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by Sjoekje F. Sas(a)bone, LCSW, EMHA

Loving an Indo Parent with Borderline Personality Disorder

I consider myself lucky to have loving, talented, hard-working, and attentive parents. They ensured I had the best opportunities for a solid education to establish a career and secure a future. They fostered a creative environment by extending their artistic and musical talents. They are funny, generous, and considerate—and I mirror the same qualities when interacting with others. Each experience is valuable to me. I graciously love them with my whole heart. Unfortunately, while these beautiful moments exist, a parallel undercurrent of unpredictable anger, mistrust, and critical shaming resided in the same household. Unbeknownst to her, my mother has Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) which developed from the traumatic experiences of World War II (WWII).

1973: Indo Sjoekje F. Sas(a)bone and her mother visiting family in Holland (Heerenveen, Friesland)
1973: Indo Sjoekje F. Sas(a)bone and her mother visiting family in Holland (Heerenveen, Friesland)

Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD)

Traumatic situations that transpired from WWII caused the maternal side of my family to toggle locations between Holland and Germany. My Oma’s courageous and strategic decisions to keep her children safe and alive created an unintended consequence of environmental instability. As a result, my Oma safeguarded her children in both protective camps and with different relatives. The events that occurred during the war, coupled with the recovery of post-war consequence, resulted in this living arrangement spanning from when my mother was about six years old until well into her teens.

The Mayo Clinic (2021) identifies BPD symptoms triggered by real or imagined feelings of abandonment, rejection, or environmental instability. These perceptions and triggers cause difficulties in everyday functioning—inappropriate anger outbursts, impulsivity, and frequent mood swings. Although these reactions can create irreparable fractures in relationships, people with BPD desire to have long-lasting and loving interpersonal connections. Furthermore, a person can experience issues with self-image, emotional dysregulation, and inconsistent interactions with others. These factors become very confusing for their children, who require caregivers to model personal responsibility and teach healthy inter/intrapersonal boundaries.

BPD is often confused with bipolar disorder. The common source for confusion is the joint appearance of a drastic mood shift. However, compared to bipolar disorder, the mood shifts in BPD are shorter, situationally triggered, and tend to happen daily (Irvine, 2019). Bipolar is a mood disorder, where BPD is a personality disorder. Bipolar symptoms are biologically driven, which is treated with mood-stabilizing medications. BPD symptoms are situationally driven and ingrained into a person’s character. The symptoms become maladaptive strategies to cope with environmental instability, trauma, and/or abandonment.

1974: Indo Sjoekje F. Sas(a)bone's mother taking them for a spin in El Dorado Nature Center & Park Long Beach, CA
1974: Indo Sjoekje F. Sas(a)bone's mother taking them for a spin in El Dorado Nature Center & Park Long Beach, CA

Indo Parents with Borderline Personality Disorder

Everyone who has met my mother unanimously comments how cute and delightful she is. I 100% agree. She is hospitable, considerate, funny, and generous—leaving a “feel good” impression with those she has met. Unfortunately, although I have these same heartwarming experiences, I also experienced unpredictable turns throughout my childhood to the present. We would have a fun and pleasant time, and, in an instant, I am getting yelled at and insulted. For example, when we would run errands, my mother would impulsively take us home if she felt ignored by a salesperson while aggressively accusing me of not being on her side if I asked why we left. When I was about eight, she opened and critically read my summer pen pal letters before I got home from school. Soon thereafter, I told my newly found friends to stop writing me. She also read my diary when I was in elementary school to make sure I was on the “right road.” Subsequently, I stopped writing altogether. She would warn me that my friends only interacted with me to take advantage of me. I became mistrustful, extremely private, and questioned why anyone would want to be my friend. Concurrently, I would constantly defend myself and those important to me.

Ettenshon (2015) explains that care, compassion, and enjoyable moments are unpredictable commodities. Rapid mood changes are not based on the child’s behavior but the parent’s internal state. Subsequently, adult children of parents with BPD tend to feel like they are “walking on eggshells” and exist in a state of mistrust. They have trouble with intimacy due to the fear that the other person will unpredictably turn on them. Although they are empaths (in tune to the feelings and needs of others), adult children of parents with BPD are unsure if their own feelings, intuitions, and reactions are valid and genuine. Consequently, they invalidate themselves and tend to underreact or not react at all to any given situation.

2017: Indo Sjoekje F. Sas(a)bone's and her mother visiting Carmel, CA for her mother's 83rd birthday
2017: Indo Sjoekje F. Sas(a)bone's and her mother visiting Carmel, CA for her mother's 83rd birthday

Effects on the Adult Indo Child

Lo (2012) explains that children with parents who have BPD can experience toxic shame due to feeling they have done something wrong their entire life. They can also have issues in their relationships when their parent with BPD does not condone it and bans the child from visiting them. The parent can also accuse their child of abandoning or betraying them for their romantic partner. Constantly trying to mitigate conflict with their parent can develop a co-dependent relationship. The adult child can also become co-dependent in their intimate relationships.

Identity confusion and shunned emotional development can also develop in adult children. Identity confusion evolves due to consistent threats and criticism when a child develops individuation (Lo, 2012). For example, the parents can view their child as a traitor or “the enemy” if their child disagrees with their opinions of others, music, clothes, etc. As a result, the adult child tends to be more agreeable to avoid conflict. The adult child can either have an underdeveloped sense of self, become an extension of their parent, or have an emergence of imposter syndrome when pursuing self-motivating interests. Shunned emotional development emerges as a consequence of the parent’s lifelong narrative of mistrust. The adult child may take things very personally, become defensive, and feel disappointed when assuming all forms of feedback as vicious criticism versus personal growth opportunities (Lo, 2012).

I am no exception to these evidence-based findings. I have been sensitive, defensive, mistrusting, self-deprecating, and uncertain of my feelings in my formative years. Although, I often wonder… Are my character traits and values developed from having a parent with BPD, or is it deeply rooted within my Indo culture? Was I making myself vulnerable to be taken advantage of based on the intergenerational values of generosity and resolve? In the spirit of cultural pride, was I carrying on a high intergenerational tolerance for dysfunction? Were these values and character traits established centuries before I entered the world? Or are they based on being raised by a parent with BPD?

Similarities and differences between Bipolar Disorder and Borderline Personality Disorder
Similarities and differences between Bipolar Disorder and Borderline Personality Disorder

Recognizing, Understanding, and Healing

I love my mother. I feel immense sadness for her experiences. I often get angry at the war, wonder why it had to happen, wished it never happened, and resent it for impacting my life through my parents’ unresolved pain and suffering. Then I feel guilty and invalidate myself for these feelings when I did not experience the war firsthand. I become unkind through self-depreciation. Ultimately, I exaggerated my demonstration of feelings to be worthy of parental acknowledgment. When I realized I took on my parent’s role to self-invalidate in their absence, I committed to making healthier changes through boundaries and self-care.

Roth and Friedman (2003) offer strategies to control the flow of communication with a parent who has BPD (i.e., screening calls, email filters, and leaving the immediate area). These strategies offer the adult child opportunities to stop and think before impulsively engaging with their parent, resulting in anger, frustration, and hurt feelings. Interactions can resume once the adult child establishes a safe emotional and psychological space. Additional strategies are: practice saying “no,” expressing how you feel (i.e., hurt), insist on not accepting any form of emotionally abusive behavior when expressing yourself, and ensuring commitments are reliably met. I initially felt resistant and tentative to these suggestions based on my anticipation of how my mother would react. Nevertheless, I gave it a try. I made significant progress through tenacity, patience, and persistence.

Sylvia Plath (1932-1963) an American poet whose best-known works are the poem "Lady Lazarus" and the novel The Bell Jar
Sylvia Plath (1932-1963) an American poet whose best-known works are the poem "Lady Lazarus" and the novel The Bell Jar

Conclusion

Many parents with BPD are giftedly intuitive, empathetic, innovative, and passionate. They create many fond and loving memories with their children and families. However, unpredictable reactions and drastic mood shifts can lead to their children feeling confused, guilty, and personally responsible for their parent’s reactions. The adult children of parents with BPD can develop BPD features and symptoms that negatively impact their professional and personal relationships with their parents and loved ones. Additionally, the adult Indo child managing their immediate environment has multiple cultural-related considerations that compound these factors. Navigating the impacts of intergenerational values and trauma that influence BPD symptoms are challenging but not impossible for the adult Indo child. We must create an emotional and physical space while building self-compassion, establishing trust, and developing intuitive, empathetic, innovative, and passionate insight. By doing so, makes us strategic warriors while lovingly upholding our courageous survivors’ legacy.

Read more about about author Indo Sjoekje F. Sas(a)bone by visiting her LinkedIn page and her previous article about Indo resilience during the pandemic!

15 Comments

  1. Thank you so much for sharing your story. It’s very important to talk about mental health in our community and break the stigma that we shouldn’t. Our community has survived immense trauma that has barely been acknowledged by both the Netherlands and Indonesia. I’m sure this will resonate with many. Sending love from a fellow Indo social worker!

    • Nat,

      Thank you so much for your thoughtful and supportive words. I’m in deep gratitude for your validation in support of giving a voice to our Indo community. Plus we have a special connection as Indo social workers. Let’s heal the world together… one Indo at a time.

      In gratitude,
      Sjoekje

  2. Dear Sjoekje,
    What a wonderful, caring description of your mother’s demons and your compassionate, strategic way of dealing with them. Most of us in the Indo community have experienced some sort of intergenerational, unresolved trauma and to have you share your experience helps us to know we are not alone. Thank you.

    • Lieve Priscilla,

      Your words and support are very meaningful to me. It’s bittersweet in knowing that we are not alone but comforted that we can lean on one another if we choose to. We can be the change agents for a healing narratives for the generations after us.

      In gratitude,
      Sjoekje

  3. Sjoekje,
    I wish we had gotten to know each other better at ULV. We have a lot in common.
    Thank you for sharing this well written and insightful piece.
    I appreciate you.

    • Christina,

      Thank you so much for taking the time to read this and for your meaningful words.

      There is still time to support one another.

      I appreciate you too.

      In enormous gratitude,

      Sjoekje

  4. This was incredible! As I was reading, it kept asking, how did you overcome? And then, you answered that question. Your insight is amazing and the strength that you displayed belied the childhood experiences that continue to affect many well into adulthood. This is more evidence that there3 are answers to that question, “Why don’t I feel ok?” Thank you for such an inspiring message. Stay wonderful!

    • Andre!

      Thanks a million for taking the time to read this and for your very special words. That means a lot to me.

      We’ll stay wonderful together.

      In gratitude,

      Sjoekje

  5. Thanks Sjoekje,

    Your name reminds me of a girl when I was in grade school in Jatinegara during Japanese occupation. Her name was
    Loeki and she was my partner during gymnastics shows. I was in love with her, but she was Catholic and I was Protestant.
    Not having experienced anything like you have but other depressing circumstances it is good to have compensating
    outlets like hobbies or spiritual outlets. In my case it is religion, tennis, woodworking, poetry, yard work, painting and
    service to others. The Baha’i Faith has also given me a broader outlook on what we are as human beings, creatures in God’s
    image, present in every soul, going through this earthly life, the embryonic stage of our ultimate destiny which is an Eternal
    life in the next world. Thanks for your story.

  6. Priscilla,
    This article is so apropos. We recently discovered BPD in our circle of friends. It surely helps us understand better.
    Good job in having the foresight ronpublish this article.
    Kareen

  7. Wow! I’m 67 years old and blamed my parents’. especially my mother’s, behavior on the trauma of the war and their having been placed in camps while still very young. After a time, as an adult I thought, Get over it already! I became angry, resentful, impatient, etc. My father has passed, but my mother, now 90, still has her crazy mood swings and all the behaviors mentioned in the article. At times I’ve been tempted to abandon her and be shut of the insults and obsessiveness, but I’ve stayed close by, taking the her anger, etc., on the chin all these years. The article has opened my eyes. At this time in her life I do not believe my mother will allow herself to be medicated, she’s far too proud to even admit there’s a problem. With my greater understanding of of her emotional fragility I hope I can spend her remaining years with the love and the kindness she deserves. Thank you for helping me see the light.

    • Dearest Hedy,

      Thank you so much for sharing your story with me. I sit in a place of humility & celebration that my words offered you some insight, plus inspiration for you to develop a loving strategic approach for your mom.

      We both understand the challenges to accomplish this, but in the end, you are offering your mom “the love a kindness she deserves” is compassionate & beautiful.

      Thank you for inviting me to your space with this part of your journey. May your light shine & know you are in the common company of others during the challenging moments.

      In gratitude,

      Sjoekje

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