- Unworked through past traumas start to surface as the person self-activates and starts to pursue his or her authentic goals.
- The person with borderline personality disorder does not yet have the coping skills to deal with these painful feelings constructively.
- They go back to using their old maladaptive coping mechanisms--substance abuse, cutting, promiscuous sex, picking fights, binge eating, etc.
- This leads people with BPD to procrastinate in an unconscious attempt to protect themselves from their buried painful feelings.
Many of my clients with borderline personality disorder report feeling like failures because they struggle with procrastination. Their life is littered with half-finished projects and chores that they put off doing. Their new guitar is gathering dust in the corner. The clothes that they meant to take to the dry cleaners have found a new home on the exercise bike that they cannot motivate themselves to use. Perhaps the worst part of the whole situation is that they have no idea why they cannot just go ahead and finish what they start.
In their psychotherapy sessions, I hear some version of the following:
Why am I like this? Am I just lazy? I start projects with great enthusiasm but at some point I run out of steam. I know I should be doing more, but something is stopping me and I have no idea what it is. Just thinking about finishing these things makes me too anxious to do anything at all. Instead, I find myself trying to distract myself from my feelings by eating ice cream and binge watching television shows. What is wrong with me? Why am I such a procrastinator?
The Disorders of the Self Triad
James F. Masterson (1926–2010), the well-known personality disorder theorist, taught his students a simple way of understanding why many people with borderline personality disorder procrastinate or fail to finish projects that they enthusiastically started. He summed it up in a single phrase:
Self-activation leads to abandonment depression which then leads to defense.
Masterson originally named this the “Borderline Triad” (1976). Later he revised his theory when he noticed that it applied to more than just people with borderline personality disorder. He renamed it the “Disorders of the Self Triad” (2004). Disorders of the self was Masterson’s preferred term for what are commonly called personality disorders.
Note: In this article I am using the terms borderline and BPD as shorthand ways to refer to someone who qualifies for a diagnosis of borderline personality disorder.
Self-Activation: Self-activation refers to the process of getting in touch with what you authentically want and becoming motivated to start moving forward towards personally meaningful goals.
Abandonment Depression: This is Masterson’s term for all the buried extremely painful feelings that start to surface when someone with borderline personality disorder begins to act on their own behalf—depression, rage, fear, guilt, helplessness, and emptiness. He called them "The Six Horsemen of the Apocalypse" (1976, pp. 38-42).
Defense: As these extremely painful feelings start to surface outside of the psychotherapy session, clients with BPD feel overwhelmed and desperate. They have not yet had enough psychotherapy to develop appropriate coping mechanisms and distress tolerance. They become desperate and eventually go back to doing whatever destructive things that they did before to distract and soothe themselves—abusing drugs or alcohol, cutting, binge eating, picking fights, having sex with strangers, and so on.
Their forward momentum is lost and they feel like they are right back where they started.
Where does procrastination enter into it?
Eventually, many people who have borderline personality disorder become afraid of even attempting to make positive changes. Moving forward towards achieving their personal goals has become unconsciously associated with the eruption into consciousness of painful emotions.
The result is that many projects get started in good faith but as the negative emotions start to surface, they get dropped before completion. Their unconscious mind is trying to save them from the pain by literally stopping them from moving forward with their projects. My borderline clients report feeling paralyzed when they try to do something for themselves. Here is how one of my clients described it:
I came home with a briefcase full of work that I have been putting off. I told myself I would get all caught up this weekend. But, I couldn’t make myself do any of it. I just lay there on my sofa switching channels with the remote. I knew the whole time that I should just do the work. It felt like torture. I could see the time slipping away but I couldn’t make myself get off the couch. I wasted the whole weekend. What’s wrong with me?
The above situation contributes to low self-esteem because it is interpreted as a personal failure and evidence that they are lazy or inherently incompetent in some way.
Separation anxiety may also be present.
Masterson noted that some clients with borderline personality disorder are still very connected to their mother or primary caretaker in an unhealthy way. They unconsciously view self-activation and separating from their parent as dangerous. As they start to become their own person in therapy and their negative feelings surface, they sometimes report the strange belief that if they fully separate from that parent, one or both of them will die or go crazy (1976).
Of course there are other possible reasons that people with borderline personality disorder procrastinate and fail to finish projects that I am not covering here. However, the most common one I see in therapy is that there are underlying unworked through traumatic feelings that start to surface as the person starts to self-activate and these feelings sabotage the person’s ability to continue to work on the project.
Many people with borderline personality disorder procrastinate and have trouble finishing projects because when they self-activate, they outrun their internal self-support. Instead of feeling proud of themselves, highly painful emotions associated with past unworked through traumas start to surface and destroy their peace of mind. They then defend against the pain by delaying or avoiding anything that triggers it.
Based on a Quora post.
Masterson, J. F. (1976). Psychotherapy of the Borderline Adult. NY: Brunner/Mazel.
Greenberg, E. (2004), The Masterson approach: defining the terms. In J. F. Masterson & A. Lieberman (Eds.), A Therapist’s Guide to the Personality Disorders: The Masterson Approach. Phoenix, AZ: Zeig, Tucker & Theisen, Inc. pp. 23-32.