By Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq.
© 2012 by Bill Eddy
In 2003, I used the terms High Conflict People, High Conflict Personalities and HCPs in a self-published book titled High Conflict Personalities: Understanding and Resolving Their Costly Disputes. (I couldn’t get a publisher because they said there was no interest in this subject.) The term “high conflict” had been around for at least twenty years, especially in regard to “high-conflict families” in divorce. I wanted to shift the focus to describe and deal with individuals, since it seemed that many high-conflict families included only one high-conflict person – and that dealing directly with that person would be the most effective way to help the family.
Since I had been a therapist before becoming a lawyer, I knew about personality disorders, how confusing they were, how persuasive they could be, and some of the methods for treating them. Yet no one outside of psychiatric treatment seemed to have a clue about their behavior – and often reacted in ways that made things worse. Since I was also seeing the same personality-disordered behavior in workplace disputes and neighbor disputes, as well as non-divorce legal disputes, I wanted to explain to others what was going on. People with personality disorders were showing up in all of these settings as “high-conflict” people, where their behavior was interpreted as simply about the current “issue,” rather than about the need for serious mental health treatment. Now, after a dozen years of focusing on this subject, I want to explain my current understanding of these terms in this article, and how to use them in a positive and practical way.
An Observable High Conflict Pattern
High-conflict people (HCPs) have a pattern of high-conflict behavior that increases conflict rather than reducing or resolving it. This pattern usually happens over and over again in many different situations with many different people. The issue that seems in conflict at the time is not what is increasing the conflict. The “issue” is not the issue. With HCPs the high-conflict pattern of behavior is the issue, including a lot of:
All-or-nothing thinking: HCPs tend to see conflicts in terms of one simple solution rather than taking time to analyze the situation, hear different points of view and consider several possible solutions. Compromise and flexibility seem impossible to them, as though they could not survive if things did not turn out absolutely their way. They often predict extreme outcomes if others do not handle things the way that they want. And if friends disagree on a minor issue, they may end their friendships on the spot – an all-or-nothing solution.
Unmanaged emotions: HCPs tend to become very emotional about their points of view and often catch everyone else by surprise with their intense fear, anger, yelling or disrespect for those nearby or receiving their comments over the Internet – or anywhere. Their emotions are often way out of proportion to the issue being discussed. This often shocks everyone else. They often seem unable to control their own emotions and may regret them afterwards – or defend them as totally appropriate, and insist that you should too.
On the other hand, there are some HCPs who don’t lose control of their emotions, but use emotional manipulation to hurt others. They may trigger upset feelings in ways that are not obvious (sometimes while they seem very calm). But these emotional manipulations push people away and don’t get them what they want in the long run. They often seem clueless about their devastating and exhausting emotional impact on others.
Extreme behaviors: HCPs frequently engage in extreme behavior, whether it’s in writing or in person. This may include shoving or hitting, spreading rumors or outright lies, trying to have obsessive contact and keep track of your every move – or refusing to have any contact at all, even though you may be depending on them to respond. Many of their extreme behaviors are related to losing control over their emotions, such as suddenly throwing things or making very mean statements to those they care about the most. Other behaviors are related to an intense drive to control or dominate those closest to them, such as hiding your personal items, keeping you from leaving a conversation, threatening extreme action if you don’t agree, or physically abusing you.
Blaming others: HCPs stand out, because of the intensity of their blame for others – especially for those closest to them or in authority positions over them. For them, it is highly personal and feels like they might not survive if things don’t go their way. So they focus on attacking and blaming someone else and find fault with everything that person does, even though it may be quite minor or non-existent compared to the high-conflict behavior of the HCP. In contrast to their blame of others, they can see no fault in themselves and see themselves as free of all responsibility for the problem. If you have been someone’s target of blame, you already know what I’m talking about.
They also blame strangers, because it is so easy. On the Internet, they can be anonymous and make the most extreme statements. Even if they know you, there is a sense of distance and safety, so that extremely blaming statements can flow.
A Predictable Pattern
Perhaps 15% of our society (and growing) seems preoccupied with blaming others a lot of the time. Though it’s a growing problem, it’s a predictable problem—and can be handled in most cases, if you understand it. Once you know some aspects of their pattern of behavior, you may be able to anticipate other problems that will arise and avoid them or prepare to respond to them.
HCPs seek Targets of Blame, because blaming others unconsciously helps them feel better about themselves. Blaming others also helps them unconsciously feel safer and stronger when they connect with other people. They’re constantly in distress and totally unaware of the negative, self-defeating effects of their own behavior. In a sense they are blind. Since HCPs can’t see the connection between their own behavior and their problems, their difficult behavior continues and their conflicts grow.
The Underlying Personality Pattern
High Conflict People have high-conflict personalities. Conflict is part of who they are. It’s a life-long personality pattern of thinking, feeling, and acting. Time after time, they avoid taking responsibility for their problems. Time after time, they argue against feedback, regardless of how helpful and truthful it may be. And time after time, they try to persuade others to agree with their rigid points of view and to help them attack their Targets of Blame. The issues come and go, but their personality traits keep them in conflict. Their problems remain unresolved and the stress on those around them often increases.
From my own experience and the feedback of many people who take our seminars with High Conflict Institute, the HCP personality pattern seems to be the same, regardless of the kind of conflict or who else is involved:
Underlying High-Conflict Personality Pattern
1. Rigid and Uncompromising, Repeating Failed Strategies
2. Difficulty Accepting and Healing Loss
3. Negative Emotions Dominate their Thinking
4. Inability to Reflect on their Own Behavior
5. Difficulty Empathizing With Others
6. Preoccupied with Blaming Others
7. Avoids Any Responsibility For the Problem or the Solution
Perhaps you know someone with this pattern. Someone who insists that you, or someone you know, is entirely to blame for a large or small (or non-existent) problem. If so, he or she may be an HCP. However, before you rush to tell that person that he or she is an HCP, remember: Do not openly label people and don’t use this information as a weapon. It will make your life much more difficult if you do.
Is a high-conflict personality the same thing as a personality disorder? Not exactly, but there is a lot of overlap. From my training and experience as a therapist, I believe that the people who become HCPs have personality disorders—or some “traits” of a personality disorder.
When I worked as a therapist at psychiatric hospitals and clinics, I learned a lot about patients with personality disorders. Years later, when I became an attorney and mediator, I recognized that the people who were stuck in high-conflict behavior had many of the same characteristics as people with personality disorders.
A personality disorder is a long-term dysfunctional pattern of thinking, feeling and behaving that affects many areas of a person’s life. People with personality disorders are not crazy or stupid, and some are very intelligent. Instead, they have “blind spots”—especially regarding their behavior with the people close to them in everyday life. They have daily personal problems which they keep repeating and repeating. Yet they don’t recognize these problems and can’t seem to stop themselves, even when their problems are obvious to everyone around them—and are harmful to themselves. They’re stuck in self-defeating and self-destructive behavior.
People with personality disorders are psychologically unable to grasp the consequences of many of their actions. They have a psychological barrier against examining their own behavior, and therefore they don’t change their own behavior, even when it would help them. Instead, they defend their actions and personalities—and remain stuck repeating their self-defeating behavior.
HCPs and people with personality disorders share three key characteristics:
1. They lack self-awareness, especially of the effects of their own interpersonal behavior on others.
2. They don’t change their behavior, even when receiving repeated negative feedback.
3. They “externalize” responsibility for problems in life, blaming forces beyond themselves.
In addition, HCPs have the following two behavior patterns which many people with personality disorders do not have:
• HCPs are preoccupied with a “Target of Blame” – usually someone very close to them (boyfriend, girlfriend, spouse, parent, child, best friend, etc.) or someone in an apparent position of authority (supervisor, company, government agency, police, doctor, lawyer, politician, etc.). They take aggressive action against that person, including lawsuits, employment complaints, spreading rumors, and even violence, in an effort to get that person to go away or change their behavior, so that the HCP will stop feeling so threatened inside. Many people with personality disorders do not focus on one person this way and are not able to sustain an attack against another person the way that HCPs do.
• HCPs persuade others to be “Negative Advocates” – usually family, friends or professionals who help in blaming the Target – which escalates their conflicts instead of helping them calm down to solve their problems. Negative Advocates are emotionally hooked by the intense fear and anger of the HCP, yet they are usually uninformed. When they hear about (or experience) the HCP’s extreme behavior, they often abandon the HCP, so that HCPs are constantly seeking new Negative Advocates. This ability to engage Negative Advocates enables High Conflict People to avoid confronting their own behavior, so that nothing changes and their “high-conflict” situations continue. Many people with personality disorders do not focus on a Target of Blame, so they don’t recruit Negative Advocates.
Many high-conflict people have some maladaptive personality traits, but not enough to have a personality disorder. They may have some self-awareness, make some efforts to change and blame others less. However, they still have a pattern of escalating conflicts, with Targets of Blame and Negative Advocates, so that they have the pattern of a high-conflict person. Therefore, HCPs do not always have personality disorders and people with personality disorders are not always HCPs. For practical purposes, the same methods apply with anyone – including those with or without personality disorders – so you never have to figure this out.
HCP is Not a Diagnosis
When I developed the terms High Conflict Person, High Conflict Personality and HCP, I did not intend them to be a mental health diagnosis, such as a personality disorder. My intention was to assist ordinary people in managing their professional and/or personal relationships with possible HCPs, not treating the individual as a patient. My intention was to make this information accessible to anyone who needed it if they suspected someone might be an HCP.
I recommend having a “Private Working Theory” that someone may be an HCP. You don’t tell the person and you don’t assume you are right. You simply focus on key methods to help in managing your relationship, such as paying more attention to: 1) connecting or bonding with the person with empathy, attention and respect; 2) structuring the relationship around tasks rather than reacting to emotions; 3) reality testing so that you don’t necessarily believe everything you are told, but also don’t assume the person is lying because they may honestly believe inaccurate information; and 4) educating about consequences, as HCPs are often caught up in the moment and can’t see the risks ahead.
Of course, the HCP concept is closely related to the issues and methods of dealing with people with personality disorders. But only mental health professionals can diagnosis and treat personality disorders. While the committee currently revising the DSM is planning to change the way diagnoses are made for personality disorders, it won’t have any effect on dealing with possible HCPs – because this is not a diagnosis. It’s a description of high-conflict patterns of behavior.
It’s better to learn about the predictable behavior patterns of HCPs and ways to respond constructively in professional and personal relationships. If you think someone is an HCP, use this information as a Private Working Theory and focus on changing your own behavior, not theirs.