How do borderline personality disorder patterns develop?
One of the prominent commonalities usually found in folks diagnosed with bpd (borderline personality disorder) is their fear of abandonment. Could it be possible that folks with bpd fear abandonment because they do things that motivate people in their lives to want to get rid of them? Their off-putting behavior is a losing formula for how to make a relationship last.
It's not pc to blame the victim. If a woman has fears, we should be sympathetic, right? Or maybe not. Maybe the fears of a person who fears abandonment are totally appropriate because that person's provocative behaviors invite rejection. I am not saying that the provocative behavior is on person. I am saying though that high-emotion and especially high-intensity angry behavior does drive others away.
Why would someone want to abandon a person with bpd? Allowing a person who acts in ways that hurt you to remain involved in your life may sign you up for too much emotional turbulence. The kind of bpd pattern I am referring to is the kind that bites off your head ("Off with your head!") if you do not do what they want you to do. While all people with bpd do not rage in this way, some definitely do.
I learned this lesson the hard way, from experience.
Fortunately, the experience was short. It ended however with my behaving in a manner that at the time I could hardly believe was in my behavioral repertoire. Using the tone of voice my mother used to call talking 'in no uncertain terms,' I sternly told little Ginny Mae, "I will never allow you to cross the doorstep of my house again. You are never again welcome to enter my house."
Those words were harsh, especially for speaking to a six year old girl. Were they words of abandonment? Yes. Or worse. I didn't merely walk away from Ginny Mae. I told her that I would never allow her in my home again. I ejected her from my life.
My secretary describes me as unflappable. People usually like me and I usually like them. How could I have spoken so meanly to poor young Ginny May?
It started when I invited six cute little girls to join my soon-to-be-seven-year-old daughter and our family for a birthday weekend in the mountains. We live in Colorado and my daughter and our family were relishing a fun weekend with the children at a cabin in the woods.
For two and a half days, the girls played with each other delightfully, all except Ginny Mae. Every time a group of girls included Ginny Mae in their activity, fighting erupted. Whether they played with dolls, built forts out of branches, baked cookies in the kitchen, or played hide and go seek amongst the trees, every two-some or three-some that included Ginny Mae ended up in tears, anger, yelling and sometimes even hitting.
The repeated eruptions of anger turned me into a firefighter. By the end of the weekend, I was exhausted. The last fight, an argument about who would ride home in which car, finally flipped my switch. I transformed from warm helpful host to sternly rejecting, fed up, overwhelmed mother bear.
"I do not want you ever again to set foot in my house!" I spewed out. "You are never, that's never, to come play with my daughter again!" I repeated forcefully to be certain that Ginny Mae got the point that from this point forward she was to stay totally out of my world.
I succeeded in ejecting Ginny Mae from my world.
I pretty much never saw her again. Ginny Mae did however continue in the same grade as my daughter, who for years felt fearful at the sight of her provocative, quick-to-pick-a-fight friend.
As it turned out, Ginny Mae even ended up attending my daughter's same college, but fortunately my daughter by then understood that Ginny Mae was herself the victim of her habit of picking fight.
Actually, my daughter's youthful experiences with Ginny Mae may have served to help her as an adult to understand borderline patterns of functioning. Now a clinical psychologist herself, my daughter is particularly effective with clients who show borderline patterns such as emotional hyperreactivity, seeing situations and people as all good or all bad, having a divisive impact on groups (splitting), misinterpreting situations in ways that lead them to feel like a victim, and repeatedly putting themselves in situations that prove hurtful to themselves. With regard to her, and my, learning this story has at least a partially happy ending.
In addition, this incident with Ginny Mae that happened now over thirty years ago continues to intrigue me.
Specifically, how do some young people, often but not limited to female, develop personality patterns that create chaos and fighting wherever they go?
Four theories come to mind for me when I work with clients with borderline patterns. One possibility is that the problem begins with their parenting. A second hypothesis is that the tendency to create chaos comes from biological sources. A third explanation might be that adult individuals with borderline personality disorder begin as children who are particularly sensitive and experience traumas in their youthful years. A fourth explanation may lie in a paucity of mature habits for handling emotions and for collaborative resolution of conflicts.
Let's look first at parenting glitches.
I do think that Ginny Mae's mom may have been part of the problem. On the brink of a second divorce, she probably was feeling highly stressed at the time. I have a hunch too that the mom modeled anger as a means of forcing her husband and children to do what she wanted.
In addition, Mom may have been too overwhelmed with her own problems to be able to take charge of Ginny Mae. I had a hunch that Ginny Mae used her anger to control everyone in the household, including her parents, in a classic case of collapsed hierarchy. No adults stopped Ginny Mae's quarrelsome habits, so she continued to use them.
I have a hunch that Ginny Mae's dad played a role as well. The more he treated his daughter as his special can-do-no-wrong little girl, the more he undermined his wife's ability to tame her tantrums.
Girls with a tendency to excessive anger need a strong parental unit. Divide and conquor can be the daughter's highly effective strategy for taking charge, and that's to everyone's detriment, hers included.
The second theory, positing biological predispositions, is particularly ably set forth by Barbara Oakley in her book EvilGenes.
Written to come to terms with the life of her deceased borderline sister, the book seeks to understand the biological factors that can underlie this syndrome. Could biological factors explain a personality characterized by quickness to take personal affront in situations that others would not, quickness to anger escalations by which she controls others, and a tendency to unscrupulously manipulate situations for personal benefit?
While the book does tend to lump borderlines, sociopaths, psychopaths, and narcissists in a relatively undifferentiated diagnostic heap, there's justification for this muddying of the diagnostic picture given how much overlap these syndromes seem to have with each other.
I myself am sympathetic to Oakley's biological theory, having had in my practice two families in which one daughter in a set of girl twins appeared from infancy to be "borderline." The aggressive twin would pick on the sister, repeatedly causing her to cry and suffer pain. This pattern continued or worsened as the twins grew older. The parents gradually gave up, creating collapsed hierarchy with the difficult twin ruling everyone in the family.
I have treated similar patterns in other families, with siblings rather than twins, in which the parents could never come to terms with a difficult child who was eventually labeled borderline.
Typically, one aspect of the inefficacy of the parents was that the difficult daughter showered affection on the dad, and hid her aggressiveness toward others in the family from him. As a result, the dad never accepted the mom's assessment that the problematic child was disturbed and excessively disturbing to others. With a divided parental unit, the difficult child continued to conquer and rule the roost.
The third theory, positing prior trauma, also merits credibility.
While my work as a psychologist focuses mainly on adults and couples, I often work jointly with an energy therapist, my colleague Dale Petterson. In one session Dale treated an attractive third-grade girl named Bonnie. Bonnie looked to me quite borderline. She immediately brought to mind for me young Ginny Mae. (please continue on next page)
Like Ginny Mae, Bonnie could be charmingly cute. At other times, according to her mom, Bonnie would become sullen, provocative, play the victim role, and then strike out, mostly verbally, at her siblings and her friends. Bonnie's Mom, who accompanied her to treatment sessions, seemed to be warmly empathic and appropriately authoritative as a parent. She did report that from infancy Bonny was a needier-than normal child, needing to be held far more of the time than her siblings had needed when they were babies, and engaging more parental attention than the other kids in the family. Still, the young girl's frequent anger outbursts were wearing down the patience of her parents and sibs, and she seemed to get into considerably more frequent spats than most kids of that age.
Using techniques from the treatment method invented by Bradley Nelson termed The Body Code, Dale helped Bonnie and her mother to identify an incident that had occurred in Bonnie's nursery school when she was three years old. Another child in her class had entered the classroom when Bonnie was in the room alone. That child, known as a bully, had terrified Bonnie. The minute they identified this incident, Bonnie's face clouded over. Suddenly a cloudburst of tears erupted. As Bonnie later described it, "I began to vomit out tears." When the sobbing episode had passed and the tears had dried, Bonnie described feeling a huge sense of relief. From that point forward, the frequency of her fighting with other children radically diminished. Even more importantly, her self-confidence began to flourish, and she became a vastly happier and emotionally robust child.
Borderlines explode instead of engaging in problem-solving. Living with them is like living in a field of land mines. Whatever their childhood experiences, to be successful in adulthood they need to learn skills for handling anger by exiting instead of by exploding in a manner that risks harming others and themselves as well.
Similarly, when they want something and fear they may not get it, people with borderline personality patterns typically lack how-to's for creating win-win solutions, a skill that's essentially for sustaining harmonious relationships.
The moral of the story?
First and foremost, borderline behaviors do cause people to want to get away from them.
Second, with regard to the cause of the tendency to create emotional turbulences, I believe that all four theories of how and why borderline personality disorders develop merit consideration in assessing the sources of borderline personality disorders. In any given case, one, two or most likely all three factors may turn out to be relevant.
Finally, the most important question is how to use these understandings to enable people with borderline personality syndromes to enjoy more gratifying lives and smoother relationships...if they want to. Too much success at getting their way via anger can make it hard to accept that what seems to work for them in gaining domination is what makes them losers in able to sustain positive relationships.
Susan Heitler, PhD, a Denver Clinical psychologist, is author of multiple publications including From Conflict to Resolution and The Power of Two. A graduate of Harvard and NYU, Dr. Heitler's most recent project is a marriage skills website, PowerOfTwoMarriage.com.
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