Understanding The Borderline Mother, Part I

I continually try to get away from the topic of borderline personality disorder on this blog, but I find that art is imitating life.  I can’t get away from it in my life either.  Why fight it? I’m going to try to make it work for me then.

I think I’ve attained a measure of objectivity–as much as I can–where my mother is concerned.  She hasn’t been an active participant in my life for almost half a decade.  I believe that this is an essential part of growing new neural connections and healing the cognitive impairments inflicted by a borderline mother be they Waif, Hermit, Queen, or Witch.  Listed among the resources on this blog is Christine Lawson’s book Understanding The Borderline Mother.  I had read parts of her work a few years ago, but I never read it in its entirety.  After my mother’s latest contact I decided to sit down and finish the book.  I stopped after completing the section on the borderline types–the Waif, Hermit, Queen, and Witch.  It was very dark and difficult material to read particularly the section regarding the Witch.  My mother is a Queen/Witch, and, as much time as I have dedicated to healing my memories and integrating my identity, there is no getting around the fact that reading about the Witch is simply painful and hard to read.  Alas, just because something is hard to read doesn’t mean it isn’t necessary and even helpful.

What I gleaned from my reading is that almost all BPD mothers shift on this borderline spectrum of types.  My mother could, at times, behave a bit like a waif, but she was by and large a Queen/Witch.  Currently, she appears to lean towards Hermit behavior because she has little to no friends, but what gives each BPD their type or “flavor” is their motivation.  This motivation seems to originate in their childhood experience.  Lawson states: “Like a broken record, the borderline’s behavior seems compulsively driven, with the aim of eliciting what she lacked as a child.  The Waif needed to be held (to be enveloped by safe, loving arms), the Hermit needed to be soothed (to be comforted, reassured, and protected), the Queen needed to be mirrored (to see a positive reflection of themselves in their parents’ eyes), and the Witch needed to control (to elicit predictable responses to expressed needs).  Although no child’s emotional needs can be met perfectly, the degree to which these needs are met significantly influences personality development.” (Lawson 44)  Lawson goes on to assert that “therapists have the opportunity to study the effects of trauma retrospectively.  With hindsight, it seems clear that the degree to which a child’s emotional needs were met following a traumatic experience determines whether or not serious personality problems develop.  Understanding the borderline’s inner experience, therefore, requires understanding her early experience and the feelings that were repressed.” (Lawson 44) Marsha Linehan, a pioneer in the treatment of BPD, postulated that the key factor leading to the development of BPD is “an emotionally invalidating environment”.  She goes on to describe an emotionally invalidating environment as:

“One in which communication of private experience is met by erratic, inappropriate, and extreme responses.  In other words, the expression of private experiences is not validated; instead it is often punished and/or trivialized…Invalidation has two primary characteristics.  First, it tells the individual that she is wrong in both her description and her analyses of her own experiences, particularly her views of what is causing her own emotions, beliefs, and actions.  Second, it attributes her experiences to socially unacceptable characteristics or personality traits…” (Lawson 45)

What I find fascinating about Linehan’s hypothesis is that almost all children of BPD mothers are treated exactly as Linehan describes above, but not all children of BPD mothers become borderlines themselves.  Interestingly, I not only had a BPD mother, but my stepmother also meets the criteria for a malignant personality disorder.  My father also appeared to have strongly antisocial tendencies.  Three primary caregivers with personality disorders who were also highly abusive.  What made the difference? Why did I only end up with codependency and PTSD?  Lawson states that “children can be exposed to a variety of a traumatic experiences and yet develop healthy personalities given certain circumstances.  Studies indicate that the single most important factor affecting resiliency in children is the conviction of being loved.  The effects of parental abandonment, abuse, and neglect can be mitigated if children have access to a relationship with a loving adult such as a teacher, a minister, a neighbor, or a relative who is empathically attuned to the child’s feelings.” (Lawson 43)

This is terribly fascinating to me–the conviction that one is loved.  I really had to stop and ponder that.  To be frank, nothing will ever convince me that my father or his wife even liked me much less loved me.  I always believed that those two humans enjoyed a certain kind of loathing, even cultivated their hatred with pleasure, towards me.  It was a fact of life.  Looking back, I do believe I thought my mother loved me.  Compared to my father and his wife, she seemed gentler and kinder.  He was so cold in his affect, and nothing I did could ever thaw him.  It doesn’t pain me to write about him now.  I feel completely ambivalent about him.  Thinking about his wife, however, causes my skin to prickle a little bit.  I’m a synesthete.  Sometimes when I meet people I see color around them.  It’s not true for everyone, and I don’t control it.  I once met one of my daughter’s English teachers, and her face was poopy green.  I tried to get past it whenever I met her, but she was always poopy green when I saw her in the halls of the middle school.  As it turns out, if a teaching style had a color, hers would have been poopy green, too.  Well, the first time I ever laid eyes on my stepmother, I was six years-old, and she had a pitch black line running down her face and over her entire body.  To me, it looked cartoonish as if someone had painted a black stripe down the front of her body.  I had never seen such a thing before that.  To this day, she is the only person I’ve ever seen colored in black, and, aside from the man who abducted me, she is one of the most malevolent people I have known in motivation and desire to harm with the skills to manipulate to match.

I think that this is probably one of the more damaging things about growing up with borderline personalities; it is very difficult to accept that borderline love is not really love at all.  My mother told me every day that she loved me.  She insisted on closing out her phone calls with “I love you”.  When I began to leave Borderland, I started questioning the meaning of those three words.  What does “I love you” mean to my mother? I knew what “I love you” meant to me, and it was this realization that my definition of love wasn’t matching her outward expression of “I love you” that pricked my brain.  It lodged itself there like a splinter.  Every time she said “I love you” I wondered rather than simply accepted.  For the child of a BPD mother to even begin to wonder is very dangerous.  If you are the adult child of a BPD mother, then you understand the crisis.  We are not allowed to question.  Our compliance is not a suggestion.  It is a demand, and it is absolutely essential if we are to survive our borderline mothers.

Lawson was very good to provide a tool for her readers–a visual aid if you will.

Variations in Maternal Functioning

The Ideal Mother                                                                


  1. Comforts her child
  2. Apologizes for inappropriate behavior
  3. Takes care of herself
  4. Encourages independence in her children
  5. Is proud of her children’s accomplishments
  6. Builds her children’s self-esteem
  7. Responds to her children’s changing needs
  8. Disciplines with logical and natural consequences
  9. Expects that her children will be loved by others
  10. Never threatens abandonment
  11. Believes in her children’s basic goodness
  12. Trusts her children

The Borderline Mother                                                      


  1. Confuses her child
  2. Does not apologize or remember inappropriate behavior
  3. Expects to be taken care of
  4. Punishes or discourages independence
  5. Envies, ignores, or demeans her children’s accomplishments
  6. Destroys, denigrates, or undermines self-esteem
  7. Expects children to respond to her needs
  8. Frightens and upsets her children
  9. Disciplines inconsistently and punitively
  10. Feels left out, jealous or resentful if the child is loved by someone else
  11. Uses threats of abandonment (or actual abandonment) to punish the child
  12. Does not believe in her children’s basic goodness
  13. Does not trust her children

(Lawson 36)

She then goes on to describe in depth the BPD types (which i summarized):

The Waif Mother: The darkness within the borderline Waif is helplessness.  Her inner experience is victimization, and her behavior evokes sympathy and caretaking from others.  Like Cinderella, the Waif can be misleading as she can appear to have it together for a short time.  The Waif’s emotional message to her children is: Life is too hard.

The Hermit Mother: The darkness within the borderline Hermit is fear.  Her behavior evokes anxiety and protection from others.  Like Snow White, the Hermit feels like a frightened child hiding from the world.  The Hermit’s emotional message to her children is: Life is too dangerous.

The Queen Mother: The darkness within the borderline Queen is emptiness.  Her inner experience is deprivation and her behavior evokes compliance.  She is demanding and flamboyant and may intimidate others.  The Queen feels entitled to exploit others and can be vindictive and greedy.  The Queen’s emotional message to her children is: Life is “all about me.”

The Witch Mother: The darkness within the borderline Witch is annihilating rage.  Her inner experience is the conviction of being evil, and her behavior evokes submission.  The Witch can hide in any of the other three profiles as a temporary ego-state.  She is filled with self-hatred and may single out one child as the target of her rage.  The Witch’s emotional message to her children is: Life is war.

The Medean Mother is the most pathological (and rarest) type of Witch. (Lawson 38)

This is the simplest foundation I can lay for talking about borderline mothers.  It seems a little impossible because nothing is simple when it comes to borderline mothers.  As soon as I think I’ve got a good handle on my mother’s behavior and motivations, she does something surprising.  In some ways, I want to inoculate myself against her so badly.  I don’t want anything that she does from here on out to surprise me, but what would such a thing render in me? Would I have to become heartless or cynical? What is the difference between expecting the worst from someone and expecting…

…expecting a person to behave according to what they have always offered? It just so happens that they have always produced behaviors on the outside of the bell curve meaning deviant or abnormal.  Adult children of borderline mothers are essentially programmed never to betray their parent in thought, word, or deed.  Speaking about a BPD parent in a therapy session can cause a cycle of illegitimate guilt and shame to overtake an adult child rendering them helpless.  Honestly, the only thing that was strong enough to motivate me to stand up to my mother was my instinct to protect my daughters from her.  Early in my recovery process, I had no ability to advocate for myself.  I saw no reason to even attempt to try.  She was too powerful, and I was worthless.  My daughters, on the other hand, were different.  I was determined to protect them from her as well as give them a life I never had.  Finding that seed of power within oneself, I believe, is imperative when embarking on an endeavor such as separating and individuating from a borderline mother.  It took me a decade to do it.  Looking back, I see that I had been trying to get away from her for years, but she continually clipped my wings if not dismembered me altogether.

If you are alive, however, then there is hope.  We are not our mothers.  The cycle can stop with us.  We can separate, individuate, and differentiate from these women.  We are not responsible for meeting their emotional needs.  They are.  We are not their figurative or literal punching bags.  We are worthwhile people worthy of love even if we can’t believe that there’s truth in that statement.  Just because a deeply wounded, disordered person mistreated us, lied to us, abused us, and traumatized us does not mean that our worth is up for grabs.  It simply means that someone hurt us and we need a community of healers to tend to us and teach us how to grow up again.  We need new mothers and new fathers.  We might need new sisters and new brothers.  We might need to hear over and over again that we are loved, beautiful, intelligent, and good through and through so that the cognitive impairment done to our hippocampus can be repaired.  We might need to live in a new environment free of loud noises, oppression, and intimidation so that our amygdalae begin to calm and we stop startling.  There is a spectrum of needs among adult children of borderline mothers, and these needs are all legitimate.  I’ve also learned that whatever boundary an adult child of a borderline parent needs to set in order to feel safe is acceptable.  One should never feel guilty for wanting to feel safe, secure, and cared for.  Those are essential requirements for any and all relationships.

It seems pretty clear, doesn’t it? Alas, nothing seems clear when it comes to our borderline mothers.  I can tell you from experience that the view is much clearer further down the road.

Keep going.

17 Comments on “Understanding The Borderline Mother, Part I

  1. “As soon as I think I’ve got a good handle on my mother’s behavior and motivations, she does something surprising.”

    It never fails that surprise is around the corner even when it seems she’s hit an all time high or low. Thanks for sharring

    • My husband told me that he didn’t understand me in that I was usually surprised by her antics. He, on the other hand, was not surprised. I think I realized that I still wished to believe that the possibility for redemption exists. To fail to be surprised, I think, means that I don’t have hope. I don’t necessarily hope that my mother will change. I don’t. I just choose not to be cynical about others, and I think that in so choosing this state of mind there will always be an element of surprise when people behave badly.

  2. I love what you’ve said here, and find this topic very interesting and relatable. My mother sounds like a borderline witch/queen too, though I suppose she took on the other roles as well from time to time. She was always unpredictable, vacillating from being needy to vicious to fake nice, with multiple layers of manipulation and stratagem always going on underneath each word.

    Early on in my path to separation, it was very important to me to finally realize that when she said “I love you,” I didn’t have to say “I love you too,” because I didn’t love her. Once I stopped giving that rote response, she largely stopped saying it. Because the phrase “I love you” was really just something she said in the expectation that I would say it back and thus validate and reassure her that she was loved. So it was about her too, and definitely not comforting to me because this was another burden/demand of a deeply abusive mother whose “love” was a delusion of her own sick mind.

    • I’ve read a few of your posts on your blog, and I relate to your story. I stopped saying “I love you” a few years ago, too, because I didn’t want to say those words out of compliance. I wanted those words to hold meaning. I also didn’t want to “feed the beast” if that makes sense. It felt to me that she was trying to emotionally exsanginuate me, if that makes any sense. It felt vampiric and suffocating at the same time as if she were trying to draw life from me simply by the act of her ability to force me to do something against my will. Learning to assert my will and enter into my own identity was oddly terrifying. I know that not all adult children of BPDs feel quite so intensely about their mothers, but I do wonder if part of it is to be attributed to the sexual abuse nature of our relationship. My mother was sexually abusive, too. I think that when parents enter into sexual abuse, it’s that much harder to separate and individuate due to their emotional terrorism and possible cognitive damage done to the hippocampus. It’s not impossible, of course. It’s just hard and, for lack of a better word, scary.

  3. “We are not their figurative or literal punching bags.”

    It’s sad but necessary that we have to make declarations like these to ourselves to combat the messages they send.

    I was JUST reading the same chapter in this book last night and underlining all sorts of stuff. I’ve mentioned before that I don’t have many memories (I think in part because it was a regularly invalidating environment) and I don’t trust my feeling in part because of that but also my brothers and sisters, except for one, have never let on that they felt the way I felt. But it was encouraging to read that not all children are treated the same (and learned the oldest often gets it the worst, which I was). Also, she’s divorced and remarried now and often in my conversations with her she seems to have mellowed out so it makes me question if she ever was the way I remember. But then there are little snippets, like at at a memorial last year for my soon-to-be brother in-law who unexpectedly passed a bar was crowded with people watching a slideshow and mourning him. She was being overly emotional and looking around at the others as if to compete for the attention the dead person was getting. Then I put my wall up and thought, “yep I’m not crazy, and how terrible is it that she will wear her emotions like a jacket to try and glean sympathy in a setting like this.” And then just last week we had a phone call where she was bemoaning how “I’m just sad my kids are never around and I feel like I pushed them all away and they all hate me…” Of course, when she paused this was the point where I was to console her, but I didn’t, and it felt good. I just said “sad to hear you’re having such a hard time,” which I was.

    So, I think mine my have been Waif/Hermit.

    • This might help you, but I have read in numerous places (but I can’t cite it now) that many BPDs burn out as they get older i.e. mellow out. I think it might be due to cognitive damage done when they were younger. Their amygdala just doesn’t fire off as quickly as it did, and they don’t rage as high and hot. The dynamic within your family–the all-good vs. the no-good child–is “textbook”. When my mother remarried a second time, my new stepsisters were the “bad” ones, and I was the “good” one. It was a relief to me because I was no longer the only child–the sole focus of her attention, criticism, and rage. Because I was the good one, I was able to exercise some influence over her when she was out of control, and I was able to de-escalate her and prevent further harm. After her second divorce, she went through a period of time where she remained the Witch for almost a year. I think that was the most damaging time in our relationship. My stepmother is most likely a Queen/Witch as well, and my father’s grandmother was probably a Queen/Witch. He obviously had a need to recreate relational dynamics by choosing the same type repeatedly. In that household, I was all-bad….all the time. My stepmother loathed me. I never knew how much I really was hated until she had her own baby when I was 15. I came to call my half-sister the Golden Child because she was treated so well while I was scorned. As soon as I was old enough to choose not to visit them, I stopped. So, you are not crazy or wrong in your perceptions. Each child in a family experiences a parent differently and will thusly have their own memories. Just because you remember your mother through a certain filter doesn’t mean that your filter is faulty. It just means that she treated you differently. These days, my mother doesn’t rage as much…at least I don’t think so. I haven’t lived with her for years, and I haven’t interacted with her for a few years. But, on the phone, she can still seethe, and she still has her Queenly entitlement. And, as I wrote, she still gaslights although I don’t think she knows that she’s doing that. It’s habitual.

      Also, BPDs are chameleons. They lack a sense of identity so they will become whatever the environment dictates to get a need met. Your mother wanted attention in the bar. She might not have been even exhibiting HER emotions. She might have simply been trying on the atmosphere’s emotions to get attention. Waifs often have histrionic tendencies. I don’t know if that will help you in understanding, but it might help you to feel less manipulated or guilty. I often used to feel guilty. Only children and first-borns often feel an innate sense of responsibility to caretake.

      • Some of that knowledge does help (that they mellow out later and can shift the roles of good-child and bad-child). But what you said that most resonated was about the chameleon aspect. That is probably how I most identify my mom. Her persona can seem like a dress she wears based on her needs, like choosing the right outfit for the occasion.

  4. Pingback: Understanding The Borderline Mother, Part II: The All-Good Child | Out of the Mire

  5. Pingback: Understanding The Borderline Mother, Part III: The No-Good Child | Out of the Mire

    • Thank you for sharing part of your story here. I wish you peace today after laying all that out. That can be painful, or, at least for me, it would have been. Shalom…

  6. My mother did not get better as she got older…she got worse. She was checking the odometer on the car as she thought my dad was cheating on her. She rigged a noose in the basement when my dad stopped for a beer after going to pick up some groceries and didn’t return immediately – I knew something was up with her and asked her not to when he pulled in the driveway – heard them arguing in the basement and went downstairs and saw my father standing aside of her while she stood on the rigged noose she had put there while he was out of the house. I don’t think she was really going to go through with it – it was just for “show “…my father had a drinking problem and the little bit he was gone was NOTHING after how he had been drinking my whole life. Thanks for her, for she was barely a drinker, she got a drunk and passed out on our couch when she overdramatized a problem that could have been taken care of in the next week – and my brother moved to another continent to get away from her and the “old days of fighting” her remembered – as he just had gotten out of the Air Force.. And then, in 1982, I had a son. She ADORED him. She would always say to me when I was older ” Remember when we used to have tea parties?” I’d always say “No…” I bet there was one knowing her. Three years later I became pregnant and my mother said she’d love any child I”d have but my son was “SPECIAL”. I knew what that meant. HE would be her favorite. The main thing is I found out the week she died was I had been replaced.wound up having a miscarriage with this baby and you know, my mom never said anything to me – didn’t wrap her arms around me, didn’t come to be with me. Two months later, I had spoken to my mom the night before we went to visit them p where we had a nice convo and laughed. on the phone. We went to see my parents with my little boy and my mom would not look at me – gave me her famous silent treatment and I didn’t know why. After a while, I got disgusted and left. Two days later, I got a call at work from my dad saying my mom took a heart attack and they were bringing her over in an ambulance. I called my husband and he picked me up to go to the hospital. There we saw my mother, CLIMBING off the gurney to make sure that my son got this thing hidden in the basement. – yes, we found out it was money hidden in a box/floor fan with a garbage bag over it with $2000 in it !!!! But it was money that 7 months ago she had designated for me when their house was burglarized. – she had had it in her bedroom and re-hid it in the basement post-robbery. So, yes, I WAS replaced. Oh, and did I forget, I am no dummy – I have a B.A. degree in English and yet she told me SHE was going to get my little boy ready for school – for the kindergarten screening. Like who gave her that job? She didn’t even get ME ready. lol. Then, like the 3rd time being denied by my mother that week, like Peter denied Chris, the hospital called that she had taken a turn for the worse. My dad picked me up and we rushed over at 1:30 a.m. There was my mom – sitting up in a ward like nothing was wrong – after being out of it like a zombie for days after her heart attack. And then the final injustice came from her – i said to her “I love you, Mom”. To which my mom said, “I know………” She couldn’t say it back because she didn’t feel it”.. The next morning, we got called again – another turn for the worse – this time, she was already dead when we got there. I used to dream for Years she was mad at me and I thought she hated me. It took when my father was diagnosed with terminal cancer – which totally sent me in a depression, and outpatient therapy, that I realized that “I” was a better mother than SHE was. THEN , I started to think back to the ugly things she said, how she gave me such low self-esteem, my dad took my down to college with all my things and my mother did NOT go along – she stayed home to get her “classroom ready”, lol – but yet she had the nerve to say to me one time : “I know you love your father more than you do me”…out of nowhere…She never came along to come down and get me when I came home on the weekends. And THEN, my Freshman year, I get sick as a dog, during FINALS, and my dad has to come down in a snow storm. My dad brings a friend along, but does my mom worry about me too and come along ? NOPE. And you know….back then, I never thought about all this stuff when I was growing up. . You just TOOK IT. EVERYTHING that happened in that house . My dad has PTSD from WWll as he was a Medic and all she did was put him and his family down – which was MY family and put down Catholics – and she was Lutheran and they got married in the Catholic church and she agreed we would be raised Catholic, so she was putting down ME. No WONDER I have even MORE self-hatred. So no – things got even worse as she got OLDER.

  7. Thank you for writing about this. I have struggled for years to understand my family of origin, and while I don’t wish this on anyone, it is nice to know there are others out there trying to recover from this too. My mother is also a Queen/Witch, who plays the Waif when she doesn’t feel in control of her subjects – my father, my sister, and myself. I have been the target of her rage my whole life, and my father and sister have willingly sacrificed me to try to obtain her mercy, not realizing she does not have any. I finally had to walk away from all of them, because my mother too has gotten worse with age. She seems less able to control her own behavior, and the behavior of her drone – my prescription drug-addicted father who will also do or say anything she tells him too. He has been willing to be her punisher since I was small, even willing to attack me at her command, no matter the reasoning. Reasoning doesn’t exist with borderlines, so he takes pills to try to stay in this fantasy world they have created, one in which I am the big bad monster out to destroy them…. And I too suffer survivors guilt. How did we survive? I did not have people that gave me the conviction that I was loved. I had a very active imagination, in which I found the smallest nugget of kindness and built a mother out of it. I wish everyone here the best on this journey. We made it this far, we can survive anything.

    • Oh, I hear you. It’s not an easy journey. I hope that you have found people along the way who have loved you well. They exist. I think that we have to build a family–choose one. Make one of our own. That’s so very important for those of us who came from a family of origin who choose violence and hatred as a way of life.

  8. As I read this I felt that every word was somehow pulled out of my thoughts and memories and onto your page. It is a great thing to not feel alone; although, I would never with this upon anyone.

    • I’m glad though to be able to describe the experience in such a way that makes it common so that alienation is eradicated. Feeling understood goes a long way, doesn’t it?

  9. Pingback: Becoming Strong | Out of the Mire

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