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.