Borderline Personality Blog: Healing – Coping – Improving

Troubled parents will – knowingly or unknowingly – take advantage of their children through manipulation, gas lighting and other psychological ploys.

Mom calls, needs help with her student’s math tests

My Mom retired from teaching last year. She’s since decided to tutor people. Family friends recently discharged a caretaker who wanted her high school GED. My Mom volunteered to help. This opportunity not only gave her something to do, but also the chance to help someone. I was genuinely happy for her.

Tonight I got two frantic voice mails. I thought there was an emergency. Nope. Just Mom calling because her student had “passed all the tests except math”. She was helping her student take the tests and they both got stumped. An email appeared in my inbox with 5 pages of algebra final exams.

At first I thought she sent regular classwork. One way to prepare for tests is to take practice tests, and these looked like something a teacher would assign. My Mom sounded anxious, almost embarrassed.

I called back a couple hours later. She was busy eating dinner with my father, still frantic. The following is our paraphrased dialog:

Mom: “We need help with these tests. My student almost has her GED. We’re both stumped. Can you look at them, reply with answers, and explain how you did it?”

Me: “You know I struggled with math…Search Google for math lessons and help your student through each problem. She’ll be prepared for her final.”

Mom: “But these are the finals! I really can’t talk long, we’re eating. But can you look at them and send us the answers? We don’t want to look at Google, we’d rather do them ourselves…”

{In my head: “But you’re asking me to do them?”}

Mom: “Everyone else is busy, your sister can’t help. Can you do it and send them back?”

Me: “I don’t think so. These are finals. Your student should be doing them herself. That’s really unethical.”

Am I the most ethical person on Earth? No. Did I ever cheat on tests? I admit my eye wandered on 2 occasions during secondary school. But as an adult I know that was wrong. I wouldn’t want anyone else to do it, and I certainly wouldn’t advise someone to cheat. I’ve learned. I’ve become more ethical through experience; opposed to never learning my lesson.

Mom didn’t respect my ethical boundaries. She put herself first.

Parents should NEVER ask children to cross their own ethical boundaries. Even worse, parents shouldn’t do it so they can feel better about themselves. That doesn’t treat a child as a unique human being, but as a source for narcissistic supply.

Her self esteem and interpersonal support is derived from others and her environment. She is likely has BPD, so she uses manipulation, guilt, obligation etc. to preserve that supply. That means her codependents (me) see their boundaries routinely crossed, abused and blurred. My ethics, morals and values mean nothing. She needs something and I am there to give it. Randi Kreger of provides an excellent summary here.

Unsurprisingly, while I catch myself being codependent with her, I was at one time diagnosed as borderline myself. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. I learned how to operate from her troubled psychology as a child. My problems started when I became an adult, the natural age when most personality disorders blossom.

When I rebuffed her requests, I got the following responses. Read carefully and interpret what she said:

Mom: “I thought you were good enough at math to help. Maybe you aren’t.”

Me: “The issue isn’t whether I can do the math. I’m not going to help your student cheat.”

{Challenging my abilities. Manipulating my ego into action by suggesting I can’t do it to prove her wrong. If I gave in, she’d get her test answers.}

Mom: “The student immigrated a few years ago from Europe. She needs this GED badly. It’s her chance to get ahead. I want to help her.”

Me: “It doesn’t matter what her story is. That doesn’t make my position any different.”

{Using an unrelated narrative to establish urgency over my objections. Also re-balancing the morality of the situation: it’s OK to compromise your beliefs because this is a unique situation.}

Mom: “I thought you wanted to help people. I know you’ve wanted to volunteer. Here’s a chance to help someone. Maybe I was wrong about you.”

Me: “I do want to help people. I’m happy to volunteer. But you’re asking for more than I can give. Your impression isn’t wrong, either. I want to help people.”

{Using guilt to make me feel selfish about withholding assistance. Claiming I’m paying lip service to my own desire to help others by not compromising my values to help her cheat.}

Mom: “I don’t view it as cheating. I’ve been working with the student since January [5 months]. We need to get her GED. It’s not cheating. You’ll send the solutions, we’ll review them. We’re both stumped.”

Me: “It’s cheating if I’m figuring the solutions and you’re using them on the test.”

{Gas lighting. Claiming my perception of reality isn’t accurate, that I’m mistaken about the situation. I can’t be right. It’s not cheating according to her, so it’s OK.}

Some would say, “Oh, just accept your mother, she’s complicated. She’s old and having a senior moment. It’s not a big deal.”

But I disagree. This is how she operates factually and emotionally. Can you imagine the way my world was distorted growing up?

It’s my responsibility to get better. I don’t blame her for all my problems. However, I’m reminded that troubled parents often raise troubled children. Her distortions undoubtedly shaped me as a child, and I’m lucky to see through them as an adult.

Part of healing is catching hurtful moments as they happen and learning from them. While this wasn’t an enormous misdeed, it’s clear years of small distortions and boundary erosion in childhood eventually create a fractured adult. I’m hurt she did this and working through it.

I am wiser for knowing what was happening.

Why do I feel depressed viewing Facebook?

The insight isn’t obvious until you realize how inauthentic and incomplete FB posts are. People misrepresent themselves in the following ways:

  1. Idealized Self. Who you want the world to know, minus the flaws. Common examples: perfect parent, high achiever, social butterfly, activist, brilliant thinker, athlete, philosopher, traveler, artist or comedian. These characteristics are part of who you are, not your entire imperfect self.
  2. Glad-Handing. Insincere reminders of one’s humility, fairness, optimism, pride and generosity. Outrage over current events for brownie points among like-minded people. Displays of charitable acts that aren’t balanced by occasional selfishness or conceit.
  3. Selective Editing. Photos seem too perfect. Stories better than Hollywood. Moments that would fit on a postcard. Are your friend’s lives really that awesome? Have they figured out something you haven’t? Probably not, and most people don’t do this intentionally. However, an unending scroll of wonderful moments can make you feel discontent, envious or bitter.

How do people manipulate positive reactions for seemingly negative things? Remember, people usually represent misfortune accurately. It’s problematic, though, when it’s one of their preferred narratives. Importantly, is their negative impression reasonable, or is it an attempt to evoke a reaction from friends?

  1. Victimhood. Some people’s victimization becomes excessive. They are victims of society, significant others, misfortune or bad people they choose to know. Occasional posts naturally garner sympathy from others. But a persistent call for virtual support betrays their true need for attention. People will like these posts just to pacify their authors, not because they feel sorry for the 20th time.
  2. Humble Brags. Don’t trick people’s admiration out of them. “I only got an A- on my calculus test,” your friend writes. If that’s the 3rd best grade of 20 people, is that so bad? Of course your friend is frustrated their studying didn’t pan out. But their self-deprecation makes you wonder if they secretly think the hard-earned Bs and Cs are the REAL losers. After all, their crappy A- needs a support group, never mind those who failed.
  3. Guilt, remorse and confession for kicks. FB is a casual confessional where people fish compliments from others. This is a matter of degree, because there’s nothing wrong with being open about mistakes. Problems arise when people’s repentance is more important than their accountability. “I was mean to the grocery clerk yesterday, feel bad about it.” Friends will reply with likes and reassurance. What about apologizing to the clerk? What about not doing it again in the future? Stop posting confessional memes and make things right in the real world.

There are two natural rebuttals:

  1. Stop viewing Facebook. This works until you begin missing occasionally important social information. Now you’re out of the loop. Awkward!
  2. Grow a thicker skin, you’re responsible for your own feelings. Good advice, except FB is NOT reality. You’re dealing with a distortion which requires selective engagement of the way others present themselves. In other words, you must arbitrate truth, reason and intention with every post you see. This is exhausting for trained psychologists. Most people – no matter how tough – trust their friends to represent themselves accurately, and therefore begin to believe whatever they see. Their suspension of disbelief is abused by interpersonal trust.

Facebook is a clever social experiment. People are stripped of their ability to read, discern and interpret social interactions in person. Since friends naturally trust each other, we accept Facebook’s distorted reality as truth.

Furthermore, barring first hand experience of something we see, it is difficult to question its authenticity. More importantly, how we should really feel versus what we immediately feel. The former requires immense energy and ability to sift through false narratives, insincerity and ploys for attention, while the latter is believing what people tell us because we know them.

After spending time with someone in person we can tell who is honest and who stretches the truth; who needs attention and who is more secure; who omits important information from their social chatter to mask discontent in their private lives. Only then can Facebook be appropriately regarded for what it is: a one dimensional look at multidimensional people.

In absence of a couple dimensions, don’t allow your imagination to color in something overly complimentary. You don’t have enough information to make that assessment, and your self perception may suffer in the meantime.

One component of Marsha Linehan’s DBT worksheets is the “PLEASE” acronym (see page 2). The final “E” stands for “get regular exercise, working up to 20 minutes a day”.

The benefits of consistent exercise cannot be overstated: walking, jogging, biking, weight lifting, swimming and most fitness programs (Crossfit, etc.) can provide immense benefits, both physical and psychological.

After exercising, I feel less edgy, more focused, and occasionally euphoric. Exercise days also make falling asleep easier. I can use exercise time to process emotions or “lose” them altogether: focusing on my body effectively disrupts whatever was in my head. Often I’ll return home wondering why I was feeling frustrated 40 minutes earlier, now suddenly calm and positive.

BPD and Intense Exercise/Competition Can Feel Different

Balance is key. Those who take exercise to competitive extremes will face different emotions compared to someone exercising moderately. Exercise should almost always be a positive experience, even when you’re pushing yourself. I say almost because there will be days when you’re frustrated with your body’s performance.

Always “check in” with yourself before, during, and after intense exercise to asses your state of mind. Never dismiss positive feelings, work through the negative ones.

Why Would Someone with BPD Constantly Run, Workout or Lift Weights?

Positives are global:

It can be personal time, escape from work, fresh air, socialization, and improving competitive performance.

Negatives are multi-layered, pervasive:

Some days, hard workouts border on self abuse. The idea of “punishment as motivation”, and “no pain, no gain” often cuts athletic aspirations short. These notions are toxic motivation for people with BPD.

Those prone to self-image problems, e.g. Body Dysmorphic Disorder, may exercise too much and eat too little. Tough workouts are followed by inadequate nutrition, fearing much-needed calories will cause weight gain.

Some BPDs exercise for vanity, due to some healthy narcissism, no pun intended. 🙂Most fit people are viewed as sexually attractive. For BPDs, this makes starting relationships easier. They will – at a superficial level – feel that validation they have long desired, all due to working out. Fit body = Easy dates = A relationship. The logic is sound. However, a BPD’s partner will eventually feel misled: “I gave this girl many chances because she was beautiful”. Or, “This guy at the gym was hot and really intense, the sex was great, I enjoyed his body, but the rest was unpleasant.”

Strict workout schedules can be part compulsion, part avoidance, part escape and self-isolation thrown in. From doorstep to post-run shower, 10 miles on Saturday can easily kill 2 hours that can’t be recouped elsewhere in the week. Most of this time is spent alone under physical stress. The “I’ve gotta do this” thought butts heads with Linehan’s other axiom: “Avoid Avoiding” (page 25). If you’re lonely, having relationship issues or just need to relax, this isn’t a wise use of time. Instead, consider whether you’ll feel better socializing, going to therapy, talking with your partner, journaling or just relaxing.

Finally, achieving fitness goals can feel like the validation you’ve always wanted, but extra balance is needed with BPD. Just did your best bench press? Great! Make sure that feeling is thoroughly enjoyed and celebrated. However, if you find yourself depressed afterwards or “not yourself away from the gym”, you could be neglecting other aspects of your mental health.

What Emotions Do People With BPD Experience While Doing Hard Workouts?

I can only speak for myself, having experienced just about everything in my head. Intense workouts are as much mental as they are physical. With BPD, the mental part can be extremely baffling, frustrating and volatile.

Exercising Alone and BPD

My Tuesday long-run arrives. I begin feeling pretty good. Halfway through, I slow down. My motivation vanishes almost immediately. I start feeling anxious, bitter, angry; my self-talk becomes demeaning. By the end I’ve missed my goal and feel terrible. Why am I doing this? Why am I alone? What a waste of time, I’m exhausted, pissed off and feel terrible. Isn’t there more to life? Is this really what I want?

Good runs aren’t an antidote. Even after a great workout, the positive feelings are fleeting. Within a couple hours I feel anxious and obsessed with the next challenge. Then a slight desperation arises: Why am I doing this to myself? What is causing the good feelings to dissipate? I begin to question myself while experiencing painful emotional whiplash.

These feelings are less problematic in people without BPD, because their self worth is more intrinsic. A bad workout – even a bad competition – doesn’t equal a bad person, wasted time, or a signal to quit.

Exercising With Others and BPD

Everything from “Exercising Alone” applies, plus interpersonal stress.

My friend coaches me in the weight room. He’s tough, uncompromising, and a stickler for form (the hallmarks of a superb trainer). Similar to romantic relationships, the non-BPD won’t comprehend the BPD’s dramatic emotional reactions.

One day my friend was really pushing me. I was recounting a stressful night with my diabetes and he started lecturing me about proper nutrition. It was out of love and concern. I knew that in my core because he is a wonderful human being.

But as I was straining through some chest presses, listening to him trying to motivate me, I snapped. I slammed some heavy dumbbells and got up. He was rightfully aghast by my reaction. We were walking on eggshells for the rest of the workout.

Later I called and unconditionally apologized, knowing full well I lost control. Our friendship has since improved. I’m more mindful of my emotions during tough workouts, making sure NOT to hurt others who are only trying to help me.

People with BPD have to know who the good people are, and do their best to treat these people well. Ignore the bad ones.

Moderate exercise can be extremely beneficial for people with BPD. However, those taking exercise to a more competitive level must be aware of their emotions at all times. Exercising should be positive and helpful. If you experience negative emotions while exercising, work through them. Never forget the good you feel or dismiss it as unimportant. Finally, remember interpersonal relationships are still vulnerable during tough workouts, especially if emotions are running high. Exercise doesn’t turn BPD off, but it will provide an opportunity to catch problematic thoughts and socialize in a healthy manner.

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