“One minute everything’s great, and the next minute she’s calling me fifty times in a row and leaving me these long messages about how badly I treat her.”
“He makes me feel so awful about myself. He twists around what I say and makes me seem like such a horrible person. I can’t tell right-side-up anymore.”
“I feel so much shame, like it’s going to tear me in half. It started when my partner didn’t pick up the phone, I was scared that he shut me out once and for all.”
If any of this sounds familiar, you might know someone with – or have symptoms of – Borderline Personality Disorder. Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD for short) is an oft-maligned and generally misunderstood trauma-based disorder that can look and feel pretty overwhelming, confusing, and scary. Because it’s a response to unpredictability and lack of emotional continuity and attunement, it has a tendency to replicate the very trauma it’s trying to escape.
If you’re wondering what BPD might look like, it’s actually featured prominently in many films – probably because, from the outside, BPD looks like high drama, intensity, excitement, and unpredictability, which is highly watchable and compelling from the safety of the television. Here’s a brief viewing list:
- Lisa, Angelina Jolie’s character in Girl, Interrupted, has emotional outbursts and defies authority, and the system crushes her fire and vitality.
- Amy Winehouse in Amy experiences an extended trajectory of complicated and tenuous relationships, drug addiction, and self-destruction that ultimately ends in her death.
- Hedwig, the character developed by John Cameron Mitchell in Hedwig and the Angry Inch, manipulates her husband, espouses extreme hatred for the man she used to love, and feels split into parts that she believes only another person can heal.
- And, in the 1944 movie Gaslight, the audience is privy to the crazymaking experience of living with someone who is emotionally abusive and manipulative.
All these real and fictive portrayals of people with Borderline Personality Disorder both pathologize, and explain, the complex traumatic experiences of people with this disorder, and the frustrations, pain, and self-doubt in those who love them. This kind of repetition of past traumas is a cornerstone of the BPD experience: for as much as the sufferer is trying to protect himself, he ends up replicating the same circumstances that led to the trauma in the first place.
From the inside, BPD can feel like:
- You are easily overtaken by emotions.
- You can feel overcome by self-destructive shame and a feeling like you’ve done something terribly wrong.
- You feel alternately like you’re on top of the world, and then suddenly like the world is against you.
- You love and need someone with all your heart and soul, and then want to banish them when they do something that hurts or betrays you or makes you feel bad.
- In addition to banishing them, you really really need them to know how much they hurt you.
- You feel like there are few people you can trust – and that even those people will turn against you when you need them most.
When it comes to relationships, you might find:
- They follow patterns of deep intensity and then deep mistrust. (This might feel like you’re pulling someone closer to you and then pushing them away.)
- You feel fearful and anxious that the people you trust will discover something horrible about you and will end up pushing you away.
Maybe you’re in relationship with someone who does this to you, and you find it increasingly frustrating and heartbreaking to not feel like you can be close to them in a loving and tender way. Maybe this is your parent, or your partner, or your friend. Vulnerability can feel scary to the most emotionally secure of us, but it takes on another level of anxiety and fear when you have BPD, or are in relationship with someone with BPD.
In my experience as a therapist who works with folks who feel the pain of these symptoms as well as their children and partners, it can be complicated to make this diagnosis. In fact, I have grown to dislike the diagnosis, because of how easily it can be misinterpreted and misused by patients, medical providers, family members, and the general public. I aim to change the label of BPD from something derisive and pathologizing, to something that accounts for the way a sensitive and intuitive person clashes with the systems that surround them, which can shape the kind of anxiety and fear a BPD person feels in themselves, in relationships, and in the world.
To use one of the examples above, in the movie Girl, Interrupted, the characters are all responding to familial and cultural restrictions on their self and identity that are anti-feminist at best and oppressive and toxic at worst, and likely all given the diagnosis of BPD. (They’re also locked up in a treatment facility that uses ECT to treat depression.)
Even Betty Draper in Mad Men, who emotionally and physically abuses her children, is responding unconsciously to how trapped she feels as a woman in a patriarchal system that refuses to allow her voice to be validated and powerful. Betty responds to this stifling expectation of femininity by manipulating her children. This is sometimes a trait of a Borderline person – because their needs are not being met by the people in their life, they may turn around and punish others who are less powerful than they, as an attempt to communicate their powerlessness and hopefully find some agency in the process.
However, there is hope for relief from the emotional overwhelm, relationship challenges, and extreme fear of vulnerability for people with BPD. Approaching this disorder from the intersecting lenses of cultural trauma, attachment, emotional trauma and neglect, neurobiology and neuroplasticity, and object relations, we can begin to understand that BPD may stem from frayed and insufficient relationships in childhood, and may also relate to unconscious processing of intergenerational trauma transmitted through culture, family, and society.
The feelings and behaviors associated with BPD can take everyone by surprise. But it is possible to get to know its roots, become aware of your actions and impulses, and develop compassion and empathy for yourself and others who are responding to trauma in this seemingly everlasting cycle.
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