Millions of people all over the world are living with mental illness. While it can show few external symptoms, mental illness can be as devastating to ones overall health as physical disease. Mental illness can interfere with a persons ability to think, speak, and behave in rational and productive ways. It reduces or eliminates the capacity for meaningful gainful employment, mutually supportive relationships, and proper self-care.
But as challenging as mental illness can be for the person suffering with it, psychological disorders can also be detrimental for the loved ones of the ill person. This is especially true in psychologically disturbed parents. Of all the mental illnesses, one of the most challenging to track and treat is Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD).
What Is Borderline Personality Disorder?
Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) is a multi-symptom mental illness that is characterized by inadequate emotion management. People with BPD are unable to objectively evaluate and act upon their feelings in healthy ways that reflect their participation in a consensus-based reality. BPD most often occurs in the context of relationships.
There are a wide variety of symptoms of BPD, with 256 different permutations of manifestation. The most common symptoms include: a fluctuating and often negative sense of self and an unstable identity; feelings of emptiness; dissociation; overwhelming fear of abandonment, imagined or real; inappropriate and easily triggered rage; poor impulse control that can lead to dangerous or harmful behavior; wild mood swings; intense and conflicted relationships where the ill person can see the other as a savior or villain; self-harm through physical actions like cutting or burning, substance abuse, and unsafe sexual practices; and suicide.
The primary domains of dysfunction are some of the most important areas of growth in childhood and adolescence: self-development, attachment, and self-regulation. BPD is usually diagnosed in early adulthood, when the lack of a strong sense of self can become most apparent. Sufferers of BPD often had unsupportive environments in childhood and adolescence that may have included physical, emotional, and/or psychological violence; physical or emotional abandonment; and moderate or severe neglect. Psychologists believe that BPD develops from a combination of emotionally unsupportive environments and an innate emotional vulnerability in the child.
More Common than We Think
While BPD can co-occur with anxiety, depression, eating disorders, and other mental illnesses, it is a powerful and dangerous disease on its own. More people suffer from BPD than bipolar disorder and schizophrenia combined. And it has a high death toll. Ten percent of adults with BPD successfully commit suicide, and many more attempt it. Over a third of young suicide victims had previously exhibited symptoms of BPD. And these are only the numbers that are reported. Because BPD is often caused by abandonment, abuse, or neglect, it is triggered mostly in relational settings. People may not even know they are suffering from BPD, just that they are afraid to be abandoned or subject to bouts of rage or severe feelings of inadequacy and loneliness, unless a loved one points out the pattern and encourages (or requires) them to seek professional counseling and support.
The Rage of the Dissociated
One of the symptoms of BPD that is most damaging to loved ones and relationships is the propensity to experience fits of rage. Most people with BPD never developed the ability to manage anger appropriately. Or their other emotions like sadness, hopelessness, and worthlessness cause panic. Without sufficient tools and learned self-regulation, violent anger can seem like the only way to escape the situation and the feelings. Frustration and fear combine to turn into a rampage, often leaving destroyed property and relationships in its wake.
This rage can also be a revenge mechanism, an attempt to inflict harm on the world in retribution for the neglect and abandonment one felt as a child, even if the harm is self-inflicted. Some people with BPD scream and throw tantrums, some can be bitingly insulting and verbally abusive, and some can even become confrontational and physically violent against objects, themselves, and other people.
The high occurrence of angry outbursts can make it very challenging for people with BPD to form lasting, supportive relationships with healthy people. BPD people can convince themselves that no one loves them and therefore no one can meet their core needs, and that they are in a fight against the world and everyone else is wrong. Generally someone who would stay in a situation like that has severely low self-esteem or other mental disabilities, and cannot provide the kind of reflection, clear boundaries, and support a BPD person needs. Someone has to be very patient, forgiving, self-aware, and have clear healthy personal boundaries to remain in a relationship with a person with BPD.
The Children of BPD Parents
The most challenging BPD relationship to navigate is between parents and children. As women are diagnosed with BPD more frequently and tend to be single parents more often, children are more likely to be exposed to mothers with BPD than fathers. But whatever the gender, a person with an unstable sense of identity, poor boundaries, a tendency towards impulsivity, and an inability to manage emotions has a really hard time parenting in a healthy way and imparting a whole sense of self to a developing human being.
Mothers with BPD are highly likely to create unstable and chaotic home environments that contribute to impaired social and emotional development in the children. Dr. Christine Ann Lawson, a BPD clinical researcher, categorizes borderline mothers into four groups: witches, queens, waifs, and hermits.
The women termed witches tend to be the most high-functioning and hidden of borderline mothers, and the most likely to engage in verbal and physical abuse. They primarily cling to the illusion of power and control so that their family members do not abandon them. They are also the most likely to punish others for their fear and sadness and fall into fits of rage. Children of these types of BPD mothers can suffer from deep shame, believing that they are the cause of their parents anger, and are prone to depression, insecurity, relationship challenges, and PTSD.
Women in the queen category tend to crave attention, and operate under the belief that children should be fulfilling their needs. They are stuck in stories of entitlement, deprivation, frustration, and loneliness, and look to the children and family to tend to them and give them attention. They are the most likely to blame problems on other people, and disregard or not even notice other peoples needs or boundaries. Children of this type of borderline mother are often prone to not understanding their needs, suffering from low self-worth, and having an undeveloped sense of self.
The waif borderline mothers are characterized by hopelessness, helplessness, and despair. They are more likely to be sad and depressed, but rage can come out if they feel rejected. They are prone to shame spirals if they realize their mistakes. They want their children to rescue them, but usually reject help because it would move them out of their seemingly safe helplessness. Children of this type of mother tend to suffer from deep enmeshment. Having cared for their own mothers they do not know how to avoid caretaking others or falling into other co-dependent patterns.
And lastly, the hermit borderline mothers are deeply afraid of loss, so they put on a hard shell. They are often stuck in such shame that they criticize others, though they are unable to take criticism themselves. They can appear determined and independent in the world but distrustful, anxious, and perfectionistic at home. Children of this type of BPD mother feel trapped and isolated. They can develop anxiety, panic attacks, or phobias.
The illness of borderline parents is usually compounded by the lack of awareness. To someone with BPD, other people are the problem. They are likely to blame others for anything that goes wrong in an interpersonal relationship. Borderline parents usually believe themselves to be good parents, and that their children should be more grateful, even if they are actually being manipulative, neglectful, or abusive. These parents may even try to prove how great they are at parenting and how terribly ungrateful their children are, creating conflict and deeper patterns of confusion and shame in the children.
Children of BPD parents tend to have more disorganized attachment. This leads to stress management challenges, lack of self-regulation, poor boundaries, disruptive behavior disorders, interpersonal relationship challenges, extreme shyness, low self-worth, and dissociation. Children of people with BPD run a higher risk of developing it or other psychological disorders.
Helping People with BPD
If your loved one has BPD, it is important to know that your help can save his or her life, but it cannot come at the expense of your own. Many people with BPD are constantly in a state of denial, believing that whatever challenge they are facing is someone elses fault. They may dodge and hurtfully redirect any attempts you make to reflect reality to them, and may refuse to seek treatment. If that is the case, it is important that you protect children in the situation, and maintain healthy boundaries about how you will engage with that person.
If, on the other hand, your loved one is willing to admit he or she has a mental illness and seek help, there are a few avenues of support available. People with BPD need a very strong and bright mirror shown to them by someone with a lot of training and clear healthy boundaries. Talk therapy with a skilled psychotherapy is the most highly recommended treatment for BPD, and has proven more effective than medication. Keep in mind that therapy is only effective when people feel comfortable around their therapist and trust that person, so help your loved one find a therapist that is a good fit. Facilitated support groups for people with BPD can be helpful for developing new, healthier ways of interacting in a safe and non-judgmental container.
At home, you can help your loved one with BPD by being a positive role model of self-care, and providing support, nurturance, and intimacy without co-dependency. It is important that you actually want to see your loved one heal, even if that means he or she and your relationship dynamic will have to change. Many people are unconsciously addicted to the feelings of being needed and powerful that being a relationship with a BPD person can provide. Dont take your loved ones anger and attachment personally, but do let that person know how the outbursts and projection make you feel. Then help your loved one notice when he or she is being irrational and perceiving life through a lens of fear and dependency with kindness and steady compassion.
Mental illness can destroy our ability to engage in life in healthy and joyful ways. It skews our perception of reality so completely that loved ones become evil and we become objects of our own derision and hatred. Mental illness is especially dangerous in parents, where it can negatively affect the entire family for life. If Borderline Personality Disorder has made its way into your family, you probably already know what it means to struggle for truth and health. But with patience, clarity, and support from a qualified mental health professional, BPD can be treated, lives can be saved, and the true nature of loving relationships can be found again.
Psychology Today The Borderline Mother
National Institutes of Health
Guide to Psychology