Let me begin by saying I am not an expert on Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD). The information discussed throughout this post, like all my posts, should not be used to diagnose or treat patients. Instead, I would like to share how I’ve come to view BPD throughout my career and how my treatment changes based on that understanding. This, the first post of three, will describe a metaphor I use to help explain BPD to clients and families. The last two posts will describe the specific subtypes (I, II, and gestational) and explore existential treatment options.
Often times, clients with BPD are unaware of their diagnosis or they aren’t sure what their diagnosis means. The DSM 5 describes symptoms in clinical terms which, to the one receiving the diagnosis, may mean very little. When providing treatment for clients with BPD, a primary goal is to help them understand the diagnosis. Therapists would do the same with depression, addiction, or any other diagnosis. As a way of clarifying some of the clinical jargon, a metaphor has often helped to illustrate the critical aspects of the disorder in an approachable way.
The Window Painter
Imagine we are all born into a room. The architecture of the room has unique and distinct features setting itself apart from other rooms, and is mostly bare without any furniture, paint, window dressings, or decorations. As we mature, we begin to decorate our room as a reflection of who we believe we are. As others look out their perspective window into ours, and as long as the blinds are open, they will see aspects of how we’ve decorated our room. We move past other people’s windows, and sometimes other people, from within their rooms, move past our windows. Regardless of the external changes, we remain in our rooms.
People with BPD, tend to spend an inordinate amount of time looking out their window without looking into their room. Eventually, they begin to see other rooms are decorated or designed, and they want to appear the same way. Then, instead of working on interior design, they begin to draw on the windows. The window drawing becomes so effortless that, over time, they can change the entire look of a room, nearly on demand. If, when looking into the surrounding rooms, a person with BPD sees primarily pinks, pastels, bows, and trophies, they will paint their windows to match! Then, if there are a new set of rooms appearing out their windows, the paint quickly disappears and a new set of illusions are constructed and painted to match.
All the while, the inside of the room, the actual room, is nearly devoid of real substance. There are no chairs to relax on, no beds to provide rest, and few lights to illuminate the recesses of the room. After a time, the energy required to maintain a nearly constant vigilance, begins to consume the window painter. When this happens, they start making errors in dressing the window. Someone notices the mistake and asks a harmless question. The Window Painter panics! They turn to see their room and find it empty, save for dust and cobwebs. Consumed with dread and shame, they enable one of the few design pieces in the room: the blinds.
With the blinds fully closed, the window painting is still very visible, but the Window Painter is hidden. These are not healthy moments of introspection and solitude. These times are when the Window Painter, looking at the back of the blinds, sees no one, no thing, with which to connect. They are utterly alone. Within that instant, thoughts of self-harm and suicide begin to spiral into perseverating patterns of self-destruction.
This is often when those on the outside, in their own rooms, feel so disconnected and confused. Loving parents cannot understand the source of the destructive behaviors. Friends and social resources begin to be consumed with drama and crises. People begin to distance themselves from the Window Painter. Then, when they peek through the blinds, their worst fears are confirmed: everyone really was leaving!
Enraged and unable to engage, the Window Painter scratches and claws at the illusion on the window. They throw the blinds open and show the world the cultivated emptiness of their room. This only happens for a few brief moments before the Window Painter sees into the room of another. The connection becomes a juncture, an opportunity, for the Window Painter to bare their emptiness to another. The alternative is to resume painting, pretending, pantomiming, and hoping others interpret their real needs without risking exposing the bare walls.
The primary criteria for diagnosing BPD is “frantic efforts to avoid real or imagined abandonment” (Sperry, 2003. p.93). In the metaphor of the Window Painter, there is a dim awareness of the emptiness of the room. The compulsion to look outward, to the exclusion of personal insight, is fed by the overwhelming fear and dread which awaits those who look inward. This places the Window Painter in an existential dilemma: They want nothing more than to connect with others, to see and be seen. However, their greatest fear is abandonment. If the connections they experience are superficial and communication is primarily passive-aggressive manipulation, then very little rejection is risked. After all, how can someone truly reject someone they don’t really know?
The sacrifice for this perceived safety is true intimacy. They are not fully known by anyone and therefore unable to truly connect. Behaviors emerging from fearful attachment (Agrawal, 2004) ultimately serve to confirm the greatest fear: Everyone leaves. This cycle repeats over and over again until the person struggling with BPD is truly alone. The mechanisms by which we come to know our selves (insight), our reactions (awareness), and others (empathy), all interact to help form relationships.
About the Doodle
The Greek letter Phi is used to symbolize many things, including the “strength (or resistance) reduction factor in structural engineering, used to account for statistical [variability] in materials and construction methods” (Bulleit, 2008). While it should not be inferred that people with BPD have reduced strength, Phi is ideal to indicate a certain statistical variability in how BPD reacts to attachment and threats to attachment. In regards to the reactivity of those with BPD, there is a level of uncertainty which is almost always certain. Reactivity, self-harm, manipulation, low insight, and various other factors should be taken into consideration when entering into a personal or professional relationship with someone diagnosed with BPD.
This is not to imply that people with BPD are too unstable to participate meaningfully in relationships. Rather, there is a greater degree of variability in mood, affect, and reactivity, all of which can add stress to any relationship. Therefore, to have successful, healthy, supportive, and strong relationships, we must take into account this variability and anticipate the need for additional supports. These may include therapy, hospitalizations, group therapy, medications, and education.
(c) Nathan D. Croy, 2016
Agrawal, H. R., Gunderson, J., Holmes, B. M., & Lyons-Ruth, K. (2004). Attachment Studies with Borderline Patients: A Review. Harvard Review of Psychiatry, 12(2), 94–104. http://doi.org/10.1080/10673220490447218
Bulleit, W. M. (2008). Uncertainty in Structural Engineering. Pract. Period. Struct. Des. Constr. Practice Periodical on Structural Design and Construction, 13(1), 24-30. Retrieved from http://www.ce.berkeley.edu/~mahin/CE227web/UncertaintyInStructuralEngineering-Bulleit_Feb08_ASCEJofEP.pdf
Kreger, R. (n.d.). The World of the Borderline Mother–And Her Children. Retrieved February 06, 2016, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/stop-walking-eggshells/201109/the-world-the-borderline-mother-and-her-children
Lavender, N. J. (n.d.). Do You Know the 4 Types of Borderline Personality Disorder? Retrieved February 06, 2016, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/impossible-please/201310/do-you-know-the-4-types-borderline-personality-disorder
Sperry, L. (2003). Handbook of diagnosis and treatment of DSM-IV-TR personality disorders. New York, NY: Brunner-Routledge.