For those of us who grew up with mothers who suffered from a borderline personality disorder (BPD), our childhoods were often painful and anguished. We found ourselves living in a world that was contradictory and confusing; it is likely that we suffered chronic anxiety as we did not know how our mother would react or behave from one moment to the next. Due to our mother’s instability, it is likely that we started off life with an insecure emotional attachment to her, and, throughout our childhood, it is likely that the mother with borderline personality disorder was inconsistent, unpredictable (expressing affection one minute but rage the next), inappropriately intense and emotionally controlling. She may, too, have been deeply verbally hostile, expressing hatred and issuing threats. We may have often been told we were not wanted and that she might well abandon us. It may well have felt like living in an emotional prison. The effects of mothers with borderline personality disorder on their offspring can be quite devastating; we can grow up feeling fragmented, confused and, later, develop symptoms of psychological ill-health ourselves, such as impulsiveness, being full of rage and hostility, being sometimes prone to violence, depression and deep anxiety. We may become in danger of tipping over into psychosis under stress (particularly in response to rejection and abandonment). We may, too, develop addictions as short term coping mechanisms to deal with our psychological pain. In short, we become at risk of developing borderline personality disorder ourselves. Borderline personality disorder is diagnosed in women twice as frequently as in men. It has been hypothesized that this could be due to the fact that men with BPD are much more likely to be misdiagnosed as having an anti-social personality disorder and end up in the prison system (which is often clearly likely to make their condition even worse). It is estimated that, in the USA, about 6 million people are suffering from BPD, which, in turn, must mean that there are also millions of children living with mothers who have BPD. Below are some of the most common things people who have been brought up with mothers with BPD say about them :
- she is completely unpredictable
- she denies what has happened
- she sees everything in extreme terms (also called ‘black and white’ or ‘all or nothing’ thinking)
- I sometimes find myself hating her
- I am not able to trust her
- she’s always exploding into rage
- she imposes her negative view of the world onto me
- she drives me insane
- she makes me feel terrible about myself
All individuals who have a borderline personality disorder (BPD), including the borderline mother, experience its core symptoms; these are
However, one of these symptoms may PREDOMINATE and thus shape a particular BPD sufferer’s character. Concerning this idea, James Masterson (1988) classified borderline mothers into four sub-groups; these are :
- Waif mother.
- Hermit mother.
- Queen mother.
- Witch mother.
Let’s look at each of these BPD mother types in turn : 1) THE WAIF MOTHER – personality traits include helplessness, hopelessness, proneness to deep despair, extremely low self-esteem, very high sensitivity, having a ‘victim mentality, passivity and vulnerability. Sees self as a failure. May treat her children alternately indulgently and negligently. There often exists an intense underlying feeling of rage which may particularly likely erupt in response to abandonment (either real or imagined). POSSIBLE EFFECTS OF WAIF MOTHER ON CHILDREN: A) they may come to see themselves as failures for not being able to make her happy B) they may internalise her despairing view of the world and become despairing themselves C) they may become ENMESHED in their relationship with her and therefore find it difficult to separate from it. 2) THE HERMIT MOTHER: sees the world as dangerous and people in general as self-serving and callous. Always expecting disaster to strike and sees signs of imminent calamity everywhere. Has a deep sense of inner shame which she projects onto others. May have a tough exterior and a superficial image of being confident, determined and independent. However, beneath this façade, she tends to be distrustful, insecure and prone to rage and paranoia. Gains self-esteem from work or hobbies. POSSIBLE EFFECTS OF HERMIT MOTHER ON CHILDREN: A) they may internalise the mother’s fear of the world in general and therefore become anxious if they need to adapt to new situations B) they may find it very difficult to learn appropriate coping skills concerning a large variety of life’s problems C) they may find it difficult to trust others 3) THE QUEEN MOTHER – always craves attention; uses her children to fulfil her own needs; cannot tolerate disagreement or criticism from her children as she sees this as evidence that they do not love and respect her; chronic feelings of emptiness; inability to ‘self-soothe when distressed; a powerful sense of own entitlement; may be prepared to use blackmail in order to get what she wants; capable of planned and premeditated manipulation; discards friends without guilt when they are no longer of use to her POSSIBLE EFFECTS OF QUEEN MOTHER ON CHILDREN: Mostly this type of borderline mother sees her children as her audience who must consistently respond to her in ways that bolster her (very fragile) self-esteem; she expects from them their unquestioning and unwavering love, support, attention and admiration. Her children can’t satisfy her insatiable emotional needs, conflict increases dramatically as they get older. Rebellion, deep confusion and anger are likely responses from children who live with this kind of mother, but beneath this, the children long for approval, recognition, consistency and unconditional love. In essence, however, the ‘queen’ mother’s own needs trump those of her children’s, as far as she is concerned. 4) THE WITCH MOTHER: this type of borderline mother is consumed by self-hatred (often on an unconscious level) and tends to be extremely hostile and cruel towards their children. Because of their feelings of rage mixed with impotence, they have a propensity to be particularly brutal to those less powerful than they are (for example, younger). They also tend to be self-obsessed and have little or no concern for others. They are likely to respond particularly venomously to criticism or rejection. At the base of their need for power and control is their intense desire to prevent abandonment. This particular sub-group of BPD is very resistant to treatment as those who suffer it tend not to allow others to help them. POSSIBLE EFFECTS OF WITCH MOTHER ON CHILDREN: A) the children of this type of mother are likely to find themselves as the target of random, intense and cruel attacks B) as with other forms of abuse, children who suffer the verbal/emotional/psychological injury assume (completely incorrectly) that it is they who are at fault. As a result of this profound misconception, they are likely to become depressed, subject to feelings of shame, insecure, hypervigilant (i.e. always on ‘red alert’ on the lookout for danger) and dissociative. As adults, they may develop difficulties with forming and maintaining relationships. It is possible, too, that they will go on to develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or suffer from BPD themselves, thus potentially perpetuating the cycle.
OTHER WAYS A BPD MOTHER MAY HAVE MADE US FEEL:
- used by her to fulfil her own needs
- that it was impossible to predict her emotions/behaviour
- always on ‘red alert’ in case we may inadvertently do or say something to anger her
- alternately idealised and demonised by her
- that we were her caretaker
- used to provide her with emotional support
- that she demands unconditional love, approval and admiration from us, but seems unable to love us unconditionally
- confused by her unpredictable behaviour and treatment of us
- controlled by fear (for example, of her rages if we do not comply with her wishes to the letter)
- deeply hurt by her cruel teasing
- that we are not permitted to show anger, regardless of how provoked, we may have been
- overly confided in (as if we were a surrogate partner or parent rather than her child: SEE SECTION BELOW)
- burdened by responsibilities we are too young to be expected to cope with that our feelings are belittled, undermined, dismissed as trivial, denied and ignored
- that we are supposed to achieve standards that are impossible to meet
- deprived of displays of physical affection (for example, hugs)
- as if we are continually receiving ‘mixed messages’ from her (this can lead to finding ourselves in an emotional ‘double bind’ which is very distressing.
- as if we are a ‘bad’ person.
NB. A diagnosis of BPD needs to be left to a professional. Just because a mother makes us experience some of the feelings above does not mean she has BPD. Mothers with other conditions (for example, depression, anxiety, PTSD, alcohol addiction) may make us feel some of the things listed above, as, from time to time, may mothers with no psychiatric condition.
When BPD Mothers Treat Us Like Surrogate Partners.
After my parents’ divorce, my mother increasingly used me as her emotional caretaker, even referring to me, quite brazenly, as her ‘Little Psychiatrist’ (a role foisted upon me that I see now, with hindsight, I was all too willing to fulfil to the point of preoccupation and even obsession) until I was thirteen and our relationship broke down in such a way that I was forced to go and live with my father and his newly acquired wife. Such a relationship with a BPD parent (in which the child essentially becomes the parent’s surrogate partner) is, in fact, by no means a rare phenomenon in dysfunctional families. It is referred to by some experts (originally Friel and Friel, 1988) in how family systems and dynamics operate as ‘covert incest and can occur between a mother and her son or between a father and his daughter. In my case, my mother used me to satisfy her psychological needs because my father had left the family home. However, such ‘covertly incestuous relationships can also occur in which both parents are still living in the same household, but their marriage/relationship has broken down (this sad scenario is particularly likely to arise when one of the parents is an alcoholic). Complicity : It is essential to realise that when a parent manipulates the child into becoming, essentially, a surrogate partner, it is not only serving this parent’s needs. It also helps to free the other parent from this parent’s emotional demands. In this way, the other parent is complicit in what is being done to the child, and, through lack of intervention, enables its continuation. Typically, the parent who is using the child as a surrogate partner will make that child his/her confidante and seek advice on subjects that the child is emotionally ill-equipped to provide such as marriage problems, loneliness, or relationship difficulties with new boyfriends or girlfriends. Enmeshed Relationship: First, I should point out that an enmeshed relationship, if it develops, is not restricted to mother-offspring but can develop between various combinations of members (whether female, male, borderline or non-borderline) of any dysfunctional family or, indeed, between partners.
First, then, I will briefly explain what is meant by an ‘enmeshed relationship.’ Essentially, an enmeshed relationship is said to exist when personal boundaries between two people are indistinct and porous, allowing the emotions of one person to ‘leak through’ (as if by osmosis) and powerfully affect the other person’s emotional experience.
For example, as a child, my own relationship with my mother was enmeshed – this meant that my own emotional state was powerfully dictated by hers; her emotional pain was my emotional pain, and, as I got older, I reciprocated her destructive emotions, too, of anger and aggression (a feature of relationships that have weak boundaries is that as one person’s emotions intensify, so, too, do the other’s).
Another hallmark of an ‘enmeshed relationship’ within a dysfunctional family is that family roles can become confused, especially in relation to age; specifically, family members adopt (mainly unconsciously) roles that are inconsistent with their chronological age. For example, the emotionally immature parent may ‘parentify’ their child (i.e. expect the child to take on a role, such as a parent’s emotional caretaker, with which s/he is not psychologically developed enough to cope – in essence, s/he is expected to become the parent’s parent. And, of course, the other side of this coin is that the parent may regress to a psychologically childlike state by demonstrating excessive dependence and neediness.
Perhaps the most famous depiction of an enmeshed relationship in fiction is that between Norman Bates and his mother in the film Psycho. Most people are familiar with Alfred Hitchcock’s classic film, but fewer may be aware that it was originally a novel (published in 1959) by Robert Bloch.
Of course, their enmeshed (and, possibly, incestuous, the novel implies) relationship is epitomized by the fact that Norman’s highly, psychologically abusive mother is almost identical to his own: Norma (viewing children, not as individuals in their own right but as possessions and as an extension of themselves is a hallmark feature of both narcissistic and borderline mothers).
In short, Norman eventually murders his malevolent and tormenting mother (by poisoning her with strychnine) because, ironically, he fears she is abandoning him to marry her fiance (whom, for good measure, he also murders by employing the same modus operandi). Following this double murder, Norman frequently dresses in his (now deceased) mother’s clothes and takes on her personality.
Borderline, narcissistic and other types of emotionally disturbed mothers may form such an emotionally interwoven relationship with their son or daughter (sometimes referred to as ’emotional incest’) that the boundary between her identity and her offspring’s identity becomes nebulous and indistinct – whatever the mother feels, the son or daughter is expected to reflect back (e.g. if the mother is happy, her offspring must be happy and, if the mother is sad, her offspring must be sad.
Furthermore, the mother who has an enmeshed relationship with her offspring may instil guilt in him/her if s/he tries to behave independently in a way that excludes her.
She may, too, be highly controlling, dictating her offspring’s lifestyle and vetting their relationships with others and demanding compliance.
In divorced households, these types of mothers may also manipulate the child into breaking off relations with his / her (now absent) father so as to have the child ‘all to herself’, making him/her all the easier to dominate, control, and, essentially, to ‘possess’. This phenomenon is known as ‘parental alienation (and also occurs when one parent, motivated by a need for revenge, tries to hurt the other (absent) patent by denying him/her any contact with the child (irrespective, often, of the psychological harm that such a course of action may do to the child, sadly).
If the child grows up into an adult who does not assert his / her right to introduce healthy boundaries into the relationship, s/he is likely to suffer a very weak sense of his / her own identity as an individual as to how s/he experiences his / her emotional life will continue to be dominated by his / her mother. Such individuals, without therapy, can go through life feeling deeply uncertain about who they actually are
Furthermore, they may have serious problems asserting themselves as well as a low tolerance for emotional pain (‘distress intolerance’). Paradoxically, although they are psychologically hurt by the dynamics of the enmeshed relationship, they will frequently find it very hard indeed to detach themselves from it without experiences deep feelings of fear (Rosenberg)
Other problems they may experience include: lacking a sense of autonomy when it comes to how they feel (i.e. believing that how they feel is out of their control and is dictated by the emotional state of others); feeling ’empty’ as they are unable to take responsibility for their own emotions; neglecting their own needs while feeling overly responsible in relation to how others are feeling.
Once individuals are aware that they are in an unhealthy, enmeshed relationship that is spoiling their quality of life and they become willing to take steps to rectify the problem, they may find both family therapy and individual therapy to be useful for helping them set the healthy boundaries within the relationship which it had, up until then, lacked.
Repercussions For Adult Life : Unfortunately, such ‘covertly incestuous relationships can seriously harm the child’s capacity, when he becomes an adult, to form healthy, intimate and sustainable relationships with others. Many therapists are of the view that such difficulties are likely to persist until the affected individual gains insight into how his/her dysfunctional childhood relationship with his/her opposite-sex parent has significantly contributed to these difficulties. Note: ‘Covert incest is also sometimes referred to as ’emotional incest.’
REFERENCES: Friel DL & Friel JC (1988). Adult children: the secrets of dysfunctional families. Deerfield Beach, Fla: Health Communications. ISBN 0-932194-53-2. Masterson, J. Psychotherapy of the Borderline Adult: A Developmental Approach (Brunner / Mazel, 1976) ISBN 0-87630-127-8 Masterson, J.The Search for the Real Self: Unmasking the Personality Disorders of Our Age. (Collier Macmillan, 1988) ISBN 0-02-920291-4 Masterson, J.The Real Self: A Developmental, Self and Object Relations Approach (Brunner / Mazel, 1985) ISBN 0-87630-400-5 Rosenberg, R., Human Magnet Syndrome: Why We Love The People That Hurt Us. Published March 1st 2013 by Pesi, Inc ISBN 1936128314 (ISBN13: 9781936128310) https://childhoodtraumarecovery.com/bpd/babies-of-bpd-mothers-have-problems-regulating-stress-even-at-2-months-old/ https://childhoodtraumarecovery.com/all-articles/the-relationship-with-the-sociopathic-mother/ https://childhoodtraumarecovery.com/bpd/research-into-children-of-mothers-suffering-from-borderline-personalty-disorder/ https://childhoodtraumarecovery.com/all-articles/reducing-risk-of-intergenerational-transmission-of-bpd/ https://childhoodtraumarecovery.com/book-previews/this-site-is-being-updated/ David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).
Holder of MSc and post graduate teaching diploma in psychology. Highly experienced in education. Founder of childhoodtraumarecovery.com. Survivor of severe childhood trauma.