In this post, I’ll explain the concept of Borderline Personality Disorder as an emotional programming language. While recovering, I developed emotional strength and insight which allowed me to consciously redirect destructive thought patterns. This formed part of a long-term plan by which I reversed the early course of the disorder.
Here I’ll explain how my plan worked, and provide some suggestions for current borderlines and their families to consider.
I’ll begin with the idea of BPD as a destructive code and the sufferer as a spy who must break and reprogram that code. While struggling to recover from BPD years ago, I often imagined myself in metaphorical roles. The most prominent was as spy or code-breaker.
Today, having more of a neurotic personality organization, I can mentally play with such roles without taking them seriously. However, when I was severely borderline, they felt real – I almost believed myself to be a real-life espionage agent or warrior, trying to outwit and defeat the sinister forces arrayed against me. My lack of a strong observing ego caused me to have difficulty distinguishing fantasy from reality.
Recently, memories ran through my mind about these difficult days. I remember the keenness of the desperation, how getting through each day presented a titanic struggle. I was deathly afraid of never “making it,” meaning not succeeding in work and relationships as an adult. And I did not know how I was ever going to fully trust another human being.
The Bourne Identity
I loved watching movies about characters who played soldiers or spies. Doing so gave me a powerful feeling of motivation, of being alive and active. One of my favorite spies was Jason Bourne. In the clip below, Matt Damon demonstrates the intensity and coolness under pressure which define Bourne. He uses expert planning and deception to outmaneuver the Central Intelligence Agency, which is attempting to kill a witness who knows too much:
I related to this scene because I too felt persecuted and pursued by a heartless, inscrutable adversary. In my case, it was the past memories and present-day projections of my abusive father that haunted me. Since I did not know love as a child, I could not perceive the goodness in other people as an adult. I always expected people to ignore and abuse me like my father had done. For years, it did not dawn on me how unrealistic these (mis)perceptions were. Right before my eyes, people were far kinder than I could ever have imagined.
Fighting through the maze of persecutory misperceptions to reach human help was, for me, emotionally equivalent to the desperate escape from murderous persecutors shown in this Jason Bourne scene. For my college-age self that watched it years ago, Jason Bourne represented my evolved, adult-self, and the victim represented my vulnerable child-like self, which the adult self sought to protect from persecution. Today, I watch this clip with a tremendous sense of pathos toward my past self.
Jason Bourne also personified a determination, focus, and ruthlessness that I admired. Since I was entering the adult world without the necessary emotional equipment to navigate it, I felt that I had to be absolutely committed to finding help at all costs. There was an element of ruthlessness to my personality at that time, and I did use people.
Today, I am much kinder and gentler, but there is still a lingering dark aspect to my personality. When I occasionally feel threatened in some real-life situation, my “protector” side, the inner Jason Bourne, will come rushing back. But it doesn’t dominate my mind like before, since I now know that I’m re-experiencing the past in the present.
I always had some sense of the great challenge facing me after enduring repeated physical abuse and an unloving childhood home. It would take every bit of ingenuity, cunning, courage and endurance I possessed to create a good adult life. And that is why I identified so strongly with creative, fearless characters like Jason Bourne.
Bryan Mills, the father played by Liam Neeson who seeks to free his daughter from ruthless kidnappers in Taken, became another of my favorites.
I always identified with fearless, intimidating male protagonists who endeavored to save a weaker, vulnerable character from a heartless persecutor. This, of course, represented what I had been unable to do for myself in the face of my father’s abuse. It also signified my failure, at that time, to work through the feelings created by my father’s abuse or to forgive him. Here is an example of Liam Neeson playing the father-spy-protector in Taken:
It may be disturbing, but my old self loved the confidence in Liam Neeson’s voice as he talked about tracking the criminal down. He exhibited such absolute certainty that he would punish the bad guys and recover his kidnapped daughter. It represented the strength and freedom to take action that I wished I had when my father abused me. Although I did have murderous thoughts toward my father sometimes, I never would have followed through with them as Liam Neeson’s character does in this movie.
How Splitting and Projective Identification Recreate Past Experience in the Present
My identifications with Matt Damon and Liam Neeson in their spy-soldier roles demonstrate important aspects about how splitting and projection in Borderline Personality Disorder.
In earlier essays, I discussed Fairbairn’s object-relations model, and four phases of BPD recovery derived from that model:
The reader is referred to these essays for more detail on these topics, which will form the foundation of the current discussion.
In my life at the time, I was constantly reliving my past abusive experience in the present. I always feared that other people would reject or abuse me like my parents had, and so I could never feel safe or comfortable in relationships. Even after leaving the family home to go to college, I felt unsafe, alone, and threatened.
Intra-psychically, I was constantly projecting “all-bad” (negatively split) images onto other people. This occurred regardless of whether the people were nice or not-nice in reality. In fact, if they were kind, the all-bad splitting happened even more, because I was afraid of intimacy and therefore wanted to create distance. In this way, I unconsciously prevented myself from perceiving their actual kindness and good intentions. The strong observing ego that is writing this post was not there then, so I was truly emotionally blind to my own self-sabotage.
Therefore, I was “transforming” any new person (in my mind, as I saw it at the time) into uncaring, mean people like my parents. The defenses that did this were splitting – or viewing people unrealistically as all-bad, based on my internalized parents – and projection / projective identification – meaning putting these images onto new people in the outside world, and relating to them in provocative ways which made them respond negatively. These defenses serve to distort the external world and to confuse the emotional past and present.
My identification with Jason Bourne and Bryan Mills occurred in a roundabout way. In my own life, I was continually recreating threatening, all-negative scenarios with new people. For this self-perpetuated reason, I continued to feel alone, unsafe, and unloved. This gave rise to the need to save myself by finding someone to help me. Therefore, I identified with strong movie characters, like these spies, who personified the strong male savior that I wanted to be. If I had not been borderline, I would not have identified with them in the first place.
For me, the essence of Borderline Personality Disorder is that it involves, 1) An inversion of the normative developmental process, and 2) A constant, nightmarish reliving of the past in the present. What does this mean?
1) An inversion of the normative developmental process: This means that the borderline individual pursues unsatisfying relationships and rejects satisfying ones. Borderlines are continually focused on, is sensitive toward, and addicted to bad, frustrating, persecutory interpersonal relationships. By contrast, they reject or are relatively unaware of loving, good, supportive relationships. This represents the “attachment to the internal bad object” that Fairbairn discussed, with the concomitant “rejection of the internal good object.”
2) Reliving the past in the present – Most people diagnosed with BPD have severely traumatic histories filled with neglect, inattention, and abuse from inadequate parents. The borderline adult recreates this childhood experience in their present-day life. They do so by continuing to view the external world, no matter how different it really is in the present, as filled with mainly bad, frustrating, and persecutory people. And they do it by rejecting and remaining oblivious to those who try to help. In other words, the inversion of the normative developmental process, described above, represents a continuation and present-day reliving of past traumatic experience in the present day.
In my case, as a teenager and college-age boy, I constantly preoccupied myself with the ways in which other people ignored me, disliked me, thought I was weird, and/or directly rejected me. Emotionally, I kept reliving the feeling of being ignored and rejected that I felt at home. I repeat this point again because it is so important for understanding common borderline processes.
It is important to see that people in the outside world did not usually set out to treat me this way. Rather, I unconsciously looked for only the bad aspects of the outside world and rejected the good aspects.
In this way, I “created” what became my felt reality – that I was rejected and worthless, and other people were uncaring and mean. Healthier people would have experienced their peers at my high school and college very differently. But, since I had had very little loving, emotionally close experience growing up, I lacked “receptors” – or positive memories – which would have helped me to recognize good things when I saw them. In that sense, I was emotionally blind.
This is something I find that non-borderline individuals often misunderstand about BPD. They think the borderline’s lack of receptivity to positive gestures and their inability to trust is intentional. Hopefully, my experience demonstrates that the issue is far more complex. For the most part, borderlines would like to trust and take in more help, but they simply don’t know how to.
The Paranoid Position
This constant negative psychic activity – of clinging to bad perceptions and people and rejecting good ones – creates the emotional ground where the outside world seems dangerous and threatening. It generates the nine symptoms of Borderline Personality Disorder that are listed in the DSM, and it is the very heart of what perpetuates the disorder.
Technically termed the “paranoid-schizoid” position, this is the earliest period of emotional development in psychoanalytic theory. It describes the position of the young child’s ego or self when they have just come into the world. It represents the young child’s emotional position before they become able to trust outside people and to view them ambivalently as mixtures of good and bad.
Cracking the Code of BPD
In both Taken and the Bourne series of movies, the leading characters must penetrate an initially-mysterious and threatening network of criminals. Jason Bourne turns the tables on his pursuers and discovers the truth about his identity from a time before the CIA brainwashed him. Bryan Mills penetrates a shadowy network of criminals to recover his beloved daughter.
In both cases, I learned from the way in which the main character defeated their adversaries. Both Bourne and Mills already knew or learned everything they could about their enemies before turning the tables on them. In Machiavellian fashion, they did whatever was necessary to overcome the obstacles, without concern for anything outside themselves and their loved ones.
In my case, the past “enemy” was the emotional abuse from childhood that I internalized and kept re-inflicting on myself in the present. My present-day opponents were splitting, denial, projection, and projective identification. These defenses distorted the external world, and caused me to constantly repeat bad relationships while rejecting good people who wanted to help me.
How I Used My Understanding of BPD to Recover
My weapons were my intelligence and my unwavering motivation to improve. I realized that I would have to learn everything I could about Borderline Personality Disorder, understanding it in much greater depth beyond DSM descriptions.
In fact, the DSM-allied psychiatrists who said that BPD was untreatable (or treatable but not cure-able) became a new enemy. Their pessimistic, medicalized views, which advocated symptom management and medication, represented capitulation and defeat. I wanted to understand WHY borderline symptoms happened, and I wanted to recover fully and live a great life as a non-borderline. And that is why I taught myself the “code” of object-relations theory, which for me best explains why borderline symptoms occur.
Once I understood how my mind had been “hacked” by my past abuse, implanted with relational “code” that made me to endlessly repeat bad relationships, I realized that I could change the pattern. I needed to specifically address my inability to trust other people, and to devote time and energy to cultivating new positive relationships.
That process began with my therapists, who were able to confront the many ways in which I distorted them into “bad” people so as not to trust them. I am extremely grateful to my therapists for their help in confronting my projection and splitting. I learned from that process and continued the work of perceiving others more realistically with new friends and family members.
After several years, my positive images (memories) of myself and others became strong enough that I could fully trust other people and develop deeper, intimate relationships. As this happened, the borderline symptoms all gradually lessened and faded away. I developed the abilities to control previously destructive behaviors, to regulate my own feelings, to distinguish past from present, and to tolerate frustration. I came to feel alive, real, and happy most of the time.
Today, when I watch movies like Taken or the Bourne Supremacy, I no longer identify with the main characters personally. But, I wistfully remember how attached I was to them years ago.
Borderlines Starting in Recovery
Many recently diagnosed borderlines who share their story on web forums have, understandably, not yet come to deeply understand the genesis and causes of their problems. These borderlines and their families are the primary people that I hope will take something away from this site.
In my view, our society’s approach to Borderline Personality Disorder is shallow, symptom-focused, and often unreasonably pessimistic. How many therapists truly understand the causes of BPD in the ways I describe on this site? That may be a bit arrogant of me, but there are many poorly trained and incompetent therapists out there.
I recommend that sufferers and families do not simply trust one therapist or psychiatrist, but instead do their own research and reading about the disorder. Self-help, self-education, and self-therapy can make a huge difference. If I hadn’t taught myself about what BPD really is and what causes it, I would probably still be on three medications, not working full-time, not in good relationships, and not happy.
Looking Beneath Symptoms
The key point that I would like borderlines and their families to take away from this article is to look beneath symptoms. There is so much more to gain from looking at the object-relational causes and patterns that drive BPD symptoms.
Focusing on BPD symptoms alone, i.e. how to reduce or control them, can only be palliative. This means it will reduce symptoms but not treat the underlying causes. Medication used for years on end and superficial therapy focused on symptom management are examples of these approaches. It is because of unthinking treatments like these that many borderlines continue to suffer, year after year after year, with no real long-term improvement in their emotional wellbeing. It’s time for that to change.
If borderlines do not understand and take action to change their attachment to internal bad objects, then their self-abusive cycle, the pattern of recreating bad relationships and rejecting good ones, repeats endlessly.
A Dramatic Example of Repeated Self-Abuse
I recently watched a horror movie that illustrates this phenomenon, Triangle. Its trailer is here –
In this movie, a woman gets stuck in a time-loop where she must survive a nightmarish situation on board a cruise liner. The nature of the time loop is such that her past self always confronts her present self and kills it just as it is about to break free. Her job is to realize, as the trailer states, “It’s starting over again, that’s what going on…. Everything that happens to you, happened to you before!” The solution is “to change the pattern… if we change the pattern, we’re not trapped!”
As the reader should see, this movie’s plot is reminiscent of the way in which borderlines can endlessly repeat negative pas experiences. It is only by understanding what one is doing to oneself, and by taking responsibility for change, that it can get better. Near the end of this movie, the woman gains insight into how she is contributing to her own repeating problem, and this leads to hope about changing the outcome.
An Optimistic View of BPD Recovery
I would like to repeat that I am very optimistic about full recovery from BPD being achievable, as stated in earlier articles on this site. To be more exact, it’s not whether or not BPD recovery is achievable. I know that it is. It’s that I’m optimistic that the resources needed to recover are reachable, and the work doable, for motivated people who are diagnosed with BPD.
“Cracking” the borderline code is not impossibly difficult; but it takes a significant amount of time and work. I encourage those with BPD to look beyond shallow, limiting, symptom-focused descriptions of BPD. Instead, focus on learning how the disorder works in depth in order to break the destructive cycles that cause the symptoms. In this way, transformation and full recovery are real possibilities.
I welcome any correspondance at firstname.lastname@example.org
If you are struggling with BPD yourself or would like to more effectively help someone who is borderline, 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