The Emotional Toll of Living With a Borderline Individual
To the borderline, everyone is either a saint or a devil.
Posted Aug 19, 2020
“My mother’s love for me was conditional. When I didn’t do what I was supposed to—chores or whatever—she would rage, cut me down, and say I was a horrible kid who would never have any friends. But when she needed love, she would become affectionate, hug me, and talk about how close we were."
In this excerpt from Paul T. Mason and Randi Kreger’s Stop Walking on Eggshells, the interviewee describes the emotional toll of growing up with a borderline parent.
In the current fifth edition of the Manual (DSM-5) borderline personality disorder is characterized as a “pervasive pattern of instability of interpersonal relationships, self-image, and affects, and marked impulsivity, beginning by early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts,” as indicated by five (or more) of the following:
- Frantic efforts to avoid real or imagined abandonment.
- A pattern of unstable and intense interpersonal relationships characterized by alternating between extremes of idealization and devaluation.
- Identity disturbance: markedly and persistently unstable self-image or sense of self.
- Impulsivity in at least two areas that are potentially self-damaging (e.g., spending, sex, substance abuse, reckless driving, binge eating).
- Recurrent suicidal behavior, gestures, or threats, or self-mutilating behavior.
- Affective instability due to a marked reactivity of mood (e.g., intense episodic dysphoria, irritability, or anxiety usually lasting a few hours and only rarely more than a few days).
- Chronic feelings of emptiness.
- Inappropriate, intense anger or difficulty controlling anger (e.g., frequent displays of temper, constant anger, recurrent physical fights).
- Transient, stress-related paranoid ideation or severe dissociative symptoms.
In DSM-5’s narrative descriptions of the cluster B disorders, we are told that borderlines and antisocial individuals often are manipulative. But the aims of the manipulation are different in the two cases. Borderlines manipulate to gain nurturance, attention or positive feedback, whereas antisocial individuals manipulate to gain profit, power, or some other material gratification.
The subclinical variant of borderline personality, while also characterized by deficits in emotion regulation and in the representation of the self and others, is within the normal range of functioning. Borderline personality organization, as the subclinical variant sometimes is called, is one of the vulnerable antagonistic personalities in the vulnerable dark triad, which psychologist Joshua D. Miller and his colleagues brought to the fore in their 2009 article “Searching for a Vulnerable Dark Triad.” The vulnerable dark triad refers to the constellation of vulnerable narcissism, borderline personality and secondary psychopathy.
In their study presented in their article, Miller and his colleagues found that while the borderline trait is linked to antisocial personality disorder, which is the clinical variant of secondary psychopathy, the vulnerable dark traits that were most closely related on the Big-Five model of personality were borderline personality and vulnerable narcissism.
Despite having similar Big-Five profiles, there are important differences in the underlying deficits of vulnerable narcissism and borderline personality. Whereas the vulnerable narcissist’s self-image is vulnerable but positive overall, borderlines oscillate between feeling that they lack a core sense of identity and seeing themselves in an extremely negative light.
Unlike people who don’t suffer from a mental illness, borderlines do not have a sense of a stable self across different times and situations. They report feeling like different people depending on where they are and who they are with, that they are merely pretending to have their own convictions, values and desires, or that their existence depends on others for cueing on what they should think, want and like.
As Jerold Jay Kreisman and Hal Straus, the authors of I Hate You—Don’t Leave Me, put it, borderlines “often adapt like chameleons to the environment, situation, or companions of the moment, much like the title character in Woody Allen’s film Zelig, who literally assumes the personality, identity, and appearance of people around him” (p. 12).
Borderlines depend on people they know well, such as family members, friends and colleagues, to provide them with the semblance of a sense of self. But feedback and cueing from others are a double-edged sword. Borderlines run feedback from other people through a Rube Goldberg machine designed to transform the slightest hint of criticism into a punch in the face. The sad irony is that the feedback their very sense of self depends on is what’s causing them to feel victimized or inferior.
Negative feedback can trigger violent emotions in borderlines. This emotional consumption of their entire being unhinges their capacity for rational thought and decision-making, impairs their ability to integrate mixed messages into a coherent, nuanced whole and interrupts their inhibitory control system.
In their stupor, borderlines take criticism to be prove one of two things: either they themselves are incompetent and worthless, or their critic harbors ill will toward them. This black-and-white thinking is tied to a related phenomenon known as “splitting.” While black-and-white thinking is a reaction to the emotional disruption of the ability to think rationally and make informed decisions, splitting is a psychological defense mechanism. It operates on an unconscious level, where it triggers a saint/devil delusion about others.
Splitting results in either self-hatred or other-hatred, or what is also known as “projected hatred,” although borderlines usually oscillate between self- and other-hatred.
For borderlines prone to self-hatred, it’s more painful to regard other people as harboring ill will towards them than to devalue themselves. So their splitting induces self-hatred, followed by self-soothing with “drugs” such as alcohol, pain killers, tranquilizers, self-mutilation or suicide attempts.
For borderlines prone to other-hatred, it’s more painful to see themselves as incompetent and worthless than to view their critics as bad people. So their splitting is a fast track to other-hatred and explosive and uncontrolled anger outbursts. Kreisman and Straus describe splitting this way:
The world of a borderline, like that of a child, is split into heroes and villains. A child emotionally, the borderline cannot tolerate human inconsistencies and ambiguities; he cannot reconcile another’s good and bad qualities into a constant, coherent understanding of that person. At any particular moment, one is either “good” or “evil”; there is no in-between, no gray area (pp. 13-14).
Borderline who are consumed by hatred of a person who is critical of them don’t recall ever having had any positive attitudes toward that person, or if they do, they feel silly for ever having thought well of them.
They are not in the habit of holding onto their hatred for long periods of time, however. Once they calm down, they tend to undergo a dramatic shift from hate to love and admiration. If their turncoatery doesn’t work, it’s not beneath them to employ more manipulative tactics, such as feigning illness or threatening suicide, in a desperate attempt to win over the person they pushed away.
Kreisman, J. J., & Straus, H. (2010). I Hate You—Don’t Leave Me. Understanding the Borderline Personality. New York: Perigee.
Mason, P.T. & Kreger, R. (1998). Stop Walking on Eggshells: Taking Your Life Back When Someone You Care About Has Borderline Personality Disorder, New York: MJF Books.
Miller, J. D., Dir, A., Gentile, B., Wilson, L., Pryor, L. R., & Campbell, W. K. (2009). “Searching for a Vulnerable Dark Triad: Comparing Factor 2 Psychopathy, Vulnerable Narcissism, and Borderline Personality Disorder,” Journal of Personality, 78: 1529–1564.