The Mighty Logo

How Childhood Trauma Affected My Borderline Personality Disorder

The most helpful emails in health
Browse our free newsletters

Humans are complex beings which can readily experience two opposite feelings at the same time. For example, you can see someone on vacation and feel happy for them while at the same time, feel sad for yourself.

Children in their very early development are unable to hold these complexities. The world and those in it, including themselves, are either good or bad, either heroes or villains. A child’s thinking is black and white. There is no gray – no complexity. This is normal. When childhood development is interrupted with abuse, neglect and/or other forms of trauma however, their development can become stunted. This individual can grow into adulthood retaining this childlike perspective.

This is exactly what happened to me.

This black and white thinking — also called all-or-nothing thinking — is a type of defense mechanism called “splitting.”

Splitting is significant in borderline personality disorder and is defined in one’s relationships as idealization and devaluation, which leads to very turbulent interactions. I navigated the world through this lens and caused myself and others a lot of confusion and grief. For a long time, my sense of identity became split into two separate versions: a bad self and good self. For most of my childhood and early adolescence, I viewed myself as bad. So, like a self-fulfilling prophecy, I became bad.

By age 11, I had lost my childlike innocence and replaced it with anger. I began binge-drinking, stealing and experimenting with substances. This version of self helped me escape the painful emotions and thoughts about myself and my traumatic experiences. It gave me a sense of freedom and power until the consequences of my actions caught up with me. Then, I became even more enslaved and powerless.

One day I thought, “This isn’t working anymore. I don’t want to be this way anymore.”

Soon thereafter, I moved out of the city and up north into a small town. I had some relatives there, but for the most part, nobody really knew me or what I had become. I had the opportunity to start fresh, so I went back to high school, graduated with honors and went straight to college which gave me a new career to follow. I opened a business, bought a home and was in a relationship. From the outside, everything appeared perfect, so I hoped it truly was.

I had created a good self, but this version was just as extreme as the one prior. This self was unrealistically perfect.

I became like this empty vessel or shell, making myself look beautiful and successful on the outside while hiding the darkness underneath. I was hiding the angry, empty and unlovable person I believed I was. I thought if other people really knew me, they’d run.

It was not a conscious effort to create these separate “selves.” The mind’s defense mechanism of splitting is an unconscious one, meaning I was not aware I was doing this. This realization came only after much work in therapy and self-revelations.

The two selves I speak of are the chaotic self and perfect self. Each one is unconsciously designed to avoid painful emotions of rejection and abandonment that I chronically felt as a child and was terrified to re-experience in adulthood.

When I am my “perfect self,” I forget about my “chaotic self.” When I am in my “chaotic self,” I forget about my “perfect self.”

This is the essence of splitting — cutting off oneself until it seems to no longer exist. These two selves are extreme opposites and could not coexist together, bouncing back and forth between chaos and perfection.

In therapy, my psychiatrist made me draw a circle on paper. In the circle, I had to write down all of the parts I perceived of my personality – good and bad. Then, on separate pieces of paper, she wrote them out and placed each one on chairs around me. I had to then confront each part of me. She first pointed to the one that said “addict” and said, “What do you want to say to her?” In anger, I yelled, “I hate you!”

Then, I confronted the frightened child part of me. I proceeded to offer comforting words to her. My therapist said, “Don’t you think the addict part of you deserves the same comfort? After all, the addict and the frightened child are the same person.”

This was a process that helped me integrate my personality so I could eventually operate as a whole. I had to acknowledge and accept all parts of me and learn about the other parts I had yet to discover. Caught up in a battle of good self versus bad self where no one wins, my doctor said, “Each self worked against the other. Imagine what they could do if they worked together!”

GettyImages via AOosthuizen

Originally published: December 15, 2018
Want more of The Mighty?
You can find even more stories on our Home page. There, you’ll also find thoughts and questions by our community.
Take Me Home