I’ve struck up an email correspondence with a reader named Mary, whose elderly mother has borderline personality disorder, and a psychiatrist named David Allen. In recent correspondence, Dr. Allen suggests that people with BPD show their love for family members in a distorted way. Their criticism and evident disdain are really demonstrations of love, albeit unrecognizable to those on the receiving end.
A few years ago, he wrote this on his blog: “When parents act in an obnoxious manner . . . that pushes their adult children away, this is referred to as distancing behavior. Parents who know they were abusive, even if they do not admit it, may secretly believe that their children are better off without them. Hence, they engage in distancing to push their children away, thereby protecting their children from themselves.”
Such parents feel they are so deeply flawed they have to shield their children from these flaws. I told him I found this interpretation of BPD behavior counter-intutitive, and he understood. Most family members do. It sure doesn’t feel like love to be called names, and to be undermined, criticized, and judged. Dr. Allen suggested continuing to consider the possibility.
I broached this confounding topic to my friend Nancy, who has had, in the past, a BPD diagnosis (among others). She appears in my book Missing as a kind of guide. (Let’s say she’s Vergil to my Dante. Comparing BPD to The Inferno is not too far off the mark.)
She immediately identified with Dr. Allen’s thesis, but phrased it a little differently. She focused on perfectionism and reminded me of the black-and-white thinking characteristic of BPD. Nancy generally feels, she told me, that if someone else has a problem, she is unable to fix it. Helping, offering some comfort, doing a little bit–these gestures just don’t come to mind when one is hemmed in by perfectionism.
She can’t make it all right. Therefore, she may as well do nothing, or may even say something dismissive in order to ensure that the other person doesn’t rely on her, because relying on her would be a mistake! Why rely on her when she can’t solve the problem?
I’m contemplating these ideas, trying them on, attempting to see my mother’s hurtful behavior as perverse manifestations of love. Let me know if any of this rings a bell with you.