I finally decided to stop fooling around and powered through Christine Lawson’s book Understanding The Borderline Mother. I have some odd ability to quickly absorb books like this. I read 200 pages in three hours. I feel raw after reading it, and the only way I’ll be able to adequately process Lawson’s material is to write about it.
I feel rather unsettled inside where my mother is concerned. I think it’s because I’ve been working on a response to her latest contact. She wants to have a relationship. I don’t. It isn’t that I don’t want something good for her. I don’t hate her. I don’t feel bitterness. Perhaps I’m simple-minded, but I don’t understand the point. I am getting ahead of myself.
I put the book down a few months ago. Yesterday, I began my reading at a chapter entitled “Make-Believe Children”. Lawson is using classic fairy tales as a metaphor to discuss borderline mothers so it makes sense that she calls their children ‘make-believe’. It’s fitting really because that’s how I have felt for so long–depersonalized and unreal. Life is a nightmare. When will I wake up? In this chapter, Lawson divides the children of borderline mothers into two groups–the all-good children and the no-good children. Lawson states:
“Children of borderlines learn to sacrifice their true selves because survival requires that they meet their mother’s emotional needs. Masterson defines the true self as: ‘a self that is whole, both good and bad, and based on reality; it is creative, spontaneous and functioning through the mode of self-assertion…in an autonomous fashion.’ Autonomy, the freedom of self-direction and self-expression, is impossible for the borderline’s child. Because the borderline mother views separation as betrayal and punishes self-assertion, the child develops a false self. The true self is buried alive.” (Lawson 155)
There it is. My former raison d’être. I only existed to meet my mother’s needs. I was responsible for her happiness as well as her unhappiness. None of this information was new to me as I was reading the text. It just caused my heart to ache a bit–“Yeah, I remember this. I worked on this. I think I’ll put this on my blog. Maybe someone needs to read this…” I kept reading.
Lawson went on to write:
“The borderline’s children become experts at deciphering emotional messages that often have hidden significance. As adults, these children may become preoccupied with discovering hidden motives behind the actions of others. An adult child explained, ‘Things weren’t the way they were supposed to be when I was a child. Now, I’m suspicious whenever things are going well.’ Adult children may have difficulty expressing themselves and fear that others may take advantage of their honesty. They are never sure where they stand and question whether others mean what they say. As children, what they knew to be true one minute changed the next minute. They search for validation, for others who might confirm their reality. Daniel Goleman describes the task of the emotional brain as focusing attention on threats to survival, ‘ to make split-second decisions like “Do I eat this or does it eat me?” The borderline’s children are preoccupied with what researchers call ‘risk assessment’–with determining the nature of their mother’s state of mind from one moment to the next. It is an unconscious and involuntary process, like breathing. They do not realize they are doing it. A thick wall of denial protects children from seeing what is too terrifying to face.” (Lawson 157)
This I understood completely. This defines the status quo of my inner landscape for the majority of my life with my mother. I still tend to do this when I’m socializing. When I’m nervous I will default to “reading” people. I find I am doing this less and less, but if I feel threatened or see a friend being mistreated by a spouse I will immediately begin looking for microexpressions, observing body language, looking for the pulse in the neck to gauge heart rate, observing the clenching of the jaw, watching the muscles in the forearms for twitching, listening for fluctuations in tone of voice, and watching the sheen on the skin of the face for oil production and sweat. I might ask benign questions to gauge honesty like, “When’s your birthday?” or “What’s your favorite color?” in order to establish a baseline for truth telling.
Lawson was quick to get into the notion of splitting:
“The borderline’s all-or-nothing thinking results in split perceptions of her children. Because Rachel was an only child, her mother alternated between perceiving her as all-good and no-good…A borderline mother’s projections…are intense and may fluctuate wildly from perceiving a child as all-good one minute to no-good the next minute.” (Lawson 158)
I was an only child until my mother remarried when I was almost 11 so this resonated with me. My mother and father were married for nine years, and during their ill-fated union my father was the no-good person in the house. All of my mother’s vitriol and hatred had been aimed at him. In her eyes, I was a perfect thing. She dressed me up in little dresses like a china doll. The first thing my mother said when she saw my face after my father had branded my cheek with a cigarette lighter was, “How could you! She isn’t perfect anymore!” She never took me to the doctor. She didn’t call the police. She did nothing. She just saw me as a flawed object that my father had ruined. I was suddenly no good. This is very telling.
“Children of borderlines should not be led to believe that their experience is normal. Borderlines sense that they are different and deserve validation of their suffering. The intensity of their fear, rage, jealousy, and resentment is not normal. To state otherwise discounts their experience as well as their children’s. Validation must be reality-based…Children know only what they experience. They may not realize that other mothers do not lash out unexpectedly over minor slights, are not chronically upset, depressed, fearful, or overwhelmed. Children have no experience other than their own by which to judge the world and themselves. Unfortunately, the tendency among borderline mothers to split their perceptions of their children leaves their children with distorted impressions about themselves. The way parents see their children is the way children see themselves. Why one child becomes designated as all-good and another as no-good depends upon the nature of the mother’s projections.” (Lawson 158-159)
After my parents’ divorce, I became the center of my mother’s attention. I was six years-old. I learned quickly to be quiet and compliant although that is not my nature. I’m a firstborn girl. My nature is actually to be a bit bossy and loud…I think. That’s what I’ve been told by others anyway, but that was not going to happen in my mother’s house. Sometimes I was perfect. Sometimes I was the most horrible person in the world. I suspect it all depended upon my mother’s mood and how she was feeling about herself. She didn’t understand that her mood affected me. She didn’t understand that I could not physically perform at an adult’s level. I grew up in East Texas, and I’m of Swedish extraction. I don’t tolerate heat very well. I was always the first little girl at recess to start crying due to the heat. My mother would dress me in wool in February even if it was 90 degrees. In her mind, people wear wool in February because she wore wool as a child in February. She grew up in a cold climate. Her parents were Scandinavian. Wool is part of everyone’s wardrobe. No one in Texas wears wool! My needs didn’t matter. The East Texas summers were sweltering and oppressive, and my mother grew tired of mowing our quarter-acre yard. She couldn’t tolerate the heat either. She would come inside with heat stroke and pass out on the floor. She decided that I needed to do it instead. I was seven years-old and barely able to push the mower. It didn’t matter. If I didn’t do it, then she would ground me for disobedience. I, too, would come inside overheated and crying. She yelled at me claiming it was time for me to grow up. I was lazy. The more I cried, the more work she gave me to do. I quickly learned to be silent and do as I was told. I became no-good very quickly when all I really wanted was to be all-good again. I wanted to be perfect.
Characteristics of the All-Good Child
Does not develop borderline personality disorder: “The all-good child doesn’t develop BPD because only the idealized parts of the mother are projected onto this child. Other serious psychological conflicts develop, however, because of the mother’s need for merger with the all-good child. Perhaps the most devastating psychic conflict the all-good child experiences is inauthenticity–feeling as if those who perceive her as good or competent are mistaken.” (Lawson 161) I relate to this. During my mother’s second marriage, I was the preferred child. My mother favored me above everyone in our family. She married a widower with two daughters, and I watched her transform into The Wicked Stepmother. My stepsisters were something akin to the stepsisters plucked off the screen from Disney’s “Cinderella”. Honestly, we all hated each other. We were so different. I was raised in the South by a stoic, rigid Swede who demanded submission, and these girls hailed from a family from New Orleans. To them, it was only Laissez Les Bon Temps Roulez all the time. These girls loathed my mother, and I don’t blame them. She was the antithesis of their mother. I had only seen my mother rage a few times when I was a young child. I spilled chili on our couch once due to tripping on our dog. She dragged me up the stairs dislocating my shoulder and beat me until I stopped moving or screaming. Years later, as an adult, I asked her about her excessive response to my mistake. She told me that I deserved it because I was probably fooling around. During her marriage to my stepfather, she remained in the Witch ego-state almost all the time for seven years. It’s hard for me to explain just how horrific those years were. If she wasn’t raging, then she was threatening to commit suicide or demanding that we kowtow to her. As much as my stepsisters and I didn’t like each other, we became close due to my mother’s treatment. It was the shared experience of living under her reign of terror that forged our bonds. It is, however, hard for us to talk today because we only share trauma bonds. None of us want to reminisce or look back. It’s too painful. Sadly, one of my stepsisters did develop an Axis II disorder, and I do believe it’s due to being exposed to my mother during her formative years. She might very well be BPD. During that marriage, she was the no-good child.
Becoming the parentified child: “All-good children are typically obedient and loyal, and may function as little therapists in their families. The borderline mother attributes special power to the all-good child to rescue and protect her emotionally. Therefore, the all-good child is entrusted with secrets, enlisted as a surrogate partner, and develops impostor syndrome that results from being treated as an adult while still a child. The impostor syndrome reflects the underlying belief that the adult child is undeserving, despite external indications of competence. Accomplishments bring no satisfaction because all-good children attribute success to good luck or good fortune, rather than to their own efforts. The borderline mother unconsciously solicits the alliance of the all-good child. She lives vicariously through this child and seeks validation through the child’s accomplishments. Without recognizing the child’s need for separateness, the borderline mother emotionally merges with the all-good child, leaving the all-good child feeling devoured…The all-good children may be too uncomfortable and guilt-ridden to say no to her mother’s demands for closeness.” (Lawson 162) I identify so much with this. When I read this today, I felt as if I was reading my biography. Every word describes some part of my life or my former life. One of my former fears was that I would be discovered. If people really knew who I was, they would reject me. They would find my true self to be repulsive. I even once told my therapist that I feared that I was nothing more than an impostor. I deserved nothing good in life. The incredible thing about reading things like this is that there is a name for all of these experiences, and if there are names for them, then that means that they are common experiences. Others feel the same. Others have been treated the same. It means that nothing is wrong with me. Nothing is wrong with you. It means that something dreadful happened to us, and we are actually quite normal to feel such profound and intense emotions about our life experiences. I find great comfort in Lawson’s words because it means that I am part of a larger group of people who also have borderline mothers. I am not alone.
Lawson stops and talks about something I had never heard of before. She calls it “forced teaming”. She describes it thusly:
“Forced teaming is an effective way to establish premature trust because a ‘we’re-in-the-same-boat’ attitude is hard to rebuff without feeling rude. The mother unconsciously forces teaming by enticing the all-good child with comments such as, ‘You’re just like me’ or ‘No one else understands me like you do’ or ‘You’re the only one I can depend on’ or ‘If it weren’t for you, my life wouldn’t be worth living.’ The mother’s need to merge with the all-good child can drive the guilt-ridden child away. The all-good child is treated as an idealized part of herself. Consequently, she cares for the all-good child according to her needs, rather than the child’s needs. When mother is cold, she makes the child wear a sweater (think of my mother making me wear wool in February in Texas), regardless of how warm or cold the child feels. If the child rejects the sweater, the mother feels rejected and scolds the child…A parentified child intuitively knows that her role is inappropriate and is terrified knowing that she is solely responsible for her parent’s happiness. She should never be placed in the impossible position of being responsible for her parent’s life.” (Lawson 163)
After I read this, I was struck by the truth of my parentification particularly the idea that a borderline mother parents according to her needs rather than the child’s. My mother did not like to read, therefore, she didn’t buy books for me as a child. Outside of my school libraries, I never went to the library or a bookstore until I was 16 and able to drive. She just assumed that I was interested in what interested her. I read at an early age, and the only book that was readily available to me was a Children’s Bible that my grandparent’s had given me when I turned 4. That’s what I read for a very long time, over and over again. It didn’t seem strange to me then. It dawned on me just how peculiar it was after I had my first daughter.
Is anxious, depressed, and guilt-ridden: “All-good children repress awareness of their true feelings and, consequently, are likely to suffer from depression and anxiety. Because they are preoccupied with the emotional state of others, they have difficulty experiencing pleasure. Although they are acutely perceptive, they lack insight into their own psyche, and may be aware of subtle depression. They suffer from gratification guilt, a gnawing ache that accompanies experiences such as vacations, holidays, or parties. They do not feel entitled to their mother’s idealized perception and may feel undeserving of a good life…They may compulsively provide for others what they need themselves…the all-good child is susceptible to emotional depletion because of compulsive approval-seeking behavior. In addition, the tendency toward depression, anxiety, and guilt is common among all-good children. They can feel overwhelmed with responsibility for caring for others, yet not deserving of being cared for themselves. They have difficulty articulating their feelings and needs, and are extremely uncomfortable with recognition and attention.” (Lawson 164) I relate to this. I have done a lot of work around this one, but I do see tendencies here. I am very uncomfortable with receiving recognition and attention. I no longer repress much of anything, and I am not at all lacking in self-awareness. I don’t have a Messiah Complex although one could have accused me of that a decade or even five years ago. I do not engage in approval seeking. I might have some lingering issues with gratification guilt, and because I live with an ASD child, a child with a schizophrenia spectrum disorder, and another child with a potential bipolar spectrum disorder as well as a teenager, I confess to being preoccupied with the emotional states of others. I think if I were to see my mother again, I would most certainly be hypervigilant and very preoccupied with her emotional state.
Tends to be successful professional: “All-good children tend to be successful adults but not necessarily happy. A preoccupation with doing the right thing can suffocate the real and creative self. All-good children can tolerate unreasonable bosses, unpleasant work environments, and unhappy marriages because meeting the expectations of others is more important than their own happiness. They may have plenty of fame, wealth, or success, but rarely have fun. They continue to function in a parentified role in adult relationships and tend to be conscientious overachievers. Minor mistakes can trigger a catastrophic plunge in self-esteem, and internalized anxiety prevents them from enjoying their accomplishments…Although all-good children do not act on suicidal wishes, when the self is shattered following a minor mistake they may think to themselves, ‘I wish I were dead.’ Success can trigger panic attacks in the all-good child. The more successful they become, the more anxious they are. All-good children experience little contentment or peace of mind, especially if they believe that a no-good sibling was sacrificed.” (Lawson 165) This used to be me. It was very surprising to me how accurately Lawson was able to portray my former self.. I am also greatly relieved to see how far I’ve come. I have spent so much time mucking through the mess in my psyche with therapists. Clearly, I have grown and healed. It can be done. It was just so surprising to me to read the words, “I wish I were dead.” I used to say that after I had mistakes. Just as Lawson wrote. Common experience. It’s so important that we know that others feel as we do.
Messages to the All-Good Child
- “You are the only one who can make me happy.”
- “Without you, life isn’t worth living.”
- “Don’t ever leave me.”
- You are special.”
- “You are responsible for my happiness.”
- “You are responsible for my life.” (Lawson 166)
My mother has said all of these things to me. Once again, I found myself feeling a bit shocked to read these words because it meant that other people had and were continuing to experience what I had experienced. I took a lot of deep breaths and shook my head quite a bit as I perused the text.
All-good children struggle with fear of success. Lawson explains that many all-good children were spared the abuse heaped upon the no-good children in their family, and we, therefore, experience shame and guilt rather than pride and joy when when we are successful in life. We also experience another thing–survival guilt. We drift through life feeling sad and guilty without ever knowing why. It’s because we were made to watch while our mothers (or stepmothers) destroyed someone else in front of us. We grow up being told that we’re special while, at the same time, hearing our mothers roar out denigration and invective towards our siblings or stepsiblings. We don’t know how damaging witnessing that kind of destruction is. We think we’re lucky. We survived, right? Lawson describes this differently:
Although all-good children do not develop BPD, their hearts were pierced with tiny fragments of shrapnel…If it were possible to x-ray the self of the all-good child, one might find a porcelain soul with tiny fractures. Although outwardly appearing uninjured, a child with a fractured soul lives with an inner sense of fragility. The internal self is at war with the external self. All-good children suffer silently, unable to articulate the source of their pain that is too deep and too old to identify. Although a fractured soul cannot fully mend, the all-good child learns to protect it from further injury… through denial, repression, and sublimation. While all-good children need therapy as much as no-good children, they are unlikely to seek it. Analytically oriented therapy is the key that ends the inner war and opens the door to enjoying life.” (Lawson 167)
I am a proponent of therapy. I am, in large part, who I am today because of the gifted clinicians who committed to my process and to me. A therapist’s job is to stand in the place of your parent and advocate for you. They speak truth to you. They tell you who you really are. They call forth your authentic self, fortify it, and encourage you all the while to lay down your defenses so that your brain can forge new neural pathways. This sort of work is vital for children of BPD parents because we were never permitted to have identities. We existed solely for them. I was an all-good child/no-good child until I was 11 years-old. I then became the all-good child when my mother remarried. When she divorced a second time, I became the all-good/no-good child once again except that I was older. Any form of separation or individuation that I displayed was met with talionic rage. I was the no-good child most of the time in my late teens and early 20s. I believe that it is impossible to heal and move forward without the help of therapy. We simply don’t know what normal or healthy is without the help of a therapist. We were never given a compass. They give us a compass. They show us True North.
In my next post, I’ll discuss Lawson’s exposition regarding the no-good child.