“Only the never-ending work of mourning can help us from lapsing into the illusion that we have found the parent we once urgently needed—empathic and open, understanding and understandable, honest and available, helpful and loving, feeling, transparent, clear, without unintelligible contradictions. Such a parent was never ours, for a mother can react empathically only to the extent that she has become free of her own childhood; when she denies the vicissitudes of her early life, she wears invisible chains.” ― Alice Miller, Ph.D.

Today is Mother’s Day.

Already, the day may feel hard and strange for you because of the reality that COVID has rendered across the collective landscape of our lives.

But if you, like so many people, have a strained, estranged, brittle, broken, or otherwise painful relationship with your mother, this day may feel doubly hard this year.

If you’ve been following my work for any time, you may know I often write about the impacts of being raised by a personality-disordered father figure.

But what if your mother was the one with a personality disorder?

What might the impacts be on you if your mom was the unstable, chaotic, unreliable parent?

What if your mom was diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder or evidenced many of the traits (if not formally diagnosed)?

To add a wider lens to the circumstances that may contribute to complex relational trauma, to feel seen and validated if this – being raised by a Borderline mother – is one of the primary reasons that makes Mother’s Day so hard for you this year and every year, please join me as I unpack this experience and explore the impacts it may have had on you. 

(And, PS, keep reading until the end of the post for a list of other posts and resources if Mother’s Day feels hard for you this year.)


What is Borderline Personality Disorder?

“It was a sort of love few other people could understand. It was total and it was overwhelming and it could be cruel.” – Cassandra Clare

Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) is a mental health condition defined by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (the bedrock clinical manual of the mental health field). 

If you’re interested in reading the full criterion of the disorder, you can do so here.

But, essentially, BPD is a mental health condition characterized by emotional lability (an inability to regulate one’s emotions), an unstable sense of self, challenges forming and sustaining relationships, and a tendency towards erratic, often self-harming, behaviors and impulses.

And, it’s worth noting, BPD is relatively common. 

It’s estimated that 1.6% of the adult U.S. population has BPD, but that number may be as high as 5.9% and of those diagnosed, nearly 75% are women.

Given these statistics and given what I’ve seen in a decade of doing this work, it’s far more common for patients to present with BPD mothers than fathers with BPD.

But, that’s not to say that men are immune from this personality disorder; it’s just statistically more common for a woman and, by extension, mothers, to have this diagnosis.

So while I’m writing from a female/mother reference point today, if your father was diagnosed with BPD, simply substitute those pronouns across this article as you read. 


What causes Borderline Personality Disorder?

“A child can experience her feelings only when there is somebody there who accepts her fully, understands her, and supports her. If that person is missing, if the child must risk losing the mother’s love of her substitute in order to feel, then she will repress emotions.” ― Alice Miller, Ph.D.

BPD is, in my clinical opinion, a trauma disorder. 

More specifically, a relational trauma disorder.

What do I mean by this?

Overwhelmingly, research suggests that BPD patients have a history of childhood trauma.

As we know, childhood trauma can manifest in a wide variety of ways depending on the context of the circumstances, the individual who endured it, and the resulting help and support (or lack thereof) that individual received in the years ensuing the adverse early beginnings.

Sometimes, this trauma can manifest into a constellation of symptoms and responses that align with the criterion of BPD. 

And when it does, it can have big impacts on the children of the sufferer.

However, it’s at this point in the article that I want to say something I feel personally very strongly about: this article is not meant to demonize mothers who have BPD traits or who have been formally diagnosed with BPD. 

This article is meant to explore, not to cast stones.

It’s meant to evoke curiosity, not to chastise.

Always and in all circumstances, I strive to hold a compassionate lens and to ask the question: “And what would have led someone to behave and be in this way?”

I would invite us all to think about BPD in this way and to imagine that, at some level, that individual diagnosed or evidencing BPD probably experienced relational trauma in their lives and from that place their responses (maladaptive as they might be) spring and stem.

AND yet, also very important, you can have compassion for someone with these traits and this diagnosis, and you can still have been hugely and detrimentally impacted by their behaviors and feel anger, sorrow, and despair alongside that compassion.

It’s not either/or, it’s both/and.

And to the point of how a child may have been impacted by being raised by a borderline mother, please read on.

What are the impacts of being raised by a Borderline mother?

“There is no growth without real feeling. Children not loved for who they are do not learn how to love themselves. Their growth is an exercise in pleasing others, not in expanding through experience. As adults, they must learn to nurture their own lost child.” ― Marion Woodman, Ph.D.

Our primary wish as infants is to feel safe and secure in our attachment with our parents. 

That kind of security is earned through consistently good-enough, warm, attentive, caring and appropriate contact.

However, as I’ve mentioned, those with BPD struggle with emotional lability (an inability to regulate one’s emotions), an unstable sense of self, challenges forming and sustaining relationships, and a tendency towards erratic, often self-harming, behaviors and impulses.

Because of this, it can make it difficult (if not impossible) for mothers with BPD to consistently show up and demonstrate good-enough, warm, attentive, caring and appropriate responses toward their child. 

That’s not to say that the BPD mother doesn’t want to show up for her child in these ways.

It just may feel impossible to her at times given her limited capacities.

This, sadly, can lead to confusion and mixed relational experiences for the infant and the child that they become.

Confusing, mixed relational experiences with one or both of the primary caregivers can manifest into a wide variety of impacts for a child raised by a borderline mother.

For instance, a child raised in these conditions can possibly develop anxious or avoidant attachment behaviors as they struggle to understand “which mom” may be waiting for them when they get off the school bus.

A child exposed to variable degrees of parental warmth and affection may experience anxiety and depression as they grow, appropriate emotional responses to a chaotic and challenging home environment.

A child steeped in an environment where this kind of chaotic relationship is modeled may struggle, as they grow into a teen and young adult, to understand what’s healthy and functional in a romantic relationship versus what’s unhealthy and dysfunctional.

A child raised in this emotionally immature environment may even develop a kind of codependent, enmeshed relationship with their borderline mother, struggling with lifelong poor boundaries that compromise their well-being and worth.

And, importantly, a child raised by a mother with BPD may be at increased risk for developing BPD or Borderline traits themselves given what was modeled and given their own subsequent relational trauma experiences.


How do I help myself if I was raised by a Borderline mother?

“Experience has taught us that we have only one enduring weapon in our struggle against mental illness: the emotional discovery and emotional acceptance of the truth in the individual and unique history of our childhood.” ― Alice Miller, Ph.D.

First, always, we want to see things more plainly for what they are versus what we wish they would be. 

We want clarity of vision to be able to really understand what our situation is.

To that end, psychoeducation and awareness of what BPD actually is can help you begin to understand if your mother potentially demonstrated some or many of these traits.

When you know what you’re working with, you begin to know more clearly what options are available to you.  

Next, we want to ask, given what I know about this person, given what I know about my mother, what’s the likelihood that I can have a close relationship with them?

If they’re willing to work on themselves and their relationship with you – great! 

We know that Dialectical Behavioral Therapy is an evidence-based form of clinical treatment shown to have great success in treating BPD.

And (I truly believe this!) if someone is willing to do the work required by DBT and long-term relational therapy work, a diagnosis of BPD does not have to be fixed and static.

It is absolutely possible to heal, to grow, and to become a more emotionally stable and healthy individual even with a BPD diagnosis in the past.

There is, therefore, a possibility that even if your mother had or has BPD traits, if she’s willing to do the work, she can show up in a different way for you.

However, this does require willingness and a deep commitment to doing so. 

If, however, your mother is not willing to work on herself or on her relationship with you, we likely need to explore how you can set the boundaries you need to in order to take care of yourself while still being in contact with her.

And/or we may need to help you evaluate if taking more distance, if not fully stepping away from the relationship is what you need for your own mental health.

We also want to help you process your significant pain, frustration and grief that you didn’t and may not ever be able to have the kind of mother that you wanted and needed and still want and need. (Yes, you do get to grieve this.)

We want to help you seek out and befriend other mother figures in your life so that you can have reparative experiences that show you that secure, safe, healthy and consistent attachment is possible.

And, in time, we want to help you become your own “good-enough” inner mother, the internalized source of comfort, warmth, stability, compassion and caregiving that every child longs for.


Wrapping up…

“I know people heal by being able to tell the story – the whole story.”  – Clarissa Pinkola Estes, Ph.D.

I want to remind you of something I deeply believe: No matter where we’re starting from, change is possible. 

No matter what your early childhood experiences were like, it’s possible to live a healthy, thriving adult life filled with secure, healthy relationships. 

But this does require confronting your personal history, grieving and processing it, making sense of it, and learning new, more functional behaviors and worldviews as you progress with your life. 

If you were raised by a BPD mother, it doesn’t predetermine you for a lifetime of unfulfilling relationships or being diagnosed with BPD yourself.

You can have a healthy, functional, thriving adult life no matter where you come from if you do your own work to make that possible.

I’d love to support you in this so please consider whether therapy with me or one of my center’s relational trauma-informed staff therapists (if you live here in California) might be of support to you right now. 

And if you live far away from the Bay or outside of California, please consider participating in my forthcoming online course – Hard Families, Good Boundaries – as support to help you with any kind of challenging family situation that you may be facing, with your mother or with anyone else in your life who challenges your boundaries.

No matter where you live and no matter what’s going on for you in your life right now, I truly look forward to hearing from you and to being of support to you.

Warmly, Annie


Additional Supports If Mother’s Day Feels Hard:


“Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness. It took me years to understand that this too, was a gift.” – Mary Oliver


Medical Disclaimer

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