The Borderline Mother: Matriarchy and Its Discontents

Disclaimer: This essay is not intended to characterize all mothers suffering from Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD), nor does it suggest that BPD mothers are inherently responsible for having mental illness. In addition, the following material is not meant to discount the positive outcomes or life lessons that can sometimes occur as a result of being raised by a BPD mother. However, it must be emphasized that Borderline Personality Disorder is considered one of the most serious and complex mental health disorders in modern psychology. Like most disorders, considerations should be taken to evaluate levels of functioning and severity on a full spectrum to avoid over-pathologizing or underestimating the psychological disturbance of the sufferer. Unless BPD mothers are in treatment; willing to seek treatment; or willing to admit there’s a problem, they’re not going to be aware that they have a disorder—it’s up to their children, partners, or extended family members to develop this awareness. Generally speaking, BPD mothers are exceptionally resistant to being confronted or challenged, and they will invariably refuse to see themselves as disordered. As long as the BPD mother maintains control of her environment, while hiding behind a fortress of denial, there will be no incentive for cultivating self-awareness or embracing the process of change. In essence, a BPD mother is a psychologically damaged parent “doing her best.” The problematic thoughts and behaviors of a BPD are not deliberate; they’re automatic. A BPD mother “means well,” according to her distorted perceptions, but she is not well. What needs to be understood are the devastating effects that BPD mothers can have on their children’s emotional development, mental health, physical health, relationships, and ability to successfully achieve autonomy in adulthood. No one chooses to suffer from mental illness, and no one chooses their parents. Likewise, no child can be held responsible for their parent’s emotional well-being; they can only offer compassion and work to discover themselves through the filter of time with the courage of honest reflection. To be clear, Borderline Personality Disorder is not a premeditated way of being; it’s a predicament. Furthermore, this information is not designed to exculpate adult children of BPD mothers from their own contributions to unsatisfactory life outcomes, but it may offer clarity as to how these behaviors and ways of thinking were formed, influenced, and reinforced in toxic family environments. Borderlines don’t know how to interact in relationships, and a relationship with their children is just another type of relationship. Sadly, parental analysis and family of origin issues are generally the last frontiers of discovery for adult children of BPD mothers (children instinctively shy away from objective assessments of their parents out of respect, fear, or because they may feel like a traitor). Because Borderline Personality organization stems from a combination of neurobiological predispositions (genetics) and maladaptive survival mechanisms that were developed to cope with childhood trauma, it’s a condition that’s not designed for effective parenting or intimate relationships. It’s not about blame; it’s about understanding.

If it’s not one thing, it’s your mother. — Sigmund Freud

In a previous post entitled Chaos and Elucidation: The Borderline Koan, I focused on the clinical challenges and professional liabilities that therapists may encounter when working with an undiagnosed or misdiagnosed client suffering from Borderline Personality Disorder. More specifically, emphasis was placed on the preemptive identification of BPD in treatment settings; the Vulnerable BPD subtype; and what to expect during emotionally charged clinical encounters. Here’s a quick review of the two-tier classification system:

Authoritarian BPD. Interpersonal disposition: Self-sufficient, domineering, intense, mesmerizing, intrusive, anxious, dysphoric, demanding, passionate, presumptive, judgmental, perfectionistic, fearful, competitive, impatient, pessimistic, easily angered, petulant, stubborn, critical, paranoid, and envious. Attachment style: Fearful/Disorganized. Intimacy style: Erotophobic. Rationale: “I have needs for stability, predictability, and approval that were not met during childhood; therefore, I must be in charge to survive.” Valence: Assertive, flamboyant, anxious, and irritable. Parenting style: Over-involved. Objective: Control of self, others, and their environment (overtly expressed).

Vulnerable BPD. Interpersonal disposition: Dependent, charming, captivating, coercive, desperate, mercurial, seductive, playful, hapless, passionate, anxious, dysphoric, duplicitous, suspicious, fearful, affectionate, labile, docile, hypersensitive, desultory, fantasy-prone, easily disappointed, childlike, vindictive, and jealous. Attachment style: Anxious/Preoccupied Intimacy style: Erotophilic. Rationale: “I have needs for safety, validation, and nurturing that were not met during childhood; therefore, I must be taken care of to survive.” Valence: Coy, mischievous, desperate, and enigmatic. Parenting style: Under-involved. Objective: Control of self, others, and their environment (covertly expressed).

For comparison, the Vulnerable BPD is similar to Theodore Millon’s Discouraged, Self-Destructive, and Impulsive subtypes, whereas the Authoritarian BPD strongly resembles the Petulant subtype. In relation to Christine Ann Lawson’s fairytale archetypes, Vulnerable BPDs would align with the “Hermit” and the “Waif,” whereas Authoritarian BPDs most closely resemble the “Queen” and the “Witch.” Of course, none of these categories are mutually exclusive, and there can be considerable overlap given the right environmental stressors, interpersonal variables, or social context. Although Authoritarian BPDs can be highly functional and self-sufficient, they are emotionally dependent. Conversely, Vulnerable BPDs tend to be both circumstantially dependent and emotionally dependent. Authoritarian BPD mothers were usually parentified as children, whereas Vulnerable BPD mothers were often infantilized. When the bell rings, Authoritarian BPDs walk into the ring swinging with a surplus of fear and misplaced aggression. Vulnerable BPDs, on the other hand, are so fragile that they’re already lying on the ground and begging for assistance that will be used against the rescue team later on.

In this essay, we’ll be examining the Authoritarian BPD from the perspective of motherhood; how this disorder affects the mother’s children during development; and the ramifications of long-term exposure caused by interacting with a mentally ill parent.

People often say that “every family is dysfunctional,” but family of origin problems are disproportionately devastating whenever children are raised by an emotionally unstable or abusive parent. Most children of BPD mothers have learned to normalize the abnormal, because the abnormal is all they’ve ever known. Likewise, BPD mothers have unconsciously normalized the abnormal due to their own unhappy childhood experiences. However, mental illness among primary caregivers is not the same as mental illness among siblings or relatives. Proper emotional attunement with one’s biological mother is arguably the most influential factor for developmental congruency and success in adulthood. Some of the most common traits of Borderline mothers include the following:

  1. Fear of abandonment and the perception that others are rejecting or separating from them, whether this is real or imagined. Intolerance of aloneness.
  2. Having volatile and unstable relationships. The person on the other end of the relationship is either idealized or perceived as malicious, cruel, and uncaring. Posing ultimatums in relationships and searching for validation in social situations.
  3. A distorted perception of self, commonly manifested as feeling flawed, victimized, or invisible.
  4. Paranoia, which can last from a few hours to a few days. Typically high levels of stress cause these paranoid feelings. A general mistrust of others is common with hypersensitivity to criticism.
  5. Impulsive behavior that resembles impatience, entitlement, or panic. These overreactions are linked to perceived delays in gratification or fears of being separated from loved ones. Impulsivity is associated with low distress tolerance and a hyper-competitive need for control.
  6. Rapid mood swings based on interpersonal triggers. A person with BPD may experience euphoria, anger, guilt, anxiety or panic all within a few hours. Physiological manifestations can include tension and insomnia.
  7. Feelings of numbness or emptiness. Easily bored with a need to stay busy. Socially anxious, unsettled, tense, and insecure.
  8. Intense feelings of anger or rage. Extreme or inappropriate emotional reactions to perceived disappointment or imagined threats. Loss of temper, which can be accompanied by verbal or physical aggression. Critical and judgmental with unrealistic expectations of others. Deploying the silent treatment after contentious encounters and rarely apologizing or admitting accountability.
  9. Dichotomous thinking (black & white thinking or “splitting”). Situations and people must be bifurcated into “good” or “bad” categories to reduce perceptual ambiguity and anxiety. Other people are seen as either enemies or allies. Interprets stressful or challenging situations through a distorted and reactive emotional lens.
  10. Psychologically immature. Often thinks like a child or displays childlike behaviors during periods of euphoria or stress.

As noted in the classification section, there exists two basic parenting styles among Borderline mothers: Over-involved or under-involved. But these polarized approaches to parenting can temporarily switch according to various changes in the BPD’s perception or mood, while exacerbated by “splitting” or passive-aggressive behavior. For both Vulnerable and Authoritarian BPD mothers, an inability to regulate conflicting emotions during stressful interpersonal interactions creates havoc for other family members as they try to interpret or respond to such perplexing, contradictory, and unpredictable dynamics. BPD mothers are infamously known for being erratic, dramatic, and emotionally volatile. BPD mothers are also intense and exert a persuasive hold on their children’s feelings (emotional incest). This dynamic occurs when a child feels responsible for their mother’s emotional well-being; it also occurs because the parent is being dishonest with themselves and cannot get their emotional needs met by their spouse or other adults. In tandem, the mother’s children often feel responsible for predicting, interpreting, and appropriately responding to their mother’s conflicting feelings and needs.

BPDs have an uncanny ability to detect the affective disposition of others, but they lack insight when it comes to their own behaviors and cognition. After all, the BPD’s perceptions of other people’s thoughts and intentions are filtered through a distorted lens of mistrust. Although BPD mothers can verbally acknowledge the hardships of their children, they cannot authentically connect through cognitive empathy because of their own anxious preoccupations. For her children, the mother’s attempts to relate may feel superficial or insincere. BPD solipsism will ultimately override any long term or intrinsic concern for the emotional needs and limitations of others. The mother’s priority is, paradoxically, to feed off of her children for stability, security, reassurance, and emotional comfort. Regrettably, the image of motherhood is more important to BPD mothers than the effective mechanics of parenting. Since most BPDs were raised in abusive and invalidating environments, they are unable to give to their children what they themselves did not receive. BPDs typically experienced life in a chaotic household with emotionally negligent, disruptive, or physically abusive parents who also suffered from personality disorders or other forms of mental illness. Subsequently, the unconscious survival mechanisms that BPDs developed to cope with childhood trauma are systematically incorporated into maladaptive ways of thinking and behaving when they leave home to establish their own lives. These complex and primitive defense mechanisms may have been useful for protecting a hypersensitive child, but they invariably outlive their usefulness in adulthood. Ironically, the BPD mother recreates in her own family the very toxic conditions that she tried to escape from when she was a child. As Christine Lawson states in Understanding the Borderline Mother, “Chronic psychological degradation of a child, or an adult, can have deadly consequences.” Fear, paranoia, panic, impulsivity, frustration, irritability, anger, and a constant need for reassurance to avoid feelings of abandonment are the hallmarks of an anxious child who never developed a secure attachment to a reliable caregiver during the first few years of life. The BPD mother is living in a state of eternal recurrence with “the world is against me and it’s your job to recognize my suffering” mentality. Consequently, BPD mothers fear the prospect of meaningful change, because change symbolizes the unpredictability of their childhood and reminds them of not being in control. BPDs often grew up in a state of emotional deprivation, so they will spend the rest of their lives trying to over-compensate for developmental deficits and thus experience lifelong relationship problems. To make matters worse, the Borderline mother will subconsciously seek psychological equilibrium at the expense of her children or significant others. Simply put, what happens in childhood does not stay in childhood.

Children of Borderline mothers are also at high risk of developing BPD themselves due to strong hereditary and multi-generational factors. More often, they become collateral damage left in the wake of their mother’s overwhelming desire for control and enmeshment. As the child’s need for healthy exploration is stifled by the mother’s pervasive need for control, so is the child’s capacity for developing independence in adolescence and adulthood. The emotional neglect, drama, and abuse that the mother endured during childhood is unconsciously reenacted in her intimate relationships and approaches to parenting in adulthood (i.e., poor communication; feelings of victimization; interpersonal conflict; inappropriate anger; emotional reasoning; controlling behaviors; and a tendency towards overreacting to perceived slights or threats). Although the BPD mother may feel that she is “nothing like” her own parents, she has unwittingly internalized faulty perceptions from enduring adverse conditions during childhood. The chaos of the BPD’s mindset is later projected onto their environment, because they see the environment as a canvas that can be used to reflect their inner suffering. In other words, “my pain must be painted onto my surroundings to verify that my suffering is not in vain.” Likewise, children of BPD mothers may subconsciously mirror or endorse their mother’s values, beliefs, behaviors, and attitudes through projective counteridentification. By introjecting the mother’s tension-infused, fearful, inflexible, and solipsistic worldview, her children will receive validation and support; but they ultimately sacrifice their own sense of identity through the maintenance of such an unhealthy bond. Over time, the mother’s children become the equivalent of codependent zombies, apprehensively waiting for their next set of instructions. Disagreement with the values, feelings, and beliefs of a BPD mother is not an option, and she will invariably get her way in the end.

Unfortunately, adult children of BPD mothers often succumb to problems with low self-esteem, depression, anxiety, insecure attachments, compromised identity formation, addiction, age regression, hypervigilance, obsessive-compulsive behavior, substance abuse, escapism, rebellion, sexual repression, confusion, suicidal ideation, and despair. Adult children of BPD mothers are also more susceptible to being involved with high-conflict or dysfunctional relationships through programmed familiarity (operant conditioning). However, some adult children of BPD mothers resign themselves to permanent isolation because of chronic self-doubt and feelings of unworthiness, hopelessness, or inadequacy. Other traits that may emerge among children of Borderline mothers include excessive rumination, self-criticism, inhibition, apathy, stress-induced health problems, and a negative (pessimistic) attributional style. Worst of all, children of BPD mothers often fail to achieve autonomy, which results in lifelong problems with insecurity and feeling as though they have been “left out” of the adult world. Ultimately, there is a failure to launch, or a failure to launch correctly. Since the BPD mother has a monopoly on all aspects of interpersonal control, her children may grow up feeling helpless, guilty, or ashamed for trying to assert themselves. Because these children have learned to mistrust their own intuitions, they’re usually convinced that the problem must be with them instead of their mother or the family system. Subsequently, the children may end up with the exact same mindset as their mother (i.e., inherent unworthiness, fear, and shame). If the children are lucky enough to escape the impact of family chaos by early adulthood, they may continue to live in a state of vicarious repression and unconsciously deny themselves the freedom of psychological separation. Essentially, the mother’s emotional dysregulation fosters developmental dysregulation in her children. Inconsistencies in parenting are a force multiplier for creating inconsistencies in a child’s ability to acquire self-esteem or manage their own lives as they get older. Sometimes these delays in childhood development are overcome in adulthood through experiential contrast, therapy, healthy relationships, career involvement, or the establishment of adequate spatial and emotional distance from the BPD mother. More often, these children remain in the dark; become disillusioned; continue to suppress their emotions; embrace futility; resort to self-sabotage or self-abnegation; and eventually wonder what in the hell went wrong.

The stress of parenting causes BPD mothers to disregard healthy discipline that promotes independence and self-respect in favor of various forms of abuse that foster inhibition, confusion, shame, and fear (abuse that was normalized during their own upbringing). However, BPD mothers don’t think of themselves as abusive, because their behavior is a side-effect of their disorder; besides, it’s all they’ve ever known (ego-syntonic behavior). Psychological abuse through emotional neglect, verbal attacks, criticism, or “smothering” and/or physical abuse enacted by draconian methods of punishment are the methods of choice for BPD mothers when raising (aka controlling) their children. But when the children become adults, the mother’s need for control will likely manifest along more surreptitious delivery systems (e.g., financial control, ultimatums, or unreasonable demands for attention and proximity). In such cases, children may feel intimidated by their mother’s intrusiveness and neediness while simultaneously feeling compelled to acquiesce for the sake of comity. Furthermore, children often question their own sanity as the mother assumes absolute authority concerning the nature of reality. BPD mothers see their children as extensions of themselves, or much needed parts of the self (need-gratifying objects) to stabilize their fragmented sense of identity. Furthermore, BPD mothers will unconsciously use their children for purposes of object constancy and emotional self-regulation, which turns the mother-child relationship into an indispensable support structure for the clinging parent. Love is a conditional possession for the BPD mother, but her children are repeatedly subjected to tests and confirmations to prove unconditional love for their mother. Because of the mother’s unrivaled need for control to avoid feelings of abandonment, her children will invariably feel obligated to serve as their mother’s emotional wet nurse, surrogate partner, surrogate parent, best friend, confidant, savior, apologist, or 24/7 consigliere. However, the enormous pressure placed on any child to fulfill such unsustainable roles will eventually result in a codependent relationship that’s both emotionally exhausting and unproductive. Subsequently, there will be nothing left when it comes to the emotional needs of the mother’s children.

BPD mothers will use a combination of fear, guilt, and obligation (FOG) to ensure that their children remain loyal and continually invested in the mother’s inconsolable emotional needs. The mother’s desperate search for stability, ironically, results in more instability. Because of the mother’s autophobia, her children may feel compelled to rescue her from drowning in uncertainty, loneliness, and fear. In many cases, the children provide their mother an opportunity to establish a corrective relationship to compensate for a lifetime of insecure and disorganized attachments. In fact, this is why BPD mothers often perceive their children’s friends or romantic partners as potential sources of competition who inconveniently take away from the mother’s need for attention, affection, resources, and dominance. The need to isolate her children from the influence of diverse socialization allows the BPD mother to feel in control of interpersonal family commitments. Ironically, the mother may even compete with her own children, or become visibly envious, as if they were rivals that must be subdued and defeated. The mother’s envy can be so virulent that it often extends to being envious of other people’s happiness and stability. BPD mothers continually compare themselves to others and unknowingly influence their children to doubt themselves by default. The children’s need to believe in themselves as autonomous beings is overshadowed by the belief that they are more integral to their mother’s capricious emotional needs. Afraid of her children’s potential for individuation, they do not have permission to thrive without her consent or authorization. If something transformative happens to her children, it must include the mother, or it must be facilitated by the mother’s oversight and approval (no differentiation without representation). Again and again, the family’s attention returns to the center stage of BPD predominance—held together by the clinging weight of propinquity. The mother’s tendency towards jealousy and suspicion often results in disapproval of her children’s acquaintances or accomplishments to displace her own insecurities and fear of abandonment. Likewise, BPD mothers often triangulate family members by means of splitting, favoritism, scapegoating, gossip, criticism, shaming, and forced allegiances. If guilt is habitually weaponized by the mother, it usually manifests by letting her children know how unappreciative they are of the sacrifices that were made for them. However, it’s often the case that many of these “sacrifices” were not requested by the child; other times, these sacrifices represent a means of manipulating the child’s emotions by making them feel undeserving, inferior, ungrateful, indebted, and shamefully dependent. A BPD mother may complain about enabling her children, but what she has really been doing is enabling herself to assume martyrdom for purposes of recognition. Charity presumes that the provider should be praised and that the receiver should be grateful. Instead of promoting sustainable independence and healthy self-esteem, the provider maintains power through resource distribution while the receiver remains disabled. In summation, the self-sufficiency and self-actualization of the child is supplanted by donations to prolong a cycle of dependency. With BPD charity, there’s always an unspoken expectation that has been carefully engineered by the child’s mother to get her own needs met for attention and affection.

A BPD mother won’t tolerate disloyalty, and her overbearing presence can feel suffocating or “cannibalistic” to her children as they attempt to acquire separation in adulthood. The BPD’s children are unconsciously used as props (aka supply sources) to stabilize the mother’s unstable identity while also serving as attendants to soothe the mother’s all-encompassing anxiety. A BPD mother clips the wings of her children because her own wings are not stable enough for flying solo in the emotional stratosphere of life’s daily challenges. Nonetheless, providing reassurance and emotional support to the mother will be randomly rewarded through a process of variant ratio scheduling to keep her children compliant. BPD mothers do not teach their children self-respect; they teach their children to obey and respect the needs of the mother. Likewise, the desperate neediness of the mother is reinforced by the approval-seeking behavior of her children. After all, what child doesn’t yearn for the approval of their parents? However, children who have surrendered individuation for the sake of parental acceptance will invariably become more dependent over time—sacrificing their potential for fulfillment as adults. In addition, the mother’s need for control can undermine her children’s ability to express themselves, feel confident, or take initiative. As a result, the children will feel emotionally paralyzed, defensive, and helpless while deferring to their mother’s relentless crusade for supremacy (similar to what happens with Stockholm syndrome). In some ways, children of BPD mothers are not allowed to grow up, because growing up represents a threat to the mother’s need for enmeshment. In this sticky situation, the emotional dependency and psychological immaturity of the mother is subconsciously projected onto her children through projective identification. The mother’s fear of abandonment is often so insurmountable that the very idea of her children establishing a life of their own is considered a form of betrayal. Ironically, the BPD mother may later blame her children for their continued dependence while simultaneously disapproving of her children’s efforts to individuate—it’s like trying to escape a mobius strip. In other words, the psychological health and independence of her children triggers the mother’s worst fears. Incentivizing enmeshment is how the BPD sausage is made.

The mask of normality (aka false self) is perhaps the most impressive adaptive mechanism of BPDs—a Trojan Horse for social acceptance. As mentioned in The Borderline Koan, BPDs can go “under the radar” for extended periods of time by appearing composed, charming, ambitious, vivacious, generous, and ostensibly reasonable to those who encounter them during brief interactions. However, the BPD’s public persona is usually quite different from their private persona, especially when their precarious mood begins to shift during encounters with frustration. If environmental conditions do not remain auspicious, the mother’s impulsive hostility will take over (some BPDs have a ceiling to their episodic rage, while others do not). Being masters of theatrical performance and blame shifting, BPD mothers may convince close acquaintances that their primary difficulties in life are caused by ungrateful children, lackluster partners, and “those damn people.” As the art of gaslighting, splitting, emotional manipulation, and projection reaches a fevered pitch, the mother conveniently avoids insight or accountability for her unreasonableness and behavioral inconsistencies. As a reminder, BPDs do not see themselves as disordered (anosognosia) and believe passionately that their thoughts, feelings, and reactions are entirely justified. Being chronically irrational, BPD mothers often rely on emotional reasoning rather than logic and confuse their children during communication through selective memory, inattentiveness, or complete denial. In other words, the mother’s memory is biased towards information that avoids personal blame or feelings of shame (emotional memory blocking). Whatever a BPD remembers will always be someone else’s fault, because their defensive reactivity and hypersensitivity to criticism cannot tolerate the burden of apology. The lack of self-awareness with BPDs is utterly astounding, but it’s a protective mechanism to avoid deep feelings of insecurity and shame. Likewise, the BPD’s abundant use of criticism towards others (externalization) is another way of maintaining fantasies of omnipotence to compensate for feelings of low self-worth. Whatever is wrong, it can’t possibly have anything to do with them (projection). In fact, the denial of the mother can be so tenacious that her family often lives in denial by proxy.

BPD mothers never learned to trust their environment while growing up because it was always unpredictable. The BPD may have competed for their parent’s attention with other siblings, or they may have received validation within the family unit based on their performance. In a home that’s gone haywire, there’s no such thing as self-acceptance, emotional equanimity, or self-love. You either succeed or you suffer. Subsequently, the BPD’s relentless drive for perfectionism in childhood and adolescence results in trying to control anything that offers stability, safety, or validation in adulthood. This “passion for the perfect” is how high-functioning BPD mothers are capable of accomplishing extraordinary tasks that provide order, structure, and a solid formula for unambiguous results. Perfectionism is an amulet against feelings of unworthiness, because vulnerability is seen as an imperfection that must be hidden from others. BPD mothers don’t improvise because they are too obsessed with what can be finalized. Inflexibility is a BPD trademark and paying attention to superficial details is often more important than seeing the big picture. Task completion distracts the mother from uncomfortable feelings, so she must always keep herself busy. Furthermore, situational inconveniences will not be tolerated and efforts to acquire external control compensate for the BPD’s internal feelings of being emotionally overwhelmed. Ambiguity is the enemy, and a vehement devotion to gaining the upper hand is the BPD’s anodyne. This intensity of focus allows BPD mothers to experience the gratification of being in command while providing a means of self-soothing to temporarily assuage their never-ending anxiety and tension. However, because effective solution implementation takes away from the BPD’s need to identify with their problems, a continuation of chaos in some realm (i.e., major decisions) is to be expected. Catastrophizing is a close second to its first cousin control on the branching tree of BPD modality.

BPD mothers do not recognize or respect the boundaries of their children. In fact, they don’t understand the definition of boundaries because their own childhood environment was most likely a boundary free zone. BPDs unconsciously expect others to “soak up” their suffering, but even sponges have limits. Consequently, BPD mothers will double down; resort to bullying; and push harder if their children exercise the right to say “no.” BPD mothers can cause their children to feel self-conscious or guilty about making their own decisions, or for trying to define territory within the family structure. The desperation and fear of the BPD mother intensifies whenever her children express opposition or demonstrate self-determination. Unfortunately, “respectful” children end up enabling their mother’s pathology by acquiescing to her intrusive demands. This unsavory predicament is accurately described in the following passage by psychologist Daniel S. Lobel: Borderline mothers see their children as forever obligated to them by rite of birth. They feel entitled to demand from their children unlimited support and service. The dependency of the Borderline is so great that the child is always seen as coming up short with regard to meeting their needs. This often sets up the mother to be the victim and the child to be vilified.

The following are commonalities in parenting behaviors that typify mothers with Borderline Personality Disorder: (1) they use insensitive forms of communication; (2) are critical and intrusive; (3) use frightening comments and behavioral displays (Hobson et al., 2009); (3) demonstrate role confusion with offspring (Feldman et al., 1995); (4) inappropriately encourage offspring to adopt the parental role (Feldman et al., 1995); (5) put offspring in the role of “friend” or “confidant” (Feldman et al., 1995); (6) report high levels of distress as parents; (Macfie, Fitzpatrick, Rivas, & Cox, 2008); and (7) may turn abusive out of frustration and become despondent (Hobson et al., 2009; Stepp et al., 2012).

Many years later, adult children of BPD mothers may experience shock, incredulity, outrage, bewilderment, and resentment when they finally learn about the psychological anatomy of Borderline Personality Disorder. There’s also a tendency among adult children of BPD mothers to relapse into previous patterns of family interaction and denial after the game has finally been revealed. Rationalizing the irrational is to be expected, especially when such a large percentage of a child’s life has been spent attending to the shifting needs of an emotionally unstable parent. Making excuses for one’s mother is natural, but at some point there will be no excuse left for not seeing things as they really are. Acceptance requires understanding, and understanding is the only way that forgiveness can have meaning. A common statement made by adult children after educating themselves about this baffling disorder is: “I always knew that there was something wrong with my mother, but I just couldn’t put my finger on it.” Unfortunately, those raised in dysfunctional families will sometimes spend their entire adulthood trying to rework their childhood (vicarious repression and psychological enmeshment are exceptionally difficult variables to overcome). While coming to terms with what happened during their formative years, a crushing sadness and loss will prevail—sadness for the mother they never had; sadness for their mother’s predicament; sadness for their own suffering; and a feeling of loss for the years that were wasted. However, the stages of change that occur during any grieving process are necessary so that more favorable changes can eventually take place. On a more positive note, adult children may experience a deeper sense of compassion and cultivate a love that’s based on understanding their mother’s disorder rather than relying on superficial transactions under the guise of love. Most importantly, children must accept the fact that their mother may never have the capacity to understand the impact she has had, or is having, on her family. No mother is perfect, but BPD mothers unrealistically wish that they and their families were perfectible based on impossible standards that were usually set in motion by their own parents. Unfortunately, the problems that perfectionism creates (e.g., disillusionment, anxiety, shame, and self-criticism) are far more damaging than the problems that perfectionism pretends to solve. Reverse engineering the psychological damage done by a BPD mother is an arduous and time-consuming process, but it should not be postponed for the sake of maintaining appearances.

As the BPD mother ages, her emotional intensity may diminish if she “loses steam” and relegates herself to a life of resentful dissatisfaction, or when she finds another audience to take the place of her children (the most extreme symptoms of BPD often relinquish over time). The reigns of control will slowly unwind as the mother begrudgingly settles for disappointment in lieu of her strained efforts to sculpt the family according to her will. For other BPD mothers, their insatiable need for control will decidedly follow them to their graves; but hopefully before the children are forced to dig their own.

As with all BPD relationships, there are only three options for adult children to consider: Avoid, challenge, or appease. Most of the time, adult children of BPD mothers will find themselves reluctantly pedaling between all three positions, or avoiding contact altogether. It’s not that BPD mothers don’t “love” their children; it’s that they don’t understand the meaning of mature and differentiated love any more than they understand the meaning of what’s required for healthy relationships. Love is conflated with psychological and behavioral control to attenuate the mother’s fear of abandonment. Likewise, BPD mothers can never fully understand their children because they were never able to fully understand themselves. Nevertheless, BPD mothers can also be endearing, energetic, inspirational, talented, and benevolent. However, it’s usually expected that others will be playing by their rules and allowing them to take full control of the court. BPD mothers are not cooperators, because they insist on holding all of the cards that were unavailable to them in childhood. BPDs are suffering from a disorder that’s built upon a shattered bedrock of identity diffusion, attachment deficits, emotional extremes, relentless anxiety, insecurity, and a profound lack of insight. Without self-awareness, how could they possibly begin to understand what’s required to optimize the well-being of their children? However, the legacy of family trauma should not be internalized or perpetuated in the minds and lives of a mother’s children. There are some obligations that should never be fulfilled.

For more information:

Borderline Mother : Four Types–how-mothers-spread-borderline-personality-disorde37ca7270a9††

Recommended reading:

The Borderline Queen (Authoritarian BPD)

Resource and recovery site for family members of personality disordered individuals:


2 thoughts on “The Borderline Mother: Matriarchy and Its Discontents

  1. This is so accurate. Everything written here describes my mother, as well as myself. I am in the grieving stage, as I have finally cut my mother out of my life. I’m trying so hard to move forward, and it feels impossible.

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