By Sharmen Kimbrough
If you’re like most people, you’ve probably looked to the internet to try to make sense of the dysfunctional or destructive patterns in your relationship. And, you’ve likely started a list of diagnostic labels that seem to capture the behaviors you see. And, it’s very likely that you’ve got Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) on that list. It is often seen in the same circles of research as narcissism, theoretically because many of the observable behaviors are similar, and because the trauma of narcissistic and emotional abuse elicits a response in the victim that reflects the same kinds of behaviors used to diagnose BPD.
The Mayo Clinic defines Borderline Personality Disorder as “a mental health disorder that impacts the way you think and feel about yourself and others, causing problems functioning in everyday life. It includes self-image issues, difficulty managing emotions and behavior, and a pattern of unstable relationships.” A more compact definition used by ICD-9 is “A disorder characterized by extreme black and white thinking and turbulent relationships. (ICD-9: 301.83)
“We were created for connection, and when that connection becomes warped or broken, dysfunction ensues.”
The more I’ve studied psychology, and the deeper I’ve dived into peoples’ stories, the more convinced I am that every psychological disorder, including BPD, has its basis in attachment disruption. Every dysfunction seems to stem from a root of neglect, abandonment and abuse. This thought brings me to the account in Genesis that began with God saying it was not good for man to be alone. God’s solution to the problem of loneliness was about much more than simply providing a companion. It was about attachment, which was designed to be permanent. At our core, we were created to be connected. And when connection becomes warped or broken, dysfunction ensues.
The attachment issue is critical to relationship development, and also to relationship dysfunction. BPD, for example, is marked by the inability to cope with rejection or abandonment. There is a very strong correlation between the self-protective behaviors (which are also often self-destructive) used to identify BPD and normal responses to the relational trauma of abuse, neglect, abandonment, and unmet needs. In other words, emotional abuse will elicit many of the same behaviors used to diagnose BPD.
The constant power and control tactics of narcissistic abusers cause victims to lose their sense of self and eventually leave them numb, empty, and utterly confused. What ensues is self-image issues and dysfunctional choices resulting from a relational frame of reference that is based upon a faulty, trauma-informed internal narrative. The victim experiences cognitive dissonance between a sense of hyper-independence because they are left to fend for themselves, and a desperate clinging from fear of abandonment. This “no one can be trusted” and “it’s all up to me” belief system impairs their ability to cultivate healthy connection. There is no reciprocity or mutuality in their thinking, therefore there is no reciprocity or mutuality in their relationships.
How trauma impacts attachment formation
Past trauma to attachment formation compounds the problem because every gap in understanding gets filled with suspicion and threat to their sense of self and belonging. And those behaviors are pervasive when perpetuated/triggered by continued trauma, including perceived threats. Trauma teaches the brain to perceive everything as a threat. Even what would normally be seen as “good” or “normal” is viewed with suspicion, looking for the attached string. Their internal chaos is fed by the narrative of threats within the external relationships which are then acted out with dysfunctional behavior intended to protect themselves from the threat of abandonment.
This can look like making claims that they are “made to do” the harmful, destructive or coercive things they do in response to any behavior they perceive as rejection/abandonment. Examples could be deleting all friends of the opposite sex from their spouse’s social media account, or harming (or threatening to harm) oneself so their mate has to spend the evening taking care of them. He or she doesn’t accept someone else’s “No, I don’t want to be with you” and works hard to control the relationship to either make them stay in it or attempt to control their other relationships to isolate them. They may act on a faulty belief that hurting the person they love will make that person stay in the relationship. And in all of this there is no awareness that their own behavior is self-destructive and sabotaging the very thing they are desperate to fix. They do not feel connected to their life, let alone the people around them.
So what then, is the answer?
How does one begin to heal from this kind of dysfunction? Healing requires an ownership mindset of self-efficacy and agency, within a context of strong, healthy boundaries. It also requires separating from current abuse and creating a safe space to heal. It requires learning to regulate your internal environment with grounded, healthy skills rather than frantic, reactive self-destructive habits. Approaches such as DBT (Dialectical Behavioral Therapy) and other trauma therapies work effectively for this. The goal is to find and rebuild the self that has been lost and abandoned. It is also to regain the ability to attach appropriately in relationships.
If you are plagued by fear of abandonment, are unable to regulate your emotions, and find yourself acting out in ways that are destructive to yourself and your relationships, we would love to help you break free from the vicious cycles. We offer emotional abuse trauma recovery programs, as well as Dialectical Behavioral Therapy led by trauma specialists. Contact us today through our website www.marriagerecoverycenter.com or email us at email@example.com to speak with a Client Care Specialist who will help you get started.