In Part I of this three-part series (click here for that) on gay men and personality disorders in the workplace, we looked at the Odd/Eccentric personality disorder types, the Paranoid, Schizoid, and Schizotypal, with some tips on how to get along with those types if you find them in your office. Here in Part II, we look at the Dramatic/Emotional personality disorders. But in case you missed Part I, here’s some background to this series:
I’m the founder and clinical director of Gay Therapy LA, and for 24 years I’ve been a specialist in working with gay men (individuals and gay male couples). Gay Therapy LA is my private practice office in Los Angeles/West Hollywood in psychotherapy and life/career coaching, where myself and two associates (more about them here, for appointments on weekday mornings, or on the weekend) specialize in LGBT/gay-affirmative therapy. Most of my clients are working on either their relationships, or something to do with their careers, so I do a lot of career coaching or executive coaching. Clients can have appointments in the office, or receive online coaching all over the country (or world!) via phone, Skype or Facetime. Oftentimes, guys are stressed out from their jobs and need to vent, but also they want help with how to cope, such as an “exit strategy” to a better job, or just learning how to deal with difficult bosses, co-workers, or subordinates.
What I explain to them is that people with mental illness (in a special category called “Personality Disorders”) usually have jobs, so they bring those personality disorders into the workplace with them, making life difficult for others. You’ve probably heard of the “narcissist”, but there are many other personality disorders. I’ll give you an overview of them in this three-part series of articles. For each personality disorder, I’ll also give you some tips on how to cope with these types of people, so that you can “go along to get along” in the office, sometimes making the best of a bad situation. See if you “recognize” anyone in your office like this.
Personality Disorders: Three Types
The “bible” of mental disorders is the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders – Fifth Edition (aka DSM-5) (American Psychiatric Association [APA], 2013) that is published very roughly every ten years by committees of experts formed by the American Psychiatric Association in Washington, DC. They dork out on this stuff for years before they finally come to agreements on what the disorders are, and the traits and objective criteria required to carry the diagnosis. Things like Major Depression, Bipolar Disorder, Schizophrenia, and even substance abuse diagnoses are in there. Note that things like homosexuality were removed from the DSM in 1973, and more modern/trendy things like “sex addiction” are not even in there, despite all the hype about that supposed “diagnosis” that doesn’t exist (more about that in my article, here.) So, the APA are a very scholarly bunch, but they describe people whom we might see in any workplace.
Personality disorders are defined as an “enduring pattern of inner experience and behavior that deviates markedly from the individual’s culture, is pervasive and inflexible, has an onset in adolescence or early adulthood, is stable over time, and leads to distress or impairment.” (American Psychiatric Association, 2013, p. 645). So let’s say that you have the proverbial “ crazy boss”. Everyone thinks so, based on lots of observations and lunchtime/water cooler/happy hour gossip sessions. But what type of mentally ill is she? Bipolar manic? Hypomanic? Attention Deficit Disorder? Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder? Or one of the Personality Disorders?
Personality Disorders are clustered into three categories: A) the odd or eccentric; B) the dramatic, emotional, or erratic (I bet that rang a bell for you, right?); or C) the anxious or fearful. I’ll devote one article to each of these three categories, but today let’s look at that second group, the Dramatic/Emotional/Erratic. With a closer description, see if this reminds you of anyone you know:
Cluster B: Dramatic, Emotional, Erratic
The “Cluster B” personality disorders are the ones who get all the attention, and in the case of the Narcissist, literally. When we think of personality disorders, we tend to think of these.
- Antisocial Personality Disorder: This person shows a pattern of disregard for, and violation of, the rights of others. Basically, they are either jerks or criminals. A real “office douche” might be this type, such as an aggressive salesperson who doesn’t follow the rules to fuel their own ambition. They might be “charming”, but only in a manipulative way, so they might be guilty of sexual harassment. They show a pattern of irresponsibility, recklessness, and impulsivity. They have little adherence to social norms. They may be just cocky and impolite. They don’t show guilt for anything they’ve done. They might falsify documents, take credit that isn’t theirs, throw colleagues under the bus at meetings, embezzle company funds, ask you to lie for them, or “cover their tracks” to get their own way. If they are psychopathic, they might be callous, thrill-seeking, sadistic, predatory on others, and have seemingly no “moral compass” or conscience.
How do you cope with this? – Document what you see and hear. If they violate rules such as sexually harassing your or your colleagues, you must report it. They don’t tend to respond to “requests” or anything meek; you have to really play hardball with these people. But be careful to document things, because they will lie about you to defend themselves. Keep emails or print out copies of things. Document witnesses to their behavior with many specifics. If it’s the boss with a lot of power, and they are engaging in something criminal, refuse to be a part of anything they ask you to do that’s illegal, and consult an employment attorney or the police. “Just following orders” is not a legal defense. Take a “stress leave” if necessary, then get legal advice if they were creating a “hostile workplace”. See your doctor about any workplace stress and use benefits like SDI in California (www.edd.ca.gov). See a therapist to document the stress you’ve been put under by this person’s illegal or unethical behavior. Set firm limits: “I’m sorry, Marcy, but I’m not going to backdate that document for you or adjust the budget documents to hide the bonus you gave yourself.” If they threaten you with firing if you don’t do something illegal, document that, go out on stress leave, and consult an employment attorney.
- Borderline Personality Disorder: People with this disorder can really disrupt an office, particularly if they are a supervisor or boss. They show a pattern of instability in interpersonal relationships, might frequently complain about their different “dates”, have an insecure self-image, have a very “hot and cold”personality, have sharp shifts in mood (giddy to morose), be impulsive, and compliment you one minute (or few a months) and then turn on a dime against you and attack, such as at a staff meeting. They might leave you out of the loop on important office business. They might tell you one thing, and tell your colleagues another. They might pit one staff against another one, based on lies. They might think an idea or a strategy is “amazing” one minute/day, and “the worst” later. They have chronic feelings of emptiness, and might “use” you as a confidant, even when it’s inappropriate. They might be guilty of “TMI” (too much information). They might have a drug or alcohol problem that carries over into the workplace. They might scream, cry, or throw things in a very “mercurial” mood, but apologize later. They tend to “stir the pot” and make an office chaotic on the outside, like they are on the inside. They tend to defend against and fear any kind of “abandonment” or being left out. For gay men, they might try to set you up with someone, or try to “be your best friend” like a straight BFF. Or, they might go hot-and-cold on gay issues, and sound like an activist one minute and an anti-gay politician the next. They might say gay-friendly things to your face one minute, and then homophobic things about you to your colleague the next. It’s always about “splitting”.
How do you cope with this? — It’s tough. This is a very difficult personality disorder, and it’s a stubborn one for therapists to help with. Working with your colleagues is one way, so that any “secrets” the Borderline tries to manipulate others with aren’t successful. Clarify things. When you talk to the person with the Borderline personality, reassure them and calm them like they are a three-year-old child. Document anything they do that’s nefarious. Don’t over-disclose or trust them, even if they want to create a “false intimacy” with you that makes you let your guard down. When necessary, act like a parent of a three-year-old who is having a tantrum, and say, “Calm down. We have to talk about this rationally. This isn’t helping”. Be directive, even if you are “managing up”. A firm hand will help them calm the chaos inside them. Defend yourself with specifics, if needed: “You said to call Jill and reschedule your 2:00 meeting with her on Thursday, when we met at staff meeting on Monday at 11:00. Barbara was there and heard you tell me. If you want to meet with Jill after all, I can call her assistant back, but they might have already booked something else. I can book a meeting with Jill on Friday if she has something available. It will be OK; Jill is pretty flexible. I’ll let you know what her assistant says and get back to you before 5:00 today.”
- Histrionic Personality Disorder: This person shows a pattern of excessive emotionality and attention seeking; excessive displays of emotion; or even flamboyant, dramatic behavior (“Drama Queen!”). They seek attention, and might interrupt your work a lot by “dropping by” your office or cubicle. They might take a “victim stance”: “Sue interrupted me twice during staff meeting. Did you see that? She’s always doing that to me. I think she’s jealous of my work with Bob on the Pearson case and has it in for me.” They seek re-assurance and praise: “Did I do OK in the staff meeting? You like Bob liked what I said? I wasn’t too wordy, was I?”. They show shallow emotions: “Tom’s wife died last week and he’s still not back at work. We need him on the Pearson case. It’s like, get over it and do your job already; come on.” They might flamboyant or self-centered: “They said no potted plants above the cubicle walls, but they just haven’t seen my hanging Blossom Bowl. They have to see that. Isn’t it gorgeous? It’s in full bloom in low light. They can’t mind that; they just have no taste.” They might be the “life of the party” and dance by themselves at the office holiday party when no one else will get near them. For gay men, they might want to cozy up to you since “you guys always know how to party, right? Dance with me; it won’t kill you to dance with a girl for once!”.
How do you cope with this? – Again, set limits. Say hello or exchange polite greetings, but keep your distance to keep away from drama. Don’t take sides or engage in gossip. Don’t feel the need to give them attention. Keep a certain distance and focus on your own work, or other colleague relationships.
- Narcissistic Personality Disorder: Like the Borderline, this is HUGE in offices. This person shows a pattern of grandiosity, a need for admiration, and a lack of empathy, that can easily be confused with the Histrionic Personality. They might make grandiose statements in staff meetings: “Hey, Sally’s sales were up 2 percent last month, but mine were up 4 percent. I mean, that’s like double. Two percent? Big deal. Try twice that. I’m on a roll this year.” They might have a sense of self-importance: “I want Carlos to give me the office with the window when Katya leaves. Claire wants it, cuz she says she’s been here twice as long as me, but I mean, hey, I’m the nature lover. I want the view of the mountains; they inspire me.” They might lack empathy: “Sven’s dog died and he was all upset about it, but it was 15, it’s not like it was still a puppy! Fifteen is old for a dog; my mom was a vet and I know every breed there is.” They may be hyper-sensitive to criticism: “Bob said my four percent sales increase was pretty good. No; it was awesome! What’s his problem? You really have to drag compliments out of that guy.” They might exaggerate their accomplishments or abilities, and claim to have skills they actually don’t have. They see themselves as special, unique, and above the rules. They can be entitled: “I know Sally’s been here twice as long as me, but Bob should promote me to Manager. I know more than Sally any day. Have you seen her hair? No one who looks like that should be a manager. This is a high-end boutique; not a Halloween pop-up shop.” For gay men, they might try to “join” a stereotype that gay men are connoisseurs who “only like the best” (such as them). They might compete with you. (Think of “Penelope” on “Saturday Night Live”). They might try to show off how “tolerant” they are, or how much they know about the history of marriage equality or Judy Garland trivia.
How do you cope with this? – Be careful. If you confront a Narcissist and call them out, they tend to react with rage and will make it their life’s mission to undermine you. If they are your boss, you do have to kind of “kiss ass” to raise your value with them. If they do something wrong, it’s because others “don’t get it”. Compliment a lot. If they are your subordinate, and feel entitled to break the rules, work with your Human Resources Department and document a Plan of Corrective Action. Work with them to follow procedure carefully, because if you fire a Narcissist, you will likely get a trumped-up lawsuit based on race, gender, religion, national origin, or another protected class. Praise what they do well, but set firm limits on following the rules “just like everyone else”. But cover your butt with advice from HR, because a Narcissist will tend to retaliate viciously in defense. Never confide anything secret to them. Document things you achieve in ways that you can prove your contribution, in case they try to take credit for your work. Remember that the Narcissist is internally like a three-year-old child with fragile self-worth, and they are always trying to defend against that. Think of Chihuahuas, who are tiny but defend against that by barking and showing teeth to strangers.
This Dramatic/Emotional/Erratic category of personality disorder is one of the more malevolent in the workplace. Lawsuits have ensued over employee conflicts when this type of personality disorder is involved, so you have to be informed, empowered, and tread carefully. Get legal advice early in the process if you think you might be in conflict with someone with these kinds of personality disorders. In the next in this article series, we will look at the Anxious/Fearful personality disorder types, which can be annoying and demand patience.
If you can learn to familiarize yourself and recognize these personality disorders in others (and – oops! – maybe in yourself), you can foster better interpersonal working relationships with your bosses, colleagues, staff, and visitors. It’s a balance between accommodating their neuroses, and setting limits on them so that you get your own work done, and thrive, regardless of who you’re surrounded by. Picture yourself walking a tight rope on this: If you can understand how they are “wired”, you can learn how to communicate ideally with these different types of people, and you’ll be seen as someone who “gets along with everybody” and is a “team player” in the organization, and that raises your reputation with everyone.
But if a boss or colleague, or even a subordinate, is truly making your work life miserable, don’t suffer alone. Let’s talk about it, and make that part of our working agenda for career coaching or executive coaching, which I (and my colleagues) offer at the Gay Therapy LA offices, or through email consultations, phone sessions, or webcam/Skype sessions, to anyone, anywhere. Fees are on a sliding-scale basis, according to your annual income. We can discuss “live” all the logistics of working together; it’s pretty fast and easy to set up.
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This discussion of personality disorders is really just the surface and coping with them on an ongoing basis might require ongoing support for you. How does this play out for you, individually? Share with some comments about your own experiences coping with personalities in the workplace. For more information or to book an appointment, email me at Ken@GayTherapyLA.com, or call/text 310-339-5778.