How to support and protect the people we love to hate to love.
This is one of my favourite subjects to love to hate. Favourite people or FP’s are a specific type of person that can be both the most incredible person in the world…and then they can destroy your world and they don’t even do they’re doing it...most of the time. But we’ll talk about narcissists, sociopaths and abusers another day. I’m going to talk about it within the realms of Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) but you can find FP’s are a feature in most attachment disorders, personality disorders and ADHD. BPD is often a by-product of two things: Either a genetic predisposition causing developmental deficiencies in the emotional brain or emotional abuse and neglect and sometimes both. This results in something called Disorganised Attachment…which can also cause faulty developmental wiring in the noggin.
What is attachment and why does it create a "favourite person".
We usually talk about attachment when we talk about kiddy-sprinkles. And that’s actually a perfect place to start. Children can’t truly differentiate between anger and pain because they all come from the same place; children look to adults or “attachment figures” for context. IS THIS ANGER OR PAIN!? HELP!!! In the best environments, Adults will try their best to provide that context and start building coping mechanisms for each individual child. Adults know better…at least, we think we do. Truth is, when it comes to emotions, adults are just big kids with different coping mechanisms and a bigger vocabulary. And sometimes adults don’t have the time, patience or resources to help a child learn this complex emotional coping stuff. Even if they do, there could be developmental blocks in the road that make conventional attachment through love and bonding completely impossible. Enter BPD. BPD is sort of like…a really crappy fuse-box. The emotional regulation either hasn’t fitted, access denied, or didn’t even have wiring in first place, and so sometimes emotions bypass the circuit-breaker or the power just doesn’t get through. And in the absence of a primary attachment figure, an FP is someone who is the identified external circuit breaker. The replacement attachment figure or the replacement emotional filter system. And as you can imagine…this can be the most incredible thing in the world…and the worst. A FP receives every single ounce of honest to goodness praise, love, admiration, adoration, support; you name it, you got it. This emotional power-surge is called Idolization. And it is real. It is true. I’m not just telling you that I love that you love coding/star-trek/Meghan Trainor, I mean it. I’m not just making you your favourite meal because it makes you happy, it’s because your happiness is intrinsically linked to my own. I’m not just giving you my kidney because you need a kidney, it’s because I believe, whole heartedly, that your suffering is my suffering. I don’t spend 3 hours on the phone to you because YOU need it, it’s because WE, TOGETHER, need it. Cute, huh? Altruism is beautiful. Empathy is wonderful. Kindness makes you feel all warm and fluffy. A moderate level of co-dependency is beneficial when it’s facilitated by a background of good parenting AND/OR neurological support systems. But we are human. And humans are not 100% wonderful 100% of the time. We can be selfish, we can be mean, we can shout, we can simply not give a damn, we sometimes want the world to shut the f*ck up. That’s where BPD falls flat and where favourite person-ing just doesn’t fit in.
When the relationship with the Favourite Person becomes dangerous.
A FP to someone with BPD becomes a battery. It will feel energizing, it will make you full of unimaginable power, it will wear you out, It’ll overload you but if it’s there, you will let that link short out all of your parts. Between the need (and it is a NEED) for validation and the lack of off switch; we don’t care if we’re about to explode from the intake, we want to sapp up every scrap of our FP as much as we can. It can become a wild scramble to remain relevant when previous experience has shown that lack of attention of any kind is bad news; abandonment is coming. And if all positive efforts to remain relevant to a person have proved ineffective…welcome the meltdown. And a meltdown is a pretty crap deal. It doesn’t end when needs are met, it doesn’t end when there is an affect of calm, it doesn’t end when the argument is over. It continues subconsciously until the relationship is completely destroyed, at least from the perspective of a person with BPD. Every gift given is a waste, every laugh was clearly extracted under duress, every memory is false. If it involves the FP, the entire situation was a manipulative tactic to secure control or love for them. We call this Devaluation. It is easy to see the emotional responses as vengeful or deliberate because, from an outsider’s perspective, the person appears to be expressing some strong emotions which everyone can empathise with. When you’re the subject of those emotions, however, it’s personal. But when devaluation sets in the brain is in such emotional free-fall that there is no room for vengeance or intentional harm. For example, hearing a song that reminds you of your FP causes such dysregulation that the body experiences physical pain and distress akin to a car crash victim; Rapidly and dangerously increased heart rate, skyrocketing blood pressure with constricted blood vessels, muscle paralysis, muscle spasms: there is no physical trauma though and that confuses the brain even more so it starts acting out patterns of behaviour to convince itself and the body that it is not, in fact, experiencing injury. It can also attempt to convince itself that it is experiencing physical pain. It is all in an attempt to regulate. Over-eating, over exercising, shouting, screaming, biting, throwing, running…and it can look pretty insane to someone watching because this person has gone from an emotionally charged state to a physically charged state. The worst coping mechanisms are so painfully self-destructive that they don’t bare thinking about (but they need to be thought about): Overspending (into actual poverty), excessive alcohol consumption or drug use, unsafe sex, self-mutilation, active suicidality. It's scary to experience. It’s scary to see. And it can make people give you a VERY wide berth so they can avoid the situation. It is important to remember as an FP that this is not about you. It is not even about the abandonment that has come before or after. It is a very hard, very real internal agony that is very difficult to perceive unless you have experienced it yourself. And this makes it all the more difficult to stick around.
How to help the person and the Favourite Person
I will be the first to say that, if a person has not pursued or has refused psychotherapy for a possible personality disorder, then yes, you keep your ship clear. No one deserves to be alone but mental safety is not to be sacrificed for anyone. However, one of the main goals of treatment is to remove the active attempts to secure and maintain a FP relationship marked by irrational co-dependency, obsession, and personal sacrifice. The process is arduous, long, takes a lot of interpersonal work, trauma therapy, sometimes medication. It is often a process of learning from scratch for someone with BPD; like learning a language in your 50’s or throwing a pot when you’ve never touched clay, it is a life-long skill that has started late and with a massive disadvantage. And more and more psychotherapists are finding that they are seeing positive coping mechanisms with BPD adults that they have never encountered before or thought of. So treatment can take months or years, and mastery can take decades. And the only thing the people around someone working this out need to provide in support is consistent boundaries, consistent expectations, and consistent routine as much as possible.
These skills are brilliant even for typical interpersonal relationships and, typically, people have had a good example set for them. Even then they screw up! Just goes to show that everyone can be working to make themselves better!