- Márcia Fervienza
Splitting and Borderline Personality Disorder: Why it happens? A Theory
Until about a decade ago, Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) was less than a name to me. I didn't know it existed as a diagnosis and I didn't know it had symptoms easily identifiable and published in the DSM-V. The only thing I knew was that I had lived with people with very intense feelings throughout my life, and that such intensity disturbed me, made me feel insecure and unsafe.
For a great part of my young adulthood, I was intense as well. Oh, gosh! Truth be told, I still am. But I can safely say that today, after a gazzillion years of therapy, these feelings don't impair my functioning nor direct my decisions. For some people in my life, though, those whose behavior would fill me with fear for being so unexpected and uncontrollable, that's how life still works. I suffer when I see them (and anyone else) being ridden by their feelings. They still hurt me somewhat when that boiling water turns my way. But I think that growing up (and to this day), what dazzles me the most about them is their inability to attribute shades of gray to people and situations.
Of course, now I know these people had (and still have) Borderline Personality Disorder, undiagnosed and untreated. I can see how difficult it is for them to hold things together in their lives. Some of them are much older, from the 50s, and back then, therapy was almost a forbidden word while DBT (Dialectical Behavioral Therapy) was not even part of our everyday lives.
Today, things are much different and many of our young adults can "self-diagnose" as having BPD, with so much available information online, and search for help. Still, as shown by the questions I receive in my Quora account, splitting is the hardest part to understand of the BPD behavior, even for the ones who live it on their own flesh and mind.
For those who are not familiar with the term, splitting is a term used in psychiatry to define the difficulties that one person has in holding opposing thoughts, feelings or beliefs. This is a defense mechanism largely used by those with Borderline Personality Disorder. As such, it is an unconscious reaction to behaviors that are perceived as threatening. Thus, if someone is good for people with BPD, they are perfect angels and they are great. If they are bad, they horrible demons with no value whatsoever. It is hard for them to hold on their minds and hearts that someone who is good can do bad things, and that even people who mostly do bad things can have a positive side to them.
But why does it happen? That is the million dollar question, and I won't respond based on my mental health background. I will respond as the daughter that survived a mother and an ex-husband with BPD.
Since I believe that BPD is a trauma-related disorder, I believe that their splitting is associated with a big emotional wound that they carry around and that rules their relationship with the world. What I mean is that they have been deeply hurt while growing up, they have never learned that their needs matter, that their emotions are valid, and that they are someone of worth. As such, they are constantly in defensive mode. Thus, by assigning radical and extreme meaning to whatever reaches them from the outside world they can be one step ahead in protecting themselves from being hurt - again.
For example, if I have BPD and someone I know walks by me on the street and doesn't say hi, that hurts me deeply. I feel ignored, rejected, unworthy and I start wondering what have I done to deserve that. I don't find anything. That is confusing to me, and right now the only thing I can see is that I was hurt for no reason. Thus, I am either trash or that person is a devious person who is intent on showing me something with their behavior of pretending that I am invisible. They are intent on hurting me. And I won't let that happen.
But why did I jump immediately to this line of thinking instead of asking myself whether there could be another reason for the person to have "missed" me? Well, if I assume that the person did that because they had something else in their mind that prevented them from seeing me, I may try to say hi again the next time we cross paths, and they may ignore me again, and I will get my feelings hurt again (and you have to think of me as someone who walks around with an open wound on my skin all over my body, meaning that I am very sensitive and easily hurt). My sense of worthlessness will be further confirmed and I will be leaving room for the other person to hurt me again, which is terrifying to me. Plus, if the person had their mind somewhere else that didn't allow them to acknowledge me, that means I can be invisible to others - which is also terrifying, because it is a confirmation of my lack of importance. But if I assume that the person didn't say hi because they are an a-hole not worth of my time, then I am protecting myself from ever getting hurt again (or so I believe) because I am crossing that person out of my life.
By not having their needs met or even acknowledged by that most important relationship of their lives while growing up (a parent or parental figure), the BPD person has never internalized any sense of self-worth. For all ends and purposes, they are worth nothing because that is what they were taught growing up. In their need to be loved, validated and acknowledged, and trying to find out how to earn those things from their caretaker, they've learned to be super attentive to everything they do, and they read everything surrounding them in relation to what they do or don't do. At some level, they are still trying to prove to themselves their value in every single relationship they establish. They are not relating to the person in front of them but to mom or dad, looking for that validation. Everything other people do is read in the light of the feedback they received from that original relationship. Every current relationship is, thus, at an unconscious level, a mirror of the beliefs that were taught to them through their parents, and that are currently their own beliefs about themselves.
Borderline Personality Disorder is a complex trauma-disorder, which characteristics and traces I will try to keep discussing here in further posts.
Do you or someone you know have BPD? How is your experience? Tell me about it!
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