If you have Borderline Personality Disorder everything feels like a threat. In order to bury monsters, you must first go back and bring the inner child up for air
With this diagnosis emotions are intense. Really fucking intense. One of the theories as to why those of us with BPD feel that much more deeply than others, is that in times of distress we are unable to conjure a Soothing Introject to help us calm down. Instead we create a Malevolent Other as a way to cope. You’ll be surprised to learn theres a langauge to explain paranoia and dissociation, and with it comes the insight to pursue recovery. Rewind back to the fusty world of psychoanalysis, and we get three words in need of intepretation.
Object Cathexis is a term which describes our emotional attachment to what’s around us. A favourite teddy bear, a cosy blanket, a hug from someone we love are all examples of Cathexis. They demonstrate our investment in the environment, our interest in life, and a future of endless possibilities.
Object hunger is the opposite of Cathexis. It describes the state where we are constantly seeking out objects to comfort us and ward of the inner state of emptiness which comes from our disbelief and distrust in the world around us. Common objects we hunger for include family, friends and partners but we can also use drugs, alcohol, food or sex to fill the void.
Introjection When we like something we create a mental image of it. Introjection describes the minds ability to incorporate objects into conciousness. We create symbols so when our favourite objects disappear from view we never lose them entirely. A deceased loved one looking down from above, a best friend who we know we can call when we’re depressed, a family member we can turn to in a crisis.This is intojection.
At the beginning of our infancy, we were unable to identify what was inside and what was out. The difference between subject and object didn’t exist. It wasn’t simply: ‘I’m hungry I need my mum to feed me,’ rather just ‘hunger!’ Everything was chaotic and filled with light and sound.
As we got older, our parents would have shown us the outside world. If we had good parents we would have developed faith and trust in the environment and the people in it. We develop Object Cathexis. If we had bad parents, who didn’t teach us about the outside world, but instead gave the impression it was hostile and unreliable, we would have developed skepticism and distrust towards it. We’d be left with Object Hunger.
In order to get overcome infancy, we developed the skill of introjection. That is to say we emotionally invested in objects and then recreated them in our mind in the form of mental images. If we have good parents, we’d internalise their positivity, and as they love us, we’d love ourselves. We’ll go through life with a belief that there are people in the world who care for us in times of trouble. If we have bad parents, we’ll internalise their negativity, and if it appears they don’t love us, we will assume that’s because we’re unlovable. We’ll go through life, feeling threatened and alone without anybody to help.
For those of us with Borderline Personality Disorder, we were all be familiar with the feeling of being out of control and burning with pain. One of the reason’s it feels so bad is we are unable to conjure a Soothing Introject. In other words, we can’t create in our minds the image of someone who loves us, and are therefore unable to create the feeling of love even for ourselves.
Feeling unloved and unworthy of love is a terrible experience. In order to cope we may resort to self-harm, in order to communicate. If our attempts at communication fall on deaf ears, we may become paranoid and dissociated. One of the most negative ways to bypass the need for the Soothing Introject is the creation of the Malevolent Other. If you have BPD you’ll anticipate threat before it even arrives. You’ll be hyper-vigilant to danger and watching others closely for clues about their intentions. The blessing of exquisite sensitivity is being highly empathetic to those around us, the curse is that our perceptions can be wrong. When we experience a strong emotion, the world and ourselves can suddenly feel unreal. We may create persecution in order to help us understand and cope with our situation.
It happens unconsciously: When feeling of fear or distress become overwhelming we create a ‘Malevolent Other’ to help us understand the situation. Usually it will be a symbol that by transference we place on someone we know — a parent, partner or friend: They suddenly become an enemy. It may appear as if they are out to get us.
This is why people with BPD in times of immense upheaval can display psychotic symptoms. Reality testing is impaired, but not completely broken, because the feelings of persecution come and go, and when we calm down they cease. The problem is when we experience a strong emotion, we are swept up in the cognitive dysfunction and come to believe it. In this case we create an enemy because we feel that the body and mind is under attack.
Many parents feel stigmatised by us survivors of Borderline Personality Disorder. They feel that we’ve unfairly scapegoated them as being bad parents and even child-abusers. We know that while BPD is highly correlated with childhood trauma, some individuals with the diagnosis grew up in relatively mild family environments and go into adulthood unscathed. How do we account for the discrepancy? The answer lies in the failure of the Soothing Introject and the creation of the Malevolent Other. Now we’re treading on a very controversial subject here, because it appears to say survivors are prone to fabrication. This could potentially stop them speaking out.
The truth is many of us have grown up in invalidating environments, and whether it was low level and took the form of excessive criticism, or was more serious and involved physical or sexual abuse, all of us have scars. We don’t want to be called liars. More often than not, it is the survivor who has a more accurate representation of family members than their family would like to admit. If we feel abandoned and mistreated it’s likely that we have experienced such treatment when we were children, and the feeling has carried over into adulthood. This is where the Malevolent Other can make a more subtle appearance, in disguise so to speak. Malevolence is very real experience for a child growing up in a broken home, and if this threat is exaggerated in adulthood it’s only because the threat felt overwhelming when we were young. Likewise if we are unable to conjure a Soothing Introject now, it’s because we had no one soothed us when we were children. This means the symbol isn’t invented, but ressurected. Brought back from the dead, when it should have remained buried.
Being unable to conjure a soothing introject is akin to the real life problem of having no one to comfort us when we cry, no one to hug us when we’re broken. Family, friends and professionals ask a lot: We have to tolerate burning pain of emotions in and of themselves, and the auxiliary feeling of feeling no one cares. The frightening fact is that with BPD our levels of impairment are so extreme, that we may be lonely because we’re alone, we maybe paranoid because professionals do in fact stigmatise us.
One of the first principles of recovering from trauma is establishing safety. Usually that means creating distance from others, so the body and mind has a chance to heal. It can mean cutting off family, friends, or potential relationships for our own protection. Sometimes we have to start from scratch, and that means isolating the trauma and starving it into submission. When we’ve done this, symptoms will go into remission. It’s now time to to create new symbols. We can all recreate the inner child, and regain that sense of spontaneity and freedom we had in youth.
Burying the malevolent other is hard work! Conjuring a soothing introject is harder. In real terms it means we have to let go of the past and embrace the future. It won’t be without challenges; stigma, discrimination, loneliness, and depression may lie in wait. But that’s better than being borderline. You will be out of the unrelenting crisis, and working towards a life worth living. It’s time to rediscover the world and begin life once again.