The Trauma of Having a Parent With Borderline Personality Disorder
I wanted to pass along an article that I recently read, which was posted in Psychology Today on March 25, 2021. Many of my clients’ presenting issues that cause significant distress involve having emotionally immature and unstable parents. This posted article wonderfully captured the pain, trauma, challenges, and frustrations that these individuals endure and suffer through in silence, particularly since others do not seem to understand nor empathize with their plight. They seek therapy in a desperate attempt to identify and develop ways to cope with this unpredictable and hurtful behavior. The article provides a sense of validation and insight for such clients, in addition to effective methods in which to develop emotionally healthy boundaries to enhance personal growth and self-esteem.
Having a Parent With Borderline Personality Disorder
by Imi Lo
This article is about having a parent who has difficulties with their own attachment and emotional regulation. They may be highly dependent, volatile, or even abusive. They may have an official diagnosis of BPD (borderline personality disorder), although in some other cases, their symptoms remain undiagnosed.
It must first be pointed out that not everyone with BPD becomes a dysfunctional parent. Many people with BPD also have gifts of being highly intuitive, passionate, empathic, and creative. Through healing, someone who has had BPD can still reach their potential as a uniquely gifted parent.
However, not everyone has the support and resources they need to grow and heal. In these cases, before they are ready, they have become emotionally immature and under-resourced parents, who unfortunately can cause severe and long-lasting damage to the innocent children they bring into the world.
The Psychological Consequences of Having a BPD Parent
When you live with a parent with BPD, you may find them to be imposing, engulfing, and controlling. They may treat you like you are a child even though you are an adult. On the flip side, they may behave in ways that are so dependent and needy that you never felt you had a “parent” to depend on; instead, the roles are flipped, and you have to be the grown-up who takes care of them.
Living with a parent with BPD, you may be constantly blamed for things you have not done, with sudden rage and even violent outbursts.
The root of BPD is early trauma; therefore, seemingly benign and minor incidents could trigger a trauma reaction. When they are triggered, they are basically re-living their trauma and lose their ability to empathize. At these moments, however unreasonable they are, they always think their rage is justified.
Here is what’s actually happening: The sense of worthlessness and shame is actually how they feel. However, since they do not have the maturity to contain and integrate their psyche in a healthy way, they have to “dump” these feelings onto and into you. It started as their unjustified blame and guilt-tripping, but you have now internalized their abuse of you into your psyche, and it becomes a toxic shame that you carry with you.
Living with a parent with BPD leaves you with no solid ground to stand on. One moment, they make you feel loved; the next moment, they give you the cold shoulder or attack you. As a result, you might have assumed all your life that you were doing something wrong or taken to the extreme, that your existence was wrong.
The Codependency Trap
Because of their severe fear of abandonment, a parent with BPD is threatened when you need to grow and express your individuality.
As you are trying to separate from them, even as benign as leaving home for a few days to be with your friends, your parent may throw a tantrum, threaten to hurt themselves, or suddenly become depressed and unable to be on their own.
As you try to establish a new, healthy intimate relationship with a romantic partner, they may do whatever they can to stop it—either by blatantly banning it or by subtly disapproving it. Sometimes their unconscious strategies are subtle but make you feel extremely guilty for “betraying” them or “leaving them behind.”
Having been trapped in a codependent relationship all your life and being made to put others’ needs before your own, you may carry forward this relational pattern into your relationships as an adult. As a result, you often find yourself in relationships where you lose yourself or are abused and used. Perhaps you either cross others’ boundaries without meaning to or allow others to violate yours.
Sometimes, a parent with BPD acts as though you are simply an extension of them. Whenever you try to do something in your own way, they react in critical or threatening ways. A person with BPD thinks in black and white terms. When someone states an opinion or does something that they disagree with, they quickly frame them as a “traitor” or an “enemy,” and that includes you. Eventually, you have subconsciously learned that it would be best if you simply comply and pretend you agree with them. What is sacrificed, however, is the critical “adolescence” phase, which you need to appropriately rebel against your parents and establish a sense of your independence.
When you were growing up, you were not allowed to explore your needs, desires, and passions. This results in an underdeveloped self; even as a grown-up, you are confused about who you are and what you want and are unsure about your place in the world.
This lack of sense of self would stop you from being assertive in relationships, and the lack of vision and clarity may hamper your personal and career development. It is not uncommon for a child of a parent with BPD to be on a career trajectory for half of their life and suddenly reach a point where they realize the path they have been on is not theirs. They might then wake up to the fact that their parents were living vicariously through them all along.
Shunned Emotional Development
Even though they are highly turbulent, ironically, your parent with BPD may be terrified of conflicts. They tend to take everything personally. When there is even a small conflict between you, they may feel personally attacked and shamed and react either with passive-aggressiveness or a counter-attack.
Any emerging signs of disappointment, hurt, and anger that their child feels are unbearable for them because, deep down, they assume it was their fault. Whenever you are distressed about something, even when it has nothing to do with them, they may immediately perceive it as a criticism of them and have to therefore shut it down.
To make matters worse, the parent with BPD might want to portray the “picture-perfect” family image to outsiders and push you to do the same. All other people saw was their charming, loving self, and you are left feeling hopelessly lost in a world where nobody understands the angst of having a parent with BPD.
Since you were never allowed to have, let alone express, any authentic feelings, you have also learned to disown them. As a result, you may now suffer from a syndrome called Alexithymia, where you can find no words for your inner states, or you feel empty and numb and disconnected from your body and soul. This lack of ability to be in touch with yourself will stop you from living a full and fulfilling life, as well as building authentic relationships.
Healing Is Possible
Studies of BPD in families show that as a child of someone with BPD, you are also much more likely to be diagnosed with it at some point in your life. However, having a parent with BPD certainly does not mean you will have the same dysfunctional traits. Oftentimes, you might have over-compensated for your parent’s deficit by becoming exceptionally compassionate, mature, and competent. These strengths might have been born out of undesirable circumstances but can also become the gifts that save you. Just because you are biologically related to this family does not mean you are destined to the same fate.
Remember, you are not responsible for your parents’ moods and reactions, their disappointments in life, or any grievances they have with their own relationships. It should never have been your task to try and heal them, rescue them, or save them from their misery.
Your parents may never change, but you can set better boundaries. You must not feel that you need to cater to their needs at all times. In times where you begin to feel like an emotional punching bag, walk away. When you need to say no, do so. It may be uncomfortable for a while, but before you know it, you will be glad you have done what is difficult but necessary.
The injustice that has happened may feel unbearable. Whether or not you can directly express your resentment towards them to them, you can at least be honest with yourself. It is healing to tell your story in the presence of an enlightened other, such as a therapist.
If you have lost touch with your own passion and pleasure, start with small experiments where you try one novel thing a day. See if you can offer yourself the unconditional love you never had and truly know that your existence is valid on its own; life is about “being,” not “doing.”
You may have to unlearn many unhealthy patterns and teach your body and mind that it is safe for you to express yourself authentically and freely. What was once threatening is no longer here, and the people who love and care for you now want to hear your truth.
If you have spent most of your life catering to your parent’s needs at the expense of your happiness, it is time you reclaim your life for yourself.
You did not cause their dysfunctions, and you could not have controlled them. You did the best you could to survive.
Turn away from abuse and march towards freedom.
Drop the burden of shame and reclaim your one and only life.
Rise like a phoenix; I trust that you can.