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This section was my workspace for philosophy essays between July 2006 and April 2008. I call this "Prehistoric Kilroy" because it gave me practice for more disciplined essays in Kilroy Cafe. Also see my philophical blog and Twitter feed.

Issue #1, 7/24/2006

What is Borderline Disorder?

By Glenn Campbell
Family Court Philosopher

NOTE: This topic is covered better in Essay #50: The Volatiles. The essay below (the first in our Philosophy section) is retained mainly for archive purposes.

Borderline Personality Disorder is the Big One. In my view it is the single most destructive and pervasive mental illness, but hardly anyone in general society seems to know about it.

Actually, you do know about it; you're just not familiar with the label. If you have ever dealt with a surly adolescent, you have tasted borderline disorder. Teenagers are borderline almost by definition. Think of their characteristics: highly impulsive, sometimes explosive, highly sensitive about being controlled by adults yet easily controlled by their peers, volatile in mood, easily swayed by simplistic ideas, not open to negotiation. They have great difficulty regulating their emotions. (Think back to your own adolescence, and you'll remember it.) We expect kids to be this way, and this is why we continue to give them protection during their adolescent years, even if their bodies are nearly mature.

We don't expect adults to behave like impulsive teenagers, and this is essentially what borderline disorder is. Only it's worse, because adults have more power.

The diagnostic manual has a certain set of criteria for Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD), which is said to afflict about 2% of the population, but if you broaden the criteria a bit, the borderline style affects EVERYBODY. It is part of you and a part of me. If you understand the borderline style, then you can understand many of the seemingly inexplicable and self-destructive things people do.

The name "borderline" is useless. The word came about for historical reasons and doesn't really describe the disorder. (A better name might be Emotional Regulation Disorder.) Borderlines aren't on the "borderline" on anything; in fact, their views tend to be quite extreme and constantly changing. Mostly, they complain, complain, complain, in public or private, about whatever has gone wrong in their lives. Anything bad that has happened is never their fault. Whenever you see someone yelling at someone else in a parking lot or a customer complaining bitterly to a hapless clerk about the failings of their organization, you are probably watching a borderline in action.

In Family Court, I believe that borderline disorder or something like it touches the vast majority of cases. Nearly every divorce that we would consider "nasty" involves at least one borderline party. Either they fit the formal criteria for the disorder or they carry many of its traits. Once a Borderline loses control of their emotions, they can't resolve their interpersonal problems on their own, so they need a court to do it for them.

Juvenile delinquency is usually a borderline-like problem, because we are usually talking about impulsive and useless emotional acts that don't achieve anything. Child abuse and neglect also tend to involve borderline traits. It is usually parental drug abuse that brings children into custody, but there is a psychological force behind the drug abuse, and I contend that this is a defect in emotional regulation.

What is the borderline "style"?

It is obvious when you meet it but very difficult to describe. Borderlines are the people WHO NEVER ACCEPT RESPONSIBILITY FOR THEIR OWN ACTIONS. They are the assholes of the world who, once they reach a certain level of emotional stress, consistently blame others for their own problems.

Because of defects in his upbringing, the borderline has very fragile self-esteem. It is so fragile that he can't accept any negative news about himself. When any negative news reaches him, he uses a variety of defense mechanisms to deflect blame elsewhere. For example, when you criticize him, he may get angry at you, pointing out your defects and how you are to blame for whatever you criticized him for; thus, your criticism, even if benignly intended, never "gets through."

Borderlines may look like you and me on the surface but they respond to the world in a whole different way, which is driven by this extreme emotional sensitivity. The borderline style is all about "killing the messenger" when he tries to deliver bad news rather than responding to what the messenger has to say.

Once you have accepted the position that "I am not responsible for my own actions and feelings," then all sorts of bizarre behavior can result, from dramatic mood swings to violence toward others and even theatrical suicide attempts.

Borderline is a "philosophical disorder." You and I have each made a philosophical decision at some point that we are not the center of the universe. We may be proud of our identity, but we don't believe that the world exists only for our benefit. The borderline has never made this leap. He can acknowledge intellectually that that he is not the center of the universe, but emotionally he still thinks he is.

The "mood swings" observed by others, to him are nonexistent. In his view, it is the WORLD that is changing from moment-to-moment, and he is merely responding to it.

Think of the abusive spouse, who worships his partner one minute then berates them the next. In his partner's view, nothing has changed to justify the shift, but in the borderline's view, their change in attitude is entirely justified by the partner's shift from "good" to "evil."

The central psychological phenomenon in borderline disorder is something called "splitting." This is when a person divides the world up into "good" and "bad" components and reacts to them separately, without any attempt to reconcile them.

In the borderline's view, instead of there being one Glenn, there are actually two: the kind, attentive, benevolent Glenn who takes care of your needs, and the mean, abusive, selfish Glenn who will do everything in his power to hurt you.

In my view, I am just one Glenn. I've got my strengths and weaknesses, but I try to be consistent and logical. Sometimes I am relaxed and happy-go-lucky, and sometimes I am firm and demanding. The difference in my behavior, as I see it, is due to the differing circumstances that I am facing. I am not two people — a Jekyll and Hyde. I am, I acknowledge, a limited human being who is trying to do his best in the circumstances he is facing.

The borderline, however, cannot see my struggles. In fact, he can't see anyone's struggles. He can only see his own. His is an egocentric/narcissistic position which says that the world exists for me.

To the borderline, Glenn is a god. Glenn is also a devil. Glenn is never a human being in between.

If you are a borderline, and you are engaged in a relationship with Glenn, you do not experience any mood swings yourself. Instead, it is Glenn who goes through the mood swings: he flips back and forth between "good" and "evil". In your mind, your changes in attitude and your occasional abuse of Glenn are a reasonable reaction to Glenn's emotional abuse of you.

The borderline pushes all responsibility outward. If he murders somebody IT IS ALWAYS THE VICTIM'S FAULT. The borderline's ego is too fragile to allow any personal responsibility when the emotional stakes are high.

Any affronts to the ego are met with a DEFENSE MECHANISM — or some flaw of reasoning which shifts blame elsewhere. If a teacher gives you a bad grade on a test, it is the TEACHER'S FAULT for being biased against you or for not teaching you right. It is never your fault for not studying or not being smart enough.

The borderline feels, at a fundamental unconscious level, that he is not smart, not worthy, not valuable. He can never openly acknowledge this however. There is a mechanism deep in the human psyche that demands self-esteem, and if it can't be achieved by doing impressive things in the world, then it is achieved by trickery — by killing the messenger.

The borderline's worldview can be thought of like this: You live on a planet, right? The planet is solid beneath your feet, and if you walk from place to place, it is you that is moving and not the planet. You wouldn't say, when you are walking to the store, that you are staying stationary and the whole world is moving under your feet, propelled by the force of your legs.

Yet this is exactly the position that we all start out with. When we are born and first open our eyes, we think we are the center of the universe. We have to LEARN that the world exists as constant force outside of us. This concept is called "object constancy."

The borderline never really figures this out, at least in an emotional sense. In particular, he never really understands that other people have an independent existence of their own. At least, he cannot see this when other people compete with his own needs.

A borderline can read novels and watch TV and identify with the characters he sees. He can identify with a fictional character or a pet because there is no conflict with his own needs. If you introduce any emotional risk, however, this ability to identify with others slips away. Your own vulnerabilities overwhelm your ability to empathize. Someone who opposes your needs or exposes your weaknesses is "evil" while someone who supports your self-esteem is "good." Under emotional pressure, other people cease to have an independent existance apart from those labels.

If you see a person as evil, then there is no limit to the amount of abuse you can heap on them. The evil Glenn deserves any punishment you can give him, since he is no better than Hitler. The borderline has no comprehension that by punishing the evil Glenn he is also pushing away the good Glenn who the borderline desperately needs.

[End of allotted time.]

Reader Comments

“clear and informative” — 1/16/07 (rating=3)

“How can you say such things?” — 8/9/07 (rating=0)

“Completely unqualified.” — 8/9/07 (rating=0)

“Replete with flagrant lies.” — 8/9/07 (rating=0)

“You are absolutely heartless.” — 8/9/07 (rating=0)

“10% of borderlines do end up killing themselves.” — 8/9/07 (rating=0)

“A very concise summary of a difficult disorder to describe accurately.” — 8/27/07 (rating=4)

“The best description I've read. Heartless?, obviously these people never had to deal with one of these sub-human creatures...pure evil.” — 9/4/07 (rating=5)

“As one who is going through a divorce from a female borderline, this is well-written and concise. Good description.” —npd/free from pain 9/14/07 (rating=3)

“the truth hurts” —son of a gun 9/15/07 (rating=2)

“The analogies in this article help define the disorder!!! thank you.” —recently divorced from a borderline man (thank God) 10/2/07 (rating=3)

“I recently stayed with a nuclear family where the wife (a social worker) and the husband (very small business owner) and their three children live in this circus every day. This woman is a piece of work. You can only find a reasonable explanation for her erratic behavior. When her boys are teenagers. I hope her husband finds the balls to divorce her for their sake.” — 2/9/08 (rating=2)

“I find it interesting that you mentioned how a person who is Borderline divides the other person into "all good" and "evil". This, in my opinion, is yet another case of "projection" - whatever way they feel about themselves at that moment, they project onto you. YOU don't change - their emotional response, however, does. "Tag, you're it!"” —Erik 3/13/08 (rating=3)

“BPD and happily married for 20 years. Do some more research before you put us all in the same basket, please - and get out of the stereotyping. It's inhuman to call another human being inhuman. Big difference between the overuse and must abused adjective of "borderline" and the complex constellation of painful dysphoria under stress, hypervigilance, cognitive deficits and profound inner feelings of inadequacy, guilt and despair that make up a true dx of BPD. Leave it for professionals, please.” —West 3/24/08 (rating=0)

“BPD's only think in black and white under stress. Whereas the Glenns of this world... funny they say that most partners of Borderlines that end of in the divorce court suffer from Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Which is just the kind of character disorder that gets off on calling those who disagree with them "assholes"...” —Not Glenn thank God 3/24/08 (rating=0)

“Fit my borderline to a "T".” —cjs 5/19/08 (rating=5)

“It's quite clear from this quote from Glenn - "They are the assholes of the world" - that he isn't trained to make any kind of diagnosis or offer any useful advice, either. What kind of disorder do you have, Glenn, that allows you to blithely categorize people you don't know as assholes?” —make better use of your time Glenn 5/24/08 (rating=0)

“Classic... taking the very symptoms which describe a recognized psychological disorder to damn the person who suffers from the disorder as "assholes of the world." Glenn, would you characterize someone who was paralized as an "asshole cripple"? If not, why not? You're doing the same thing with your broad-stroke damnation of BPD sufferers. Useful critique would not include inflamatory language, which show how unuseful your posting really is.” —Not going to stoop to Glenn's level 5/25/08 (rating=0)

“Married to a borderline for 22 yrs - did you live in my house!! It was a briliant article whose point was very well made/” —RJ in Ohio 5/29/08 (rating=3)

“The introductory sentense says it all ... The very most destructive of mental illnesses.” — 6/1/08 (rating=5)

“I think your putting yourself, your own pain too much in the frefront (your using the term "asshole" destroys the credibility of an otherwise extremely insightful set of observations about BPD. I feel bad for the terrible experience you must have had with a borderline, but it's a DISEASE, and uncontrolled, it hurts everything and everyone it touches. Try to think of your article as your contribution, one step towards bringing awarness to a subject that needs so much attention and research ... maybe someday, what you have written can, in the end, contribute to a cure to such a sad and destructive, heartbreaking disorder. I know of what I speak ... my heart is scarred from BPD too.” —Otto (NYC) 6/1/08 (rating=3)

“eat shit.” — 6/1/08 (rating=0)

“Factual inconsistencies in abundance. A psychoanalyst would tell you that you have "countertransfernce" - bias, blind spots, and ignores the good in borderlines - Why dont you write something on what good a borderline can bring to peoples lives. After all history is replete with fine examples of erractic impulsive people. IF the world were a bit more accepting and understanding, there would be less borderline conditions” —Psychologist 6/6/08 (rating=0)

“Seems to me we have examples of BPD right here in the comments as people attempt to deflect the reality of what is being said here. I love the Psychologist comment "IF the world were a bit more accepting and understanding.." What of psychotic behavior? The world can change for the better to be sure, but being able to handle these emotional stresses is something that needs to be learned, or else these people do behave like assholes! It is an observation, not condemnation.” —Marc 6/14/08 (rating=5)

“Perfect!” —Kennedy 8/5/08 (rating=5)

“clearly the first few comments and ratings of 0 were from a borderline. This is right on the money. I'm divorcing a borderline right now and your description was the hell i have lived for the past 3 years.” — 8/28/08 (rating=5)

“I am Borderline. I struggle taking responsibility yet when I have hurt another I do not blame them for my actions. Because I lack the internal resources to regulate my painful emotion I seek outwardly to resolve this problem. Yes I burden people, yes I avoid responsibility, yes I find it difficult to relate to others, to empathize, yes I split others into 'good' and 'bad' when others do not meet my expectations/ needs. I have come to accept most people do not, can not understand the internal chaos within the borderline and the fact most of the external controlling/ manipulative behaviours are acts of emotional desperations. By no means does the past abuse inflicted on a Borderline nor the internal suffering justify a murder, rape or other serious abuse the same applies to a person with Bi-polar, schizophrenia, PTSD, or AD/HD. Regardless of our afflictions we must continue on the path toward personal responsibility, we maybe hurt but how we choose to manage the internal hell is our responsibility but please for those who are genuinely trying please do not judges us based upon your own capabilities and motivations. If your legs were broken and people stood around you judging you & accusing you of not walking because you�re blaming would you feel a little confused? The inner world of the Borderline is broken.” —bpd123 9/27/08 (rating=3)

“"Assholes of the world"? "Subhuman"? I have BPD, and after reading this flagrant display of ignorance and some of the comments, I believe I can safely say that those of us with the disorder are not the ones who are assholes. I work hard to overcome the negative aspects of BPD...perhaps you should do the same with your ignorance and lack of manners. And you say WE lack empathy?” —Brandi 1/2/09 (rating=0)

“and the hateful comments on the bottom of the page actually prove all your points about BPD” — 6/27/09 (rating=5)

“Brandi's comment is spot on.” — 7/5/09 (rating=0)

“I find it interesting how those who have self-proclaimed BPD take offense to this very well written narrative. First of all, power to those who have accepted that they possess some of these behavioral traits. In my somewhat educated view, the writer is not talking about you. The person depicted in this article is incapable of understanding what he/she does, and probably has a support system (relatives or friends) that enables the destructive behavior.” —OK Then 10/25/09 (rating=5)

“Right on the money. The BPD's comments about this narrative are meaningless. Their comments are just another example of their refusal to accept responsibility for the reality of who and what they really are and the train wreck of emotional damage they leave behind. It is what it is � BPD�s are sub-human, sorry excuses for human beings. Unfortunately there is no help for BPD�s because they refuse to genuinely admit they have a problem. BPD�s will write that they admit they have problems but let me cut them off before they waste their time � their half-hearted attempts at therapy are nothing more than entertaining their sickness. BPD�s don�t want help � they only want to play a victim and assign blame to anyone other than themselves. BPD�s, ask yourselves one question � What is the common denominator in all your pathetic problems????? It would be YOU.” — 11/7/09 (rating=5)

“Terribly inaccurate.” — 11/21/09 (rating=0)

“Calling Borderlines "assholes" and "evil" may be correct depending on your perspective and your relationship to the disease. People, intellectuals freely call hitler the personification of pure evil. They never look into his psyche to determine if he was in emotional pain and did what he did as an emotional defense mechanism. But you readers might say "Come on! We're Comparing Borderlines to HILER?!?! " WEll in fact, Hitler's behavior has been deeply analyzed by mental health professionals, and they agree that Hitler, in fact, had Borderline Personality Disorder. Never mind the underlying "boo hoo, I have a fragile ego" BS, violence and antisocial behavior and cruelty to the point of sadism, projection or not, is still morally repugnant behavior. These people need to be removed from society for the safety and sanity of the rest of us. I'm sorry for what MADE them evil, but evil they are. And to those who say "but I'm borderline and I'm a good person" is comparing their case of the sniffles to a deadly cancer. In practical terms it's a whole different animal we're dealing with and calling the same thing. And I know of what I write here; I loved a borderline once, and paid a dear, dear price for it ... nearly paying for the gift of my love for her with my very life.” —Otto 12/30/09 (rating=4)

“One of the best descriptions of BPD I have ever read. My mom has BPD and the whole family struggles to live with her. It is truely the most distructive personality disorder because it ruins you as a person and everyone around you.” — 1/24/10 (rating=5)

“Anyone who says this is inaccurate has never dealt with a BPD or is one.” — 2/16/10 (rating=5)

“Allot PhD. self help authors B.S. allot without ever getting to the root of the problems people face. These things need to be told in order for humanity to help itself (Even if politically incorrect).” —Bus Admin CIS 2/18/10 (rating=5)

“Spot on. I lived with one who almost killed me, he still says it's my fault.” —Running away as fast as I can. 8/18/10 (rating=3)

“This is EXACTLY how my undignosed BPD soon to be Ex wife views the world. Since I left because I no longer could take the constant verbal and emotional abuse, and occasional physical abuse, she has turned into a "victim" and blames everything on me. Even better, her BPD parents moved into my house the day I left 6 months ago and they've slowly been helping to turn my poor kids against me. My oldest, 15, knows mom is loopy, but she has to live with her, and she is cutting communication off with me just like I did with my parents to keep from setting off my BPD wife. she has to live with her and fears retribution, which is very real. My poor daughters are living in a dreamworld created by 3 high conflict personalities in my old house. I feel helpless. To boot, she is using the court sustem to get her 10 pounds of flesh and dragging me to trial to exhaust me financially (her father is weakthy and her warchest is endless - I'm screwed). But, soon i'll be free of her, i just hope my kids acn weather the storm.” — 9/13/10 (rating=5)

“So Very True of my experience with a BPD husband... I am leaving after 20 years” —on my way out of this relationship with a BPD man 3/8/11 (rating=4)

“Best insight into the mind of the BPD person...I am in process of leaving my BPD husband after 20 years of this...wish I could take these years back. But the thought of growing old with him is more scary then venturing out into the unknown, with 3 kids...” —can't get out of here soon enough . 3/8/11 (rating=5)

“I live with a girl who has BPD...the most obnoxious, critical, mean-spirited person I have met in my life before...I love the people on her who have BPD (some say it, others imply it) spit out their virulent defense mechanisms in response to this article, but it's honestly so true to what my housemate does--she constantly berates people and manipulates everyone around the house, and loves leaving little hyper-aggressive notes around the house for things that were clearly accidents. She cannot understand that other people are just as complex and imperfect as herself. I honestly feel bad for her, but, if I were a health care professional, I would completely be at a loss as to how I could help someone who is so unable to have insight or empathy...There are just simple little rules of being kind and respectful that she has never learned due to her difficult child. I would love to reach out to her, but I'm too afraid of having her turn on me again (It makes my life painful and annoying).” —Terrified of my Roommate 3/10/11 (rating=5)

“Going through a divorce with a Borderlinevspuse. The article is spot on.” — 4/7/11 (rating=4)

“Very,very accurate. Dealing with them is soul destroying and extremely difficult.” — 6/30/11 (rating=5)

Ratings so far: 3 5 0 4 5 0 4 3 5 3 0 0 0 0 0 4 5 3 2 3 5 3 2 5 3 0 0 5 0 5 0 3 5 3 0 0 5 3 5 5 4 3 4 4 0 5 5 5 0 5 0 5 5 5 5 0 5 4 4 5 4 5 5 3 5 5 4 4 5 5 4 5 (Average=3.2)

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