Borderline Personality Disorder may be one of the most misunderstood disorders there is. Borderline patients often seem perfectly fine until something happens that causes them to feel rejected or abandoned. Then all hell breaks loose - and sometimes it doesn't stop until everything they care about has been ruined or destroyed: relationships, material belongings, even their own bodies. But why? Why do they react so intensely to what seems like no provocation at all? What is going on inside of the borderline patient to cause such extreme emotional outbursts? We will explain that today.
People suffering from BPD often seem childish, selfish, immature and desperately needy. This is because they are. People with BPD have never learned how to process or experience their own emotions; they were raised in a situation where their feelings were dismissed, denied and invalidated. Because of this, they don't trust their own emotions and they've never learned how to deal with them. Their own emotions overwhelm and terrify them, and this is intolerable. If you have ever lived with a borderline patient or if you are a borderline patient, I bet you are nodding your head at that. Fear is the primary state of mind for the person suffering with BPD. The world seems very threatening, uncaring and predatory - and so do the people in it. Borderline patients feel vulnerable and unable to protect themselves against these things. They are very like children in this way. They expect to be taken care of because they don't feel equipped to take care of themselves. They fully expect to be victimized and react accordingly, even to the point of subconciously causing themselves to be victimized through their own behavior.
Unfortunately, coupled with the need to be taken care of and the desperate insecurity they feel regarding their own ability to do anything, borderline patients often feel smothered and threatened by someone who does try to take care of them. Their sense of self is so shaky that they fear losing who they are if another person gets too close to them. This is called fear of engulfment and it is what creates the push-pull dynamic that relationships with borderline patients are notorious for. They need their partners but they are also threatened by them and afraid of them. This creates an intolerable emotional situation inside the person suffering from BPD and they lash out, pushing their partner away because they are overwhelmed, confused and afraid. This provides very, very short-lived relief because the borderline patient immediately becomes frantic that their partner will leave them. Abandonment is the core of what they fear and this overblown, nearly phobic fear of abandonment can create literal hysteria in a person suffering from Borderline Personality Disorder, resulting in explosive tirades, out of control sobbing, screaming tantrums and suicide attempts.
What does it feel like inside?
It's easy enough to explain, but what do these things feel like inside for the borderline patient? According to one person suffering with BPD: "It feels like I'm walking around filled with static. Confused, frustrated, angry, unable to concentrate. Paranoid. Schizophrenics think the police or the government are watching them. I think everybody's watching me and trying to avoid me because I'm weird, or they think I'm crazy."
This cuts right to the heart of the core issue for Borderline Personality Disorder: the belief that they are bad, evil or otherwise no good. Through a defense mechanism called projection, the borderline patient projects their own feelings onto other people and experiences these feelings as coming from outside themselves. In reality, of course, the feelings belong to them. It is for this reason that the borderline patient believes others can "see" how bad or broken they are, or that other people think they are no good. When asked how this fear has affected his relationships, our respondent answered, "It colors every interaction. You can't have a real honest interaction because you're afraid of what the person's thinking, so you're not really listening and even if you are, you don't believe them. You don't think they believe anything you're saying, either. It's ruined virtually all of my relationships, even with my family."
As we can see, this all circles back to the fear of rejection and abandonment that plagues people who suffer from Borderline Personality Disorder. They see it everywhere and expect it from everybody. This fear is brought to the fore with a vengeance when the borderline patient is faced with a real abandonment, such as when a partner decides to end the relationship. Asked to describe what feelings this situation creates inside of him, our interviewee responded, "Urgency. Desperation. Panic. Red alert, you know? It's an emergency, all hands on deck. My thoughts start racing and I feel light-headed, like my head is spinning. It feels like something in your brain just kicked into overdrive." We asked him why this was so frightening, or what it signified when someone decides to leave. He answered, "Because, when no one is there, you are left alone with no lifeline. Then you are left alone with the disease and there is no one there to pull you out if you need them to."
People suffering from Borderline Personality Disorder often explode with rage very quickly. This rage may seem far out of proportion to the situation; loved ones may be at a complete loss to understand why the borderline patient is so angry. People with BPD may be at an equal loss trying to explain exactly why, or may give reasons that don't make sense. They may insist others have said things they haven't said, or done things they have not done. They may claim loved ones have motives to hurt them. The rage also brings with it horrible insults, wild accusations, paranoid delusions, memory loss, physical violence and more. It is often frightening; the borderline patient may become completely out of control and be unable to calm down.
It is perhaps the rage which pushes loved ones away more than the fear. The fear can cause clinginess, neediness, emotional manipulation to gain attention and other undesirable or provocative behaviors but these behaviors are usually met with more understanding than the rage. Borderline rage is somewhat similar to narcissistic rage; it is an all-out assault against the loved one for "abandoning" or "rejecting" the borderline patient. They feel abandoned and rejected, and because their emotions are so immature and undeveloped, they react the way a very, very young child reacts: with out of control rage that they cannot have what they want.
Loved ones of the borderline patient usually recognize what they are seeing relatively quickly; it is the adult version of a temper tantrum. This is because people suffering from BPD were never able to learn how to control their emotions, or how to regulate them. A 2 year old will scream for a toy as if it is the end of the world, but as we age we learn to regulate these emotions more and more, so that eventually we only explode with extreme provocation. The borderline patient is unable to regulate their emotions; they overreact the same way as a very, very young child will to even the slightest provocation. This is not intentional and it is not an act. People with Borderline Personality Disorder have never been taught to control themselves and they don't know how. All they know is that they are upset because they cannot have something they need.
What does it feel like inside?
Those with Borderline Personality Disorder have been compared to someone walking around with 3rd degree burns all over their body; every touch hurts. They hurt all the time and they don't know what to do about it. They look to their partners and loved ones to make it stop. When their loved ones cannot do this, the borderline patient becomes enraged. The people they've entrusted to care for them have failed them - again. It isn't fair that these loved ones have the power to make the hurt stop and they just won't do it. This is how people with BPD see it. They don't realize that no one has the power to save or cure them. They don't realize that they are reading abandonment and rejection into words or actions where it does not exist. Most of all, they don't realize they are pushing their loved ones away with their assaultive behavior, effectively creating exactly what they fear.
The borderline patient we spoke to for this article described the rage as "a monster. My mouth just starts going and suddenly I'm saying all these things and it's like I can't stop myself. My mind just goes blank. I'm not thinking anything, I'm just running off at the mouth. All I know is that I'm hurt. [My loved ones] could make the pain stop but I feel like [they] won't, just because [they] want to hurt me. I feel guilty later for how I acted because intellectually I know the things I said aren't true but in the moment, they feel true to me, and I feel like I can't control it. Then I worry even more that I'm hated and will be abandoned, which makes me more paranoid about what people are thinking or what the real meaning to their words is. It's a vicious cycle."
No matter how difficult people with BPD can be, it is important to remember that they are victims of the disorder too. Even more so than their families, because while it is terrible to be attacked by a loved on, it is infinitely harder to be attacked from within. Understanding people this disorder starts with understanding that beneath the anger, antagonism and hysteria there is pain. Real pain, and a lot of it. This is not an excuse for bad behavior and it should never be used that way, but it is the reason for it and should be acknowledged. It's hard to be "normal" when you are in so much pain, when you are so desperate, when you are so confused. This is what living with BPD is like.