As I mention both in my book Character Disturbance and in a prior article (See: Personality and Character Disorders – Pt 7: A Wrap-Up), Borderline personalities are perhaps the most misunderstood of all the personality types. Although psychiatry officially categorizes Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) as a distinct syndrome and personality style, I’m among several who recognize that the personality “style” of the borderline really emerges by default – the result of the individual’s failure to solidify a solid and stable sense of self. Some theorists even conceptualize the borderline syndrome as a “disorder of the self.” The folks we label “borderline,” therefore, are individuals whose personalty never quite came together. And it’s because of this personality integration failure that they not only appear to have a distinctively erratic, unpredictable, and unstable manner of coping but also frequently display features of other personality disturbances such as narcissism, dependence, manipulation proneness, etc. For these and many other reasons, coming to an accurate understanding of Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) can be quite a challenging task.
The term “borderline” has an interesting history. Back in the days when all personality styles were viewed as different stylized manifestations of a person’s neurosis (i.e. “neurotic styles”) and all mental illness was seen as either a matter of having some degree or form of neurosis (the condition in which defenses were intact despite their lack of full effectiveness and the person was in some way dysfunctional but still in contact with reality and capable of rational thought) or psychosis (the condition in which all defenses had broken down and the person could no longer judge reality or think rationally), the term “borderline” was applied to those individuals who appeared to be on the border between neurosis and psychosis because of the highly unstable, irrational nature of their manner of coping. And indeed, some borderline personalities have long been noted to be prone to brief but generally reversible psychotic episodes.
There’s always been a lot of confusion – even among professionals – about how to best perceive and deal with borderline individuals. There’s also been a lot of uncertainty and confusion when it comes to making the diagnosis. That’s because by nature borderline individuals can display features of a variety of different personality types. But once you accept the notion that the borderline syndrome is really the result of a person’s failure to solidify a singular, solid, stable sense of self, things get clearer.
While we unfortunately have only one label for the borderline syndrome, no two borderline personalities are completely alike. Depending on what innate traits and acquired habits are more dominant in them, borderline personalities can appear very different from one another. Individuals with a weak sense of self but whose dominant personality traits are of the “submissive” variety, for example, behave very differently (e.g., “clingy,” dependent) from those with strong narcissistic and/or aggressive personality traits in their makeup (e.g., manipulative, self-indulgent, impulsive). Moreover, the traits that tend to dominate a borderline personality’s makeup make all the difference in the world with respect to how “neurotic” vs. character disturbed that person is. Still, there are some behaviors that so often accompany a person’s failure to develop a well-integrated and stable sense of self (e.g., impulsive and erratic behavior, labile emotions and rapid mood shifts, explosive anger displays, self-damaging and self-injurious gestures and acts, highly intense but equally chaotic interpersonal involvements and enmeshments, chronic fears of abandonment, and periodic deterioration into more severe forms mental illness) that their presence alone is sufficient for most clinicians to confer upon someone the diagnosis of BPD.
The next two articles will take an even closer look at the Borderline syndrome, the typical features that accompany it, the factors that make it difficult for some individuals to develop and sound and stable sense of self, the types of problems that can plague a relationship (including both intentional and unintentional manipulation) when someone has borderline tendencies or perhaps even BPD, and the prospects someone with borderline personality characteristics has for healing.
Next week will usher in the 19th year in print for In Sheep’s Clothing. I’m deeply indebted to all those whose word-of-mouth recommendations of this book have not only kept it a bestseller for such an unprecedented term but also have prompted its international reach to expand so widely and consistently over the years. That same strong word-of-mouth is also helping to make Character Disturbance the definitive manual for understanding and dealing with disturbed characters of all types and to bring a small niche market book like The Judas Syndrome to a wide audience. I am most grateful for all the support from readers, especially those who took the time to post such positive reviews on Amazon.
Last week, I was on vacation, and because the Character Matters program that aired was a rebroadcast, no live calls could be taken. But I’ll be back at the mic this Sunday at 7 pm Eastern (6 pm Central) time and will be happy to take your calls. It should prove a particularly interesting program because among the topics discussed will be psychopathy and its presence throughout history. Also, look for an announcement soon about an upcoming “webinar” that will also permit live interactive dialog among all participants.