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).
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
Ettenshon, M. (2015). Having a parent with borderline personality disorder (BPD)
Irvine, H. (2019). Bipolar vs. BPD: How to tell the difference
Mayo Clinic. (2021). Borderline personality disorder
Roth, K. and Friedman, F. (2003). Surviving a borderline parent