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BPD, Feeling Painfully Empty, The ‘Leaky Cup’ Metaphor And Thrill Seeking

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When a child is born into the world, s/he is utterly helpless and dependent upon his / her mother, and, in the early days of life, as long as his / her mother is present and sufficiently responsive to his / her needs, the baby is able to feel relatively safe, content and secure.

However, when the mother is absent, the baby quickly becomes panicked and distressed (as s/he has no way of knowing for certain that the mother will return.

As the baby develops, though, and continues to receive at least adequate nurturing from the mother, s/he becomes more able to tolerate periods of time when the mother is not present, especially if s/he is able to derive some compensatory comfort during such periods from objects such as soft toys and dummies. This is possible because s/he has managed to internalize the emotional nourishment s/he has previously received from the mother in such a way as to protect him/herself from developing overwhelming feelings of insecurity during temporary, maternal absences.

A metaphor that helps to elucidate this process is that of the ‘leaky cup,’ If an infant has received adequate ’emotional nourishment’ from the mother during the very early part of his/her life, s/he will have a good store of this nourishment in his/her (metaphorical) cup, and, during separations from the mother, the nourishment will only slowly ‘leak out of the cup.’ In other words, the infant is able to draw on this ‘nourishment’ during ephemeral periods of maternal absence as the store is reasonably voluminous and enduring.

However, in the case of an infant who has received inadequate nurturing from his mother during his/her early life, his/her ‘cup of emotional nourishment’ will be far less full than the relatively secure infant’s cup, and, what’s more, far ‘leakier’. Such a poorly cared for infant, then, will have an insufficient supply of previously stored emotional nourishment upon which to draw and is liable to become highly distressed as a result of even very brief periods of maternal absence (in terms of Bowlby’s theory, the infant is ‘insecurely attached’ to the mother).

Putting it simply, then, the nurtured infant can be viewed as adequately ‘full’ in terms of ’emotional nourishment’, whereas the neglected infant can be viewed as nearly ’empty’ in terms of such maternal nourishment.

As the neglected / empty child grows (assuming this lack of emotional nourishment is not somehow corrected, s/he will then, of course, eventually become an adult who also feels a pervasive sense of emptiness, especially if the extent of his/her childhood neglect has led him/her to develop borderline personality disorder (BPD) or complex posttraumatic stress disorder (complex PTSD).

In such cases, this feeling of ’emptiness’ can lead to severe and chronic psychological suffering and anguish.

It has been hypothesized, therefore, that these feelings of emptiness (one hallmarks of BPD, as alluded to above) are intimately connected to another frequent symptom of the disorder, namely that of impulsive thrill-seeking and risk-taking.

In short, in a desperate (and, ultimately, of course, futile) attempt to rid him/herself of intolerably painful feelings of emptiness,the BPD is exquisitely vulnerable to developing an array of risky, self-destructive addictions, including drug-taking, alcoholism, chain-smoking, gambling and self-harm.

Currently, one of the most effective treatments for BPD available is dialectical behavior therapy.

David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).

About David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE)

Psychologist, researcher and educationalist.

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