Borderline Personality is much talked about, quite complicated to live with and deal with, and often misunderstood. In a series of posts I plan on discussing the genesis of BPD, its relevance to our personal lives as well as its utility as a model for understanding different cultures, and how the treatment approaches to BPD may offer clues to managing one's relationship to those with the Disorder and to oneself.
Although different aspects of BPD were already being described as early as 1938 ( Helen Deutsch and the As-If personality) Margaret Mahler, more than anyone else, developed the framework upon which BPD became comprehensible. Mahler was one of the early pioneers in Psychoanalysis. She had a particular interest in normal childhood development, especially focused on the earliest years of life.
[Freud had made the Oedipal Complex (~4-6 years of age) the central determinant of character but even by the 1950's it had been recognized that for a great many patients, their problems had roots in the pre-Oedipal years. These patients were particularly difficult to treat and later analysts, building on the work of Mahler and others, were able, starting int he late 1960's to find ways to address the problems which were later understood as reflections of Borderline and Narcissistic pathology.]
Mahler's work was elegant and beautifully captured the experiences of the infant. Anyone who has spent time around infants can instantly appreciate the concept of hatching, that moment in the first few months of life, when the minimally responsive infant suddenly appears to notice that the world exists! Parents note the burst of increased relatedness. The baby now coos and smiles in reaction to the parents, not merely in reaction to internal processes. The infant has begun to be involved with the world.
[The Wikipedia page for Margaret Mahler barely hints at her contributions; the Margaret Mahler Foundation offers additional resources, The Psychological Birth Of The Human Infant Symbiosis And Individuation, written with Fred Pine and Anni Bergman is quite accessible.]
Once the infant begins to crawl (the Practicing phase) its nascent Individuation-Separation phase escalates. During this time, the infant is slowly recognizing that it is separate from its mother and beginning to develop its early primitive Theory of Mind. Parents appreciate this development whose hallmark is the child's adamant "No!" A child who can say "No!" is a child who has successfully traversed a significant developmental milestone and is ready to enter the next phases of development.
During the first few years of life an infant develops multiple integrated images of the world around him. For example, to the youngest infant, the Object (mother) who soothes him with the breast or by holding him is not the same Object who denies him succor when he is in distress. When the breast doesn't soothe (because the baby is not hungry or is in distress for some other reason) the breast is not an object of pleasure but of frustration. Eventually the baby learns that the breast and the skin and the arms and the breathing and the heartbeat and the voice that soothe him, and occasionally frustrate him, all belong to the same object, his mother. This ability to fuse the multiple images of mother into a single coherent and consistent object is one of the early developmental milestones of early infancy; it is referred to as Object Constancy.
In situations where the frustrations by the mother are more than the infant can tolerate, the still unstable Constant Object can be shattered into its constituents as the infant's ego regresses. This occurs when there is an abusive caretaker, for example, and is at the core of much of the pathology of the adult survivor of childhood abuse. This Splitting of the Object is used as a primitive defense. Since the infant needs to feel cared for (and needs to be cared for) and its psychological survival depends on its relationship with the caretaker, the splitting allows the negative aspects of the object to be repressed so that the positive aspects can be held onto. It preserves the object even as the infant partially destroys the object. This is a brief introduction to a complicated area. One element of this description that is important to note is that everyone, no matter how healthy, has passed through a time in development in which their Object Constancy was not yet firmly established and splitting was an ever present risk. As adults, under stress, it is well within the range of normal behavior to engage in periodic and limited Splitting. The danger for us arises when such a process is unrecognized and contaminates our relationships. For our society, the danger occurs when splitting takes place on a large group basis.
For reasons which are not well understood but typically subsumed under nature (constitutional or biological endowments) and nurture (parenting) some children grow up to be adults who have tenuous Object Constancy. When they fused the disparate images of self and others into coherent, unitary object representations, they retained an ease of dissociation of the unitary objects. Under stress, they can too readily regress to a psychological state of Split self and object representations.
In Splitting, the Object is first dissociated into an Idealized Object and a Devalued Object and then, depending on the stessor involved and the person's specific state, either of the two split images is then repressed and at that moment, the Object is experienced as only being the Split Object.
This can be most easily illustrated by a clinical example and that will be presented in the next post about BPD...to be continued.