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Cluster B

Can You Disagree Without Making It Personal?

It’s easy to escalate a minor conflict with personal attacks. Is it worth it?

Key points

  • It's easy to escalate a disagreement by unnecessarily raising one's voice and criticizing personal traits.
  • Polyvagal theory states that if we stop feeling safe we can quickly shift into fight, flight, or freeze mode.
  • People with Cluster B personality disorders often unnecessarily use extreme words in a conflict.
Inside Creative House/Shutterstock
Source: Inside Creative House/Shutterstock

Whether one has a disagreement with a family member, co-worker, neighbor, or anyone else, many people quickly go beyond the issue at hand and try to gain power or “win” an argument by expanding the discussion to a criticism of the other person’s personal characteristics. While this may deliver a temporary moment of pleasure or feeling of victory, it usually undermines both people’s chance to resolve their disagreement. This is a common problem in email, text, and online conversations, especially if people believe they belong to two opposing groups. If they are polarized, they may believe it’s okay to personally attack people when they are on the other “side.” Often, people don’t even realize that they have crossed an important psychological barrier until afterward—if ever. Why is this?

Issues vs. People

When there is a disagreement over an issue, there can often be a resolution, or people can agree to disagree. End of discussion. For example, in a family, a parent may say to a child or a spouse may say to their partner: “You didn’t pick up your used socks. Please put them away now.” Simple enough.

But sometimes this is what happens: “You didn’t put your socks away. You always do this! You are an inconsiderate person!” When this happens, it raises the emotional tone to indicate a far larger problem. This is guaranteed to trigger defensiveness. "No, I'm not! You’re being an obsessive person!” (Or worse names.)

A raised voice, an always or never accusation, or an attack on a personal characteristic — inconsiderate, obsessive, or about your intelligence, morals, looks, etc. — indicate the need to defend oneself—as a person. Where the person might have been engaged in a friendly or neutral conversation, now this moves them into a different part of the brain and survival mechanisms. This is an amazingly simple transition, yet it blocks rational thinking and problem-solving and moves the issue into the realm of attack-and-defend. The issue may get lost. Is that what we really want?

Polyvagal Theory

Polyvagal theory suggests that that when we feel safe, we are engaged and socially connected. But when we feel threatened, our sympathetic nervous system is likely to be activated, preparing us for fight-or-flight action: “No, you’re the inconsiderate one!” If we feel we are in extreme danger, we freeze and may silently leave the conversation—we go out of connection and awareness, and into a protective state of collapse.1 It’s hard for the brain to solve logical problems when a person’s survival feels at risk.

The Role of the Internet

Most people understand that the internet has caused many people’s attention spans to shorten, as we quickly switch from link to link, page to page. But it has also removed a lot of the non-verbal communication that restrains us from attacking each other. Facial expressions, tone of voice, and body language are missing from emails, texts, and comment sections. This means that we don’t get immediate feedback for our hostile personal messages. In face-to-face communication, we are often inhibited by the immediate knowledge that our communication is making the other person angry, sad, afraid, or otherwise. This keeps a check on how hostile or critical we allow ourselves to be, since we tend to mirror each other’s emotions.2

Cluster B Communication

Research has shown that people with Cluster B personality disorders may be domineering, vindictive, and intrusive.3 This means it is not unusual for them to quickly escalate a disagreement into personal attacks in order to dominate or punish others. It is not unusual for family, friends, and professionals to feel emotionally triggered by their hostility and feel the need to fight, flee, or freeze in response. For example, parents with traits of borderline, narcissistic, and antisocial personality disorders (all Cluster B personality disorders) have been found to engage in many hostile behaviors that seriously impact their children:

“These disorders are characterized by features such as difficulty controlling anger (BPD, ASPD, NPD), impulsive and aggressive outbursts (BPD, ASPD), rage when being criticized (NPD), irritability (BPD), aggressiveness and physical assault (ASPD), being tough-minded, exploitive, and non-empathic (ASPD, NPD), lack of reciprocal interest and sensitivity to the wants and needs of others (ASPD, NPD), extreme sarcasm (BPD), being indifferent to having hurt another (ASPD), sudden and dramatic shifts in their view of others (BPD), emotional coldness (NPD, ASPD) and disdainful, arrogant behavior (NPD).”4

In other words, they may escalate an ordinary conversation into a personal attack, turning peace into war. They may lack the brakes that most people have that are necessary for normal interpersonal problem-solving. Fortunately, some can learn these skills through methods such as dialectical behavior therapy for borderline personality disorder.5

Cluster B Essential Reads

When people feel that they are on the opposite side of an issue from people in another group, it is tempting to see the “others” as bad people or less than human. This gives some people a sense of permission to personally attack those with differing opinions. This appeared to happen a lot during the depths of the Covid-19 pandemic when people argued over masks and vaccinations. When people are in groups opposing each other and generally only talking to those who agree with them, they tend to become more and more extreme.6


Making things personal is unnecessary and unhelpful, yet it appears to be happening more often in our culture today. With a little effort, though, we can avoid crossing that line and help each other feel safe and solve our problems. Take a deep breath and keep the conflict small.

My new book, Our New World of Adult Bullies, expands on this theme.


1. Deb Dana, The Polyvagal Theory in Therapy. (W.W. Norton Company, 2018), 9.

2. Marco Iacoboni, Mirroring People: The New Science of How We Connect with Others. (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008).

3. Wilson S., Stroud, C. and Durbin, C. Interpersonal Dysfunction in Personality Disorders: A Meta-Analytic Review, Psychology Bulletin, July 2017; 143(7): 677-734, 691. doi: 10.1037/bul0000101.

4. Berg-Nielsen, T.S. and Wichstrom, L. “The mental health of preschoolers in a Norwegian population-based study when their parents have symptoms of borderline, antisocial, and narcissistic personality disorders: at the mercy of unpredictability.” Child & Adolescent Psychiatry & Mental Health. 2012; 6:19. doi: 10.1186/1753-2000-6-19.

5. Marsha Linehan, Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy for Borderline Personality Disorder. (Guilford Press, 1993).

6. Cass R. Sunstein and Reid Hastie, Wiser: Getting Beyond Groupthink to Make Groups Smarter. (Harvard Business Review Press, 2015).

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