The Trauma of Having a Parent with BPD (Borderline Personality Disorder)
Having a parent with BPD can bring unspeakably painful trauma; Because of their immaturity and instability, they may stop you from separating from them, suppress your emotional expression, and hamper your development and growth. However, having a parent with BPD does not mean you are destined to the same fate. You absolutely have the strengths and freedom now to free yourself from the cage of control and engulfment, and to reclaim freedom and health.
Does your parent often have exaggerated emotional responses? Could minor incidents set off disproportionate reactions like an angry outburst?
Have you been consciously or unconsciously ‘trained’ from a young age to tip-toe around your parents, or to mind-read what they are thinking, to not provoke an emotional spiral?
Do you feel that your parents vilify you for seeking autonomy? Either explicitly or in a roundabout way, do they make you feel guilty for having to leave home or having an opinion of your own?
Do they often think in black-or-white terms? For example, when something negative happens, do they either blame you and make you the enemy, or they create a scenario where it is ‘you-and-me-against-the-world’?
Have you always had to suppress or hide your thoughts and emotions for the fear of upsetting your parent? Do they always shut down the expression of authentic feelings? Were you ever allowed to be angry, upset or disappointed at them?
Does your parent appear charming and loving on the outside, and portray a social image that is drastically different from what you see at home?
To have things happen their way, do they use desperate and threatening behaviors such as violence, escalating a tantrum, threatening to hurt or kill themselves?
Do they let irresponsible and reckless, seemingly impulsive behaviors take the place of responsible parenting? Some examples may be excessive drinking, overspending, substance abuse, reckless driving.
How do you forgive the people who are supposed to protect you?”
This article is about having a parent who struggles with their attachment and emotional regulation issues, or those who are highly codependent and controlling. Many of them may also have a diagnosis of BPD (borderline personality disorder).
Before we proceed, there is a caveat: Not all forms of BPD are toxic and not everyone with BPD becomes a dysfunctional parent. At their best, people with BPD are highly empathetic, intuitive, passionate, spontaneous, resilient, creative, curious, and courageous risk-takers. They have the potential to be the most dedicated and loving parents. Even when someone has struggled with BPD at some point in their life, with healing, growth, and commitment, they can reach their potential as the uniquely gifted parent that they are, especially to intense and sensitive children.
However, in some cases, someone who suffers from attachment trauma or BPD may not have the support and resources they need to grow and heal. They might have been severely let down by their upbringing and were then repeatedly re-traumatized in their adult relationships. Before they are ready, they have become emotionally immature and under-resourced parents, who unfortunately can cause severe psychological damage to their children.
Borderline personality disorder is a mental illness characterized by difficulty in regulating emotions. BPD especially impairs the person’s ability to control emotional responses that are triggered by abandonment fears or insecurities, which often spiral into angry outbursts and other damaging behaviors. When you have a parent with BPD, you may find them to be imposing, engulfing and overly-involved in your life. On the flip side, they may behave in ways that are so immature and needy that you never felt you had a ‘parental’ figure to lean on, but rather, you have to be the grown-up who takes care of them.
It is worth bearing in mind that people who struggle with BPD have unceasing emotional pain, and the symptoms they exhibit are their attempts to cope. The occurrence of BPD is estimated at 1.6 percent in the general population and at 20 percent in the psychiatric inpatient population. Several environmental factors can cause BPD; the most common of these are:
- Being a victim of abuse (emotional, physical, or sexual)
- Being exposed to repeated violence at home.
- Being neglected or feeling unwanted by parents.
- One parent has a severe substance abuse problem.
- A family member at home has undiagnosed mental health issues.
If you have always experienced your relationship with your parents as unusually stressful and volatile, one of your parents may be living with BPD.
“People expect all stories of abuse
to be loud and angry
but they’re not.
Sometimes they’re quiet and cruel
and swept under the rug.”
Having a Parent With BPD and the Psychological Consequences
When you have a parent with BPD, the foundational structure that is required for healthy development is destabilized. Your parent’s hyper-reactivity, rage, and mood swings make focusing on your growth as a young person impossible. Often, the turbulent and imbalanced relationship with your parent continues to affect you well into adulthood. Here are some ways in which having a parent with BPD can adversely affect your life:
You have internalized their aggressiveness as chronic guilt and shame
Living with a parent who is emotionally unstable, or suffers from Borderline Personality Disorder, you may be constantly blamed for things you had not done, with unjustified rage that comes your way out of nowhere.
The truth is, your parent carries tremendous relational trauma themselves. Therefore, seemingly benign and minor incidents could trigger trauma reactions.
Even though the real root of their distress dates back to a time before you were born, when they are triggered, they immediately assume that the cause was you.
When they are re-experiencing their trauma, their empathy is severely impaired. Even if they are acting irrationally, at those moments they feel their rage is justified.
Living with an emotionally unstable and immature parent can leave you with no solid ground to stand on. One moment they make you feel loved, the next moment they give you the cold shoulder or throw a barrage of criticism at you. As children naturally blame themselves for what happens, you might have assumed all your life that you were doing something wrong, or, to the extreme, that your existence was wrong.
Your parent might have disproportionate emotional reactions when you expressed a need; for example, if you happened to ask for something when they were in a bad mood, they might blow up in a rage, or blame you for having ‘ruined their day’. As a result, you have internalized the message that your existence is somehow a nuisance. Now, whenever you assert yourself, ask for something from others, you don’t feel your needs are justified. You may even have a lingering feeling that you are somehow ‘dangerous’ or ’toxic’. This unconscious belief may show up in intimate relationships (or the lack thereof), where you cannot shake off the feeling that you will somehow harm or hurt other people.
In psychoanalytic terms, the internalization of your parents’ aggression is called ‘introjection’— As a result of chronically receiving criticisms and punishment, you have ‘identified with the aggressor’ by creating a replica of them inside your mind (like an ‘inner critic’).
It started as their unjustified blame and guilt-tripping, but you have now incorporated their emotional abuse of you into your psyche, and it becomes a toxic shame that you carry with you wherever you go. You now have an internal voice that is constantly against you, which causes chronically elevated stress and low self-esteem.
Here is what’s happening: The sense of worthlessness, shame, and ‘not being good enough’ are actually how THEY feel. However, since they do not have the emotional capacity to contain and integrate their psyche in a healthy way, they have to ‘dump’ these feelings onto and into you— via projection and projective identification.
Growing up in a household with a parent with BPD means you were denied consistent love and warmth as a child; Praise and warmth were always based on what you did or did not do, so love felt conditional. Now as an adult, even when genuine love and care come your way, you may mistrust them, not know how to recognize them or take them.
“One believes things because one has been conditioned to believe them.”
A BPD Parent’s neediness stops you from Finding Yourself
In a healthy family system, parents will encourage grown children to spread their wings and fly. Because of their severe fear of abandonment, however, a parent with BPD may feel disproportionately threatened when you need to grow and express your individuality.
As you were developing and trying to establish a sense of self, they may criticize you, belittle your thinking, and make you feel guilty for having a mind separate from theirs. They may punish you with the threat of abandonment or hint that they could not survive without you.
As you are trying to separate from them, even by doing something as benign as leaving home for a few days to be with your friends, your parent with BPD may become flooded with feelings of abandonment and loneliness. They may throw a tantrum, threaten to hurt themselves, or suddenly become depressed and unable to be on their own— all in an attempt to keep you close.
As you try to establish a new healthy intimate relationship with a romantic partner, they may disapprove of it, put a negative spin on things, or convince you that this other person is not suited to you. In whatever way possible, they make separation and independence impossible for you.
To get what they want, some parents with BPD will manipulate situations by escalating their emotions. Sometimes their unconscious strategies are subtle, but make you feel extremely guilty and trapped.
In situations like these, instead of being a pillar of strength for you, the parent-child roles are reversed. This is known as ‘parentification’. Their needs for validation, love, and security have not only become your responsibility, but also a life-long burden. Rescuing your parents from their misery has always been and always will be an impossible mission, yet you may be plagued with a constant feeling that you are failing at something you ‘should’ do.
Because the love you received was conditional, you may have internalized the feeling that there is no fundamental, inherent worthiness in you. The love you received was based on utility, so unless you serve as an emotional punching bag or confidant to someone, you do not feel you are deserving of love. As a grown-up, you feel the compulsion to constantly be helping, producing, doing things. Because you don’t feel your existence is justified when you ‘just be’, you struggle to relax into life.
Having been locked in a codependent relationship all your life, and made to put others’ needs before your own, you may carry forward this relational pattern as an adult. As a result, you often find yourself in relationships where you lose yourself or are abused and used. If you were never allowed boundaries or personal space, you may not have a clear understanding of healthy boundaries. You either cross others’ boundaries without meaning to or allow others to violate yours.
“A bird cannot love freely when caged.”
A Parent with BPD Does not allow you to have a voice
A BPD parent can be highly intrusive and suffocating. Even if they don’t mean to, because of their trauma they may have very distorted beliefs and interpretations of the world, selective attention, and memory. Sometimes you are the target of your parent’s paranoia, and other times a reluctant audience.
Because of their fears, they need to establish a strong sense of control of their environment, and that includes you— their child. Sometimes, they forget that you are a separate person and act as though you are simply an extension of them. Whenever you try to do something in your own way, they react in critical or threatening ways. Eventually, you subconsciously learn that it would be best if you simply comply – be it the way you dress, who you socialize with, or even what you eat. What is sacrificed, however, is the critical ‘adolescence’ phase where you need to healthily, appropriately rebel against your parents and establish a sense of your independence.
A person with BPD thinks in black and white terms. Since they have little mental capacity to hold grey areas and ‘in-betweens’, any dissonance in the status quo threatens their fragile sense of self. When someone states an opinion or does something that they disagree with, they may quickly frame them as a ‘traitor’ or an ‘enemy’. Even trusted family members and friends can become villains overnight. Your parent may subject you to the same condemnation should you express an opposing view.
Not being able to have an opinion of your own also means whatever voices you had were suppressed. You were not allowed to have an independent mind, develop a separate sense of self, or explore your own needs, desires, and passions. What this results in is an underdeveloped self; even as a grown-up you are confused about who you are, what you want, and unsure about your place in the world. This lack of sense of self would stop you from being assertive in relationships, and the lack of vision and clarity may hamper your personal and career development. It is not uncommon for a child of a parent with BPD to be on a career trajectory for half of their life, and suddenly reach a point where they realize the path they have been on is not theirs, but the fruit of their parent’s wishes or unlived lives. They might then wake up to the fact that their parent was living precariously through them all along. Unfortunately, having missed out on the critical adolescence where you gained autonomy from your parent is a set up for existential crisis later in life.
BPD Parents suppress your emotions and hamper your emotional development
Even though they are themselves highly turbulent, a parent with BPD may be terrified of conflict. Due to having fragile ego strengths, they are unable to separate their shame from relational dynamics and tend to take every rift in a relationship personally. When there is even a small conflict between you, they may feel personally attacked and shamed, and react either with passive-aggressiveness or a counter-attack.
Because they have a very limited capacity for holding or tolerating other peoples’ feelings, they would shun emotional expressions from you. Any emerging signs of disappointment, hurt, and anger that their child might have are unbearably stressful for them because deep down, they assume it was their fault that their child was not perfectly happy. Even when you were just physically unwell or distressed about something outside of the home, they may immediately perceive it as a criticism of them.
Most of the time, this is not conscious. What happens here is that they have projected their internal criticism outward— so their assumed ‘faults’ become yours. They have, metaphorically, made you swallow the unbearable feeling of inadequacy and shame for them. For their psyche to survive, their automatic defense was to shut you down. To make matters worse, the parent with BPD might want to portray a ‘picture-perfect’ family image to outsiders and push you to do the same. All other people saw was their charming, loving self, and you are left feeling hopelessly lost in a world where nobody understands the angst of having a parent with BPD.
Since you were never allowed to have, let alone express, authentic feelings, you may have also learned to disown them. As a result, you may now suffer from a syndrome called Alexithymia, where you can find no words for your inner states, or you feel empty and numb, and disconnected from your body and soul. This lack of ability to be in touch with yourself will stop you from living a fulfilling life, as well as building authentic relationships.
I was not made
To be lovely for you
A Parent with BPD can pass the trauma down transgenerationally
To a child, the world is a foreign, precarious, daunting place. We naturally have no self-soothing mechanism, and we all need our parents to reassure us that things are okay, and to help us develop the skill to regulate our feelings. This is done through mechanisms such as mirroring, a form of neurological co-regulation. Research and experiments have shown that without the experience of having an emotionally stable parent, we may be left in a state of constant terror. (To see this demonstrated, please watch the ‘Still Face Experiment’)
Your parent with BPD was not able to provide you with the necessary mirroring and affirmation, nor were they a role model for important life skills such as emotional regulation or authentic communication. Furthermore, whether or not they are competent for the task, parents are the first role model for any child. If explosive and unpredictable hysteria is what you grew up witnessing, you might have no choice but to adopt some of what you saw.
As a result of growing up with a non-existent or immature role model, it is likely that as a young person, you also struggled with extreme emotions such as anxiety, paranoia, or explosive rage. Research shows that children whose parents exhibited BPD are prone to disorders such as ADHD (attention deficit hyperactive disorder), depression, and anxiety. Studies of BPD in families show that the child of someone with BPD is likely to be diagnosed with BPD at some point in their life. Part of this is due to genetic influences, with the traumatic environment that the child grew up in.
However, having a BPD parent certainly does not mean you will have the same dysfunctional traits. Oftentimes, you might have over-compensated for your parent’s deficit by becoming exceptionally competent, mature, and independent — sometimes to your detriment. While these strengths might have been born out of undesirable circumstances, thwy can also become the gifts that save you. Just because you are biologically related to this parent does not mean you are destined to the same fate. New research on Post Traumatic Growth has given us tremendous hope. In fact, many successful therapists, writers, artists, and entrepreneurs have shared their challenges with having been raised gy abusive, neglectful, or narcissistic parents; like a phoenix that emerges from the fire, it is entirely possible for you to not just heal from, but also to transform, your wounds into gifts.
To summarise, having a BPD Parent puts you at risk for the following types of negative behaviors/ thinking patterns as an adult. Here are some possible consequences:
You have difficulty trusting other people.
You are drawn to abusive or highly critical people as partners because the pattern feels familiar to you
You are prone to becoming locked in codependent relationships
Or, on the flip side, you are highly phobic of dependency of any kind and would rather isolate yourself
You view life as unpredictable and chaotic; you are always waiting for the next disaster to hit and you cannot relax.
You are physically hyper-vigilant; your nervous system is always on high alert. You are extremely sensitive to loud noises and sudden changes in the environment.
You often feel depressed and hopeless about life
You always put other people’s needs over your own, and feel unable to be assertive or voice your wants and needs
You feel defective and unlovable on the inside; even when you don’t show it, you always assume you will be abandoned or let down in the end.
You are crippled by self-doubt and unable to meet your full potential at work.
You are confused about what you want in life, have an unclear career path or vision of the future.
You tend to self-sabotage— when fortune comes you immediately feel panicked or guilty, and will therefore unconsciously push it away. This may also manifest as chronic procrastination of important tasks or self-neglect.
“I am done looking for love where it doesn’t exist. I am done coughing up dust in attempts to drink from dry wells.”
A Parent with BPD – Freeing Yourself and Reclaiming Your Life
From relationship challenges to how you treat yourself, the impact of having grown up with a BPD Parent is pervasive, but you do not have to carry these negative consequences for the rest of your life. Whether or not your parent with BPD is seeking help for their mental health, you can choose to move on from the past and seek a more fulfilling life.
Although you cannot go back in time and change the past, you can still gift yourself a future of love, authenticity, and freedom. Despite what you may have repeatedly heard from your parent, you are not responsible for their moods and reactions, their disappointments in life, or any grievances they have with their relationships. In contrast to the normative cultural value, you do not owe your parents and it is not your job to satisfy their needs. It should never have been your task to try and heal them, rescue them, or save them from their misery.
The journey of healing could be summed up by these messages:
- I did not cause any of this.
- I could not have controlled what happened.
- I cannot cure their mental illness.
- It was not my fault that they were dissatisfied.
- I am not responsible for their lives.
- They can survive without me.
- I do not owe them anything.
With regards to your parent, they may not have the insight or resources to alter their ways. As they still cannot separate their own needs from yours, their unreasonable demands, emotional blackmail, and subtle guilt-tripping may prevail. You cannot change them, but you can learn to draw healthier boundaries.
Do not feel that you must cater to their needs at all times. In times where you begin to feel like an emotional punching bag, walk away. When you need to say no, do so. It may be uncomfortable for a while, but before you know it, you will be glad you have taken the plunge to put yourself first.
Learn to see through and try not to succumb to their emotional blackmail or subtle threats. Instead, communicate your needs for healthy distance in a calm and non-accusatory manner. If you can make it about your needs, not what they have done wrong, they are more likely to be receptive to it.
The injustice that has happened may feel unbearable, and there is certainly a place for healthy anger. Whether or not you can directly express your resentment towards them, you must at least be honest with yourself. It is healing to tell your story in the presence of an enlightened other, such as a therapist. You can also heal through journaling and other creative expressions.
At the beginning of your healing journey, you may feel that any voice you have, any expression of anger, any needy feeling is not justified. This feeling has no basis in your current reality, but is a result of the trauma you have experienced. Fortunately, research in neuroscience-biology has shown again and again that in time, and with the right support, you can change your neural-wiring via ‘corrective experience’ with either someone in your life or in therapy.
Take the time to look inward and re-discover yourself. If you have lost touch with your passion and pleasure, start with small experiments where you try one novel thing a day. The idea of ‘play’ or being ‘unproductive’ may be daunting to you, but allowing yourself to experience ‘being’ rather than constant ‘doing’ would mark a developmental milestone towards health for you.
You may have to unlearn all the things which hinder your independence and joy; you may also need to teach your body and mind that it is safe for you to express yourself honestly and freely. What was once threatening is no longer present, and the people who love and care for you now want to hear your truth.
If you have spent most of your life catering to your parent’s needs at the expense of your happiness, it is time to reclaim your life for yourself.
You had not caused it,
you could not have controlled it,
you did the best you could to survive.
Turn away from abuse, run towards freedom.
Drop the burden of shame, and reclaim your one and only life.
Rise like a Phoenix, you can.
“Girls like her were born in a storm. They have lightning in their souls. Thunder in their hearts. And chaos in their bones.”