How Trauma, Narcissistic Traits and Borderline Personality Disorder Affect Each Other
Telling my therapist three years ago I think I have borderline personality disorder (BPD) was the most harmful thing I’ve ever done to myself. I had taken an online assessment in an attempt to understand why I took so personally my 9-year-old granddaughter rolling her eyes and sighing every time words came out of my mouth, regardless of whether I was speaking to her or someone else.
I have never received a formal professional assessment of whether I actually have BPD. Once it came out of my mouth, it was just accepted by any mental health practitioner I interacted with from then on. This diagnosis was also enthusiastically embraced by my entire family because now they could plausibly deny any responsibility for how I felt and how I reacted to the things they would say and do while giving them permission to continue their hurtful behavior.
It seems most of the information available online and in print supports the idea that BPD occurs and the symptoms present themselves in a vacuum. While a person may have a predisposition because of a neurodivergent brain configuration to be highly sensitive and feel emotions more intensely than those born with neurotypical brain configurations, the traits needed to diagnose a person with BPD often require an environmental trigger. Some may dispute this by saying there are many with BPD who came from “good” families.” There are also children with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and autism who come from “good” families and have emotion regulation, distress tolerance, mindfulness and interpersonal effectiveness issues.
From my experience, some of what determines the outcome of a highly sensitive person (HSP) of any sort is whether the family is active in learning about what this means for their child and how to create the most nurturing and supportive environment. Additionally, if they make the tools the child needs to navigate the world available while supporting them as they learn and put the skills into action.
A “good” family and an actively supportive family are two different things. Parents who are untrained in helping their neurodivergent child can inadvertently harm their child with their well-intentioned words and actions. And, even the best of parents can get tired or have a bad day. It is very important for every child, but especially a highly sensitive one, that a parent take responsibility as soon as possible after they realize they have misspoken out of frustration, to apologize and reassure the child. It is also very important caretakers of these children have a support system in place and have a strong self-care regimen which might include respite childcare.
What is unfortunate is there are way too many parents who, because of their own childhood trauma, are unable to be those supportive parents. Sadly, childhood trauma can give rise to people who exhibit narcissistic traits. In turn, the behavior of parents with narcissistic tendencies toward their children can be a factor in the child developing BPD. I believe this is one of the most devastating causes of BPD for the individual living with it because, in addition to the maltreatment by the parent, the family dynamics created by the parent with narcissistic traits can cause siblings to feed into the abuse of the scapegoated highly sensitive child. Maybe this is where the identity issues for the person with BPD stem from.
When a child feels like or is actually told by a parent they are disliked and are only “loved” out of family obligation, the child will often blame themselves as having something inherently “wrong” with them, seeing the words and actions of family members as evidence of this “truth.” Many can become people-pleasers because they are dependent on the acceptance of their parents and family unit for survival. When the message they receive is that they are inadequate, they will often do anything they think their loved ones would expect from them to become “adequate.” Unfortunately, in a narcissistic family dynamic, the bar is often repeatedly raised whenever the child reaches it, and this constant moving of the goalpost continues throughout the child’s life.
In these families, I’ve found it’s the person with BPD who tends to seek mental health treatment for two reasons. They are told by the family members they need help because there is something “wrong” with them and they, themselves, are in so much psychological and emotional pain it is no longer bearable. Some people with BPD also tend to believe there must be something “wrong” with them because “a parent would never lie to a child” and “a mother loves all of her children unconditionally.” For example, if society tells us, “You’ve got a face only a mother could love,” and then your mother tells you that you are ugly, it must be true.
If the person with BPD makes strides through dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), talk therapy and other modalities such as eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy (EMDR), they become better capable of being mindful, tolerating stress, regulating their emotions and interpersonal effectiveness. However, no matter how much the person with BPD improves, sometimes how the individuals in the family behave won’t change.
If that’s the case, while the person with BPD learns how to better navigate the world in general, the frustration with the lack of change in treatment by family members can cause the individual to feel anger and resentment. The family knows through repeated practice which buttons to push and will continue to trigger the person with BPD. The knowledge they have no control over their family members’ behavior and are unable to influence them to change can cause feelings of hopelessness because the person with BPD desperately wants to be loved and accepted by their family, especially their parents.
It’s less understood by many people that the positive emotions of a person with BPD are just as intense as the negative emotions. The joy of having children and grandchildren might feel like the reward they are finally receiving for all they have had to endure in life prior. If these children begin exhibiting narcissistic behaviors, which can get progressively worse if the grandparents, aunts and uncles validate to these children the person with BPD is the “difficult one,” from what I’ve experienced, it can culminate in alienation of the individual in the name of “protecting the grandchildren.”
People with BPD are among those at the highest risk to die by suicide (in addition to those with anorexia nervosa and substance use disorder). People with BPD who continually choose life in the face of their circumstances are nothing shy of incredible.
What do you think?
A version of this article was originally published on C De Lozier Self-Authoring Work.
Getty image by AdrianHillman