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Defining Borderline Personality Disorder

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by Jennifer DuBos, MA LPC

imgresThe recent signing of receiver Brandon Marshall to the Chicago Bears has created a new wave of public interest in Borderline Personality Disorder due to his own diagnosis and advocacy.

Personality disorders receive little attention from the media or the entertainment industry. They are also not part of the general public’s repertoire of psychological knowhow, which usually includes anxiety, depression, and ADD. Unlike the former issues, Personality Disorders are less common and more severe, and often require long term mental health treatment to produce significant progress.

BPD is called “borderline” because people with this disorder exhibit behaviors that are both neurotic and psychotic in nature. They live in the borderland, sometimes understanding they have serious issues but feeling unable to change (neurotic), sometimes being unable to recognize their reality is not the general reality of those in life with them (psychotic).

Personality is the combination of thoughts, feelings, and actions that result from our core beliefs and inherent tendencies.  It determines how we relate to others, how we deal with change, and how we understand ourselves. Our unique persona is affected by both genetic predisposition and environmental factors. The development of BPD appears to be greatly related to abuse, neglect, or exposure to trauma during childhood. Abuse and neglect does not have to be criminal; it can be characterized as a parent who loves conditionally or who behaves unpredictably.

Adults with BPD often have family history of personality disorders, bipolar, major depression, addictions, or broken relationships. The important feature is, during a time when you depend entirely on others for safety, love, and other basic needs, deprivation occurs. As a result, people become “stuck” at an emotional stage of infancy or young childhood because energies have had to be diverted to basic survival, rather than the nurturing of the internal self.

Features include:

  • Impulse control issues
  • Mood swings
  • Difficulty coping with “gray areas”
  • Trying to categorize all people and events as either good or bad (splitting)
  • Dependence on others for a sense of self
  • Inability to control rage (temper tantrums)
  • Relational clingy-ness (separation anxiety)

As you can imagine, considering the above list, people with BPD find it extremely difficult to invest productively in themselves or others. They get involved with people for specific reasons, usually to meet a deep need they are not aware of pursuing. This endeavor goes one of two ways. Either the need is met so the relationship loses its purpose and fizzles out, or the need is not met and the relationship continues in an undulating fashion until it ends in a spectacular fit. This is not the result of a person with BPD not wanting long-term, loving relationships, but being incapable of creating or maintaining them.  Obviously this is a significant source of distress for people with BPD and contributes to the overall sense of worthlessness they experience.

There are numerous other traits and patterns associated with BPD, such as

  • Inability to keep a job or dwelling
  • Overuse or abuse of alcohol or other drugs
  • Reckless spending and handling of money
  • Risky sexual behavior
  • Dangerous driving habits

People with BPD tend to be perceived as lying a lot, though it’s safe to assume that in most cases they are trying to tell the truth – they just have that different a perception of reality. A disordered personality is hard to control, hard to predict, hard to know. Sometimes people with BPD say they don’t know if they exist at all. This, again, is the result of having an incomplete sense of self. People and activity are absolute necessities for continuously reformulating the self. Think of how chaotic and terrifying it would be to feel that if you were alone, and not really doing anything, you would cease to exist. This terror drives the overall business, sleep deprivation, difficulty concentrating, and impulsivity that are further signs of BPD. Suicidal fantasies, plans, and attempts are common in the BPD population due to instinctual terror of being alone, unloved, and unknown.

If reading this article gives you pains because it reminds you of yourself or someone you love, please know that there is hope. BPD is a challenging disorder and overcoming it requires long term, dedicated work but it is possible to live a healthy and happy life – as evidenced by Brandon Marshall. Also, studies show consistently that the sooner you can be diagnosed and begin treatment, the better. Personalities begin to set over time and though I strongly believe people can always change, it does get harder the longer we stay entrenched in patterns.

Evaluation is the first step.
If you have a hunch you may have BPD, talk to a professional who can help you sort it out. Be honest. The more you share in therapy, the better. This encourages you to be open with yourself and open with another person and is the first step towards acceptance. Until you can accept that BPD is a part of your life and grieve over it, you will never begin your journey towards being the whole, loved, understood person you are meant to be.

Begin the journey towards being yourself. Remember, we’re here to help.

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