Borderline personalities are among the least understood personality types, which is why I’ve made them the subject of the current series of articles (See Also: Understanding Borderline Personality Disorder). Today’s article will focus on the factors that appear to contribute to the development of this personality disturbance. And the concluding articles of the series will focus on the troublesome features that typically accompany Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD), the unique problems people can experience in relationships with borderline personalities, and the promising new therapies (especially a highly specialized form of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy called Dialectical Behavior Therapy) that can help a borderline individual overcome his or her handicaps and solidify a more stable sense of self.
The factors that make it difficult for a person to develop an integrated, solid sense of self are both constitutional and environmental. Constitutional factors that appear to inhibit solid personality formation are an intensity and lability of mood that makes it particularly challenging for the individual to regulate his or her emotions, and a tendency to think and process information in dualistic or “dialectical” terms (See also, Character Disturbance, pp. 129-132). Add to this the preference most borderline individuals seem to have for “splitting” as a primary defense mechanism (for more on this topic, see the articles: Commonly Misused Psychology Terms – Wrap Up and Understanding Splitting as a Psychological Term), and what you get is a person who tends to perceive so many contrary realities and to entertain so many conflicting perspectives about people and circumstances around them that developing a solid, integrated, and stable sense of what’s genuinely real is very difficult.
People who develop borderline personalities also tend to have experienced considerable and often unrelenting trauma during their formative years. Many borderline personalities report histories of physical, sexual, and emotional abuse. Experiencing this kind of trauma produces consistently high levels of anxiety. Future borderline individuals come to view their worlds early on as full of ambiguity, uncertainty, and dangerous. Because of their constant high levels of anxiety and uncertainty about how to cope, they experience greater than average difficulty mastering the essential developmental milestones outlined by Erikson (e.g., trust vs mistrust, autonomy vs. shame and doubt, initiative vs. guilt, industry vs. inferiority, identity vs. role confusion, intimacy vs. isolation, etc.).
There’s a dynamic interaction between the borderline individual’s innate predispositions and the traumatic early history they have typically experienced. It’s hard enough for a person who tends to react strongly and erratically, tends to think dialectically, and is prone to mentally splitting unitary realities into polar opposites to get a solid sense of what the world is like and how to cope with it. But when you put such an individual into an environment where there is actually is no safety or consistency, you have a recipe for genuine disaster when it comes to personality formation and solidification. During their development, future borderline individuals truly simply don’t know whom or when to trust or which way to turn. And because they end up harboring such deep internal ambivalence about so many things and have trouble mastering all the preceding stages of development, by the time they’re supposed to be forming a stable sense of personal identity (the stage Erikson says is typically mastered in adolescence), they’re completely unequipped to do so. In extreme cases, their personality can fragment into discrete entities (as is the case in the rare personality disturbance we call Multiple Personality Disorder).
Borderline individuals often go through life with one foot in and one foot out of the enterprise of life. They often feel so ambivalent about whether they were even meant to exist or prosper that they’re prone to self-sabotaging (and in some cases, self-destructive and self-mutilating) acts, ironically, often at the times that appear to hold the greatest promise for their well-being. This is just one of the many troublesome features borderline personalities display that tend to make their relationships so volatile and chaotic. And in next week’s article, I’ll be going into greater detail about all the behavioral features of this disorder that wreak havoc in relationships and make borderline personalities among the most unpleasant and frustrating folks to deal with.
Special Note: I’ve gotten many emails from folks wanting to know my thoughts on the Ray and Janay Rice situation. I plan to share some thoughts on both the epidemic of domestic violence and the particular disturbances of character that heighten the risk of violence and all other forms of abuse in relationships on Character Matters this Sunday evening (7 pm EDT). I’ve also written an article on the Rice affair and the scourge of domestic violence for the Psychology, Philosophy and Real Life blog and will share the link to it when it posts in the next week or so.