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Mothers with BPD: Growing up with a mother with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) is a turbulent journey where love and cruelty interweave, leaving one perplexed and anxious. In this essay, we explore the challenges of having a mother with BPD, addressing crucial aspects like whether or not and how we maintain contact, set boundaries, and mend lifelong wounds.
Under normal circumstances, ties with our mothers influence the core of who we are as we go through life. Some people see it as a haven of warmth and affection. However, the road is littered with obstacles and stabbing wounds for others, such as those who have had to navigate the difficulties of having a mother who suffers from Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD).
Growing up with a mother with BPD means navigating a whirlwind of unpredictable reactions. One moment, she showers you with love and attention; the next, she lashes out in anger or withdraws and disappears. You are left feeling confused and anxious and have a lingering sense that there is something wrong not wither her, but with you.
In this Comprehensive Guide, we shall explore what it means to have a mother with BPD and delve into its significant effects on you. We will discuss the complex decision of whether or not we have to cut off contact, how to set physical and energetic boundaries, and how to heal from the grief and wounds of your lifelong trauma. This can be a triggering topic, so please take care of yourself and get support/ take a breather when you need to whilst reading/ listening to this!
“Children of borderlines and survivors of hurricanes have much in common. Survival is dependent on finding a safe place, staying low, and not being fooled by the eye of the storm.”
Why the Focus on ‘Mothers With BPD’?
In contrast to using a more general term like “parents” with BPD, our focus in this essay will specifically be on mothers with BPD. The intention is not to be sexist; BPD is a personality disorder that affects both sexes. But mothers with BPD experience particular parenting challenges due to traditional gender roles, women’s neurobiology, and a mother’s unique role in a child’s attachment. Another reason is that mothers are diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder more frequently than fathers are, but this may be explained by limitations in research designs and the fact that women are more likely to seek treatment for mental illness than men.
Though things are changing, historically, mothers are considered the first primary caregivers and emotional anchors for children. Most of the research has been based on maternal BPD, and it was found that children of mothers with BPD are left with specific trauma reactions: disruptions in early attachment, low self-esteem, confused identity, and depression.
The “Still Face Experiment” conducted by Dr. Edward Tronick provides valuable insights into the profound effects of maternal emotional regulation on a child’s development. In the “Still Face Experiment” (a short video you can find on Youtube; it only takes a few minutes, please be mindful that it can be triggering), a mother interacts with her infant in a typical manner, showing affection, responsiveness, and engagement. However, at some point, the mother abruptly becomes emotionally unresponsive, maintaining a still face and rejecting the child’s attempts to engage. The baby’s responses to the mother’s emotional withdrawal are poignant and insightful.
The baby became visibly distressed and did everything she could to regain the mother’s attention. Her facial expressions shifted from joy and excitement to confusion, and frustration, then heartbreakingly, sadness and despair. Essentially, she became disturbingly dysregulated. This experiment powerfully highlights the significance of a mother’s emotional attunement in helping a child regulate their emotions.
Unfortunately, a mother with BPD cannot offer stable and constant emotional attunement to their child, mimicking the “Still Face Experiment” scenario where the infant faces a suddenly withdrawn caregiver. As a result, and as we shall review, children raised by mothers with BPD have heightened emotional sensitivity and hyper-vigilance, constantly scanning for cues about the mother’s emotional state to anticipate and respond to her needs. This chronic state of anxiety is exhausting and interferes with the child’s ability to develop a healthy sense of self.
The Pendulum of a Mother With BPD: Swinging Between Love and Cruelty
Having a mother with BPD is immensely confusing. Individuals with borderline personality disorder are not ‘bad people‘; many people with BPD are highly empathic, sensitive, and caring in nature. However, they become needy and desperate and focus on no one but themselves when they are emotionally triggered. Your mother may have a kind, loving side and shows empathy sometimes, but at other times, it is as though, with the push of a button, she flips into a different ‘mode’ and become childish, aggressive, and even violent. Being the child of a mother with BPD is like dealing with Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde; you never know which side you’ll get next. This makes it impossible for you to form a secure attachment with her or feel safe and calm in her presence. When triggered, she essentially flips into the mode of a child and acts not out of her adult self but her wounded inner child with her unhealed attachment trauma. This does not excuse her behaviors but also means that they are not ‘all bad all the time,’ making it hard for you to own your anger and blame her entirely. A part of you might be angry, but the part of you that wants to be loyal to your mother feels guilty for doing so. So you either have learned to suppress your anger entirely, or you are swinging between a confusing web of love and hate, push and pull.
Growing up with such an unpredictable parent would have left you feeling insecure and on edge at home. You couldn’t relax or be carefree just like a child should, as you constantly tip-toed around her. Their impulsive decisions and risk-taking behaviors — from drinking, drunk driving, overspending, and drug use to promiscuity— also mean your home ceased to be a safe sanctuary. If you were also isolated and bullied at school, you were left with no safe place in the world.
Another troubling behavior your mother with BPD has is their cruel withdrawal during conflicts. Whenever there is a disagreement or if you do something that displeases them, they may shut themselves off, refuse to respond, or even leave without warning. This can deeply traumatize any child and disrupt the development of what is known as “object constancy,” the ability to maintain a mental image of someone even when they’re not present. The lack of object constancy will lead to challenges in future relationships, making it hard to trust anyone or have a stable relationship. For instance, you might have intense anxiety during separations or immensely fear being abandoned by your loved ones. (To read more on Object Constancy, please see here)
Your mother with BPD might also have a charming and likable demeanor on the outside. People around her probably perceive her as kind and loving, but only you know the complexities of living with a mother with BPD. Perhaps you could not open up to friends or other family members as you fear being judged or not believed. Worst, you might even internalize a belief that your experiences are invalid or that you are somehow responsible for all the difficulties in relationships.
Having a mother with BPD is perplexing because her empathy comes and goes. When she shows her “good” side, you hold onto hope. It’s as though your inner child could never give up on finding the mother they deserve. But expecting consistent care from them is like a risky game of slot machine, as whenever you open your heart and trust, she might re-traumatize you with their lapses in empathy and cruel reactions. One day, your scar will have thickened up so much that you lose touch with your original, innocent self, which leaves you with a deep feeling of emptiness and potentially low-grade, lingering depression that you cannot shake off.
“The relationship between a borderline mother and her child may change dramatically when the child is approximately 2 years old, begins to speak, and expresses a separate will. The mother’s anxiety intensifies because the child is no longer totally dependent and cannot be completely controlled.”
Aftermath of the Tempest: Having Grown Up With a Mother With BPD
Before delving into the healing process, let’s explore the various symptoms and emotional and developmental consequences that may arise when you grow up with a mother with BPD. While this list is not exhaustive, it may resonate with you if you had to survive a childhood of turbulence. Each individual’s journey is unique; you may resonate with some of these experiences more than others.
Codependency and identity confusion
One significant aspect of growing up with a mother with BPD is the codependent dynamic you are locked into. As you become a source of emotional support for her, she becomes heavily reliant on you, leading to an enmeshed relationship where boundaries between you and her become blurred. To prevent you from walking away from a young age, your mother with BPD creates a dynamic of co-dependence— meaning, she makes you dependent on her as she does on you. She wants to become the most critical person in your life, making it impossible to do anything without her approval or involvement.
She may not even be aware of it, but unconsciously, she does not view you as an autonomous being who will eventually grow up, move out, make friends, and have a family. Instead, she sees you as a parental figure who provides her with reassurance and validation. In many ways, you are her mother rather than the other way around. (This is known as ‘Parentification’ in psychology; for more, here is a full article on this topic). Acting out from her unmet attachment needs, she sees your natural need to individuate and leave home as an act of betrayal, abandonment, or rejection. Like a drug addict, when you stop acting as her emotional crutch, she will become desperate, hostile, depressed, and destructive. Even logically, she knows it’s a mother’s job to support your individual life path; unconsciously, she will use various tactics to keep you close.
For example, when you make decisions without her, have new friends without telling her all the intimate details, or seek close relationships outside of hers, she might physically stop you or guilt-trip you by saying things like, “You don’t love me” or “After all I’ve done for you, this is how I’m treated.”
And when you finally garner the courage to break away, she resorts to violence or more extreme threats. With a tendency to think in an all-or-nothing, black-and-white manner, she might also go from desperately needly you to aggressively kicking you out of the house, turning other family members against you, and accusing you of being the worse child ever. She can also passively threaten you by creating crises, becoming depressed, threatening to hurt herself, and leaving you with seemingly no choice but to cave into her demands.
Childhood is a time of self-discovery, but growing up with a mother with BPD disrupts this journey. Your adolescent years were supposed to be the time to explore the world and discover your preferences, needs, strengths, and weaknesses. You forge friendships and relationships, make mistakes and then learn. However, when you were locked in a codependent dynamic, you would not feel able to do any of these without your mother and the shadow of her BPD. Your life revolves around the constant need for her approval.
Sharing excessive time and intimate details with your mother hinders your ability to develop an autonomous image or personality separate from what she has constructed for you. As a result, even in the future, when you want to, it may be difficult to relate to or interact with people. Either find yourself acting in a needy, child-like manner or paradoxically, you are stuck in a ‘caregiver’ role and unable to lean on or trust anyone.
Fortunately, with awareness, the co-dependent dynamic does not have to become a life sentence. In a later section, we will discuss what you can do to heal and free yourself.
Attachment styles are the emotional patterns and behaviors people develop in their early relationships with caregivers, typically during childhood and adolescence. These attachment patterns govern how we think, feel, and act, and significantly impact our adult relationships.
According to research, most children of BPD mothers end up insecurely attached, particularly with an attachment style known as anxious/ ambivalent attachment.
With anxious attachment, you may have a persistent fear that people in your life will abandon, dislike, or disappear without warning. Your partner and friends may tell you these are irrational fears and that you have no reason to be concerned. However, it is difficult not to relapse into relationship paranoia when your psyche is so used to inconsistent care from your mother.
While less common, you could also have developed an avoidant attachment pattern to cope with your mother’s BPD. Because her constant drama has taken up all of the emotional space at home, you’ve learned that trying to meet your emotional needs is pointless, so you might as well give up so you would not be pushed further into despair. As a protective measure, your instinctive reaction to emotional closeness may be to withdraw, creating distance and detachment. You have learned to rely on no one yourself, so you hardly open up to anyone. Even when you have a romantic relationship, despite wanting to meet your partner’s emotional needs, you might not know how to. Your loved ones may complain about your lack of emotional openness, while you feel helpless and hopeless in not knowing how to be intimate with someone you love. (Also see Overcontrol personality trait if you relate to this tendency)
You can also have a complex mix of attachment styles. For example, you may oscillate between emotional distance and emotional dependence. To protect yourself from situations that cause feelings of vulnerability or rejection, you withdraw and become emotionally distant. However, when experiencing emotional distress or instability, you seek excessive reassurance and validation. Your fluctuating attachment behavior can perplex everyone involved, and sadly, those around you may struggle to recognize the underlying ‘cry for help’ but instead criticize you for being selfish, unpredictable, or ‘difficult’.
“Children who live with a predatory mother become unconsciously preoccupied with reading their mother’s moods. A fleeting glance, a furtive gesture, deceleration, and a shift of direction are signals of an approaching Turn. Bracing, hiding, or merely holding on gives children a much-needed sense of control. ”
The shame of being “too much.”
Growing up with a mother with BPD can leave you with the lingering sense that you are ‘too much’ for others, and you may become ashamed of having even the most mundane, everyday human needs.
As previously stated, your mother can be intermittently loving; however, if they are not in the mood—and you never know—your normal attachment-seeking behaviors as a child, such as wanting to be heard, seen, and attended to, would be met with unexpectedly harsh criticism, rejection, or hostility. These occurrences are profoundly traumatizing, especially when it becomes clear that she just cannot put your needs ahead of her own. Understandably, you’d internalized the message that showing emotional needs is dangerous and brings nothing but despair and humiliation.
The shame around your needs can also cause you to minimize or ignore them entirely. You may then intellectually bypass your emotional needs, convincing yourself that your problems aren’t as severe as others, others always have it worse, or that no one has time to listen to your sorrow. But your needs to be seen and heard are human and do not disappear because you pretend they do not exist. Your unmet needs may eventually erupt as a life crisis, or morph into chronic depression, lifelong loneliness, and existential emptiness.
If this has been your experience, please know that it is not your fault you feel this way. Your feelings of not deserving any time and attention from others, the impulse to make yourself small, and even the desire to sometimes disappear do not originate from anything wrong with you personally but rather the absence of love and care you had as a child. Your feelings of unworthiness are real, but it does not point to the truth. You have been a ‘secondary victim‘ of your mother’s trauma, and it was not your fault that you inherited some of her shame. The truth is, you deserve respect and attention as a child of the Universe, and regardless of what happened in the past, it is your birthright to take up space in the world.
A consequence of having a mother with BPD that is not often discussed in the literature or online is what I call ‘Pseudo-dependency.’ Essentially, you have learned to take care of her emotional needs by letting her be the hero, the rescuer, while you play the role of the perpetually helpless and dependent child. You may have learned to “pretend” to be helpless and needy even though, at heart, you are strong and independent. The ‘needy child’ persona is created from your mother’s needs to feel indispensable rather than your authentic self. However, if you have worn this ‘mask’ from a young age, it could become so deeply unconscious that you don’t even realize it is not the real you. You have learned to play the role so well that you thought you had become it and have forgotten the strengths and independence that were in you.
In adopting this pseudo-dependent persona, you have a self-doubting demeanor, constantly questioning your abilities and second-guessing your decisions. Your fear of being perceived as strong and independent may lead you to downplay your strengths and accomplishments and minimize your intelligence, talents, and potential.
You may continue to perpetuate this relational pattern in your adult relationships; Even if you’re perfectly capable of handling everything on your own, a part of you worries that you won’t have value in others’ lives if you don’t show them how much you need them. You might then attract individuals who take advantage of your pseudo-dependency, further perpetuating a cycle of disempowerment.
In the workplace, a pseudo-dependent persona may cause you to hide your talents and skills, fearing that showcasing your strengths would make others uncomfortable or threatened. You might hesitate to take on leadership roles or advocate for yourself, limiting your career growth and opportunities. (Also see: Fear of Taking up Space)
Your purpose in life is not to give others a sense of meaning or make them feel valuable. Your existence is for yourself, and your well-being should be the primary focus. Learned helplessness is a coping mechanism developed in response to your upbringing, but it no longer serves you as an adult. Acknowledging your true capabilities and strengths can be empowering, and rather than being trapped in the worry of threatening others or attracting attacks and envy, you can learn, for the first time in your life, how to enjoy being celebrated for who you authentically are.
Difficulties with boundaries
Growing up with a mother with BPD can profoundly affect your sense of boundaries.
As a child living with a mother with BPD, your survival strategy requires you to ignore your own needs, stifle your anger, hide your emotions, never say no to her, or never do anything that would displease inconvenient her… all to keep her calm and not lash out in erratic rage. As discussed, your mother with BPD does not see you as a separate being. Instead, you were an extension of her and existed for her. This is a severe boundary intrusion— physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Having grown up with no sense of what healthy boundaries look like, what your rights are, and how to assert yourself, you may now struggle to express healthy anger and take up space in the world.
As a part of what is disturbingly known as ‘emotional incest’, your mother might also have exposed you to too many intimate details of adult problems that were too heavy for you to handle at a young age. This skewed perception of personal space follows you into adulthood, making it hard to set and stick to your limits when necessary, and allow yourself to be bullied and taken advantage of. Furthermore, you were never taught how to maintain appropriate boundaries in conversations and may unwittingly push people away by sharing too much personal information that is inappropriate for the context.
Fear of becoming like her
Having grown up with a mother with BPD, you may now dread that you would become like her or a parent like her. Every time you notice a trait or behavior in yourself that even remotely reminds you of her, a wave of panic washes over you. For example, you might catch yourself reacting to situations with disproportionate emotions, just like she used to be. Or, when you notice that you tend to be overly sensitive to criticism or rejection, you worry that you are insufferably needy, just like your mother is. The fear of losing control and hurting others might make you withdraw from people or situations; you may even feel that you are somehow toxic or can hurt people around you. Your fear is understandable, but please know that your emotional reactivity or challenges are the impacts of a trauma you have experienced having grown up with a mother with BPD; they are not inherent character flaws and can be changed by awareness and healing.
The fear of being or becoming like your mother is particularly salient when you are reaching the age at which you are considering becoming a parent yourself. You may worry about repeating your mother’s mistakes and subjecting your child to what you experienced. The thought of unknowingly putting your child through anything like what you had been through can be so daunting that it deters you from becoming a parent, even when you very much desire to have a family of your own.
But your journey need not be constrained by the patterns laid down by your mother. By facing the truth of what you have been through, you are showing immense bravery and the ability to introspect, which already makes you very different from her and is evidence that you have the strengths to forge a different path.
Don’t fear the shadows that follow you because they hold the key to your transformations. Regardless of what others say about you or what you have been through, you can choose to be on your side and hold absolute faith that you can break the chain of transgenerational trauma from your mother with BPD.
“Aren’t you in pain, Mother?” she wanted to call out. “Mother, I’m suffering too.”
Charting Your Path Forward After Having Grown Up With a Mother With BPD
Now that you are a grown-up, it can be disheartening to discover that things have remained largely unchanged. Despite coping with their rage and threats your entire life, you may be perplexed why it doesn’t get easier with time but gets more brutal. Even as an adult with your own life, it is difficult to deal with your mother’s explosive and hysterical states, even when they are not physically present, knocking on your door. You might have once hoped that things get better when you grow older and become independent, but reality often falls short.
As you grow into adulthood and focus on starting your own family, your mother’s desire for attention can intensify rather than cease. She might resort to desperate measures to keep you close, constantly calling and seeking more time with you. Your children and spouse are seen as threats to her position in your life, leading to more conflicts, family drama, and emotional manipulation.
Your mother might be aware that she is acting irrationally or that the more desperate she is, the more she is pushing you away, but that does not mean she has the capacity to admit to it or control herself. You are essentially in a role reversal situation where you are your mother’s mother— tending to her issues, trying to help her learn and grow (and repeatedly failing), and giving her the attention a child would require. Given how emotionally demanding they are, it is almost impossible for your relationship to not impact your current family and spousal relationship. Your partner may become resentful while you are squeezed and overwhelmed with demands and complaints from all sides.
Living with a mother who has BPD can indeed present lifelong challenges. While treatments exist to manage the condition, if she is unwilling to seek healing, you cannot force her, and her unbearable volatility may remain a part of your life.
With that, you face multiple complex decision points: Do you cut her off or stay in contact? How much distance is adequate or appropriate? What do you do when she reacts with aggression? How do you balance having your own life and her needy behaviors?
The Big Question: Do You Cut Contact With a Mother With BPD?
Deciding whether or not to cut contact entirely with a mother with BPD is an incredibly challenging and complex decision, and you are not the only one facing that.
Maintaining a relationship with your mother with BPD is possible if she agrees to meet you halfway. There will need to be appropriate distances and boundaries. While you can be there for her, it cannot be constant, and you must prioritize your own family, work, and children. She must agree to cease using threats, passive-aggressive tactics, or further intruding into your life to get her way. As you can imagine, this may be possible for some mothers with BPD but not all.
Sometimes, distancing yourself from your mother or cutting her off entirely is the only option. A cold turkey approach of separating from her could even be the productive impetus that allows her to find healthier coping methods rather than relying on you for the rest of her life. However, this approach comes with risks, possibly leading her to spiral further into darkness or resort to more desperate and destructive measures such as suicide. Quite likely, this fear lingers in the back of your head and is why you are struggling to take more assertive actions with her all these years.
In all of our lives, an inner child that wants to hope against hope and would never give up on fantasizing, trying to ‘make happen’ the mother they want. Sadly, when you have a mother with BPD, your legitimate longing means your childhood becomes a constant struggle between the bitter reality and the sweet fantasy of what could have been. But the longing for a loving maternal figure is a profound aspect of the human experience woven into the fabric of our very being. It is a force that transcends logic, defying the boundaries of time and circumstance. Thus, as though defying logic, you may struggle to grieve the mother you do not have and accept the reality as it is. You keep hoping and trying, even when you are repeatedly hurt.
Furthermore, various cultural and societal expectations, the fear of being judged by family members or society, and feelings of guilt and obligation can all contribute to your ambivalence. For example, filial piety is deeply ingrained in many cultures, and many people interpret it as blind loyalty to our parents, no matter how they treat us. The sense of responsibility can be so ingrained in you that you cannot walk away without feeling haunted by your own guilt or being seen as disrespectful. It can also be challenging to set limits when worrying about how other family members, especially close relatives, will react.
I wish I could give you a set road map, but there is no hard-and-fast rule for dealing with the complexities of this decision. While I cannot answer for you precisely what to do, here is a suggested list of questions to ask yourself that hopefully can spark some reflections and give you some insights or directions:
– How does keeping in touch with my mother with BPD affect my emotional well-being? Do I always feel overwhelmed, anxious, or drained after interacting with her? How much does she affect my well-being on a scale of one to ten?
– At the same time, do we have shared interests or enjoyable activities we can do together, creating moments of joy and connection? Are these worth the price I pay?
– Has my mother shown genuine understanding and empathy in ways that have benefited my emotional well-being? Are they consistent enough for me to hold onto, or are they so fleeting that I am constantly re-traumatized?
– Have there been instances when my mother’s support or involvement has been beneficial in practical matters, such as childcare or financial assistance?
– How intermittent is her ‘good mother’ side, and how frequently does she flip into becoming a dysregulated child?
– Have I set clear boundaries with my mother, and does she respect them? Do I find myself sacrificing all my wants and needs to meet her demands, just like I once was? How capable/ powerless do I feel in changing the dynamic?
– Are there things I can do that I have yet to try or explore, or have I done everything I can and see no yielding or cooperation from her?
– How does my relationship with my mother affect my other relationships, such as those with my partner, children, or friends? What do my spouse, friends, and kids think of her? Or is she so endearing on the outside that everyone thinks she’s wonderful, leaving me alone with the truth?
– Have I attempted to communicate my feelings and concerns with my mother? How willing is she to listen? How much willingness or potential has she shown regarding personal growth and reflectiveness?
– Has she tried anything on her own? What would she say if I proposed therapy or family mediation?
– Do I feel obligated or guilty to maintain contact because of societal or familial expectations? How much influence do these outside factors have on my decision-making process?
– What are the risks and benefits of completely cutting off contact? How will this decision affect me in the long run?
– How will my decision align with my values and goals for personal growth?
– How do I envision my life with/ without regular contact with my mother? Can I imagine a feasible new reality where I can have inner peace?
– Have I considered other options, such as limiting contact, negotiating with my siblings, family therapy, or seeking professional help?
Ultimately, deciding how to handle your relationship with your mother with BPD is deeply personal and no one can do it for you. No matter what you choose, remember that putting your mental and emotional well-being first is not an act of selfishness but rather a necessary act of dignity. If maintaining contact becomes too overwhelming for you or harms your mental health, you may want to consider middle-ground options, such as temporarily cutting off contact or reducing the time spent with her. It is never inappropriate to reconsider your decision or make adjustments to it.
And if you decide to keep in touch with her somehow, you must approach the circumstance with great care and consideration, which we shall now discuss.
“The Queen’s children must allow her the right to self-destruct while exerting their right to protect themselves.”
If You Choose to Stay in Touch with a Mother with BPD
Physical vs. Energetic Boundaries
If you maintain contact with your mother with BPD, acquiring the skills necessary to prevent yourself from becoming overcome by her anger or threats is essential. What I particularly want to highlight here is the importance of setting ‘energetic boundaries,’ which involve managing your own emotional reactions and sense of peace, which can be more complicated than setting physical boundaries with her.
Consider that your mother is not only trying to physically contact you by knocking on your door, calling you nonstop, or attempting to get in touch with you through friends and partners, but she is also using emotionally threatening tactics. For example, she may threaten to hurt herself or others or scream uncontrollably. Other more subtle emotionally threatening behaviors may be silent protests or actions designed to ‘keep you on edge and guessing.’ For example, she may go missing for days on end, isolate herself in her room for extended periods, remain silent for weeks, or abruptly leave home, all to cause worry and distress to those around her as a form of revenge or retribution. While on the surface, she is not physically intruding on you; these are nonetheless emotional boundary violations.
Even worse, she can infringe on your energetic boundaries by making false accusations and calling you names. For example, she may label you as “overly sensitive” or blame you for causing disruptions and tearing the family apart, even though she does exactly what she accuses you of. These unjust accusations sting because they are erroneous and deeply unfair.
What’s aggravating is her emotional threats, and manipulative behavior can energetically aggravate you even when she is not physically present. Even if, in theory, or as your friends and loved ones may suggest, you can just ignore her or ‘leave her alone,’ you would probably find it difficult to shake her threatening presence from your mind. You may struggle to concentrate on your life and work or be present with your partner and children. Your appetite, sleep, and mental health may suffer. You may need to self-soothe by overeating, overspending, drinking, or even using drugs to cope. Dealing with these emotional threats and establishing energetic boundaries is profoundly challenging, regardless of how old or young you are.
Maintaining contact with your mother with BPD requires learning the essential skills to protect yourself from being consumed by her rage, guilt trip, gaslighting, or threats. Here are some mental strategies and approaches that may help:
Keep reminding yourself that “It will blow over.”
In the midst of her emotional outbursts, her intense energy can feel so overwhelming that it transports you back to a time when you were a scared and vulnerable child. Though you’ve grown into an adult, that inner child inside you can’t help but fear her rage.
During these tumultuous times, see if you can call upon the resilient, mature adult within you. Hold on to that sense of perspective and remind yourself that you have grown and evolved since those vulnerable times. Remind yourself that these outbursts have happened since you were a child, and they have been blown over many times. Whilst it feels threatening, there is no longer anything she can do to hurt you.
If she is in your face, and you find yourself increasingly dysregulated, take a moment to center yourself by taking ten deep breaths. Ground yourself in the present moment by engaging your five senses and connecting with your surroundings. Feel the stability of the ground beneath your feet and affirm that you are safe, right here, right now. You can walk away whenever possible and seek out your “safe space” – a serene garden, a nearby park, or the comforting corners of your bedroom.
Regardless of her attempted intrusion, try to stick to your routine and day-to-day activities as much as possible— whether it is dinner with your own family or your work project. Resist the temptation to get entangled in the chaos and focus on maintaining a sense of normalcy. Yes, it will not be perfect, and you will likely be distracted, but by not allowing her disruptions to run havoc in your life, you assert your autonomy, and it gets easier with time and practice.
You can also come up with a plan ahead of time. Imagine creating a personal “protocol” to follow whenever your mother is having one of her episodes. Decide in advance who you can turn to for support and what self-soothing techniques you can use so you feel more in control. For example, whenever your mother has one of her moments, you might grant yourself a day off from work or communicate with your partner about needing some space for respite. Planning in advance can help you avoid impulsive and destructive self-soothing behavior like overeating or drinking. It is also a good reminder of self-compassion and would help you remain focused on yourself rather than get sucked into her orbit.
Let your inner child knows that as intense as it feels, this too shall pass. Your mother and her BPD will calm down sooner or later, and the storm will subside. Your goal is simple: just remain as okay as possible until it passes. In the meantime, focus on leading a meaningful life, spending time with supportive loved ones, and pursuing activities that bring you joy. Remember, you are no longer that vulnerable child under her control.
At the same time, don’t beat yourself up for feeling distracted and perturbed. Rather than fight your feelings, try to live with them without letting them take over. One helpful technique is to name your feelings, observe them without getting caught up in their intensity. Even if it feels like the end of the world, ‘everything is ruined’, or ‘your life is over,’ these are not the truth. In psychology, this practice is called ‘cognitive defusion,’ where you acknowledge thoughts for what they are—mere thoughts, not irrefutable realities. All emotions will eventually pass if you allow yourself to be with them; in contrast, whatever you resist persists.
Keep finding new ways to ground yourself in your present reality, and think about the financial, emotional, and spiritual independence you have fought for. You’ve built your life with relationships that matter, activities that bring joy, and dreams to pursue, so you owe it to yourself to defend your energetic space. Trust yourself— You have it in you now to navigate through your mother’s BPD storms with clarity and grace.
When they flip: Empathy Vs. Confrontation with a mother with BPD
It would probably also be helpful for us to discuss how you can interact with your mother when she is in one of her episodes. Empathizing with a mother with borderline personality disorder is incredibly tough, especially when you are the one she is attacking.
Certain things or events, often involving perceived abandonment or rejection, might trigger her to ‘flip.’ Even innocent remarks can set her off, so it is almost pointless to try and predict when it will happen. When she is triggered, you’re dealing with a regressed child who can’t see things from others’ perspectives. She can’t “reality-test” her beliefs, so whatever she feels becomes her truth. In such situations, confronting her delusion may make her defensive and fragmented. Instead, if you stay in communication (remember, you always have the choice to walk away), it is best to meet her where she is rather than assuming you are talking to a grown-up. This means trying to empathize with her perspective, even when you disagree with her.
Even if she is expressing illogical, outrageous, or judgmental thoughts, you can try to validate her emotions— emotions are always real, no matter their basis. Acknowledging her feelings would be much more productive than engaging in a factual debate.
If her splitting and projections involve other people, you can gently ask her how she feels and what happened and give her some space to express her thoughts and feelings. She may not be able to be balanced in her perspective and be flipping between a victim position and a blaming stance but try not to correct her on the spot. In the long run, by allowing her to express herself and reflect on her inner feelings, you can help her develop affect regulation and reflective skills.
It will be challenging if she’s attacking you rather than a third person, but the principle remains the same. You don’t have to accept her accusations to feel compassion for her. If she’s being abusive, set boundaries and walk away. Remember that being understanding doesn’t mean accepting abuse. You should always prioritize your sanity and boundaries and seek support from others if needed. But if you choose to stay, validate her feelings without arguing back at that moment, even if they seem irrational. By responding with empathy, you are not colluding with her. You are remaining in your adult position without being drowned in her drama.
Letting go of the need to fix your mother with BPD
In the intricate dance of relationships, we must all reconcille with the reality that we are not able to, and we are not responsible for correcting others’ behaviors, no matter how toxic they are. Such reckoning is especially important when it comes to your mother with BPD. Having grown up in co-dependency, it is tempting to take on the weight of her struggles but remember, her toxic behaviors and trauma existed long before you even came into the world. You cannot change or control her actions, nor should you bear the burden of trying to do so.
Perhaps you can start seeing her as someone not your ‘mother’ but a fellow human being in this often chaotic world, grappling with distress and seeking compassion. Just as you would offer understanding and empathy to a stranger in need, you can extend the same sentiment toward her. But just like you would not just take in anyone on the street, you do not need to bring her baggage into your space.
Understanding the phenomenon of repetition compulsion sheds light on her behavior. You can see her as someone unconsciously, helplessly, and uncontrollably repeating her past trauma, and even on the surface, you are the direct target of her attacks; it has nothing to do with you. She is simply re-enacting emotional experiences from her childhood, and it is hardly directed toward ‘you’ as a real person. The patterns of push-and-pull dynamics, where you might feel abandoned, are rooted in her own experiences of abandonment during her formative years. Try to observe her behavior from a ‘clinical’ or analytical perspective, like a social scientist. This approach allows you to see beyond the immediate emotional impact and understand that her actions do not reflect your worth or character.
Protecting your emotional well-being involves consciously deciding to give up on fixing your mother. It is not your responsibility to carry the weight of her past or to fix her emotional wounds. Her emotional journey is hers to navigate, just as yours is yours. Most importantly, affirm that you can find serenity without requiring her to be any different in any way. She can continue to be irrational and controlling, but as long as you are firm in safeguarding your limits and give up on the lifelong quest to help her change and grow, you can free yourself right here and right now.
“No’ might make them angry but it will make you free.”
Reconcile with the fact that life is not fair
When we experience mistreatment, we naturally seek justice and acknowledgment from those who have wronged us. We want them to recognize their mistakes and correct their wrong accusations, even desiring an apology or some form of closure. However, this desire for validation can lead us down a perilous path, as it keeps us emotionally attached and engaged with their hurtful actions and reactions.
In the case of a mother with BPD, seeking recognition from someone prone to dysregulation and unwilling to accept responsibility keeps us in an endless cycle of disappointment and frustration. Despite our efforts, she cannot provide the understanding or closure we seek, and insisting on trying to get what you cannot get will just leave you feeling betrayed and ensnared in her emotional web.
Though it may be incredibly challenging, you may have to give up on ever receiving justice or an apology from your mother or any family members who support her toxic and deluded narrative. Instead, focus on what you know to be true, and surround yourself with people willing to listen and believe in your experiences, validating your emotions and reality. You may have to do it again and again until it feels more ‘real’ and gradually replace the lies (that you are the ‘sick one,’ that you had a ‘perfect family,’ or a ‘happy childhood,’ etc.) you have been told all your life.
To free yourself, you have to finally surrender to the reality that you may not be able to persuade them to change their views or treat you with fairness and justice. Just as you can’t control the weather or world events, you can’t force them to see things differently. It is painful, but stepping away from the mission to seek justice from those who cannot give it can also be your breakthrough toward release and liberation.
Happiness and fulfillment are within your grasp regardless of their beliefs or opinions. Your mother and your family may continue to frame you as the problematic one, the ‘black sheep,’ or even accuse you of being a bad child. Even if they persist in thinking they are right and you are wrong, you have the right to ignore them, refuse to engage in their lives. The essential truth is even if you deeply desire it, you do not need their approval or apologies to lead a whole and meaningful life.
Reconciling with injustice requires ongoing self-development work and surrounding yourself with people who love, support, and, most importantly, believe in your side of the story. You may also need to change your beliefs about fairness and justice: life isn’t always fair, and people may not always act justly, even when they are your parent and the person who really should. But by grieving and acknowledging this truth, you can release the emotional burden of expecting fairness in every situation. Instead, direct your energy and focus on things you can control, such as your choices, reactions, and gratitude for who and what you do have.
Reclaiming your right to anger
Most adult children of mothers with BPD have a thwarted relationship with anger. If your parents had punished you for expressing anger when you were a child, you could not have afforded to be angry with them because they were your source of support and security. Having them threatened to punish or abandon you would mean the entire world was unsafe, which was too overwhelming for anyone’s young psyche.
Furthermore, many misguided ideas in schools, churches, and society have instilled in you the notion that anger is ‘bad,’ and that it causes people to become violent and out of control. You’ve learned to suppress, deny, or internalize your anger. You may turn your anger against yourself and feel sad and ashamed instead of indignation and assertiveness, even if this means you disempower yourself and feel unconfident and helpless when confronted with many of life’s circumstances.
The path to establishing healthy boundaries with a mother with BPD begins with admitting that suppressing your boundaries and denying your feelings is neither sustainable nor healthy. That holds not only for your relationship with her but also for life.
Regardless of any unjust punishment you may have received for expressing anger, feeling angry is your birthright. Anger is not inherently ‘bad’; it is merely a messenger, signaling when someone crosses your boundaries and prompting you to take the necessary actions to protect yourself. This inherent and natural emotion is essential to your well-being. It is a vital portal to your life’s energy and motivation. When you stifle anger, you also kill your ability to feel passion and vitality.
Contrary to common misconceptions, anger is not synonymous with aggression. Anger is a natural, spontaneous feeling, whereas aggression concerns behaviors one can control. Many healthy functions and manifestations of anger are not destructive at all. It is a necessary tool for establishing firm and energetic boundaries. By embracing this emotion, we empower ourselves to communicate assertively and to protect our emotional space from the manipulation and intrusion of others.
Reclaiming your right to feel and express anger is an act of dignity, not rebellion or disrespect. As you embrace and honor this emotion, you step into your power, taking charge of your emotional landscape as a mature adult should.
When it comes to your mother with BPD, even when she is in one of her episodes, you must resist the urge to bypass your emotions or force yourself into premature forgiveness just to keep the peace. Try not to fall into the trap of over-appeasing her to calm the storm, as any placating or subjugating only enable her patterns. Even if her emotional outbursts are overwhelming, that is no reason to deny your authentic feelings to yourself. Instead, practice asserting yourself with dignity and confidence.
You can practice expressing your feelings and needs without becoming aggressive or caught up in their drama. They may act like a rage-filled adolescent, but you can always choose to be the level-headed adult.
Having emotional reactions, including anger, especially to their unreasonable demands, does not make you evil. It is a natural part of being human. Regardless of how you have been treated or what you have been told, it is not too late to reclaim your power, assert yourself, and take up the space you deserve in the world.
Rising Above the Chaos of Having a Mother with BPD
Healing from the attachment trauma of growing up with a mother with Borderline Personality Disorder is a journey that requires facing reality as it is, giving voice to your boundaries, reclaiming your right to feel emotions, especially anger, standing up to injustice whenever you can, trusting your experiences and tending to your wounded inner child.
Healing is a process, and taking it one step at a time is the best approach. You may sometimes feel like you are taking two steps forward and then three steps back, especially if she remains in your life and acts as a constant trigger. But that is natural and not a reason to beat yourself up. Do not lose hope, and never forget your strengths. The fact that you have survived living with a mother with BPD all this time shows how strong you are on the inside. Thus, no matter how your family treats you, always be on your own side and trust that you have everything you need to forge a different future for yourself.
Once you have committed to a healing path, shift your attention away from her dysfunctional behaviours and emotional storms, and redirect it towards what truly matters in your life. Pour your energy into nurturing meaningful relationships, advancing your career, and pursuing your aspirations and dreams.
Your childhood experiences, no matter how wounding they have been, do not have to define the person you are today. Now that you are in a strong and potent adult body, with your own life experiences, achievement, and resilience, and all the lessons you have learned along the way of surviving a mother with BPD, you can embrace the power you hold to shape your destiny.
The invisible trauma of having grown up with a mother with BPD has gone on for long enough. Perhaps it is time to rise above the chaos.
“you were born for you.
you were wanted by you.
you came for you.
you are here for you.
your existence is yours.
Written by Imi Lo
Imi Lo is a consultant and published author with extensive and international experience in mental health and psychotherapy. Her books Emotional Sensitivity and Intensity and The Gift of Intensity are available worldwide and in multiple languages. Imi has two Master’s degrees; one in Mental Health and one in Buddhist Studies. She works holistically, combining psychological insights with Eastern and Western philosophies such as Buddhism and Stoicism.