Understanding Borderline Personality Disorder From a Trauma Lens

Below, I've included an excerpt from my recent article in Psyched in San Francisco about living and loving with Borderline Personality Disorder, a highly misunderstood disorder that is more complex than the diagnosis can explain. Please read more on Psyched's website or contact me for more information.

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“One minute everything’s great, and the next minute she’s calling me fifty times in a row and leaving me these long messages about how badly I treat her.”

“He makes me feel so awful about myself. He twists around what I say and makes me seem like such a horrible person. I can’t tell right-side-up anymore.”

“I feel so much shame, like it’s going to tear me in half. It started when my partner didn’t pick up the phone, I was scared that he shut me out once and for all.”

If any of this sounds familiar, you might know someone with – or have symptoms of – Borderline Personality Disorder. Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD for short) is an oft-maligned and generally misunderstood trauma-based disorder that can look and feel pretty overwhelming, confusing, and scary. Because it’s a response to unpredictability and lack of emotional continuity and attunement, it has a tendency to replicate the very trauma it’s trying to escape.

If you’re wondering what BPD might look like, it’s actually featured prominently in many films – probably because, from the outside, BPD looks like high drama, intensity, excitement, and unpredictability, which is highly watchable and compelling from the safety of the television. Here’s a brief viewing list:

  • Lisa, Angelina Jolie’s character in Girl, Interrupted, has emotional outbursts and defies authority, and the system crushes her fire and vitality.
  • Amy Winehouse in Amy experiences an extended trajectory of complicated and tenuous relationships, drug addiction, and self-destruction that ultimately ends in her death.
  • Hedwig, the character developed by John Cameron Mitchell in Hedwig and the Angry Inch, manipulates her husband, espouses extreme hatred for the man she used to love, and feels split into parts that she believes only another person can heal.
  • And, in the 1944 movie Gaslight, the audience is privy to the crazymaking experience of living with someone who is emotionally abusive and manipulative.

All these real and fictive portrayals of people with Borderline Personality Disorder both pathologize, and explain, the complex traumatic experiences of people with this disorder, and the frustrations, pain, and self-doubt in those who love them. This kind of repetition of past traumas is a cornerstone of the Borderline experience: for as much as the sufferer is trying to protect himself, he ends up replicating the same circumstances that led to the trauma in the first place.

 Photo by Molly Merson, MFT at Albany Bulb.

Photo by Molly Merson, MFT at Albany Bulb.