Monday, July 11, 2011

Am I Responsible for How He Acts?

By Sandra L. Brown, M.A.

One of the most frequently asked questions in pathological relationship counseling is "Did I make the person behave like this?" The clients often believe they bring out 'the worst in him' or so the pathological wants them to believe. The pathological likes to label his own acting out, cheating or other inappropriate behavior as someone else's fault. This is called projecting. One of the characteristics of a number of permanent personality disorders is the trait that they don't take responsibility for their own behavior. They have a victim mentality and blame others and the world for their shortcomings and ultimately, their bad behavior. Normal people 'own' their own behavior; pathological people project it onto others.

By the time the client comes to counseling from the aftermath of effects from the relationship, she believes the relationship, its problems and its demise were all her fault. She believes the pathological's propaganda and has a lot of remorse, guilt, and self depreciating thoughts about herself that 'if she only acted differently then so would he' and the relationship would be on better footing.

Let me ask you this...."If he had a brain tumor, would you feel responsible that his body produced a brain tumor? Would that be your responsibility?"  I doubt it. People do feel bad that someone else got a brain tumor, but they don't feel 'responsible' or 'to blame' because someone got a brain tumor.

The often shocking aspects of Cluster B personality disorders are that what is driving their behavior is not a brain tumor but it is a brain disorder---in many, many forms. We expect that a brain disorder would be 'noticeable' to others. It is--in time. By the time the relationship ends, you DO know that there are behavior problems; you just don't know how, why, or where they are generated.  Cluster B personality disorders carry with them an astounding array of problems stemming from the brain and their own neurology.  These problems drive the pathological's impulsive, out of control behavior and distorted thinking processes.

Even a decade ago, we didn't have the information we have today about the wide-reaching neuro problems associated with pathology and personality disorders. While for many years we may have 'suspected' a very physical reason for the behavior--the pathological lying, spending, cheating, violence, addiction, and other behavioral problems-we didn't have the concrete knowledge now generated from neuroscience, neurobiology, brain imaging, and other brain studies.

Here is a tiny snippet of the kinds of information being generated about brain dysfunction in personality disorders. This in no way covers all of it--but it gives us some place to begin looking at it as being as much a medical brain syndrome as it is a psychological syndrome.

  • · Genomics--molecular building blocks of DNA affected by pathology.
  • · Proteomics--location, interactions, structure, and proteins affected by pathology.
  • · Neurotransmitters affected.
  • · Hippocampus--part of the brain that is related to impulsivity affected by pathology.
  • · Amygdala--part of the brain that is related to impulsivity affected by pathology.
  • · Neuroinformatics -A library data base about thousands of different brains and what is unusual about them including pathological brains.
  • · Cellular signaling show involvement of genetics in pathology.
  • · Low levels of brain enzymes are related to violence.
  • · Genes on certain chromosomes create schizophrenia, bipolar, etc. New research wants to find out if it contributes to pathology.
  • · Genetic vulnerability causes significant differences in neurological development in children with psychopathic tendencies.
  • · The number of copies of different genes has already been linked with a variety of medical conditions and the expectation is that these copy number variants will be very significant in personality disorder research.
  • · A complex array of varying genes underlies the many different outward manifestations of personality disorders which can be seen in early childhood despite a loving and stress free environment.
  • · Stressful/abusive environments can push a milder case of personality disorders into a full blown active personality disorder.
  • · Phenotype images the size and shapes of brain organs related to personality disorders.
  • · Serotonin reception 5-HT plays a role in controlling offensive aggression (or not!)
  • · The lack of transporter molecules predisposes people towards impulsivity, emotional instability, etc.
  • · Polygeny (a single trait that can affect many genes) seems to underlie personality disorders.
  • · Those who metabolize dopamine faster are at higher risks for anti social behavior.
  • · An enzyme that helps break down dopamine and serotonin are linked to impulsive and aggressive behavior, substance abuse, criminal behavior.
  • · MAO-A gene is linked to Cluster B personality disorders.
  • · Neural circuitry problems are related to trouble with reinforcement learning so they are not likely to learn from punishment, also related to impulse violence.
  • · TPH brain enzyme is related to behavioral problems associated with anti social behavior.
  • · MRI imaging shows that areas of the brain related to excitability respond differently in psychopaths.
  • · Certain words cause psychopaths to respond differently than normal people (blood, sewer, hell, rape, etc.)
  • · Some parts of the brain show higher activity in psychopaths, some areas lower activity in psychopaths.
  • · Weak limbic regions of the brain in psychopaths cause them to grapple with emotional language.
  • · Corpus callosum is different in psychopaths so they process information between brain hemispheres differently which effects interpersonal skills and low reactions to stress, high reactions to aggression and unregulated behavior.
  • · The amygdala in psychopaths have less reaction to fight-flight responses This causes psychopaths to feel restless, spurring them on to raising hell just for the excitement value.
  • · Slower neural reactions are related to their lack of fear which is also genetically based.
  • · Lack of fear throttles the development of the conscience.
  • · Orbito-frontal portion of the brain causes psychopaths to have trouble organizing their behavior, reduces their ability to control their impulses and the ability to learn from punishment.
  • · Difficulty with abstract meanings like the word 'justice' generated from right brain quadrant, also problems with nonverbal cues related to emotions.
  • · Dorso-lateral Prefrontal Cortex affects some personality disorders ability to think logically and rationally.
  • · The anterior cingulate cortex affects some personality disorders ability to focus on something they don't wish to hear thus being able to block what they want to hear, it also produces (or doesn't) the feelings of empathy.
  • · The limbic system which is affected in some personality disorders negatively influences their ability to regulate their emotions through emotional reasoning.
  • · The hippocampus is affected in some personality disorders which negatively impacts the emotional response system.
  • · Hyperactive amygdalae cause intense and slowly subsiding emotions when they suffer even just a minor irritation. This can cause an overreaction to a minor constructive criticism.
  • · Lowered serotonin levels in the brain affects increased impulsivity.
  • · Smaller size of right parietal lobe in some personality disorders.

Yeah, I know--that's a lot of science to wade through but maybe you get the point: you didn't break him and you can't fix him. This fascinating decade of science has answered so many questions for so many---people who can let go of the guilt and fantasy that what's wrong with him is merely 'willful behavior' or 'a bad attitude' or 'needs more counseling.'  Personality disordered brains are different in their genetic makeup, chemistry, circuitry, regional brain development, neurobiology...and the list goes on. In fact, we are realizing so much of the brain is affected---in borderline personality disorder, in anti-social, in psychopathy--so much of Cluster B is traced now to significant brain impairment. (For more information read the book 'Evil Genes' available on our website).

For many years I have been teaching the Three Inabilities related to pathology:
  1. The inability to grow to any great emotional depth
  2. The inability to consistently sustain positive change
  3. The inability to develop insight about how their behavior affects others.

I developed these inabilities from 20 years in the field of providing services to the personality disordered. Although I suspected there was hard-wiring and hard science behind it, it wasn't until recently that I was finally able to find out why the Three Inabilities are actually correct and why they don't sustain positive change. It's not because they want to screw with your's because of their head.

You didn't produce anything--you're so influential that you can setup his genetic patterns.  Sorry--you're not strong enough to 'will' his amygdala to change. Bad news here--you are not gonna 'love' his limbic region into correct functioning. And hate to break the news that all the 'Law of Attraction' books in the world aren't gonna get his brain chemistry to be normal.

And you might as well cancel the relationship counseling because being tolerant it isn't gonna change the size and function of various brain regions. Stopping nagging or trying the relationship 'just one more time' isn't going to alter his brain enzymes and neurotransmitters.  Even Batterer Intervention groups aren't gonna change his corpus callosum and make it less aggressive.

He doesn't have a brain tumor that you are responsible for 'giving him.' He does have a brain disorder. You aren't responsible for that either--how his brain did and did not form. In the medical world, we seem to accept some disorders much more easily, like Cystic Fibrosis or Mental Retardation. With these disorders, you can often see visible symptoms. In pathology, you also see symptoms over time.  The difference is that the symptoms are visible not through external medical conditions but through relationships. We find the symptoms of psycho-pathology related to brain dysfunction right in the middle of your relationship.

Sandra L. Brown, M.A. is the Founder of The Institute for Relational Harm Reduction and Public Pathology Education.  Visit her site for information about services and products:


  1. Ms Brown,
    I have never read a book or article that so concisely explained so much. It takes the blame out of my lap and transforms it into a tangible reason for the behavior. I wish we could get this info out to every family court judge, social worker, therapist (claiming to specialize in abuse) and attorney that are suppose to be "helping" families of abuse. Thank you for your insight.
    Carla Ramirez

  2. Great article Ms. Brown!!!!

  3. Thanks for the illuminating article, Sandra! You do put it in the correct perspective and ;eave the blame behind! Now we can say you can't argue with science.... nor can you change the brain disordered. So, it would be a lot healthier to move on to someone else! LJ


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