Reprinted from Surviving A Borderline Parent: How to Heal Your Childhood Wounds & Build Trust, Boundaries, and Self-Esteem by Kimberlee Roth.
As a child, did you feel like you fell short, disappointing a parent, stepparent, or caretaker because you weren’t good enough, didn’t do enough, or just weren’t able to please, no matter how hard you tried? Did you feel responsible for your parent’s happiness and guilty if you felt happy yourself? Did you feel damned if you did and damned if you didn’t, that whatever you did or said was the wrong thing (and boy would you pay for it)? Were you accused of things you hadn’t done? Did you feel manipulated at times? Feel appreciated one minute and attacked the next? Thought you must be “crazy” because a parent’s actions or reactions didn’t make any sense? Question your own intuition, judgment, or memory, believing you must have missed or misinterpreted something? Did you feel on guard all the time, that life with your parent was never predictable?
You weren’t crazy. Not then, and not now, though it may still feel that way. What felt crazy-making to you may well have been being parented by someone who had traits of borderline personality disorder.
Though relatively common, borderline personality disorder is often overlooked or misdiagnosed by therapists and clinicians and denied by those who suffer from it. It’s a confusing, complex disorder that’s extremely difficult for all involved: for the person with BPD, for the clinicians trying to understand and help their client, and perhaps most of all, for the children who have to endure its unpredictable effects.
No one chooses their parents and, as young children, once you’re brought into this world, you’re not in a position to opt out of your relationship with them. In fact, you desperately need them—to provide food and shelter, to prompt you to learn, to model ways to interact in society, to nurture you, to show you affection, and to provide unconditional love. A parent with BPD, however, may not have been able to consistently provide all of these things to you, through no fault or deficit of yours. They may not have received that kind of care themselves. It may seem ironic, but your parent may actually have consciously or unconsciously reinforced you as the caretaker to meet his or her needs, to be the nurturer and provider of emotional support, even though you were a young child.
Does This Sound Familiar?
Which of the following match your experience with a parent or other caretaker growing up?
Your parent teased you, often cruelly, about physical attributes, mental abilities, intelligence, habits, or other personal characteristics.
You remember sequences of events and conversations differently from your parent.
Your parent confided in you, perhaps with inappropriate details, and expected you to keep his secret or to side with her.
You were treated like a little adult instead of a child, expected to consistently assume responsibilities parents should, such as emotionally comforting or reassuring your parent, frequently cooking, cleaning, caring for siblings, and other responsibilities.
Your feelings were discounted, denied, criticized, or ignored.
You weren’t permitted to express strong emotions, particularly anger.
You didn’t receive much physical or emotional affection— hugs, kisses, or being told you were loved.
You were held to extremely high, often unattainable standards, and those standards shifted so you had a hard time knowing what was expected of you.
You were given mixed messages about your appearance or your behavior.
You weren’t encouraged to explore, experiment, or develop your own opinions.
Your privacy and/or your belongings weren’t respected
While you were growing up, did you feel
far older than your age and your peers?
Now as an adult, do you
find yourself in abusive, unfulfilling, or unhealthy relationships?
feel unable to trust others and let your guard down?
expect the worst from others—family, friends, and strangers?
feel responsible for others’ moods, feelings, and actions?
put others’ needs ahead of your own?
have a hard time knowing what you want?
tend not to trust your own feelings and reactions?
feel uneasy with success or have difficulty simply enjoying life?
get highly anxious in social settings or new situations?
fear taking risks, especially where relationships are concerned?
hold yourself to standards nearing perfection?
feel worthless, hopeless, or depressed?
If you relate to many of these experiences, chances are you may have been raised by a parent with BPD or BPD-like traits. Chances are also good that the effects are still with you, in subtle, and likely fundamental, ways. They probably have affected and continue to affect who you are, as well as your relationships with others—how you choose and who you choose to spend time with, to befriend, to partner with, to love.
A New Reality
This isn’t another book focused on family dysfunction or about terrible mothers (though BPD is diagnosed in women three times as often as in men, for a variety of reasons we’ll cover shortly). It’s not about blame or wallowing either—you are all molded by so much more than a dysfunctional past, and you must ultimately take responsibility for creating the life you want. Certainly, it’s important to acknowledge and identify the effects of BPD on your life. It’s equally important to realize that it neither dictates who you are nor fixes your destiny.
This book is really about just two things: understanding and change. We hope it will help validate your experience as a child of a borderline parent, help you identify the impact it had and continues to have on you, regardless of whether your parent is still alive, and that it will lead you to more positive alternatives to the negative thoughts, beliefs, feelings, and behaviors you may have learned. We also hope reading this book will help you envision—and cultivate—the you you want to be and begin to build the future you want to live. It may sound like a cliché, but it’s true: you deserve to be happy.
As an adult child of someone with BPD, you’ve likely been cultivating and honing certain beliefs and behaviors since infancy. Though you may not remember, as a baby, you viscerally sensed anger, frustration, and despair through your parents’ touch, voice, and breathing rhythm; you felt tension tightening the air. Growing up in continual response to erratic and intense emotions has taught you reflexive responses, which come as instantly as your leg jerks when the doctor taps your knee with a rubber mallet or you spin around when someone calls your name. Well-and long-ingrained, what you learned may have helped you protect yourself physically, mentally, and emotionally from your borderline parent, but it’s probably not serving you well now—in fact, it may be keeping you from fully understanding and accepting yourself, and from connecting with others. The catch is, your coping mechanisms and ways of relating to your self and to others are so much a part of your emotional repertoire, you rarely stop to question them. They define your worldview, like the tint of glass lenses, and therefore dictate how you see and interact with the world.
This book assumes that you’re thinking about making some positive changes in your life. It presupposes that you have an inkling that there’s more to life than what you’ve long thought, been told, or have been living with in your family of origin. It presupposes that you want to pursue that sense of possibility, frightening though it may be. Regardless of where you’re at emotionally, this book assumes potential and your willingness— and courage—to reach for it.
How do you begin to take a hard look at your life, without the tint of your old lenses? How can you come to know and trust yourself and dismantle the defenses that may surround you? How do you begin to conceive of a new and better life? How do you learn to see the good in people, to feel deserving of healthy relationships and a full, rewarding life? This book will help you start to explore the many ways. You’ll make the changes you choose to make at your own pace. The rewards—though they come slowly and quietly—are great.
In the past few years, there have been several excellent books written about BPD. A trip to your local library or bookstore today yields an armful of titles that weren’t available even ten years ago to both individuals with the disorder and their loved ones. There are also numerous Web sites, chat rooms, listservs and other online resources available. Other than giving some history and an overview of BPD in the first chapter, we don’t repeat work that’s already been done, but rather have tried to use all that’s come before as a springboard for further exploration.
How to Use This Book
If this is the first time you’re hearing of borderline personality disorder or you’ve heard the term and want to know more, chapter 1 spells out the signs and symptoms of the disorder and explains how those behaviors can affect children.
If you’re familiar with the traits and behaviors of BPD and recognize one or more of your parents, stepparents, or caretakers as having had the disorder, you may want to just scan chapter 1. Then move on to chapter 2 to see how the messages you received as a child may still be influencing you now. If you’re a partner, friend, or family member of someone whose parent has or had BPD, this book will provide insight into the experiences that shaped the person you know today.
Throughout the book, we’ll use the term adult child to refer to adult children of a parent with borderline personality disorder. For ease of reading, we sometimes use the term borderline parent to refer to someone with BPD traits. The term parent may refer to stepparents, grandparents, or any other adult with primary child care responsibility.
You’ll see many places throughout the book to “Stop and Think.” These exercises are designed to help you apply the concepts in the text to your own particular circumstances and experiences. You may want to use a notebook or journal to record your responses and reactions. So you can measure your progress down the road, be sure to date all of your entries.
End of free excerpt