One of the things that frequently marks the childhood of individuals who later develop BPD (one of the hallmarks of BPD is that sufferers tend to see others as ‘all good’ or ‘all bad’) is LOSS, especially when the loss has occurred as a result of death, divorce, or serious illness (necessitating long periods in hospital). In one particular research study looking at this, it was found that three-quarters of those suffering from BPD had experienced such losses in childhood.
However, it is not just obvious trauma in childhood that is linked to the later development of BPD. More subtle forms of problematic parenting also put the child at risk. Examples of this include:
– the parent/s emotionally withdrawing from the child
– inconsistent parenting (eg praise and punishment being distributed in an UNPREDICTABLE manner)
– parent/s invalidating, discounting, belittling, or ignoring the child’s feelings
Another form of problematic parenting which has been linked to the child later developing BPD include:
– the parent behaving too much like a friend rather than a responsible, caring figure
– turning the child into a CONFIDANT
– role reversal treating the child like a parent
Parenting problems are so closely tied to putting the child at risk of later developing BPD because the way a parent brings up a child has a critical influence on the way the child develops, especially in relation to the following:
– how the child goes on to see him/herself (self-identity, self-concept)
– how the child goes on to view others
– how the child goes on to deal with relationships (functioning in this area often becomes deeply impaired).
Problematic parenting can lead to the child developing identity problems later on together with problems of self-image (affected children will often later develop a view of themselves as ‘bad’, or, even, ‘evil’) with concordant effects upon behavior. Often, also, a feeling of profound HELPLESSNESS will develop.
In relation to how the affected child sees others, certain patterns have been found to emerge. For example, the child may develop into an adult who deeply mistrusts those in authority, viewing them as overwhelmingly vindictive, malicious, and punitive. Interestingly, also, however, there can develop a tendency to IDEALIZE people of importance to him/her in the initial stages of knowing them; because however, this is likely to lead to UNREALISTIC EXPECTATIONS of the one who has been idealized (especially in relation to them – the idealized one, that is – being able to protect and nurture them) when these high expectations are not lived up to the failure gives rise to feelings of having been BETRAYED in the one who had those expectations.
In conclusion, it should be pointed out that a very difficult childhood does not guarantee the later development of BPD, but the risk is elevated if the individual also has a genetic disposition to developing emotional problems.
Object Relations Theory
The OBJECTS RELATIONS THEORY of borderline personality disorder was proposed by Kohut at the beginning of the 1970s and is a modern psychoanalytic theory.
Object Relations Theory states that BPD can be traced back to an individual’s early (from the age of approximately 18 months to 36 months) dysfunctional relationship with his/her mother.
What Is The Nature Of This Dysfunctional Relationship Between The Infant And The Mother?
According to Kohut, the problem lies in how the mother relates to the infant :
- she reinforces the infant’s ‘clingy’, ‘dependent’, and ‘regressive’ behavior
- withdraws love and affection (emotional neglect) when the child attempts to assert his/her individuality and separate personality
The result of this dysfunctional interaction between the mother and child is that the child develops confusion about where the psychological boundary lies between him/herself and his/her mother. The relationship with the mother is ambiguous.
This confusion, in turn, leads to yet more confusion in that the child goes on to have problems identifying the psychological boundaries that lie between him/her and others in general.
Abandonment Depression :
The mother’s tendency to withdraw her love from the child when s/he attempts to assert his/her separate personality and individuality causes the child to experience ABANDONMENT DEPRESSION and s/he is likely to be plagued by this depression throughout his/her life (Masterson, 1981).
Splitting: Seeing Others As ‘All Good’ Or ‘All Bad.’
Such early experiences contribute towards the individual developing a perception of other people as being either ALL GOOD or ALL BAD (Kernberg); in other words, s/he sees others in terms of black and white – there are no shades of grey.
‘GOOD’ people are seen as people who will keep the individual ‘safe’, whereas ‘BAD’ people are seen as ones who will re-trigger his/her early experience of ABANDONMENT DEPRESSION.
THIS PHENOMENON IS KNOWN AS ‘SPLITTING’ AND OPERATES ON AN UNCONSCIOUS LEVEL.
However, whether s/he perceives another as ‘ALL GOOD’ or ‘ALL BAD’ does not stay constant; his/her perception of others FLUCTUATES FROM ONE POLAR OPPOSITE TO THE OTHER (this is technically known as lacking ‘object constancy’).
Thus, an individual suffering from BPD may, at times, behave as if s/he ‘loves and adores’ another but, then, suddenly and dramatically, switch to behaving as if s/he ‘hates and despises’ this same individual, without an objective reason.
Splitting can be viewed as a defense mechanism that helps individuals with BPD to make sense of complex and ambiguous people and situations. Rather than trying to untangle the complex amalgam of factors that can make up a person or situation and all cope with interpreting all the nuances this process would entail, it is simpler, and takes up far less cognitive effort, to split whatever one is analyzing into two, basic dichotomies or polar opposites. This also, vitally, reduces psychological stress which might, otherwise, overwhelm the BPD sufferer.
How Splitting Affects Our Relationships:
Splitting is also known as dichotomous thinking, binary thinking, ‘all or nothing’ thinking, ‘black and white thinking’ and polarized thinking but, whatever label you put on it, it can lead the BPD sufferer into viewing others as, at times, ‘ideal’ but, at other times, as ‘demons’. And, what makes interpersonal relationships so particularly difficult when one of the partners has BPD and is prone to splitting is that such dramatic vacillations in perception can take place almost instantaneously. Furthermore, those who are prone to such polarized thinking have great difficulty trusting others and constantly question and fear others’ intentions and motivations. They are quick to perceive sleights (even when, objectively, they don’t exist) and may react violently to such sleights (usually verbally, but, under extreme stress, even physically). They may, too, end relationships with extreme suddenness in a self-sabotaging and self-defeating manner.
Such individuals, too, may avoid relationships over fears they are doomed from the start. Alternatively, if they are in the phase of idealizing another person, they may jump into relationships with great speed and quickly become very intense in ‘‘clingy.’
Although splitting is most commonly linked to BPD, it may also occur in those with complex PTSD, PTSD, OCD, eating disorders, anxiety, and depression. To some degree, too, it occurs in people who are relatively mentally healthy, particularly children.
As we saw above, a severe tendency to split is often related to early life trauma involving a dysfunctional mother-child relationship whereby the mother’s behavior towards the infant/child has been disturbingly ambiguous or neglectful so trauma-informed psychotherapy can be of benefit. The first step to recovery is the personal development of insight into one’s ‘splitting behavior’, the impact it is having on one’s life, and its underlying cause.
See all my other articles about childhood trauma and BPD: click HERE.
Useful (external) link:
David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).