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 Borderline 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, and 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 (from their perspective, being disordered implies being defective, “bad,” inadequate, or less than perfect). As long as the 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 and recovery (insight and symptom management). Because of her resistance towards self-reflection, she will dismiss, minimize, or rationalize her behavior. In essence, a BPD mother is a psychologically damaged parent “doing her best.” The problematic thoughts and behaviors of a person with Borderline Personality Disorder 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 their own 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 within the family system. 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: Compulsively self-sufficient, domineering, mesmerizing, intrusive, anxious, dysphoric, demanding, passionate, presumptive, judgmental, perfectionistic, fearful, competitive, impatient, pessimistic, combative, 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: Aggressive, flamboyant, anxious, intense, and irritable. Parenting style: Over-involved. Objective: Control of self-image, others, and their environment (overtly expressed).

Vulnerable BPD Interpersonal disposition: Dependent, charming, captivating, coercive, desperate, mercurial, seductive, playful, hapless, passionate, anxious, perfectionistic, dysphoric, duplicitous, suspicious, solipsistic, fearful, affectionate, labile, docile, hypersensitive, desultory, fantasy-prone, childlike, vindictive, and jealous. Attachment style: Anxious/Preoccupied. Intimacy style: Erotophilic. Rationale: “I have needs for safety, validation, love, and nurturing that were not met during childhood; therefore, I must be taken care of to survive.” Valence: Coy, mischievous, needy, desperate, and enigmatic. Parenting style: Under-involved. Objective: Control of self-image, 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’re emotionally dependent. Conversely, Vulnerable BPDs tend to be both circumstantially dependent (lacking in self-efficacy) and emotionally dependent. Regardless of differences in presentation, abandonment is the Borderline mother’s biggest fear. Authoritarian BPDs were usually parentified as children, whereas Vulnerable BPDs were often infantilized. When old enough to become parents themselves, this typology is reversed. In other words, the Authoritarian mother will infantilize her children (mommy controls everything), and the Vulnerable mother will parentify her children (mommy needs pampering). One mother strives to be the “perfect caretaker” and the other hopes to be “perfectly cared for.” The Authoritarian mother seeks to do everything for her children, and the Vulnerable mother wants to have her children do everything for her. When the bell rings, Authoritarian BPDs walk into the ring swinging with a surplus of fear, dominance, and misplaced aggression. Vulnerable BPDs, on the other hand, are so fragile that they’re already lying on the floor and begging for assistance that will be used against the paramedics later on. Having what is considered an externalizing disorder, BPD mothers search for external sources of stimulation, validation, and emotional regulation. They also look for external sources of blame to avoid feelings of humiliation and shame.

In this essay, we’ll be examining the Authoritarian BPD mother (over-involved and emotionally immature) 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. Authoritarian BPD mothers could be thought of as having an extreme “smothering” or “hovering” parental style (i.e., the helicopter parent) that disrupts their children’s potential for autonomy.

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 traumatic 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 (autophobia).
  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/attention in social situations.
  3. A distorted perception of self, commonly manifested as feeling flawed, victimized, or invisible. Lacking a stable identity which results in deep insecurity and compensatory grandiosity.
  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 or slights (real or imagined).
  5. Impulsive behavior that resembles impatience, inflexibility, 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. Psychosomatic manifestations of emotional instability can include muscle tension, fibromyalgia, ulcerative colitis, IBS, hypertension, dermatologic disorders, and insomnia (the BPD’s anxiety and need for control takes its toll on the body through conversion-based somatization).
  7. Feelings of numbness or emptiness. Easily bored with a need to stay busy. Socially awkward, unsettled, worried, tense, and insecure.
  8. Intense feelings of anger or rage. Extreme and 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 ambiguity and anxiety. Other people are seen as either enemies or allies. Stressful or challenging situations are filtered through a distorted and reactive emotional lens (adversity is the equivalent of personal threats). Poor or non-existent conflict negotiation skills. A preference for simplicity, certainty, and zero-sum transactional approaches during most interpersonal encounters.
  10. Emotionally immature (arrested psychological development). Often thinks like a child and displays infantile behaviors during periods of euphoria or stress. Cannot tolerate challenging emotional confrontations and will resort to detachment, projection, or rage.

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 known for choosing either narcissistic or passive/codependent partners, but they often end up living alone because of recurring marital, romantic, and interpersonal conflict. BPD mothers are intense and exert a persuasive hold on their children’s feelings (emotional incest). This dynamic occurs when a child feels responsible for attending to their mother’s emotional well-being; it also occurs when the mother cannot get her emotional needs met by her spouse or other adults. In tandem, the mother’s children will feel obligated to predict, interpret, and appropriately respond to their mother’s conflicting feelings, thoughts, and needs.

Borderlines have an uncanny ability to notice details about others, but they lack insight when it comes to their own behaviors, or how others perceive them. The BPD’s interpersonal awareness is vigilant, but it’s filtered through a distorted lens of mistrust. BPD mothers can acknowledge the hardships of their children, but they cannot authentically connect because of their own anxious preoccupations. A Borderline’s empathy is limited, ephemeral, and undeveloped. The mother has affective (emotional) empathy, but she experiences great difficulty with cognitive empathy (theory of mind). But when a BPD’s immediate needs are frustrated, empathy is the first thing that goes out the window. Most importantly, they cannot fully understand the perspective of others. An inability to integrate diverse experiences, or to see other people as integrated beings, is paramount to understanding the Borderline mindset. It’s the mindset of trauma, and trauma cannot get outside of itself. For her children, the mother’s attempts to relate may feel superficial or insincere, because BPDs have problems with differentiated relatedness and mentalization. Borderlines can identify the emotions of others, but they have difficulty interpreting them in a non-personal way. BPD solipsism will ultimately override any intrinsic concern for the emotional needs and limitations of others. Because the mother cannot fully understand the intense nature of her own emotions (alexithymia), she is unable to comprehend the emotional experiences of her children. Emotionally speaking, the Borderline mother cannot stand on her own two feet. As a consequence, her children become representational objects who are expected to be supportive of their mother’s unending concerns. In a fundamental sense, the children of a Borderline mother are instrumentalized. Minimizing ambiguity reduces fear, so it’s easier for the mother to invalidate her children’s emotional experiences and personal struggles rather than being overwhelmed by their complexity. She is, after all, overwhelmed by her own emotions. The mother’s priority is, paradoxically, to rely on her children for stability, security, reassurance, validation, and emotional comfort. As a result, the children become involuntary enmeshees via psychological fusion with their mother through a process of incremental enmeshment. The children unwittingly fulfill important psychological functions for their mother by becoming her external regulators, attendants, and “redeemers.”

Regrettably, the image of motherhood is more important to BPD mothers than the effective mechanics of parenting. Since most Borderlines were raised in abusive and invalidating environments, they’re 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 survival mechanisms that Borderlines developed to cope with childhood trauma are systematically incorporated into maladaptive ways of thinking and behaving whenever they leave home to establish their own lives. These primitive defense mechanisms may have been useful for protecting a hypersensitive and traumatized child, but they invariably outlive their usefulness in adulthood. Regardless of its immediate survival value, fear conditioning does not bode well for optimizing human flourishing over time. The Borderline’s fight or flight response never turns off because they’re forever fractured by trauma. Ironically, the BPD mother recreates in her own family the very toxic conditions that she tried to escape from when she was a child. The trauma bond that the mother had with her parents is reestablished with her children. Because the most abusive parent maintained power within the family unit, the Borderline mother learned to “covet the bully.” This dysfunctional family system continues because the BPD mother personally identifies with abuse, instability, and impending doom (borderlines are victims of narcissistic abuse who later become purveyors of narcissistic abuse). 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, confusion, irritability, anger, and a constant need for reassurance to avoid feelings of abandonment (severe separation anxiety) 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 (aka unrelenting crisis). 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. Receiving mixed messages from abusive parents translated into assuming mixed messages from others, thus setting the stage for the mother’s paranoid ideation. There’s a war going on inside of her head and no safe space can be found. 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 and attachment deficits. However, their method of compulsive over-compensation causes lifelong relationship problems. To make matters worse, the Borderline mother will subconsciously seek psychological equilibrium at the expense of her children and significant others. Because unresolved trauma keeps the Borderline mother in a state of arrested development, she’s essentially a child trying to raise children of her own. The Authoritarian BPD mother is overprotective to a fault because she is symbolically protecting herself.

From the FOG website: I have been emotionally wounded and crippled by my early life experience, from which I have never healed. The pain and neurotic anxiety drive me to live vicariously through my children. I somehow believe that if I can keep them under my control, the scared little girl that lives within me will at last feel safe and protected. I am putting my emotional needs ahead of my children’s developmental needs, and on some level I know this. I can’t stop because I’m addicted to the soothing feeling of reassurance that having control provides.

Simply put, what happens in childhood does not stay in childhood.

Children of Borderline mothers are also at high risk of developing BPD themselves, or some other personality disorder, due to strong hereditary and multi-generational factors. Others may try to model their mother’s behavior until they realize that it’s abnormal, unsustainable, and profoundly unhealthy. More often, children 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 need for control, so is the child’s capacity for developing independence in adolescence and early adulthood. The emotional neglect, drama, and abuse that the mother endured during childhood is unconsciously reenacted in her intimate relationships and approaches to parenting (i.e., poor communication; feelings of victimization; interpersonal conflict; defensive projection; inappropriate anger; emotional reasoning; controlling behaviors; and intense overreactions 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 Borderline’s mindset is later projected onto their surroundings, because they see the environment as a canvas to capture and 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 paranoid 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. Trauma bonding occurs when a person experiencing abuse develops an unhealthy attachment to their abuser. They may rationalize or defend the abusive actions, feel a sense of loyalty, isolate from others, and hope that the abuser’s behavior will change. Over time, the mother’s children become the equivalent of codependent zombies, anxiously waiting for their next set of instructions (the Norman Bates effect). Disagreement with the values, feelings, and beliefs of a Borderline mother is not an option, and she will invariably get her way in the end.

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).

Unfortunately, adult children of BPD mothers often succumb to problems with low self-esteem, depression, anxiety, PTSD, compromised identity formation, addiction, age regression, hypervigilance, derealization, depersonalization, obsessive-compulsive behavior, substance abuse, escapism, defensive posturing, rebellion, rumination, sexual repression, confusion, apathy, despair, and suicidal ideation. Children with behavior problems in general are probably reacting to the effects of living with a mentally ill parent. Adult children of BPD mothers are also more susceptible to being involved with high-conflict or dysfunctional relationships through programmed familiarity (operant conditioning through experience with insecure attachments). However, some adult children of BPD mothers resign themselves to permanent isolation because of chronic self-doubt, feelings of unworthiness, hopelessness, or fears of 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’s 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 or express 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 often end up with the exact same mindset as their mother (i.e., feelings of unworthiness, fear, and insecurity). Daughters of Borderline mothers frequently report feelings of shame, and sons of Borderline mothers report feelings of being emasculated. 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; experience low levels of confidence; embrace futility; resort to self-sabotage; and eventually wonder what in the hell went wrong.

The stress of parenting causes Borderline 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 combative behavior is a side-effect of their disorder (misplaced aggression); besides, it’s all they’ve ever known (ego-syntonic rationalizations for ego-dystonic states). 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 (controlling) their children. But when her children become adults, the mother’s need for control will likely manifest along more surreptitious delivery systems (e.g., financial control, emotionally compelling ultimatums, “emergencies,” or unreasonable demands for attention and proximity that appear reasonable). 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 rely on their children for purposes of object constancy and emotional regulation, which turns the mother-child relationship into an indispensable support structure for the clinging parent. Love becomes 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, negative advocate, or 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 counterproductive. Subsequently, there will be nothing left when it comes to the children’s emotional needs and personal growth. The underlying message is that independence is a rejection of the mother and, sadly, justification for her to reject the child. Of course, this dilemma places a great amount of stress on her children. Manufactured divisions among siblings may include “the hero child,” “the scapegoat child,” or “the caretaker child.” These narrowly defined roles often become self-fulfilling prophecies in dysfunctional families. Instead of having a broad range of independent qualities, the children become typecast members of a disorganized pedigree with low levels of family cohesion.

BPD mothers employ a combination of fear, obligation, and guilt (FOG) to ensure that their children remain loyal and continually invested in the mother’s inconsolable emotional needs. However, the mother’s desperate search for stability, ironically, results in more instability. Because of the mother’s intolerance of being alone, her children may feel compelled to rescue her from drowning in uncertainty, loneliness, and fear. Borderline mothers are mommies who need mommies; caregivers who need caregivers. In many cases, children provide the mother an opportunity to establish a corrective relationship to compensate for a lifetime of insecure attachments. In fact, this is why a BPD mother often perceives her children’s friends or romantic partners as potential sources of competition who inconveniently take away from her needs for attention, affection, resources, and dominance. The desire to isolate her children from the influence of diverse socialization allows the BPD mother to feel in control of family commitments while avoiding feelings of abandonment. 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 become so virulent that it extends to being envious of other people’s accomplishments, material possessions, happiness, and stability. She will prefer gossip when faced with the challenges of healthy social interaction and her resentment is always lurking in the shadows. Borderline mothers continually compare themselves to others and unknowingly influence their children to doubt themselves by default. If the mother repeatedly compares her children’s upbringing with her own upbringing, this only demonstrates that she has not recovered from childhood trauma. Healthy parents do not compare themselves with their children, but Borderline mothers see life as a competition that they must win at all costs. Subsequently, the children’s need to believe in themselves as autonomous beings is overshadowed by the belief that they’re 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. Her children are her property, and she is reluctant to share her property. She sees her children’s growth and maturity as a sign of rejection. If something positive happens to the 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, gaslighting, favoritism, scapegoating, gossip, criticism, shaming, and forced allegiances. The mother will frequently alternate between praise (idealization) and criticism (devaluation) of her children. 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. More often, these gestures represent a means of manipulating the child’s emotions by making them feel undeserving, inferior, indebted, and shamefully dependent. In response, her children may start feeling like Pavlov’s dog instead of feeling free to roam the yard. A BPD mother may complain about enabling her children, but what she has really been doing is enabling herself to assume martyrdom. Tendentious charity presumes that the provider should be praised and the receiver should be grateful. Instead of promoting sustainable independence and healthy self-esteem, the provider maintains power through resource allocation while the receiver remains disabled. Overindulgence is a bargaining chip to discourage betrayal. According to Tom Bunn, LCSW: “She cannot tolerate feelings of abandonment. She must, no matter what it does to the child, cripple at least one child so that the child will never, even as an adult, be able to leave her. This means destroying at least one child’s ability to function as an independent person. The child must never outgrown the feeling of being a part of the mother.” As Dr. Masterson put it, “There is a belief by each of them that if one dies, the other will die.” The concept of psychological blackmail is now visible, for if a child believes his very existence depends upon his mother’s existence, and is thus responsible for her life, how can he venture far from her? What if she should have a heart attack and he is not there to save her? In summation, the self-sufficiency and self-actualization of the child is supplanted by occasional donations to prolong a cycle of guilt and dependency that has been engineered by the mother because of her own needs. The Cluster B exchange rate inevitably leaves a trail of bemused children who feel ambivalent about their own prospects for acquiring self-efficacy. In families where money and possessions are the currency of love, it’s like putting a fresh coat of paint on a house that’s already been eaten by termites.

A Borderline mother cannot tolerate separation, and her overbearing presence can feel suffocating, intrusive, or “cannibalistic” to her children as they attempt to claim sovereignty in adulthood. The children are unconsciously used as props to stabilize their mother’s unstable emotions while also serving as attendants to soothe her 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 stratosphere of life’s daily challenges. Nonetheless, providing reassurance and emotional support is 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 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 love and approval from their parents? However, children who have surrendered themselves for the sake of parental acceptance (being defined by the Borderline) 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 often feel emotionally paralyzed, defensive, guilty, 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 threat and form of betrayal. Ironically, the 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 of irrationality. In other words, the psychological health and independence of her children triggers the mother’s worst fear (abandonment). Incentivizing enmeshment is how the BPD sausage is made.

The mask of normality (false self) is perhaps the most impressive adaptive mechanism of Borderlines—a Trojan Horse for social acceptance. Because the Borderline inhabits a traumatized-dissociative self, she must construct a functional armor through presentation management. 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 (aka the halo effect). Dissembling prevents exposure, because exposure means death to the Borderline’s defense mechanisms and fragile ego. Mirroring (mimicking the behavior of others) also keeps the BPD from feeling estranged during anxiety provoking social gatherings. However, the Borderline’s public image (aka “false self”) is usually quite different from their private persona, especially when their precarious mood begins to shift during encounters with frustration. If interpersonal conditions do not remain auspicious, the mother’s impulsive hostility and grandiosity will take over (some BPDs have a ceiling to their episodic rage, while others do not). Being masters of theatrical performance and blame-shifting, Borderline mothers may convince acquaintances that their primary difficulties in life are caused by ungrateful children, lackluster partners, evildoers, and “those damn people” (attribution errors). Parental alienation happens when the mother triangulates the children against her spouse, resulting in more discontinuity among family members. Co-parenting collapses and the children are forced to pick sides without understanding the real source of disharmony. As the art of gaslighting, splitting, triangulation, 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 rely on emotional reasoning rather than logic and confuse their children during communication through selective memory, inattentiveness, anger, or complete denial (there are significant neuroanatomical differences in the BPD brain that also account for these responses). In other words, the mother’s memory is biased towards information that avoids personal blame or feelings of shame (emotional memory blocking). Revisionism is a Borderline trademark, regardless of the historical evidence. Whatever a BPD remembers during periods of conflict will always be someone else’s fault, because their defensive reactivity and hypersensitivity to criticism cannot tolerate the burden of developing insight, apologizing, or accepting accountability. BPD mothers do not have the temperament, maturity, or attention span to engage in emotionally challenging conversations, and they will preemptively shut down topics that might lead to questioning their thoughts or actions. No matter how tempting, children should never broach topics that will trigger their mother’s reactivity (unfortunately, this excludes most substantive conversations). The children’s repeated attempts to JADE (justify, argue, defend, and explain), no matter how articulate or reasonable, never work. The nuances of logic and independent thought are a threat to the emotional biases of the mother. Keeping things light and superficial is the only way to avoid an avalanche of aggressive defense mechanisms. A Borderline’s lack of self-awareness is utterly astounding, but it’s a protective mechanism to avoid deep feelings of insecurity, self-loathing, and shame. Ironically, the BPD’s abundant use of criticism towards others 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 become so tenacious that her family often lives in denial by proxy. However, never letting them see you sweat is the gateway to future regret for families who embrace denialism.

Borderline mothers never learned to trust their environment while growing up because it was always unpredictable. Defensive, suspicious, and paranoid, the mother will interpret innocuous comments as criticisms or insults, evidenced by her paranoid-infused inquiry: What did they mean by that? Unsure of herself, she is unsure of others. The mother may have competed for her parent’s attention with other siblings, or she may have received validation within the family unit based only on her 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 the promise of stability, safety, and validation in adulthood. This “passion for the perfect” is how high-functioning BPD mothers are capable of accomplishing 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’re obsessed with what can be finalized. Do not make any changes in their routine, or you’ll see a mom get mean. Activities need to be formulaic to reduce uncontrollable variables. Never underestimate the mother’s need for certainty and centrality. Inflexibility is another BPD hallmark, and paying attention to superficial details (anxiety induced myopia) is often more important than seeing the bigger picture. Task completion distracts the mother from uncomfortable feelings, boredom, and emptiness, so she must always keep herself busy. Furthermore, situational inconveniences will not be tolerated (efforts to maintain control prevent her from feeling 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 the mother to experience the gratification of being in command while providing a means of self-soothing to assuage her anxiety and tension. However, because effective solution implementation takes away from the Borderline’s need to identify with their problems, a continuation of chaos in some realm should be expected (i.e., major life decisions). Catastrophizing is a close second to its first cousin control on the branching tree of BPD modality.

Borderline mothers do not recognize or respect the boundaries of their children. In fact, they don’t understand the definition of boundaries because their childhood home 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 on their unreasonableness by resorting to bullying, intimidation, and weaponizing guilt if her children exercise their right to say “no.” BPD mothers can cause their children to feel self-conscious about making their own decisions, or for trying to define territory within the family structure. The desperation and fear of the mother intensifies whenever her children express opposition or demonstrate self-determination. In many cases, the children of a BPD mother will become rebellious and engage in frequent verbal or physical altercations. The children may also find themselves in the habit of lying to their mother just to avoid her wrath, or making excuses to escape being in her presence. When the mother shows insensitivity to her children’s trepidation, gaslighting is the primary tool she uses for leverage against them. In other words, the children are deemed as crazy for questioning the warped logic, anger, and resistance of the mother. Unfortunately, “obedient” children end up feeding their mother’s pathology by acquiescing to her demands and unreasonableness. Besides, no matter what the children do to appease their mother, it’s never enough. This unsavory predicament is described in the following passage by the clinical 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 story of a Borderline mother and her children is best explained as a case of misaligned sensitivity. The traumatized mother is hypersensitive to anything that makes her feel emotionally uncomfortable. By contrast, her children become hypersensitive to the emotional discomfort and labile moods of the mother (i.e., walking on eggshells). When the mother insists that her children must care exclusively about her emotional needs and most urgent fears, the children become overly responsive to their mother’s illness and never develop the ability to properly take care of themselves. The pattern of identifying their mother’s hypersensitive reactions, and responding with immediate attempts at remediation (codependence), subsequently bleeds into every situation and relationship that the children encounter for the rest of their lives, or until the spell is finally broken. As night follows day, the children are eventually converted into anxiety-ridden radar detectors without a rudder, just like their mother.

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 compelling inclination among adult children of BPD mothers to relapse into previous patterns of dysfunctional family interactions and denial after the game has finally been revealed. Being dragged back into the drama is just another example of how powerful FOG can be. Rationalizing the irrational is to be expected, especially when the majority of a person’s life has been spent attending to the shifting needs of an emotionally unstable parent. Making elaborate 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. Denial subsidizes sickness. Acceptance requires understanding, and understanding is the only way that forgiveness can have meaning. We must first understand our parents before we can understand ourselves. 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.” Connecting the dots becomes easier with emotional distance and enough time. Unfortunately, those raised in dysfunctional families will sometimes spend their entire adulthood trying to rework their childhood (vicarious traumatization and psychological enmeshment are exceptionally difficult dynamics to overcome). Upton Sinclair once said, “It’s nearly impossible to get a man to understand something when his paycheck depends on him not understanding it.” To paraphrase Mr. Sinclair: It’s nearly impossible to get an adult to understand the influence of childhood trauma when their survival depends on them not understanding it.

When the adult children of a Borderline mother finally come 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; 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 emerge. That being said, the bargaining stage of grief is probably the most difficult to overcome. Once the bereavement abates, the epiphanies begin. Deprogramming requires not only divorcing oneself from the trauma bond, but separating from the version of yourself that was vulnerable to it. Cognitive dissonance is resolved by maintaining psychological distance after giving up all illusions of normal reconciliation. The only way for children to avoid feeling disabled by their mother’s need for control is to find creative ways in adulthood to disable the drama (i.e., avoiding intense emotional engagement; learning to observe rather than absorb; building a support system outside of the family; studying the disorder; creating boundaries; self-improvement; and seeking therapy). On a more positive note, adult children of a BPD mother may experience a deeper sense of compassion that’s based on understanding their mother’s disorder rather than relying on superficial interactions under the guise of love. As eloquently stated by Dr. Tara J. Palmatier, “Sacrificing yourself at the altar of someone else’s pathology is not a measure of your love for them, it’s a measure of your willingness to be abused by them.” Most importantly, children must accept the fact that their mother may never have the capacity to understand the negative impact she’s had, or is having, on her family. No mother is perfect, but BPD mothers wish that they and their families were perfectible based on impossible standards that were set in motion by their own parents. Unfortunately, the problems that perfectionism creates (disillusionment, insecurity, shame, anxiety, paralysis, and relentless self-criticism) are far more damaging than the problems that perfectionism pretends to solve. Reverse engineering the psychological damage done by interacting with a BPD mother is an arduous and time-consuming process, but it should not be postponed for the sake of maintaining appearances. Potential is lost forever if we deny ourselves permission to reach our potential. Children need stability, confidence, and a strong sense of self-reliance to develop independence in adulthood; otherwise, they’ll blindly perpetuate the mindset of their mother without having the tenacity to land on their own feet. Above all, they need to develop self-love.

As the Borderline mother ages, her intensity may diminish when she finally loses steam and relegates herself to a life of resentful dissatisfaction (the most extreme symptoms of BPD often relinquish over time). With any luck, she may find another audience to take the place of her children. 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 iron will. For other BPD mothers, their insatiable need for control will decidedly follow them to their graves, but hopefully before the family is forced to dig their own. Life is too short for marinating in a multi-generational melting pot of maladaptive misery.

As with all Borderline relationships, there are only three options for adult children to consider: Avoid, challenge, or appease. Most of the time, the 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 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. The mother needs someone to love her, but love is insufficient because she has not addressed her own trauma. Jealousy, need, control, and desperation are the antithesis of love; they’re manifestations of fear. The Borderline Mother was not loved, or not loved consistently by her parents, so she is lost and continually searching for what she does not understand. Perhaps it’s most accurate to say that the BPD mother loves what her children represent (emotional security). She creates her own version of love and decrees by fiat that it’s the correct version. However, it’s a mutation of love born from the origins of a dysfunctional childhood. The mother must learn to face, accept, and resolve her core wounds, and her children must recover separately. Until that day arrives, BPD mothers will never understand or effectively love their children, because they were never able to understand or love themselves. In such families, regression is rewarded and independence is frowned upon. Nevertheless, Borderline mothers can be inspirational, affectionate, talented, intelligent, and benevolent. BPD mothers are human beings, and informed observations about the effects of childhood trauma and mental illness are not meant to be merciless accusations. The task for adult children is to process this information with dispassionate honesty rather than capitulating to self-indulgent parent bashing. Animosity towards an affliction is not the same as animosity towards the afflicted. Borderline Personality is a disorder and not a choice. However, it’s expected that the family will be playing by the mother’s capricious rules and allowing her to take full control of the court. Borderline mothers are not casual cooperators, because they insist on holding all of the cards that were unavailable to them in childhood. However, it must be understood that the mother needs her children more than they need her, but she has convinced them otherwise. Adult children must learn to trust their own intuitions rather than acquiescing to the impulsive instincts of a disordered parent. If they don’t, they’ll eventually abandon themselves.

Borderline mothers are suffering from a disorder that’s built upon a shattered bedrock of identity diffusion, attachment deficits, emotional extremes, anxiety, insecurity, fear, 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 trauma should not be perpetuated in the minds and lives of a mother’s children. There are some obligations that should never be fulfilled.

For more information:

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Having a parent with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD)

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

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