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An Adult Child’s View Of a BPD Mother

Using compassion in dealing with borderline personality disorder.

Key points

  • Borderline personality disorder affects not just the sufferer, but their entire family.
  • Treatment requires being empathetic, but not being a doormat.
  • It takes unity within a family to deal with a member suffering from BPD.

Guest written by Daniel Lobel, Ph.D.

Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) often affects entire families by increasing conflict between household members. The disorder can affect mothers, fathers, and their children. Here, we’ll examine how a hypothetical adult son might experience a mother with BPD. While difficult to manage, treatment of a family with a member who has this disorder requires resisting the push towards the breaking point and banding together for the survival of the family unit.

Hanaha/Shutterstock
Source: Hanaha/Shutterstock

Such treatment requires empathic understanding of the BPD sufferer (BPDS) so the family can respond constructively. To be clear, empathy or compassion does not mean giving in. Rather, it means objectifying the experience in order to set healthy limits that come not from anger, avoidance or retaliation, but rather from a wish to de-escalate tensions. When conflict is under better control, there’s an opportunity for treatment and healing.

When possible, it helps when that the BPD sufferer develops an empathic understanding of how the disorder affects his or her loved ones in order to respond cooperatively. The following fictional account of a day in the life of a family with a member suffering from BPD is designed to facilitate such empathic understanding for the purpose of preserving the family unit.

Adult Child and BPD Mother—A Random Day:

Mornings are the worst part of the day. I always wake up anxious. I am never sure how she will be. Sometimes she is okay but usually, she is irritable. Best to get up before her or after she is gone. Maybe she will be better later. I can’t wait to get out of here.

Why do I deserve to be treated this way? I try to be loving. I try to avoid topics that upset her. I try not to ask too much. When I give her what she wants it is never enough. She keeps wanting more and more until I don’t know what to do and then she gets mad at me. She tells me that I am a bad person, a failure. She says that she wishes I were never born. She makes me feel like a terrible person. And I am doing the best that I can!

She is in a mood. I hear her walking heavily on the floor and banging doors.

Mother: “I need you to help me with something this morning.”

Son: “OK what can I do?”

Mother: “Let me take my shower and get ready for work and then I will let you help me.”

Son: “Let me help you now. I have to get to work.”

Mother: “Can’t you do one thing for me?”

Son: “I am willing to do whatever you ask but I need to do it now so that I am not late for work.”

Mother: “Forget it. I knew I shouldn’t have asked you for any kind of help.”

Now my day is ruined. How do I get this out of my head? I go over it again and again: I offered my help, I have a job, why am I a bad person? I know that I am not a bad person but I feel horrible.

Okay, let me think about my life. I am going to work and then I will go out until she is asleep. I will come home when she is asleep. Maybe by tomorrow she will back off and give me a break. Why do I stay here? I feel too guilty to leave.

The trick is to put the key in the lock without making noise. Then you have to ease the door open and hope that it doesn’t squeak. I have found that lifting the door slightly helps with this. The slightest sound and…

Mother: "Is that you? Say something or I will call the police."

Son: "It’s me."

Mother: "Why were you out so late?"

Son: "It’s not even midnight."

Mother: "I get so scared when you're not here."

Son: "I'm here now."

Mother: "Yeah now that it's convenient. You do what you want to do and I am an afterthought."

Son: "I have to go to sleep, we can talk in the morning."

Mother: "I don’t need to talk to you. I wish I didn’t know you."

Oh God, here I am again. I have to get up early and get out of here before she gets up and starts spitting venom at me again. Why am I here?

Takeaway:

You have just read a random example of a son struggling with a mother suffering from BPD. He is not the only one. His brothers, sisters, father, and others get much of the same treatment. It is hard. Unity, which is necessary for healing, can only be achieved through empathic acknowledgment of each other’s pain—and the BPD sufferer is in a lot of pain.

The more one objectifies the experience, the easier it is to set compassionate limits, insisting that the sufferer gets her own treatment, and avoid guilt, anger, and retaliation. While difficult, families can do better. It works best when done with compassion, not blame, in order to strengthen the family unit to effectively combat this disorder and heal.

For more on treatment, see Professor Marsha Linehan’s groundbreaking work called Dialectical Behavioral Therapy. It is the gold standard of care in the treatment of Borderline Personality Disorder. And, if you need insight on how to work with a mother with BPD, my recent book, When Your Mother has Borderline Disorder may be useful as well.

To find a therapist near you, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

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