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Borderline Personality Disorder

Wendi Brodis

What is Borderline Personality Disorder?

Personality disorders cause us to think, feel and act in unhelpful ways. These disruptive patterns are deeply ingrained and difficult to change. Chronic distortions in perception create unnecessary conflict in relationships, and cause problems in all areas of life. The development of our personalities begins at an early age. Our genetics, environment, and family upbringing all play a role in shaping who we are.

Providing for us as children is the responsibility of parents and caregivers. When caregivers consistently meet our needs, we flourish. Our health and wellbeing are in their hands. It is essential that a safe and predictable environment is maintained in order for us to develop a stable identity and a healthy sense of self. A chaotic environment means caregivers aren't reliable. So our priorities shift. Before we can figure out who we are, we first have to find a way to meet our basic needs. We learn adaptive behaviors to compensate for our caregivers' shortcomings. Over time, these adaptations become ingrained in us.

While these adaptations work well during childhood, they  become less helpful as we get older. In adulthood, certain personality adaptations can severely limit us and make life hard. When these problems become severe and persistent, we call it a personality disorder.

Borderline personality disorder (BPD) is a particular type of adaptation that occurs when a child splits in order to cope with inconsistency. Splitting in psychology refers to a defensive mechanism where we alternate between idealization and devaluation. When we idealize someone, we exaggerate their positive qualities, so we see them as perfect and superior. When we devalue someone, we exaggerate their negative qualities, so we see them as evil and malicious.  

What is Splitting?

Splitting comes naturally to kids. It helps them deal with complicated relationships and situations that are beyond their understanding. Yet problems develop when kids use splitting to cope with an unstable environment and inconsistent care. When this happens, the child doesn't get to see their primary caregiver or parent as a whole person. Instead, they see them as two separate entities. The "good parent" is kind and nurturing, and the "bad parent" is absent or abusive.

Splitting allows the child an opportunity to connect with a parent in a pleasant way, and form a bond with the "good parent." After all, it's better to have a "good parent" sometimes than a tumultuous one all the time. Due to growing up in an unpredictable environment, these children become incredibly sensitive to their parents’ feelings and mental state. In this way, the child learns to adapt to their parents’ mood. They quickly realize that their actions can affect their parents, and influence how they respond. With practice,  the child learns how to bring out the “good parent,” who can provide them with the love and care they need.

As this dynamic continues, the child becomes convinced that they're directly responsible for managing the emotions of their caregivers. If they do the "right thing," then they'll be treated well. But if they do the "wrong" thing, their parents won't be able to provide for them. The child then blames themselves when they are mistreated, neglected, or abused.

From Childhood to Adulthood

The child's flawed perceptions and rigid beliefs are deeply ingrained by the time they reach adulthood. Their borderline personality adaptation causes them to see the world through the distorted lens of splitting, where everything is either "all good" or "all bad." There's no room for balance, middle ground, or gray areas.

As a result, they have difficulty maintaining relationships. They're prone to idealizing one minute, then devaluing the next, which causes instability.

The instability isn’t limited to relationships, people with borderline personality also have an unstable and distorted sense of self. They often see themselves as being more vulnerable and helpless than they really are. Many long for a savior and become highly dependent on their relationships, relying on others to fulfill their needs.

Lacking confidence in themselves, people with BPD expect others to take care of them. In return, they become whatever the other person needs them to be. In this unspoken agreement, that no one else is aware of, the person with BPD adapts themselves to fit this role.

People with BPD usually have an exceptionally good sense of how other people work because they rely on intuition and the adaptive skills they learned as kids. They can make dramatic changes to their image, appearance, mannerisms, preferences, and habits to morph into the perfect companion.

Given the sacrifices they make for the relationship,  the thought of losing it is devastating. After all, they're utterly lost without their partner. If their person leaves, then the emptiness they always feel deep inside will take over and become debilitating.  When left alone for too long, they may question their very existence and wonder if they are even alive.

Symptoms of Borderline Personality Disorder

BPD is characterized by this high sensitivity to abandonment, whether real or imagined, and a willingness to take drastic measures to avoid it. When abandonment fears are triggered, emotions intensify and mental health deteriorates.

In this state, someone with borderline personality disorder may:

  • Engage in high-risk behaviors and become extremely impulsive. They may abuse drugs and alcohol, have unsafe sex, recklessly spend money, binge eat, or make abrupt and dramatic lifestyle changes, such as quitting their job.
  • Attempt suicide or threaten suicide to avoid abandonment.
  • Blackout or go into a rage due to intense anger. They may also become vindictive and spiteful.
  • Dissociate, becoming completely withdrawn and emotionally detached. They may slip into a dreamlike state, where life doesn't seem real, and familiar things look strange to them. Their demeanor might change dramatically. Others may describe this change as being an entirely different person.
  • Experience stress-induced paranoia, becoming highly suspicious of others and their motives.
  • Suffer from serious mood swings and experience a range of highly intense emotions, such as fear, shame and euphoria. The duration of these moods can vary significantly. They may last for a few minutes, hours, or days.

A person with BPD is trapped in a self-defeating cycle, where their most terrifying fears keep becoming reality. Trouble starts when they misread their partner and perceive rejection or abandonment when none exists. This triggers an intolerable amount of emotional distress, leading to a series of impulsive decisions and harmful behaviors, which inevitably damage the relationship.

When a relationship becomes damaged beyond repair, the person with BPD feels abandoned and hurt, even if they initiated the breakup. In their minds, losing this person just reinforces the belief that everyone they get close to will leave them. As a result, they become even more hypervigilant in their attempts to avoid abandonment. And the cycle continues.

Despite all these confusing and disruptive behaviors, people with BPD are usually loved and valued more than they realize. But if their support system gets overworked, it can wear thin.  

BPD can become extremely difficult to manage without a solid support system. When symptoms get severe, people with BPD can become dangerous to themselves and others. Some have caused serious damage to people in their lives. Those affected and their loved ones sometimes join online support groups and communities to process what happened to them and cope with their pain. Because of this, there's a lot of harsh criticism and hatred for BPD on the internet. Take this into account if you decide to research this disorder on your own.

Treatment for Borderline Personality Disorder

On a positive note, borderline personality disorder can be successfully treated with evidence-based therapies. Many people with BPD have learned to manage their symptoms effectively when given appropriate care. As their condition improves, they may no longer meet the criteria to qualify for the disorder.

However, symptoms tend to resurface during times of increased stress. This can lead to a relapse into old thought patterns and behaviors. During these times, therapy can offer a supportive environment to review skills and navigate life transitions.

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Borderline Personality Disorder


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About the Author

As a licensed mental health counselor (LMHC), Wendi Brodis helps people who feel stuck, empty, or misunderstood. With a trauma-informed approach, she empowers people to overcome obstacles and build a life of their choosing. She believes in using evidence-based practices that encourage productive self-reflection and growth. Compassionate and a bit quirky, her therapeutic style is a delicate balance of warmth, acceptance and accountability.

Wendi specializes in treating cluster b personality disorders, unresolved childhood trauma in adults, and anger problems. To contact Wendi, check out her MyWellbeing profile or message her directly on her website!