Those who go on to develop borderline personality disorder (BPD) almost invariably grew up as children in highly dysfunctional families in which the parent/s was/were emotionally unstable.
I have written about BPD extensively in other articles on this site (to access them, simply type ‘BPD’ into the site’s search box) so I will only briefly recap upon some of the main symptoms from which the individual with BPD suffers :
– inability to control powerful emotions
– extremely chaotic interpersonal relationships
– extremely poor impulse control
– very poor sense of own identity (also sometimes referred to as ‘identity confusion’)
– sees others in terms of being either ‘all good’ or ‘all bad’ with no middle ground (this is also sometimes referred to as ‘black and white’ thinking or ‘dichotomous thinking)
– hypersensitivity, especiallly a tendency to interpret neutral, innocuous comments of others as personal slights
Overwhelmingly, the most important risk factors leading the child to go on to develop BPD are child abuse and child neglect. Indeed, these two risk factors easily outweigh the influence of biological and social factors.
The child who goes on to develop BPD as an adult is very likely to have grown up in a household in which he received ‘double messages’ from his/her parent/s – in other words, the child’s parent/s are very likely to have both felt and expressed EXTREME AMBIVALENCE towards the child. I describe how this ambivalence towards the child generally manifests itself below :
THE FORM PARENTAL AMBIVALENCE TOWARDS THE CHILD TAKES :
It is theorized that the parent holds, simultaneously, 2 attitudes towards being a parent which are contradictory and in direct opposition to each other. It is thought the 2 conflicting attitudes are :
ATTITUDE 1 : the parent/s believe their role as a parent is of great importance and central to their lives
ATTITUDE 2 (in direct opposition to the above but simultaneously held) the parent/s deeply resent having to fulfill a parental role and regard the child as an IRRITATING OBSTACLE PREVENTING THEM FROM PURSUING THINGS THAT WOULD LEAD TO THEIR PERSONAL FULFILLMENT.
Not infrequently, such ambivalent feelings will focus upon just one child, leaving his/her siblings relatively emotionally undamaged.
HOW DOES THE CHILD RESPOND TO SUCH AMBIVALENCE?
Unconsciously, the child has a deep need to keep the ambivalent parent/s as emotionally stable as possible (in Darwinian terms, this is clearly in the interests of his/her survival). The dilemma is, therefore, as follows :
On the one hand, s/he needs to remain of great importance to the ambivalent parent/s (in order to support attitude 1 (above)). On the other hand, however, s/he needs to allow them to justify, in their own minds, their hostility, anger and resentment towards him/her (in order to support attitude 2 (above)).
But how can this possibly be achieved?
Building upon an original idea of Melanie Kline, it has been theorized that, in order to maintain his/her parent’s/parents’ psychological equilibrium, the child must adopt what has been termed spoiler behaviour (this is NOT a conscious decision of the child’s – it is driven by unconscious forces).
‘Spoilier behaviour’ involves :
– in effect, refusing to grow up
– remaining dependent on the parent/s (as not able to function competently as an adult)
– rebelling against and severely denigrating the parent/s
Without therapy, such ‘spoiler behaviour’ may be maintained deep into the formerly abused child’s adulthood. Such behaviour is a way of INVALIDATING THE PARENT/S IN EXACTLY THE SAME WAY AS THEY INVALIDATED HIM/HER AS A CHILD. In essence, s/he is ‘giving back as good as s/he got.’
The now adult child will continue to try to keep his parent/s emotionally stable by (and I repeat, unconsciously) desperately trying to regulate their ambivalent emotions towards him/her :
– if they begin to feel too guilty (due to attitude 1, above), he will make them angry. However :
– if they become too angry (due to attitude 2, above) s/he will make them feel guilty
This is, I think, a very ingenious theory; however, it is very difficult to prove theories which are based in part upon ideas relating to unconscious mental processes.
If I could briefly indulge myself by suggesting a theory of my own : IF A CHILD KNOWS S/HE IS ESSENTIALLY DISLIKED BY HIS/HER PARENTS, IS IT NOT EASIER TO TOLERATE IF S/HE ACTS IN SUCH A WAY THAT HELPS THE PARENTS, IN THEIR OWN MINDS, TO JUSIFY THEIR DISLIKE, RATHER THAN TO TRY HARD TO GET ON WITH THE PARENTS, AND OBTAIN THEIR ADMIRATION, AND YET STILL BE DISLIKED? In the former case, the child can almost convince him/herself s/he wants to be disliked, and is only disliked due to his/her behaviour. Whereas, to be disliked whilst trying desperately to be liked by one’s parents could, potentially, be psychologically catastrophic.
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David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).