Rabbi Azriel Hauptman
Family feuds and estrangement are by their very nature extremely complicated. No two scenarios are alike and there are various factors that can precipitate such a situation. In this article, we will focus on one variable that can play a role and that is when one of the parents has borderline personality disorder.
Borderline personality disorder (BPD) is a disorder characterized by intense emotional dysregulation that significantly affects the way you perceive yourself and others with whom you interact. The symptoms include distorted self-image, emotional instability, unstable intense relationships, and impulsive behaviors. At the core of BPD is a deep feeling of emptiness and a fear of abandonment coupled with an intense fear of closeness to other people. This leads to the individual with BPD fluctuating being idealizing other people or devaluating them. When they feel fear of closeness, they will push people away violently and view them as bad or worthless. When they feel fear of abandonment, they will draw people near to them, idealize them, and exaggerate their positive qualities.
In a family, this can lead to very chaotic relationships. When a parent has BPD, they will sometimes shower their child with intense love and affection, and then on a moment’s notice switch gears and berate their child and call them all types of vile names. The conflicting emotions of fear of abandonment and fear of closeness combined with emotional dysregulation can cause a parent’s feeling towards their child to switch between polar opposites. A child growing up in such an environment will be confused as the message they are receiving is, “I hate you, don’t leave me” (which happens to be the title of a book about BPD).
Another manifestation of this type of emotional reaction is that some people are idealized and some are devaluated. In other words, people are either very good or very bad. This is a defense mechanism that emanates from their fear of abandonment and closeness. Those who seem good need to be held close at all costs and those that seem bad need to be pushed away at all costs.
Sometimes, this can exist within one family. Child A is the golden child and child B is the black sheep. Aunt A we talk to and aunt B we do not talk to, and so on and so forth. Family feuds or estrangement can easily develop from this kind of chaotic atmosphere.
If one is in a situation where one of the individuals that is fueling the family feud might have BPD, it would be advisable to seek the help of a mental health professional who is well versed and trained in BPD. There are strategies, some of them counterintuitive, which can be helpful when navigating the BPD landscape. Additionally, understanding BPD on a deeper level helps you feel compassion and empathy for the individual who is suffering from BPD.
In recent years, the psychology world has made key advances in the treatment of BPD. With the right type of intervention, not only can the individual with BPD feel better, the entire family system can heal.