“There’s an inner sense of emptiness that can be haunting,” observes Yeomans. Uncertainty about who they are often keeps them from following a clear path in life. “One day I’ll be wearing Lilly Pulitzer and pearls and playing the role of a perfect Southern belle; the next I’ll be dyeing my hair black, wearing tie-dye and hemp necklaces, smoking pot and listening to The Grateful Dead,” writes borderline sufferer Jennifer O’Brien. “I’ve been to three different universities since I started college, and I’ve changed my major 10 times.”
Seeding the emotional storms, says Harvard psychiatrist John Gunderson, director of the Borderline Personality Disorder Center at McLean Hospital, is a hypersensitivity to rejection. Borderlines are quick to assume others are excluding them—and quick to react to that perceived rejection. “Say you’re having dinner with a borderline person and someone else comes into the room, and you start a conversation with that other person,” Gunderson offers. “The borderline is liable to think that the other person is preferred, and to feel betrayed. When the other person leaves, the borderline will say something like, ‘What was so good about her?'” Paranoia, especially arising in interpersonal conflict, has been one of the diagnostic criteria for borderline disorder.
Borderlines’ all-consuming fear of rejection stems from a bone-deep terror that the people they’re close to will abandon them. “My significant other travels to visit his family and conduct business overseas,” Debbie Corso says. “Each time he traveled, I would become a complete and total mess—ending up in the emergency room dehydrated and having not eaten.”
The fear of abandonment commonly drives borderlines to seek confirmation that they truly matter. In practice, it could mean interrupting a boyfriend during an important work meeting or showing up at his doorstep in pajamas in the middle of the night. “I feel I’m going to die if I can’t contact the person,” says “Kim,” a 32-year-old mother from the Northeast who was diagnosed as borderline several years ago. “I don’t care what the consequences might be of my contacting them. I know it isn’t going to end well but I can’t stop.”
Their overwrought rejection sensitivity leads borderlines to assess other people and situations in all-or-nothing terms. “There’s a tendency to operate in extremes—black or white, right or wrong,” says psychiatrist Jerold Kreisman, author of I Hate You—Don’t Leave Me: Understanding the Borderline Personality. “What they’re feeling right now defines things: I have this friend I’ve known for 10 years, but we had this violent disagreement about politics and now I hate his guts.'” In a romantic context, a borderline person might tell her partner, “You’re the most amazing guy I’ve ever met. I want to share my life with you,” and a few hours later gather all his belongings and pile them in the driveway after he “rejects” her by talking to an ex for a few minutes at a party.
Chaos and crises, in fact, bring comfort to borderlines. “They actually feel safer in chaotic environments and relationships,” says San Diego psychiatrist David Reiss. “In a chaotic situation, the person knows the territory. In a calm situation, the person feels insecure, not knowing when the next shoe will drop and unprepared for what type of abuse or disruption may lie ahead.”
Chaos serves another important function for borderlines. It distracts them from their emotional turmoil, observes the Mayo Clinic’s Palmer. Some of the signature behaviors of borderline personality disorder—self-cutting, sexual promiscuity, drug use, bingeing and purging, suicidal gestures—are attempts to escape from the intense negative emotions that overwhelm them. As a result, they often court chaos.
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