with BPD ever acts in the way described by the article. There are workplace bullies, and there are those who manipulate, and show anger, who use people for their own ends and make the workplace a miserable place to be – but they may or may not have BPD or any other mental health difficulty. There are individuals who may display characteristics or personality traits we do not particularly like, but that does not make them ‘personality disordered’.
To suggest that those with personality disorders can be ‘spotted’ on the basis of certain traits is to further entrench the stigma surrounding these conditions, and perpetuates the culture of generalisation, discrimination, and misunderstanding, which historically has labelled those with BPD as difficult, untreatable, manipulative, and dishonest. Furthermore, the article’s casual approach to ‘diagnosis’ is of great concern; it can be challenging even for a professional to diagnose BPD due to the similarity of some symptoms to other disorders – any attempt by a lay person to ‘diagnose’ another individual is dangerous as well as highly inappropriate, and can only amount to uninformed ‘branding’. It also ignores the fact that having a disorder is about more than displaying certain characteristics – to be clinically diagnosable, there must be evidence of severe and sustained impact on a person’s day to day life. Many individuals with BPD will tell you that they suffer daily – though some would not choose to use that term - and suffering should be met with understanding and compassion, two characteristics that were conspicuous by their absence in yesterday’s article.
Everyone with BPD – just like everyone without it – has a different story, and everyone’s story shapes their personality and worldview. I believe that the circumstances that have contributed to my diagnosis, have also shaped the sort of employee and manager that I have become. And though I believe it would be wrong to generalise and to speak for others, I can say that my interactions with numerous individuals with BPD show that I am not alone in my experiences. Many individuals with BPD have been through some kind of trauma growing up, ranging from substantial emotional invalidation, to abandonment, to physical, sexual, or emotional abuse. For anyone who has experienced trauma and/or abuse (whether they have a diagnosis of BPD or not), there are various possible responses. Some perpetuate and act out the treatment that they experienced at the hands of others; more commonly, however, they turn that abuse onto themselves. As one reader commented in response to the article, individuals with BPD are far more likely to be the ones crying at work in the toilets, than the ones shouting at people in the corridor.
Ironically, the type of behaviour described in the article is also the type of behaviour that many individuals with BPD experienced from their care-givers, and which as adults they strive to avoid. My mother was intrusive and had poor boundaries; she was emotionally volatile, and became angry very quickly. I almost never heard her apologise, and she blamed others (including me) for her behaviour. She used emotional blackmail, and would close off and become silent for long periods after an argument, eventually simply ignoring what had happened and never seeking to make amends or resolve the conflict. She had very fixed ideas about the sort of person she wanted me to be and the types of aspirations I should have, and she did not respect my individuality or my opinions.
Those experiences have made me even more passionate about supporting the personal ambitions and aspirations of my staff, and ensuring that I provide a consistent and calm environment at work. I am determined not to subject my colleagues to the same volatility and changes in mood that I experienced, and I have strong and professional boundaries. I also believe that I should ‘have my colleagues’ backs’ - I take responsibility not just for my own decisions, but for the work of the team as a whole. Growing up with a volatile parent has given me the ability to pick up on people’s moods and to ‘measure the temperature’ of a room very quickly – as a consequence I can much more successfully negotiate difficult meetings.
As with anyone else, who I am at work is only one part of me – and in common with many I have spoken to with BPD, it is the part of me which is least susceptible to being triggered by my ‘disorder’. I am incredibly fortunate not just to be able to work, but to function at a high level at work. Being able to ‘compartmentalise’ first at school and then at work, has always been a very effective survival mechanism for me, and has enabled me to cope better with invalidation, grief, depression, and anxiety. But I’m all too aware of the fact that many with BPD are not able to work, even if they would like to, and even though it could be beneficial for their mental health. The sad thing about yesterday’s article is that it strongly implies that it is unfortunate that those with certain personality disorders can function well enough to work. It also runs completely counter to the tide of slow and painfully won progress over the last few years, in opening up conversations about mental health both in and outside the workplace. The article provides a huge disincentive (as if any more were needed!) for those with personality disorders to disclose their diagnosis and to seek the support they may need in order to stay in work.
It was, at least, a huge encouragement to see that the collective voices of ‘lay’ readers (both with and without a personality disorder diagnosis), mental health professionals, and mental health charities and advocates, resulted in the removal of the article towards the end of the day. It is positive that today’s culture is one in which so many people instinctively recognised the stigmatising nature of the article, and reacted against it. Thirty years ago, the views expressed in it would have been ‘mainstream’ and barely challenged. However, it was deeply irresponsible reporting which, removed or not, has been captured by the internet and continues to be ‘shared’, as I write. I hope that this post, amongst others that I am sure will come, will go a little way towards redressing the damage, and that a suitably balanced and well-informed piece will be published by the Guardian as a response, in due course.