Raised by a Borderline Parent? What you need to know

Did you tend to feel any of these ways with a parent or a partner?

  • Never sure what to expect from them? In certain moments they would seem thrilled with life and you but at other moments would treat you with such hostility, contempt and rage such that they could seem like two different people?
  • Caught up in the drama?…They were overly invested in the goings-on of other people…always talking about them, measuring themselves by them, and shifting their loyalties?
  • Wary of their motives? They seemed to always be positioning you or situations in ways that were designed to benefit them.
  • Cautious of separations?…whether it was getting off the phone first, going to work or school or seeking the company of other important people in your life, did these seem to trigger bouts of rage, tantrums, accusations of cruelty or callousness or tactics to get you to give up your plans and stay with them?
  • Even more cautious of reunions?…was it impossible to guess how you’d be greeted after a separation? Whether with joyful glee, rage, or indifference?

If any of these points reflected your experience with a parent or a partner then you may have survived a different but related form of abuse that I talk about in this blog: Borderline Personality abuse.  Sometimes, in families, there can be one parent who is narcissistic and the other who is borderline.  So, if the content of this blog post resonates, then you may have survived both narcissistic and borderline abuse in your family of origin.

In this blog post, I’m going to explain what Borderline Personality Disorder is, how it’s different and similar to Narcissistic Personality Disorder, and give an example of what Borderline Personality can look like in a parent.

My name is Jay Reid and I am a licensed psychotherapist in San Francisco, CA.  I specialize in helping people recover from ‘bad childhoods’.  Often these bad childhoods take the form of having a narcissistic parent and I have an online course and facebook community devoted to recovery from this process.  Today, I’m going to extend that discussion to the experience and recovery from having a borderline parent.

What is Borderline Personality Disorder?

Borderline Personality refers to how psychologically and emotionally developed someone has been permitted to be.  There’s a prominent psychoanalyst named Otto Kernberg, who I think very usefully characterizes Borderline Personality as a state of arrested such development by the person with it.  He cites 3 characteristics of someone with a Borderline level of psychological development and they are:

  • A flimsy sense of core identity: They can feel like ‘different people’ from one situation or relationship to the next. They have a difficult time feeling whole from within.  Some describe a terrifying sense of inner emptiness that must be constantly staved off.
  • Seeing people as either all-good or all-bad in distorted ways: Small frustrations in relationships become reasons for wholesale rejection and attack while other people or other situations with the same person can make minor acts of kindness seem like gifts from heaven. The borderline person is often stuck either totally devaluing or grossly idealizing other people – and themselves!  This is a way of seeing others and oneself that’s called ‘splitting’.
  • Good contact with reality – the person with borderline personality does not suffer from hallucinations, delusions, or other more obvious psychotic breaks from reality. This is what can make a relationship with them be so threatening to your own reality:  if you’re unfortunate enough to be the devalued person for the Borderline person in a moment then the seeming intactness of their contact with reality can make their assaults on your character feel believable and leave you wondering if they know you better than you thought you knew yourself.

Borderline personality is – in essence – a story of attachment gone awry

I think that borderline personality is – in essence – a story of attachment gone awry.  The person with this condition feels terrifyingly insecure in the strength of the bonds connecting them to others, in the strength of the bonds connecting others to them, and relatedly in the lack of strength of the bond connecting themselves within.  Moments of attachment are had, but they seem to be unjustly and horrifyingly interrupted in ways that send them into an abyss of rejection, self-loathing, and being nobody to no one.  They live under the constantly looming threat of abandonment and/or getting taken over by too much closeness (something psychologists call ‘engulfment’).

The problem of transitions for the Borderline Personality

As a result, transitions in life are often retraumatizing for the person with borderline and can often result in them traumatizing those around them in their efforts to cope.  A transition involves some sort of change in one’s current state into a different state and set of circumstances.  So, some sort of separation and/or reunion is always part of a transition.  In these moments, a person with borderline is particularly susceptible to seeing others and/or themselves as either all-good or all-bad.  Here’s why: a parent with borderline personality could feel the trauma of abandonment just by their child doing something normal like running away from them to go play with their friends on the playground.  The parent feels rejected and has the “choice” of either feeling all-bad to themselves and like their child gets to gleefully rub their noses in how bad they feel OR they can relocate the all-bad feeling and see the child as the bad one who has so maliciously made them feel abandoned.  This latter strategy saves the parent from feeling the abandonment terror but puts the child in a very bad position.

Let’s say that same child realizes he needs to stay close to his parent to prevent them from getting so angry with the child.  As the child tries to hug and cling to the parent, the borderline parent may now experience the child’s attempts at closeness to be ‘too much’.  Here’s where the borderline parent’s fear of engulfment can arise.  The parent may see the child as trying to take over the borderline parent’s self and leave the parent with no autonomy of his or her own.  Now the borderline person is not fearing abandonment but rather too much attachment.  So, the parent may come up with a reason why he or she has to reject the child who’s trying to get close to the borderline parent.  “Ugh, your hands are dirty!  You’re playing too rough with me!  Don’t touch my hair!” become excuses to scold and reprimand the child that are really ways to repel the threat of engulfment that the child is posing to the borderline parent.  You can imagine how confusing this can be for the child!

So, the borderline person is faced with feeling retraumatized throughout the course of most days since transitions and their accompanying separations and reunions are pretty frequent in most of our lives.  They will likely split and see the other as either all-bad and themselves as all-good OR if they have no authority over the other then they may see the other as all-good and suffer with seeing themselves as all-bad.  The child of the borderline parent is under the authority or power of that parent so they will often be made into the all-bad one – or the scapegoat for the borderline to use the child in an abusive way that serves to manage their own feelings of rejection and abandonment.  But, if the borderline parent is married to a narcissistic spouse then the latter may be perceived as the one with the power in the relationship and so the borderline parent may blame him or herself when she feels abandoned by the narcissistic spouse.  So, for instance, a borderline spouse may feel rejected and abandoned when the narcissistic partner leaves for work but if the borderline fears being even further rejected by blaming and attacking the character of the narcissistic spouse then he or she may just endure feeling like the all-bad person in the relationship.  What will often happen in such instances is that the borderline person will redirect these feelings into a relationship where they do hold the power.  So, again, when the borderline person’s child comes back into the mix then he or she may really let that child have it as a way to return themselves to feeling like the all-good self and having the other person be the one who is all-bad.

The difference between Narcissistic vs Borderline Personality Disorder

In blunt terms, borderline personality is about maintaining faltering attachments while narcissistic personality is about maintaining faltering self-esteem.  Narcissists have a more stable – though fragile – sense of self that disavows dependency on anyone else and is artificially inflated.  So long as the narcissist can coerce others to fulfill their sense of entitlement to being more special and important than others then they may enjoy a buoyant – though empty in the core – sense of self that can seem stable.

In contrast, the Borderline Personality is extremely sensitive to transitions that are commonplace in life so they will be much less stable in their emotions, thoughts and behaviors.  When they perceive someone to have wronged them then they can grow enraged.  Screaming tirades, physical abuse, and the like are commonplace with Borderline Personality.  They can often pay attention to power dynamics in relationships so that they know with whom they can get away with such displays.  But once they feel empowered and able to treat the other without fear of retribution then they will feel permitted to unleash whatever they want towards that unfortunate person.

So, a narcissistic person may go for longer periods of time in a state of pseudo-stability whereas the borderline person will be way less likely to be able to keep it together for as long.  There are just too many triggers that the Borderline is susceptible to and there is no real resting peaceful state for them.  If they feel the threat of abandonment is not immediate, it will likely still feel as if it’s right around the corner.

What does Borderline Personality look like?

John that came to therapy to work through impacts of borderline abuse he suffered from his mother.  John described his mother as never being happy with him in a way he could trust.  She might laud him for bringing home an ‘A’ on his report card in third grade but after the gleam of that moment wore off she was likely going to yell at him for not doing some chore around the house that she’d supposedly asked him to do. (Her fear of engulfment kicking in after she felt close to her son by paying him the compliment) He recalled her having nightly screaming bouts at his father centered around the father’s refusal to “emotionally connect” with her in the way she insisted was necessary for a “happy marriage”. (Her fear of abandonment resulting in seeing her husband as all-bad and herself as the all-good victim).  She seemed perennially disappointed with her husband until he left her for another woman and she sought to woo him back (Now seeing him as all-good and herself as the all-bad worthless one).  This continued until he threatened to take custody of John and his younger sister where His mother returned him to the all-bad role. 

Life with his borderline mother was very difficult for John.  She began to thwart his efforts to make friends at school by insisting she get to speak to the parents of any kid he wanted to hang out with.  This was humiliating to John but his protests were met with indifference and ultimately he ended up avoiding relationships because of the trouble his mother would have caused him if he hadn’t.  John recalled that when his mother would get home after work, there would be a time of good humor as she made dinner.  Then as dinner progressed, she would unfailingly find some fault in him or his actions that led her to explode into a rage at him where she assassinated his character for being ‘selfish’, ‘inconsiderate’, and ‘uncaring about the family’.  (Again His mother’s fear of engulfment kicking in after a period of good will).  In therapy it was concluded that His mother felt free to unleash her rage and devaluation at John because of the power she held over him as his mother.  He was unable to effectively fight back due to his dependency on her at the time so she did not have to fear retribution for her bouts of torment of him.  This also illustrates the lack of empathy for others feelings exhibited by many borderline parents when they need to use another person to patch up their fragile psychology.  The borderline person is utterly disinterested in how this usage might be affecting the other person. 


Jay Reid is a Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor (LPCC).  If you are considering therapy for overcoming a childhood with one or more narcissistic or borderline parents please contact me for a free 15-minute phone consultation.

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  1. My mother might be a borderline, while I believe my stepfather is a narcissist (based on what I’ve noticed…not making a professional diagnosis or anything).

    It’s difficult to talk about this aspect of my mom, because she can otherwise be kind when she wants to.
    So it’s hard (even now as an adult) to not feel guilty, as though I played a more significant role in how she treated me.
    From the time I was a kid, I felt that she (and her family) didn’t like me. I was not “ideal” to them…unlike the golden child who was born with the right appearance and their surname, which they felt was better.

    My mom would hug me, which is more than some mothers will do, but she preferred to show affection to whatever man she was involved with or to some family friend of hers.
    My need to be seen and validated bothered her. She wanted a “good” child…one with behavior that met her narrow standards, one that accepted dysfunction and abuse within the family (and elsewhere), a child with low self-esteem who would never talk back and always comply in even the worst situations.

    I was not that child. I played the part for some time, but I saw that things weren’t normal.
    It wasn’t normal for a parent to constantly have angry outbursts for no apparent reason.
    It wasn’t normal to be told that other kids didn’t like me or that they really didn’t want to be my friend, or that their parents didn’t like me.

    It wasn’t normal for a parent to treat other people better than their own child. It wasn’t normal for a parent to threaten a child with violence for crying. It wasn’t normal for a parent to spend days in a locked bedroom having sex with random boyfriends while a scared, lonely child stood outside the door.

    These are just a few examples of how my mother treated me growing up. I won’t even get into how her husband (my stepfather) treated me for years and how I had to marry at a young age to escape that situation.
    They wanted what they saw as a “good” obedient child. Not a happy child, not a healthy child, not a child who could be her own person.
    My mother treated any decision I made like it was a problem to her. My whole family (and their flying monkeys) made it clear that even as an adult, I wasn’t allowed freedom or independence or the ability to make choices for myself.

    I think that the combo of Borderline with Narcissist can be destructive to a child growing up in that system, because you are not allowed to develop in a normal or healthy way.
    Being raised by such parents can stunt a child socially and in other ways. I was bullied often growing up by other kids too, because of being left to fend for myself and no one making sure I was OK.
    As a young girl on the autism spectrum, growing up as a minority in a hostile community, I learned that there was no safe place anywhere.
    My family didn’t care about me…yet they had flying monkeys watching my every move, people who would report to them.
    My mother’s concern was that I wasn’t doing anything to embarrass her or reflect badly on her family. It wasn’t about concern for me as her daughter, as a person, but about how SHE looked to others.

    I’ve come to suspect that my husband and his family might also be narcissists, but more of the covert type.
    I think because of how I grew up, I fell into this pattern of relationships with others who don’t respect me or listen to what I need.
    I love my husband but after several years, I now wonder if he ever truly loved me or respected me as a person.