Understanding the Borderline Personality

By Shari Schreiber, M.A.


If you've ever been involved with a borderline disordered individual, you've struggled with massive confusion. The great disparity between their words and actions alone, has you running in circles, and trying to make sense of it all. Should you believe your lover when he/she states they "love you more than anything, and all they want is your happiness"--or should you accept their destructive, diminishing behaviors as proof that all those declarations aren't actually true? You'll reluctantly doubt their emotional health/sanity, because one minute they're adoring you--but just an hour or so later, they're shutting down, cheating on you or wanting to break up!

Add to this, the Borderline could make statements to you about needing to break it off--but the very instant you agree, or confirm that this is possibly a sound choice, they'll accuse you of wanting out! I'd had this happen with a BPD client who engaged my assistance. After only two sessions (which went very well) she phoned to say that she didn't feel comfortable pursuing this work with me. As I validated her concerns and addressed how my methods might not be a fit for her (based on her resistance to even consider healthy change), she accused me of wanting to terminate her as a client!! That was her projection; she needed me to be 'the bad guy' and abandon her, so she could retain her inner-narrative; "nobody can help me/everyone leaves," and managed to find great fault with me, just as she had her former therapist.

You've probably gone through this in your own dance with a Borderline, but do not take it personally, or try to convince them that they authored the upset between you. This is their cognitive distortion at work, and you're not gonna change that. Many Borderlines who call me looking for "healing," reject it as soon as they discover that emotional growth is an integral part of this process. Growth brings change, and change is terrifying to them. Thus, they generally remain pitiful, tireless seekers of something they cannot accommodate, and don't actually want.

Borderlines are extremely insecure. They'll act-out their ambivalent feelings and fears surrounding attachment, with anyone close--even the professional they're engaging for help. They will do with their clinician, what they've done with you. A solid/meaningful therapeutic alliance jostles their defenses, and makes them want to retreat. They need constant reassurance you won't kick them out of treatment--but they'll test this relationship to see how far they can push the envelope with last-minute rescheduling, missing appointments, self-sabotaging (to avert growth), ignoring productive suggestions, etc.

Borderlines bandy about the word 'love' with casual abandon. You'll want to believe them when they say it--but most Borderlines are pathological liars; it's simply become part of their survival strategy, since childhood. They can easily hide sexual and emotional affairs from their partners/spouses, and if you're stupid enough to think it won't happen to You, think again!

In the 1964 movie My Fair Lady, Rex Harrison's character sings this plaintive lament; "Why can't a woman be more like a man? Men are so honest and thoroughly square, eternally noble and historically fair." Truth is, Borderlines are more like men--at least, at the onset of their relationships. They present as comfortable/at ease with their sexuality (and what man hasn't wished for that his entire adult life?). There are facets of the Borderline that can make you feel like you're with one of the guys. She's forthright, open, easy-going and fascinating, all encased in one lovely package. She adores all the things you do--and it feels amazing that this delightful creature is so into you.

This is The Hook of course--the honeymoon phase of your relationship, which has you excusing/overlooking her debilitating, castrating, abusive behaviors once you're on her fishing line--and that barb is so deeply imbedded, you can't even think of struggling free, for the injury it will cause you. You drop your guard when she says she's "just into something casual--and you've no cause for concern." You want to believe it--and so you do. I mean, who the hell would turn down this gorgeous person who wants to spend their days worshiping at your altar? The trouble is, those bad/crazy episodes soon begin multiplying, and now you're in the thick of it. You're hooked--and there's no turning back, despite their push-pull emotional gymnastics, love you/hate you stuff, etc. I have a favorite film, (500) Days of Summer that epitomizes your struggle for the emotional consistency and solid grounding with a Borderline, you'll never have a chance to experience.


Imagine that you're sitting in a boat having baited a fishing lure, and you're waiting for your next dinner to swim along and chomp on it. That would be your normal expectation, wouldn't it? Well, the Borderline ignores that lure in the water, and hoists herself into your vessel! This is utterly fantastic for any guy who's insecure, and wants to avoid the possibility of rejection, if he makes the first move. It's also a sure thing you've got a train wreck ahead, with another BPD girl. The only cure for attraction to Borderlines, is growing genuine confidence and self-worth.

Every inch of you has been craving that glorious beginning you had together, and I know how much you're wanting it back! It's tough to let that fantasy die--but you must. Truth is, there may be moments you think it's recaptured, but it will never be what it was at first--because you're already seduced. If there's no chase, the capture means nothing to a Borderline, which is why so many guys get dropped on their heads immediately after leaving their wife and family! No matter what she says to the contrary, as soon as you're Hers, she doesn't want you anymore (sexually or otherwise).

Metaphorically speaking, a well-fed, contented house cat will chase a mouse just for the sport of it. Once the rodent is captured, if it's smart enough to play dead, the kitty loses interest and walks away. If the mouse struggles to get free of the cat's claws, our feline holds on tighter and unwittingly kills its new toy. This is precisely what happens in your dance with a Borderline. When you're available, he/she isn't intrigued or excited by you.


Borderlines have major difficulty trusting anyone. This issue is left over from infancy and early childhood due to poor parenting, so don't personalize their lack of trust in you! You can't make this person trust you, which has nothing whatsoever to do with how dependable or loving you are. This issue existed way before you came along, so stop holding yourself responsible for it.

Initially, the Borderline mirrors for you absolutely everything you've always wanted to believe about yourself. As the relationship gets underway though, they echo how you really feel about yourself, deep down beneath your props or the markers of your success (the fancy houses/cars, your prodigious skills in bed, your thriving business, your splendid physique, etc.). You keep trying to revive that first image of yourself (at least, in their eyes), but it's futile, which triggers core shame. It's this awful feeling of shame that drives your feverish efforts to win him or her back, so you can get free of it.

A Borderline makes you feel responsible for their deceitful and manipulative behaviors; they could make you believe that if you just married them, they'd be devoted only to you, and life would be marvelous--but don't buy it! The truth is, the closer you get to a borderline disordered person, the more they freak-out and push you away. This paradox is due to their attachment fears.

They'll act highly indignant if you question their actual motives, or even hint that they've behaved without the utmost honesty/integrity--but this is their defense against failing to be perfect, which (for them too) triggers toxic core shame.

You might not have had much experience with real Love during the course of your life, so these contradictory messages can feel horribly confounding. The initial stages with a Borderline are sublime--and quite unlike anything you've ever experienced before. You start feeling as if you've finally found what you needed, your whole life. Hence, when he/she begins pushing away or finding fault with you, you'll be thinking; "this is only temporary--and I'll just fix the problem, or wait until it blows over. Surely they really love me, so this must be a simple misunderstanding, or glitch in communication."

Before you know it, sorting through this difficulty takes center stage in your world, and you're committed to doing whatever it takes, to rectify it. Even if you're not sure you've made an error, your partner's reactions are sufficiently intense/volatile to suggest that you must be the one who's at fault.

No matter how much you try to resolve/work through this conundrum, your lover has his/her own spin on it, and keeps needing to put the blame for this rupture on you. They'll never be able to see this issue from your perspective, nor will they accept your explanations of what you think actually happened. They begin bringing up things about you and your personality that just aren't true, and you start having to defend yourself in the midst of trying to fix the original upset. Now, you're completely thrown off your game, and there's no end in sight. In short, this little 'speed-bump' has turned into a gargantuan hurdle--and to make matters worse, your character is being impugned!


If you've learned as a kid to be an accommodator, and you're accustomed to always putting other's needs/feelings first, you may find yourself apologizing for crimes you haven't commited--just to restore harmony and peace to this relationship. God knows, your partner won't own their mistakes--and you've learned that days or weeks could pass, before he/she stops punishing you by withdrawing, and this cold war is finally over (for awhile, anyway). You might be tempted to "take the higher road" and bridge this chasm, but has anyone ever done this with you--or is it only your job to make things right?

Every person who contacts me for help to recover from these relationships is immersed in guilt and shame. This doesn't feel like any other break-up, and you can't just walk away--not with your ego intact, anyway. You're raw and hurting--and the worst part is, you're beating yourself up for it! A long-held belief might be; "If I feel bad in a relationship, it must surely be my fault" but that's an erroneous assumption you cultivated as a child, due to faulty parenting.

Much of your confusion and torment might have begun way back then, if you had an abusive/critical or neglectful mom or dad, and the other parent told you it was "their way of loving you." Being wounded by a mother or father, and having their spouse routinely offer 'comfort' by convincing you that this pain you felt was really Love, could distort your sense of that emotion, and screw you up for a lifetime! Should you doubt your own parent on this point, or not accept the lie they fed you? How might you do that as a little kid, with no alternate frame of reference??

Since you unquestionably loved your parents--even as they were the source of your pain, you learned to accept that 'loving' came with anguish--and this became your relational blueprint, from which all your adult attachments have been built. Borderlines were similarly influenced, and all those painful childhood experiences frequently give rise to addictions.


Love is an abstract concept for somebody with BPD--and it's associated with pain. The Borderline's yearning for love is experienced as dramatic, painful emotions that were confused with affection for an unresponsive/unavailable parent during childhood, that constituted unrequited (or un-returned) love. Could this have also been true for you?

The Borderline carries tremendous toxic shame from never having felt worthy of love since infancy/early childhood. They've lived with sensations of having to buy a parent's love (getting 'em expensive gifts, visiting when they really don't want to, etc.) to gain approval and acceptance. They've done this with you, as well. Each time they've acted adorable, generous and seductive, it's to get their deep need for validation met--which has nothing to do with You.

The paradoxical nature of a Borderline is difficult to wrap your head around, as their reactions are often the opposite of how you'd think someone should respond, and it messes with your mind. For instance, the closer you get to him or her, the more they need to distance. For healthy folks, love and trust grow with time, and intimacy deepens. With the Borderline, as soon as they feel safe and good, abandonment concerns are stirred, attachment fears are right behind--and they have to push you away. Their survival depends on it, for to love, means devastating pain will follow. You can't change this.

The Borderline's deep hunger for love doesn't go away, but when you actually nourish it, dramatic feelings associated with wanting/longing for that love evaporate! Infatuation is exhilarating, but fleeting. Love is sustainable--and therefore, intolerable for a Borderline.

As an analogy, you could crave a favorite food. You're needing this appetite satisfied, and nothing else will quite hit the mark. After you eat that meal, your craving is appeased, and you're sated. With the Borderline, as soon as you gratify their craving for love, the sensations of "love" vanish. Given that love and pain have become entwined for them, someone with BPD believes; if it doesn't hurt, it must not be love--so folks who are capable of providing the love they really need, are taken for granted, punished or cast aside. Can it be, that you've also done this with others during the course of your lifetime?

This matter of paradox can be nothing short of excruciating, if we've always sought a parent's or older sibling's approval and affection, and keep coming up short--no matter how much we've contributed to those relationships! Ties that bind can also feel imprisoning, when our self-worth has depended on the distorted reflections from dysfunctional others. This is like daily looking into a warped Fun House mirror, and coming to accept that image of yourself as accurate and real. The Borderline simply retraumatizes old wounds.

You might come to surmise that you're both core-damaged, so why can't this make for a compatible, successful relationship? Have you ever observed two little children playing well together--but if there's an upset between them, they lack conflict resolution skills, and it takes an adult to intercede? Lack of adult development means that conflicts escalate, and there's no such thing as problem-solving, which is why couples therapists thrive! Perhaps you've experienced this with your borderline partner, and either gave-up/gave-in, or had to break away until all that tension eased--only to return to find it had blown over with no resolution, and this cycle repeats over and over.


It isn't that Borderlines haven't wanted love--it's that they have never been able to trust it. Partners who occasionally meet their need for closeness are less threatening than those who can provide it on a consistent basis.

Trying to gain the upper-hand by being someone you're not just to keep your Borderline interested in you, never works. The roots of this are deeply buried in your childhood where you learned to surrender huge chunks of yourself, for the sake of getting a little care, approval or affection from your folks. If you think you can control this relationship by protecting your heart, you're in for some serious pain. You cannot win with a damaged/dysfunctional individual, but your ego will certainly want to keep trying--even against all odds.

Loving a Borderline means you're always walking a high-wire, which is based solely on their emotional comfort, feelings or needs--and there's zero room in that relationship, for yours! You'll spend a lot of time and energy thinking about how to balance on this tightrope, so you don't fall and crack your head open--but it's a futile exercise. In truth, the more you give-in to this person, the less they respect you. How can they, if you can't respect yourself enough to take a firm stand for your own needs and desires??


I'm occasionally contacted by psychotherapists needing help with particularly difficult BPD patients/clients. A few clinicians have given over control of that therapeutic relationship to the Borderline--and there's intense drama, chaos and abuse that comes their way within sessions. During our consultations, I coach them on setting very firm limits and boundaries, and taking back their power. A rageful, abusive Borderline is literally screaming for containment. The therapist must be willing to treat these patients differently than others, and protect themselves during their entire process--even if it means leaving his/her office for a few minutes throughout the session. Bottom line, there's no excuse for abuse--and you cannot reason with a three year old.

There might be concern that a waif-type could self-injure, in response to this firmer, direct treatment, but quite the opposite is true. As I've mentioned in some of my other literature, the Borderline is much like somebody without a skin holding them in. Like a good parent, you must provide the container for them, and not put up with any nonsense. It's the only way they feel cared about and safe. When husbands learn to do this with BPD wives, their home life becomes a lot more bearable, and even pleasant.

Your Diva's emotionally a toddler who lacks impulse control and boundaries. Don't believe me? Ask any film director. Expect rebellion, but stay firm.

A small child cannot hold feelings for very long, and emotional dysregulation is natural to this phase of development. They're monumentally disappointed if you've promised something you can't deliver--and they'll hate you, throw a temper tantrum or pout, when they don't get their way. It's usually a pretty short period before their temperament shifts, and they're giggling and loving you again--and if you've spent any real time around a toddler, you know how easy it is to cheer them up. It might only take a lollipop!

Part of this acting-out involves their need to learn where your limits are, and how far they can push the envelope with you, before they get punished. This stage is usually referred to as 'the terrible two's,' but it lasts for awhile--and you'll get so frustrated at times, you might find yourself thinking; how can I flush this rascal down the toilet?! The Borderline hasn't developed their own container--and like a small kid, they're dependent on you to make the rules, so they can feel protected. They're continually having to test these limits, because they haven't grown any of their own--and their absence of impulse-control is what Dr. Sigmund Freud termed the "Id" or infancy impulses, that define their need for instant gratification.

An infant is ruled solely by instinctual, libidinal urges. There is no capacity for mood regulation, empathy, higher thinking or sensing right from wrong. Their needs are primal/selfish, because their survival depends on it. If adult development hasn't been successfully acquired, narcissism typically results. An emotionally underdeveloped person continually wrestles with relationship difficulties, addictions, personality disorder traits, low self-esteem and poor tolerance for delayed gratification.

Higher-functioning Borderlines within the psychotherapeutic community, may have developed solid clinical skills--but frequently maintain erratic push-pull dynamics in their romantic relationships. Nourishing friendships and collegial attachments are often sabotaged, when another is viewed as wiser or more gifted than they, because their core shame is (inevitably) invoked.

Certain materials on the Internet speak about 'hoovering.' I generally resist using hackneyed terms associated with this disorder, but this one perfectly describes a Borderline's nature to want/need you, as soon as they're aware they can't have you. The challenge of sucking you back in when their craving erupts, is what that word encapsulates. Once their appetite abates, they're done with you all over again--and this repetitive cycle continues, until one of you gets sick and tired of it. Literally.

You might want to escape this toxic relationship, but you just can't imagine "abandoning" your Borderline. Let's be clear: A Borderline's troubles started long before you came along, and you're not going to rewrite their history, no matter how hard you try! You are not 'abandoning' this person (their parents managed to do that), you're simply leaving to take better care of You!

Borderlines weren't able to form solid bonds of trust during infancy with their mothers. They couldn't get enough attention, mirroring and nurturing in the earliest stages of life. Every child needs these crucial emotional supplies to believe they're lovable, and build a sturdy sense of Self. Children who grow up without these elements, assume those deficits are their fault--and they must be flawed and unlovable. If you've become a People Pleaser, this could also have happened to you! In truth, you've both wrestled with similar core wounds, so it feels like his/her puzzle fits with yours, and vice-versa.


If you have an iPhone, iPad or iPod this app will let you hear this material; http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/web-reader-text-to-speech/id320808874?mt=8

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