This post is a reflection on the experience of being borderline, and all the losses it entails. In addition, it discusses one of the core causes of borderline psychopathology – traumatic early experience usually focused around inadequate parenting.
Although I am grateful to feel well today, I still feel sadness at the thought of the childhood I did not have, and at the emotional suffering forced upon me at a young age in my chaotic family environment. I simply did not have the emotional capacity to handle severe abuse and neglect as a young child. Because of this, my teenage self unavoidably responded by developing the symptoms and defenses of Borderline Personality Disorder.
What is Missing in the Family Environment of the To-Be-Borderline Child
To begin with, I’d like to consider what is missing in the psychological development of someone who becomes borderline as a young adult. Psychodynamic theorists universally emphasize the importance of a secure, attuned, loving relationship between parent and child. A healthy adult personality is based upon a long-term positive relationship between the child and his caretaker including, 1) Warm encouragement from the parent for increasingly independent activities (mirroring), 2) Protection from the parent during periods of vulnerability (idealizing dependence), and 3) The child’s eventually coming to feel fully separate psychologically, and to be accepted as such by his parents (individuation). Some of my favorite psychodynamic and psychoanalytic theorists that write about this process are Donald Winnicott, Margaret Mahler, Ronald Fairbairn, and Heinz Kohut. Their books are cited below.
The borderline experience in childhood is that the parent is unable to consistently provide security and love. Instead, the child’s legitimate need for acceptance and support is consistently rejected or ignored. Because the healthy psychological development of human children requires parental support for a long period after birth, the lack of it creates a desperate struggle for the borderline child-to-be. When his protests fail to extract the support he needs, the child will eventually come to feel overwhelming fear, rage, and grief.
How the Future Borderline Adult Defends Against His Conflicts
These powerful emotions will shape the child’s future life, and defending against them will become his priority. The child will be forced to use denial, avoidance, splitting, acting out, projection, and projective identification in order to control the terrible feelings. For me, these defenses are all variations of denial. In essence, the child must deny what is really happening, because at a young age it is too threatening to face the fact that he is helpless, has inadequate parents, and does not know who to turn to for help.
Instead, the child and young adult will avoid facing his core problem – that he has never had a safe, dependent, loving relationship that would allow him to develop into a mature adult – via many self-defeating strategies. He may avoid facing the problem by misusing sex, drugs, food and alcohol. As a child, he may act out his anger in school and at home via oppositional, defiant behavior. As a young adult, he may become involved in abusive, neglectful “romantic” relationships with present-day people who repeat the traumas of his past, unaware that they resemble his own parents. He may cling to his original parents in adulthood, since having a bad attachment feels better than having nobody. Alternately, he may run away from responsibility and the demands of mature adulthood by not working or going to school, breaking the law, or working under an authority figure who resembles his abusive parent.
There are countless ways in which the traumatized person can live out the past in the present, maintaining his attachment to “bad objects” from the past by recreating them in the way he lives and relates to others in present day life. It is important to recognize that these “self-defeating” strategies, while extremely damaging in adulthood, are also “self-preserving” because they allow the individual to function and survive when faced with overwhelming emotional conflict.
Missing Out on Life – Friendships
The great tragedy in this is at some level, deep down, the borderline individual knows that he is missing out on what could make life worth living. He is not able to create friendships with people that are truly rewarding and meaningful – friendships where you truly know and appreciate another person for themselves. Usually, the severely borderline individual is so insecure, and lacks identity to so great a degree (having never had a good model from the relationship with his parents), that he cannot relate in meaningful depth to other people and thus does not make real friends.
Throughout my teen years and early 20s, I avoided making real friends, although I hardly knew what I was missing at the time. I tried to pretend that I had friends, but looking back, most of them were superficial, meaningless relationships. Good people who might have been my friend did not want to spend time with me, because I did not have a positive, alive sense of myself as a person that I could share with them. Instead, they sensed my uncertainty, fear, and low self-esteem and were pushed away. The result was overwhelming loneliness on my part.
Missing Out On Life – Love Relationships
Further, the borderline individual will face great challenges in romantic relationships. A successful romantic relationship demands the greatest degree of self-expression, self-revelation, and ability to be intimate with another person. These are all capabilities that the severely traumatized person does not have, and so they will usually be forced into one of several undesirable paths: 1) Avoid dating and love relationships altogether, 2) Enter repeated short-term relationships, often for only a few weeks or months at a time, before “bailing” out of them when the closeness becomes too threatening, 3) Enter long-term detached and/or abusive relationships which contain no intimacy or love; instead, these relationships recapitulate the abusive and/or neglectful treatment by their parents. This last type of abusive relationship can perversely feel safer and more familiar to the borderline than having a new, healthy, loving adult relationship.
Until about four years ago, I was stuck in this cycle of brief, short-term relationships lasting only a few weeks and months. I had no idea how to relate to a young woman in a way that she would like, and was extremely afraid of intimacy. I expected women to dislike my personality and appearance, even though several had told me I did look attractive. Usually, after several dates, I would not know how to go on with the relationship and would invent a reason to get out of it. I had no concept of why my relationships weren’t working, of what I was missing. Important aspects of romantic relationships that I can handle today seemed impossible – things like being genuinely interested in a woman’s interests and activities, caring for her wellbeing outside of what she could do for me, developing trust and dependability over time, discussing plans for the future, and having a satisfying physical relationship. These things were as alien to me as airplanes, cars, and internet would be for a Stone Age caveman brought to the present day.
Missing Out on Life – Work
Due to the constant conflicts over dependence, i.e. the lack of ever having a dependent relationship to a loving parent-figure for an appreciable period, the borderline adult is unable to develop consistently meaningful work and hobbies. Successfully developing a career and a professional identity usually requires encouragement by others of the child’s exploring their environment and independently trying new things. This process is severely interrupted in the childhood of a borderline individual. That is one reason why many adults who are severely borderline work at jobs below their capacity, are on welfare, or do not know what they want to do in life.
The borderline is fixated on conflicts surrounding the original mistreatment they suffered, and there is not enough positive energy left for other meaningful pursuits. Many such individuals’ “hobbies” are actually shallow ways of distracting themselves from bad feelings and avoiding responsibility, rather than genuine interests. Overuse of videogames, computers, and other electronic media is one example. That is not to say that such pursuits cannot be healthy – they can, if they are part of a life which also contains healthy interpersonal relationships and meaningful work or other activities.
As mature adults reading this article will recognize, the borderline individual is forced to miss the best of what life has to offer, through no fault of his own. Having true friends, meaningful love relationships, and rewarding work and hobbies are priceless experiences that make living life worthwhile.
The Importance of Having Sympathy for the Borderline Individual
The reason for writing this article is to inspire sympathy and understanding in the reader toward the plight of traumatized borderline individuals. It is impossible to convey in words the depth of frustration inherent in severe trauma. Due to grossly inadequate and/or abusive parenting, much of what one’s life could have been is stolen away. The chance to enjoy life and love other people is replaced with a nightmarish daily struggle filled with rage, terror, grief, and the constant feeling of being thwarted. There are many millions of people right now in America and throughout the world who are trapped in this living hell. Most of them have no clear idea of why they have the problems they do, or the way out. Their sometimes manipulative, aggravating, and even abusive behavior is the inevitable result of a desperate emotional struggle in which they are willing to do almost anything to survive. They need our support and understanding if they are to have a better chance of recovering.
If there are people diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder reading this, this article might sound pessimistic and gloomy. As a younger man, I would often project pessimism into such authors and become afraid that they thought BPD was hopeless. That perception does not apply here. I am strongly optimistic about Borderline Personality Disorder being treatable and able to be recovered from. This is both because I have recovered from it myself, and because I know of many other people who have done so. There is no reason why any borderline individual cannot recover and find fulfillment in relationships and work. In that light, this article simply describes realistically the tragic losses involved when one is deeply traumatized in childhood.
Further reading – Earlier some books by developmental psychodynamic theorists were mentioned. Those books are:
Maturational Processes and the Facilitating Environment – by Donald Winnicott. Winnicott is one of the most respected psychodynamic writers of the 20th century. He was a pioneer in studying infants and young children to discover what formed the elements of a healthy parent-child relationships. He created the concepts of “true self” and “false self” which can be useful in thinking about Borderline Personality Disorder. In this book he beautifully describes the ways in which the good-enough environment meets the child’s needs for emotional support.
The Psychological Birth of the Human Infant: Symbiosis and Individuation – by Margaret Mahler. Mahler was another pioneering writer on early human development. By directing studying infants with their mothers, she identified phases of psychological development including differentiation, practicing, rapprochement, and object constancy. Many psychotherapists in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s viewed BPD as involving a developmental arrest in the rapprochement or sometimes practicing subphase.
Psychoanalytic Studies of the Personality – by W.R.D. Fairbairn. In this volume, Scottish psychiatrist Fairbairn outlined his new psychological model focusing on the innate human need for relationships. His pioneering views on splitting and internal object relations (with his concepts of the good object, exciting object, and rejecting object) anticipated later models used to explain Borderline Personality Disorder.
The Analysis of the Self – by Heinz Kohut. This book is actually much more about Narcissistic Personality Disorder than BPD. Interestingly, Kohut was initially quite pessimistic about treating borderlines, mainly because of his lack of understanding about how to work with bad internal objects and trauma. In this well-known book, he discusses the processes of mirroring and idealization, which are critical ways that the young child receives support from the parent in healthy development. They are also critical ways that the adult borderline patient receives support from therapists and/or friends and family as they recover.
I am fully aware that psychoanalytic views are not the only way of conceptualizing Borderline Personality Disorder. I’ve read about cognitive-behavioral, Dialectical Behavioral, genetic/biologically-focused, and other models of BPD. However, everyone has a bias and preference for how they view things, and the psychodynamic-psychoanalytic model is mine. It is the model that has helped me the most to understand BPD. Its concepts about healthy psychological development in young children and how those processes can be restarted in adult borderlines were extremely useful in my recovery journey.
I welcome any correspondance at firstname.lastname@example.org
If you are struggling with BPD yourself or are trying to help a borderline individual, I would be happy to listen to your story and provide feedback if possible. Feel free to provide constructive criticism of this site also.
This article is the opinion of a non-professional layperson, and should not be taken as medical advice or as the view of a therapist who is professionally qualified to treat Borderline Personality Disorder or any other mental health condition. Readers should consult with a qualified mental health professional before undertaking any treatment.
– Edward Dantes