I don’t know if you’ve ever ridden a horse on a nice sunny day when suddenly your face lands in the mud because your horse got startled by a silly plastic bag flapping in the ditch. The truth is: There have been similar situations related to farm succession. I have mediated family meetings when suddenly family relationships go in a ditch for a reason that is completely illogical. The surprising fact is that these issues have happened with some of the most logical, levelheaded farmers who have been extremely successful both with their farming careers and in building amazing families.
So what causes successful families to self-implode so suddenly? What causes 30-plus years of building a family and a farm to fall apart within five minutes? Well, there are several reasons, but one is borderline personality disorder.
Did you know that 77% of farms do not have a succession plan in place? There are several different factors influencing this statistic, and this article isn’t about every family. However, one of the biggest wildcards is borderline personality disorder. On page 8 of the book Stop Walking on Eggshells by Paul Manson, which is one of the leading books on borderline personality disorder, he asks the following questions and identifies these traits as red flags:
- Is the relationship always focused on your loved one’s needs and wants, never on yours? Have you begun to lose track of your own needs and wants?
- Does your loved one make unreasonable demands and keep insisting on them to the point where you feel that saying “no” is not worth the pain?
- Have you tried to explain your point of view a million times and never gotten through? Are they unwilling to understand you that you wonder if they are ever capable of it?
- Does your loved one never show a trace of empathy for what you go through?
- Do they act normal in front of other people, but insult you, call you names and otherwise treat you very badly when the two of you are alone?
- Do they talk in confusing circles, or twist what you say and use your own words against you?
- Do they blame and criticize you obsessively?
- Is it clear that they’ve lost all perspective on who you actually are?
- Are you the focus of their intense, violent or irrational rages that grow way out of proportion to what instigated them?
- Do you feel manipulated and lied to, as if they’ll say anything to get what they want?
- Do they need to always be in control?
- Do they have meltdowns when things don’t go as planned, or they don’t get their way?
- Do you feel like you’re dealing with someone whose emotional maturity is like a toddler’s, even if they are very educated or have a high position at work?
- Do you feel exhausted, confused, spread too thin, overwhelmed, depressed, hopeless, frustrated or completely misunderstood because of your relationship with this person?
A good chunk of the stressed-out phone calls I get are from family members who describe a partner and/or several partners who have many of these qualities. When I first opened this book by Manson, a lot of crazy situations I’ve seen over the years suddenly made a lot of sense. People with borderline personality disorder fear abandonment. A lot of succession deals never get agreed upon because the patriarch or matriarch wants to use their ownership of the farm as a way to keep family members from abandoning them.
Individuals with borderline personality disorder struggle with an intense fear of abandonment and chronic feelings of emptiness. As such, they have an intense need to fill this void by attaching to others or seeking relationships. These individuals will go above and beyond to avoid real or imagined abandonment. When this person senses the slightest sign of rejection, they might become emotionally volatile and/or use emotional manipulation tactics like jealousy, control or threatening self-harm. People with borderline personality disorder look to others to manage their feelings for them. Someone with borderline personality disorder wants others to provide them with things they find difficult to supply for themselves, such as self-love, stable moods and a sense of identity.
These unhealthy behavioral patterns have damaging effects that strain relationships. Ironically, those with borderline personality disorder have a deep desire for intimacy and can be caring individuals, but their strong emotions and hypersensitivities tend to get in the way. Since people with borderline personality disorder have trouble understanding their identity, they tend to experience drastic changes in how they view themselves. This is evident in their shifts in values, career goals, personal ambitions and so on. Their internal identity issues often manifest in impulsive, reckless and self-destructive ways. As a result, those with borderline personality disorder often experience severe social, vocational/academic and interpersonal impairments.
People with borderline personality disorder are most vulnerable with the people closest to them, such as parents, spouses, children and siblings. These people have the most power to hurt them by abandoning or rejecting them. And the mere thought of someone leaving them causes them so much pain that to avoid that scenario, they may leave a relationship before the other person leaves them.
You’ve seen a teenage girl reject a boy she was sweet on because she gets the illogical fear that he suddenly doesn’t care for her as much as she does for him and thinks he’s about to dump her? It is this scenario on steroids.
It’s an issue of trust. The lack of trusting oneself and the ones you love the most is where borderline personality disorder can flourish.
Psychology Today says that only 8% of the population has borderline personality disorder, but they don’t know farmers, and I would say that there is a higher proportion of farmers who have borderline personality disorder than the average population. Also, not everyone is a 10/10 for the diagnosis but might have a 6/10 for the diagnosis on any given Sunday. However, in extremely stressful and emotionally intensive situations like farm succession, it catalyzes personality tendencies to elevate from a 7/10 to a 9/10 due to stressful circumstances.
The family farm (or any family business) is a ripe environment for this personality disorder to develop. That is because everything we do is intertwined. We live for our families. Often, the farm and our families become the center of our identity. Without them, we don’t know who we are.
The common problem I see is a farmer investing in his kid’s teenage years working hard and growing the farm because of the dream of one or more of his or her kids coming home to the farm. Tremendous personal sacrifices are made. They sometimes remain within a marriage due to the dream of the kids coming home to the farm, not because of the love shared between a couple. Over time, they lose identity of who they are. Then the kid comes home, and the clouds part and angels sing … no, not really. Reality sets in – it is not all sunshine and unicorns, I’m afraid. Nobody gets married expecting a divorce, and nobody farms with their family expecting anything but “happily ever after.” But soon the honeymoon is over.
If you Google borderline personality disorder (and narcissism), you will quickly find that the magical solution provided by the vast majority of psychological professionals today is “divorce.” As someone who took this advice and moved 1,000 miles away from his dad, I can tell you: This is not the solution. I don’t have all the answers, but have researched this field extensively and can tell you that this is what I am concerned about when working with a family with borderline personality disorder tendencies.
Although I have met all generations of farmers with borderline personality disorder tendencies, the suggestions below focus on the older generation. Here are five examples of where borderline personality disorder gets a foothold on the older generation.
The tipping point for a lot of farms is the day that the son’s or daughter’s ideas for improving the efficiency of the farm gets perceived by a parent as a criticism of their past management decisions. The parent feels personally attacked and rejects the kid’s ideas (and eventually the kid) before they can reject him/her. What is often a happy/successful family a few years prior can turn into a dysfunctional environment rapidly. I know with my farm, my dad plowed my crops under midseason for completely illogical reasons, and borderline personality disorder/narcissism explains a lot about what was going on within his mind 25 years ago.
Another common issue is that the son or daughter comes home to farm, but a few years into the career it turns into something different than they romantically expected as a teenager. A lot of kids go to school to be a lawyer, investing hundreds of thousands into their education, only to decide after a few years to go into business or another field because they don’t like being a lawyer. However, for a parent with borderline personality disorder, should the son or daughter not enjoy farming and consider another career, they take it very personally. They feel they are getting rejected personally and don’t recognize it as a career or lifestyle choice. They say hurtful words out of self-defense because they see it as a rejection.
Unrealistic business model
Many parents dream of giving the opportunity for their kids to farm if they want to. However, most farm families don’t have an only child. Sometimes more kids are interested in farming than there realistically is room for. Many parents have a hard time coming to the fact that they don’t have a large enough farm to support their dreams of all the kids farming. I’ve found farmers with borderline personality disorder tendencies more often fall into this camp, and it leads to irrational behavior. For instance, I have seen a 300-cow beef farmer who dreamed of his five kids farming together and made this everyone’s dream. But it wasn’t realistic for six families to be supported by 300 beef cows. After one son had his own kid, the son questioned Dad’s business model and how he was going to support his family in the future. This was a concern that needed to be discussed, but Dad took it as a personal attack. Dad kicked the son off the farm and told the other kids that if anyone spoke to that son, they were out of the business and family as well.
Love bombing is the action of lavishing someone with attention or affection, especially to influence or manipulate them. Parents with borderline personality disorder often make business decisions based on emotions to prevent their fear of a family member leaving the family farm. If they feel a son or daughter are about to leave the farm, they finance that son’s “fiefdom” even if it makes more logical sense to invest capital elsewhere in the dairy. Many parents with borderline personality disorder tendencies tend to keep the farm finances a secret, and only they are in control of financial decisions. This gives them power and control over others, which is a form of manipulation. Love bombing and financial manipulation based on emotional decisions often cause sibling rivalries that get out of hand.
Inability to admit to faults
Someone with borderline personality disorder might be highly competent, but nobody is perfect and their inability to admit to minor imperfections leads to big problems working with them. They are masters at shifting blame for problems and have no accountability, leading to business dysfunction.