The Almost Effect

Helping the nearly alcoholic

Male Borderline Personality Disorder: Being "Second-Best"

Is Borderline Personality Disorder in men a "rare phenomenon"?

Brandon: A Man with BPD

Brandon was a successful attorney who nonetheless was burdened with what I call the “second-best syndrome.” The younger of two brothers, Brandon had grown up in the shadow of his athletically and socially gifted older brother, Carl. Here is how Brandon described it:

For as long as I could remember the world, at least in my house, revolved around Carl. He was the apple of my parents’ eye, especially my father. When I was about ten my parents decided to finish the basement and make it into a recreation room. My father built a bar down there, complete with a mirrored wall and glass shelves. And on those shelves, besides the bottles of whiskey, were framed photos: of Carl playing football, Carl playing baseball, Carl receiving a most-valuable-player award. There were also trophies. Because he was such a good athlete Carl was also very popular. You know how that goes. I was not really into sports, so there weren’t any trophies of mine to put on the shelf. I think there was maybe one picture of me up there, but to be honest I wouldn’t swear to it.

Brandon excelled in school, but for some reason this did not enthrall his father nearly as much as his brother Carl’s athletic prowess. Also unlike Carl, Brandon had never had a large circle of friends. The result was that Brandon grew up feeling more or less invisible—a poor second best to Carl. This may not have been what his parents intended, but it was reality for Brandon.

As an adult and as a husband, Brandon’s wife Kate attested that she had seen (and had to cope with) many of the symptoms associated with a moderate form of borderline personality disorder (BPD) in her husband. Ironically, although mental health professionals have long recognized BPD in women, when it comes to men it’s as though they have been “color blind.” It has become a common experience for me, in fact, to have colleagues comment that my book on this subject applies to “a rare phenomenon.” I respectfully disagree.

Kate described Brandon this way:

Brandon is a very good attorney, but he is very hard on himself. He was merciless with himself when he was working toward being a partner in the firm. He kept comparing himself to others, and at one point I thought he might have a nervous breakdown when one of his peers made partner and he didn’t. He made it the next year, but I’m not sure Brandon is over that to this day.  No matter how successful he is, for some reason it’s never enough to satisfy him.

Brandon is a good man—a good husband and a good father. I know he loves me, and he loves the kids. He would do anything for us. Yet he never seems at peace with himself. In our relationship he needs constant reassurance. I don’t understand how a man can be so competent yet doubt himself so much. Also, he has something of a paranoid side—he likes to check my cell phone and email accounts, and he often asks me where I’ve been if I’m even ten minutes late coming home.

These are all signs of the “second-best syndrome.” This is a form of self-hatred that is one of the core symptoms of BPD—in men and women. However, it is expressed differently in men as opposed to women. It’s a form of self-torture that is manifested first and foremost in a man not being able to be at peace with himself. No matter what he does, it isn’t enough. For many men their physical health suffers as a result. Not a few turn to drinking to quell the anxiety and self-hatred that haunts them. And as Kate attested, it also makes a man difficult to live with.

Recovering from BPD begins with insight. In this case the insight can come from reflecting honestly and bravely on your own past and considering if your early experiences may have led to you developing a second-best self-image.

The most common telltale signs BPD in men include the following:

  • You are very self-critical, often finding fault with yourself no matter how successful or competent others think you are.
  • You tend to be jealous and envious of others. This may lead you to be overly possessive and controlling in relationships.
  • Even a small frustration can send you into a depression or rage.
  • You are thin-skinned and inclined to be aggressively defensive in response to criticism.
  • You have unrealistic expectations for relationships and can easily feel rejected or abandoned despite no basis for those perceptions in reality.

So I would leave it to you, the reader, to decide for yourself: Is BPD in men truly a rare phenomenon? Or is BPD—at least in mild to moderate forms—as common in men as it is in women?

It is possible or men to overcome BPD, but that recovery process can only begin when a man is able to take a personal inventory and be honest with himself about who he is and how he truly feels about himself.

@2014 by Joseph Nowinski, Ph.D.

Joseph Nowinski, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist and author of Hard to Love: Understanding and Overcoming Male Borderline Personality Disorder.

Joseph Nowinski, Ph.D., is the supervising psychologist at the University of Connecticut Health Center.

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