Is He Faking It?

Private Behavior vs. Public Behavior

Lots of family members wonder why their loved one seems to be one person within the family and another person outside of the family. Why is that? Many family members claim that it is proof that their loved one really can control their “bad behavior” and they are intentionally manipulating the family.

So I would like to reflect a little more on this question. How is it possible that persons with BPD symptoms may be perceived as intelligent and capable among acquaintances in public, but have so many dysfunctional behaviors at home?

What we do in “public,” that is, in places where there are others present who are not intimate or immediate family members, may be quite different than when we are alone or believe that we are anonymous and unidentifiable.

In general we all exhibit more self control in public than in private. There are lots of behaviors that we might hide from public view – to follow social codes, to avoid being judged, ridiculed or embarrassed, to manage our image or how we are perceived by others.

Immediate consequences can be very powerful in shaping behavior and thus we have all been conditioned to inhibit behavior that is unacceptable or inappropriate in social settings. Some of us have more self-control and some have less.

In fact, some people have the tendency to “overcontrol” their public behavior, perhaps often showing a "flat face" with very little emotional expression and becoming almost robotic and/or they just avoid social interaction as much as possible. High inhibitory control is a superior capacity to resist temptation, delay gratification, attend to long-term future plans, and persist in spite of few positive consequences. While it can lead to success in certain competitive areas of life, it can also result in experiencing less pleasure, less interest in novelty, less social engagement, and less flexibility with regard to uncertainty. Life gets smaller and threats get bigger. (More about overcontrol to follow in a future article.)[1]

Undercontrol, on the other hand, is difficulty inhibiting behavior. This means that a person has great difficulty acting independently from the forces of emotional urges, temptation, immediate gratification, or relief from discomfort or pain.

People with BPD often (but not always) tend toward “undercontrol” of their behavior, and engage in more impulsive behaviors and dramatic emotional expression. However, they usually do control their behavior more effectively in public than in private. The most socially unacceptable behaviors may occur within the family or incognito (self-injury, purging, screaming verbal attacks) while the more socially acceptable impulsive behaviors may be public, or at least in front of others where the behaviors are acceptable (excessive spending, drinking alcohol, consuming drugs, excessive eating).

While behavior is conditioned according to its consequences, behavior can also be provoked by something that occurs before. Something triggers an urge to act and the action is not inhibited. And it is often intimate relationships that tend to provoke intense emotional reactions! A neutral comment from someone’s mother or spouse might be perceived as a criticism that triggers a major verbal offense, while the same comment from a vague acquaintance is more likely to be perceived as just a neutral comment. The people who are closest to us are more important and are also around to bother us more. Therein lies the source of more conflict.

Persons who tend toward undercontrol of their behaviors will usually have more control in the public arena than at home and they will also most likely experience less intense emotional triggers in the public realm. But if we carefully observe our own experience, we may also begin to notice that it is true in some ways for all of us!

The interpersonal relationships of a person who meets criteria for BPD may be very difficult and even quite painful for others who have close relationships. In fact, over the past few years, there have been theoretical discussions among some researchers and clinicians whether BPD should be understood as principally an illness of maladaptive interpersonal dynamics. That is not to say that emotional dysregulation is not a core feature, but it is transactional with the interpersonal. (Like the chicken and the egg, we can ask which came first the emotional dysregulation or the interpersonal dysregulation?)

So now getting back to the question of whether a loved one if faking their dramatic emotional reaction, he is probably not faking it. It is a characteristic of the social and emotional dysfunction that is suffered by people with BPD. Either way, intentional or unconscious, we would look for ways to modify the consequences in order to extinguish the behavior.

[1] Thomas Lynch, Radically Open Dialectical Behavior Therapy: Theory and Practice for Treating Disorders of Overcontrol, Oakland, CA: Context Press 2018, p 48.

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