Borderline Rage

BPD rage isn’t just an emotional reaction, it’s a key to their defense system.

The Borderline’s Monumental Ambivalence Toward Intimacy

One relatively neglected explanation for the overblown rage so common in borderline personality disorders (BPD) relates to their unresolved trust issues. More often than not they were taught, however unintentionally, by their parents’ unreliability, neglect, and criticism, not to trust them. That is, their caregivers weren’t very caregiving.

Such distrust in BPDs typically comes about quite early in their development, which is why many of the self-protective devices they adopted in reaction to their insufficient nurturing tend to be primitive. Overgeneralizing the family dynamic that engendered their distrust, they carry within them a deep ambivalence about how close they can safely get to others.

They’re also wary about permitting anyone to get very close to them. Emotionally, such closeness is experienced as too risky, since unconsciously it revivifies their childhood trauma of rejection and abandonment, of feeling desolate and all alone.

Whether in the past they matched their parents’ detachment with self-protective distancing of their own or resorted to clinging or people-pleasing behavior in hopes of establishing a greater attachment to them (or maybe just one of them), at some point they became aware that they could never achieve the secure union they sought. As a result, they desperately needed to discover ways of dulling the acute pain of such parental alienation.

One (of so many) ironies here is that in their efforts to moderate or escape the intense vulnerability they felt in growing up, their consequent behavioral programming reduces the chance that later they’d allow themselves to receive from another what their parents couldn’t offer them—and what, secretly, they still long for. Especially in a committed relationship where their partner might openly encourage them to move beyond their self-imposed barriers to intimacy, their now chronic feelings of distrust hamper their ability to respond positively.

Perhaps more than anything else, BPDs are driven to safeguard themselves from the pain they originally experienced, so the very closeness they yearn for is, paradoxically, too close for comfort. And so, ultra-sensitive to rejection, they can’t help but anxiously anticipate it. They’ve often been characterized as descending into paranoia because their suspiciousness of others can at times approach the delusional, their distorted perceptions compelling them to view others, unjustifiably, as hostile or threatening.

In short, BPDs are governed by sharply conflicting needs. Sometimes what’s dominant is the need to detach from others; other times what’s paramount is the craving to merge with them, to mitigate unsettling, depressing feelings of emptiness. Still suffering from never-met childhood dependency needs, they can’t resist, despite all their reservations, to repeatedly reach out for the succor unavailable to them earlier.

And when they are getting the closeness they crave, they themselves can become so scared by the perceived threat of imminent desertion that they scare others away. But in this instance, they do so by unwarrantedly and impetuously raging against them: undoubtedly, one of the strangest, most self-defeating defenses against abandonment imaginable.

BPDs and Their Pseudo-Solution of Rage

Also ironic in diagnosing Borderline Personality Disorder is that it’s often conflated with Bipolar Disorder. And that’s because both psychopathologies can involve rapid cycling between sharply opposing moods and states of mind.

Related to BPD’s extreme reactivity, the surprising speed of their mood swings is such that they’ve been described as suffering from emotional whiplash. That’s why their most problematic trait—namely, their over-the-top anger or rage—is analogous to a young child’s temper tantrums in that once they’ve begun they can’t regulate them—one reason that BPD is frequently referred to not only as a disorder of emotional and interpersonal instability but, too, of emotional dysregulation.

Viewed strictly as an interpersonal maneuver, the BPD’s rage doesn’t—and can’t—last indefinitely because another part of them longs for just that safe and secure relationship they never experienced as a child. So they’ll still “cancel” feelings of anger or rage when it feels even more frightening to have lost connection to the person with whom they experienced some harmony before getting triggered by them.

Certainly, not all BPDs are rageful, for they possess a large variety of defense mechanisms against shame and anxiety (including acting out, emotional hypochondriasis, passive aggression, projection, and splitting—which is to say, simplistic black & white, all-or-nothing thinking). Nonetheless, their poorly managed anger may be their most highlighted defense inasmuch as it can be so off-putting to others.

Plus, over time this most infamous of their defenses may, though unconsciously, have come to feel absolutely essential to them if they’re to adequately protect themselves from future disappointments and hurts. Similar to most of their other defense mechanisms, however, it’s (over-) generalized to anyone with whom they have a close connection and developed an almost childlike dependency.

Frankly, it may not matter who that other person is or how they might act. It’s the emotional proximity itself that can mobilize their outdated safeguards against retraumatization. Seriously lacking in impulse control, the verbal violence of their rage virtually guarantees they’ll push the other person away. This allows them, regardless of how upset they may be, to generate a distance that helps restore their tenuous sense of safety.

And that’s yet another paradox closely connected to their rage. They can’t soothe themselves as a more “average” person could. But they can at least comfort themselves through alleviating a mounting inner tension that otherwise could feel incapacitating. Psychologically, they win by losing and lose by winning.

It’s all about controlling a pain coming too near to the surface and that, to them unconsciously, may seem best controlled through uncontrollable anger. And all of this emanates from an incapacity to stay focused on longer-term objectives and goals. So they frequently instigate the rejection they’re endeavoring to avoid, and their rage can be understood as constituting a self-sabotaging, self-fulfilling prophecy—ultimately confirming the doubts precipitating their extreme distancing behavior.

Another way of appreciating their destructive behavior is by comprehending that their apparent maliciousness is motivated by a sense that the person they let get close to them has maliciously hurt them. Their never-healed child self is insatiable in that the unconditional love and acceptance they once so desperately needed from their parents can’t be adequately addressed by anyone else.

The pressure BPDs put on others in urgently trying to prove to themselves that they are worthy and deserving of lasting attention, eventually leads the other person to become exhausted or exasperated by their demands, unable or unwilling to accommodate them further. And at this point, BPDs feel so abandoned, rejected, and deceived that they’re incited to strike back.

In such a regressed state it seems only reasonable to protest the other person’s refusing to make an unreserved commitment to them by going on the attack—and far more viciously than they recognize. But their seemingly retaliatory rage, though it immediately succeeds in blocking unbearable pain, also seriously undermines the relationship they’re so desperate to have “save” them.

So what makes their rage not simply an emotional reaction but central to their elaborate defense system? Common to this personality disorder, it’s how—temporarily, at least—they experience the illusion of control. For in anticipating the major distress of another’s rejection or betrayal, they’re compelled to initiate this potent defense against what subconsciously feels will inevitably ensue. (As in, the best defense is a good offense.) Regardless of how close the relationship may have become, proximity to another still constitutes a grave danger to them.

From Hopeless to Hopeful: A Positive Trajectory for Borderlines

Elaborating on the origins of BPD, the literature examining its deepest roots notes that this highly fluctuating roller coaster of a disorder is partly genetic and partly due to the borderline’s early surroundings. Despite how irritating and manipulative their behavior might be, it’s crucial to get beyond negatively judging them and focus instead on the terrible pain their conduct attempts to cover up. As tempting as it is to blame them, they’re really doing the best they can given their so-disabling blind spots.

Not only do BPDs represent around 10 percent of all psychiatric patients, but 1 in 10 feels so burdened, helpless, and miserable that they’re driven to suicide—to at last put an end to the constant swirl of painful emotions plaguing them. Their markedly negative identity and the counter-productive mechanisms they use to deal with their poor self-image typically bring them little relief. So their final method of rage-infused, depressive coping may be to obliterate consciousness altogether.

It’s not that BPDs perversely want to offend others but that in trying to put behind them the complex trauma of their youth they relate to others in ways that too often are baffling, irritating, or insulting. And though they need to be held accountable for their actions, they shouldn’t be shamed for behavior that’s predominately neurobiological—endowed as they are with an anxiety-prone brain involuntarily on high alert.

As Melinda Smith and Jeanne Segal have observed:

If you have BPD . . . things feel more scary and stressful to you than they do to other people. Your fight-or-flight switch is easily tripped, and once it’s on, it hijacks your rational brain, triggering primitive survival instincts.

Thankfully, fairly recent advances in the study of this worrisome personality disorder have made it more possible for BPDs to get the professional help they need (e.g., see M. M. Linehan, 1993). So unless their characterological rigidity and distrust make them reject any assistance offered them, then—with added patience, self-discipline, and targeted therapy— they should be able to re-program the coping patterns that have caused them so much grief.

Author: Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D.

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