Borderline Personality Disorder and Fear of Abandonment
(This is the first in the series on Borderline Personality Disorder.)
Twenty years ago, I was having a mental meltdown. During one counselling session, my therapist conducted a survey in the DSM IV on Borderline Personality Disorder (the DSM 5 had not yet been published). She looked up and said, “Amazing, you have all the symptoms.”
First of all, let me explain. Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) is not “borderline”; this is a term that was used to describe people with mental disorders somewhere between psychotic and neurotic, in other words somewhere between problems with the mind or with the brain. More recently it is being used to describe people with mental issues that cannot be treated by convention means; there is no chemical imbalance, therefore, no psychoactive drug therapy. According to the DSM 5 (yes, that’s correct – The DSM IV uses Roman Numerals and the DSM 5 uses the Arabic Numerals), it is a dysfunction involving significant impairment of self-identity, the ability to relate to others, and difficulty with impulse control. When sexual issues are involved, self-loathing, feelings of emptiness and worthlessness, and unhealthy impulses are usually centered on sexuality.
The first symptom listed on the DSM IV is Fear of Abandonment. This fear usually originates in childhood abuse or neglect. In the object (relationship) constancy theory, the child develops a psychological representation of the parent that satisfies the need for contact when separated. With neglectful or abusive parents, the child may not be able to develop relationship constancy and therefore may suffer from separation anxiety that could eventually lead to fear of abandonment. The DSM 5 defines this fear as “Separation Insecurity”. It includes “fears of rejection by – and separation from – significant others, associated with fears of excessive dependency and complete loss of autonomy”. There are two significant aspects to this symptom, namely fear of rejection and dependency.
In my case, I was born into a single parent family. My mother now had nine children and did not have the time or the ability to meet my need for emotional nurturing. In addition, after her husband left, she had an affair and got pregnant with me. Being a devout Catholic, I became the embodiment of her mortal sin. She also had a mental breakdown after I was born, so I was raised for the first six months by my seventy-six year old grandmother while the rest of the children were temporarily sent to an orphanage. My grandmother died that same year. After my mother returned, I was raised by my thirteen year old sister who quit school to look after me. I never bonded with my mother. This resulted in a sense of abandonment that would plague me for the rest of my life.
I may still have a Borderline Personality Disorder, but I now understand it and have learned to live with it. Somewhat like in the movie, The Beautiful Mind, I now know when my disorder is throwing false information at me, and I can simply reject it and function with the truth: I know who I am; I love and care for myself, and I appreciate my mind and body. But that was a long and painful journey.
Some degree of abandonment fear can be normal, but when fear of abandonment is severe and frequent, it can lead to a whole host of problems. A person who has experienced abandonment may be more likely to have long-term mental health issues. We may have mood swings or be unable to control our emotions. Our self-esteem can also be affected making it harder to feel worthy or to be intimate. These fears make us prone to anxiety, depression, co-dependency or other issues.
Abandonment fear usually affects our ability to form, lasting relationships. We may feel “other” or disconnected from those around us. We may have difficulty trusting others, and in extreme cases, may exhibit some form of paranoia. As adults we may be afraid of being abandoned and may over work to keep our partner from leaving or we may go to extremes to hold onto the relationship often abandoning our own physical and emotional needs. On the other hand, we may tend to display compulsive behavior and thought patterns that sabotage our relationships. Any slight may be interpreted that our partner no longer loves us. From the partner’s point of view, the sudden personality shift seems to come from nowhere. She may be confused as to why we are suddenly acting clingy and demanding, smothering her with attention, or pulling away altogether.
If the fear is mild and well-controlled, we may be able to control it simply by becoming educated about our tendencies and learning new behavior strategies. For most people, though, the fear of abandonment is connected to deep seated issues. Therapy may be required to build the self-confidence needed to truly change destructive thought and behavior patterns.
My five suggestions people with BPD:
- We get in touch with our higher self and practice self-love and self-care and make sure our own wants and needs are met.
- It is important to talk about our fears. We need to have at least one significant other who understands the issues we face.
- We may wish to be a part of a support group that deals with abandonment issues.
- We can become passionate about our own lives. We systematically build self-confidence and believe that we are strong enough to cope with whatever life throws our way. We look forward to the challenges instead of withdrawing from them.
- If we cannot control our fears we can seek therapy. We can search for therapists who use Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT), which is designed specifically to help those with BPD. Therapy sessions provide skills and practice focusing on stress management, emotion regulation, and interpersonal skills.