Borderline Personality Disorder and Building Self Confidence: An Uphill Battle

In the spirit of the Olympics, I thought I’d blog about building self confidence, a key factor to excelling at sports and life in general. If you ask most elite athletes, many will say “My game (race, event, etc.) is 80% mental, 20% physical”. Some will even put those percentages at 90% mental, 10% physical. While these are obviously overstatements, the point made is clear: if you want to succeed, you have to believe in yourself. You have to be able to reach deep inside yourself during difficult moments and come up a winner. Otherwise, the competition will eat you alive.

For my entire life, I’ve tried to develop this sort of self confidence. Despite spending my school years competing in academics, sports, and music I never quite attained the level of confidence I needed to truly outdo myself. In fact, almost every time I performed, I did so well below the expectations of myself and others. Many times I practiced better than I actually performed, leaving my coaches, teachers, and instructors scratching their heads. They saw me put the time and effort in necessary to achieve a certain goal, but were completely surprised when I failed to reach it. I constantly choked.

Much of the problem was due to concentration and focus. Elite athletes talk about “being in the zone” during their event. In this seemingly magical state of mind, they are able to tune out all the distractions around them – mental or physical – and turn in an amazing performance. Stress in their personal life, a painful injury, or even lack of training are overcome in a rush of confidence when it’s game time.

I can credit many of my frustrations to Borderline Personality Disorder. It’s been noted that people with BPD have a low tolerance for stress and pain. I agree.

When it came time to run a race, I was constantly overtaken by nervousness, often to the point of vomiting BOTH before and after a race. More frustrating was my mindset during the actual race: when my body started to ache and I needed positive reinforcement the most, my mind would overflow with negative thoughts, slowing me down and devastating my performance. Instead of building myself up, I tore myself down and in many instances just gave up. It was incredibly frustrating and upsetting. Playing a sport is supposed to build confidence and toughness, but in my case it made me feel worse about myself and wimpy. I could never muster my abilities to deliver a truly incredible result.

The same happened on stage when I performed in concert. Once, when I started missing notes during a trumpet recital, I completely fell apart and lost my place in the music. While my accompanist pushed forward, I stood in the middle of the stage completely panicked. I eventually started making up music to go along with my pianist until I was done, just to look like I knew what I was doing. Unfortunately, during this particular event, the audience was filled with professors from the college music department who knew exactly what was going on, and many shrugged their shoulders and ignored me afterwards. One even kicked me out of the jazz ensemble, a big disappointment after I spent years practicing my improvisation abilities.

How does someone truly relax, focus, and deliver? I guess it comes from two sources: constant practice and one’s innate personality. Many would call this mental talent. Some people’s personalities are much more resilient compared to others. Some people always believe in themselves even if they stand no chance of competing successfully. I can recall many races when I choked and lost to teammates who dogged practices and made no real effort at improving themselves. Despite spending 90% of their time being lackadaisical, when the gun fired, they were able to pull a win out of nowhere. This killed me and made me question why I even bothered practicing at all. It obviously made no difference because my head was never in the game.

To be an Olympian, you need the entire package: natural talent, countless hours of practice, and a confident mind. If you truly don’t believe you can do something, chances are, you won’t do it. If, on the other hand, you DO believe in yourself, you might just achieve your goals and outdo yourself.

I still struggle with my concentration and confidence every day even though I no longer compete athletically, musically, or academically. I wish I could take a pill to cure my mental shortcomings, but unfortunately this isn’t possible. While some people work at building an extreme level of confidence in themselves, my struggle lies in just having any level of confidence at all. It is a truly upsetting, frustrating, and damaging problem. Imagine what I could do if I only believed…

Colorado Shooting: Don’t Single Out Shy, Quiet People as Potential Suspects

I was surfing the web late last week when I learned about the horrific shooting in Aurora, Colorado. A man with 3 guns and body armor shot 12 people dead and wounded another 70 during a showing of the latest Batman movie. In addition, the suspect booby trapped his apartment with multiple explosives, clearly indicating that he planned this evil act for months in advance and intended to inflict as much destruction as possible even after his immediate arrest at the movie theater. This is regarded as one of the worst mass shootings in recent United States history. You might also recall that a similar event occurred at Columbine High School, Colorado, when 2 students opened fire on their schoolmates and teachers in 1999.

These types of events are tragic and have no place in civilized society. No matter what kind of protections we offer to our fellow citizens, we will never be able to stop a deranged mind from wreaking havoc on the lives of others, simply because it is near impossible to find these individuals before they strike. I’ll leave the gun control debate out of it, since that is a hot button issue that inevitably comes to the surface when these types of things occur.

Immediately, people start to look for reason in an unreasonable situation. Many rightly point out that the perpetrator, 24 year old James Holmes, is most likely mentally ill. He was described as a bright student studying neuroscience but a bit socially disconnected from the world around him. Some have speculated that paranoid-schizophrenia may have just manifested in his mind, causing him to lose touch with reality and snap. This particular mental illness tends to rear its head in late adolescence and early adulthood, so it’s an age appropriate hypothesis that might explain his actions. There also could be a number of other, yet-to-be-known exacerbating factors, including a history of abuse and neglect, other mental illnesses, substance abuse, or relationship problems. All of these may have combined to create a perfect storm of psychosis that led to the mind boggling events that took place last week.

I won’t speculate any further about the cause of his actions because I don’t know all the facts and lack the qualifications to make suppositions about his mental health situation. I would, however, like to comment on one aspect of his background that I believe is being blown way out of proportion: his apparent lack of social connections and loner disposition.

First off, there are millions of people who consider themselves loners, have only a handful of friends, or who don’t like to socialize with other people who pose NO THREAT to society. These people – myself included – are simply introverted and prefer time to ourselves. Instead of constantly being surrounded by people, we prefer to mind our own business and go about our day as we see fit. We might not even go out on Saturday night, but instead prefer to watch TV or relax after a stressful week. Quiet people aren’t dangerous people. There are plenty of examples of social butterflies who ended up becoming criminals despite the fact they had 101 friends. Before we shame a subset of our population by association, let’s at least get our facts straight and think reasonably about the situation and use common sense.

Is being socially disconnected indicative of mental illness? Yes, it CAN be, but is clearly not always the case. Using myself as an example, I will agree that my BPD isolates me socially and has caused a multitude of relationship problems. When I was being diagnosed, my doctors carefully noted that I expressed problems connecting with people and felt very lonely. While they all agreed this was a symptom of my BPD, they also stated that my natural personality is inclined to be more reserved and introverted. Some of the stress I was feeling about my sociability problems were really just inner conflict with my own identity. After learning that it’s OK to want time to myself and have only a few friends, I came to better accept myself and respect my own feelings. Shoving myself into social situations for the sole purpose of being social was not the answer to my problems: I needed to learn more about how to live within my personality and socialize accordingly.

So is that weird guy at the grocery store every Tuesday at 6:00 AM wandering around by himself likely the next mass murderer? No, not at all. In 99.999% of cases, he’s just a shy person taking care of one of life’s chores when the store isn’t jam-packed with people. Personally, I like shopping in smaller, quieter stores because it is less stressful and more carefree. Who wants to lineup 5 people deep for deli slice cheese at 11:00 AM on a Saturday morning when you can come to the store late Wednesday night and get served instantly? Sometimes we introverts have it right and that’s nothing for anyone to be ashamed about. You don’t need 5 friends to go grocery shopping.

To be sure, I’m not stating that being anti-social is better than being highly social. It really comes down to the individual and what he or she prefers.

Please, however, don’t lump the quiet folks together with all the truly crazy people in the world. Just because I like to eat dinner by myself doesn’t mean I’m going to commit the next heinous act of mass murder. It’s high time people begin accepting each other’s differences instead of using them to single others out. Pointing out everyone who is “different” is akin to the bullying routines of 12 year old kids in middle school. That sh*t got old fast 20 years ago, and I’m not about to stand for it now.

Is Borderline Personality Disorder Genetic or Created by One’s Environment or Both?

In a few words, YES, I believe it is genetic and subject to exacerbating environmental factors. My psychiatrist believes my mother has it (and she definitely acts like she does). Further, the erratic behavior of her father (my biological grandfather) suggests strong genetic ties. The good news is that not every child of a borderline parent ends up developing BPD. I have three younger brothers who seem to be BPD-free, although two of them have needed to visit psychologists on occasion for help with depression and Attention Deficit Disorder. Medication was prescribed in both instances.

My greatest fear in life would be passing on bad genes to my offspring. My debilitating combination of Type 1 Juvenile Diabetes (also thought to have genetic underpinnings) and BPD makes me think twice about wanting to reproduce. No, I’m not overestimating my importance to the human race ( 🙂 ), I just believe that having children is life’s biggest decision and it should not be taken lightly. To the greatest extent possible, people should reproduce responsibly.

An About.com article titled “Genetic Causes of Borderline Personality Disorder ” confirms anecdotal evidence I’ve read online and heard from others:

“Studies of BPD in families show that first degree relatives (siblings, children, parents) of people treated for BPD are 10 times more likely to have been treated for BPD themselves than the relatives of people with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. However, while this suggests that BPD runs in families, studies of these type do not tell us exactly how much of BPD is due to genetics. First-degree relatives often also share environments, for example, siblings may be raised together by the same parents. So, these studies may be reflecting, in part, environmental causes of BPD.”

This conclusion might represent some recent progress in the study of genetic factors and BPD. A 2000 National Institutes of Health article takes a much more ambivalent stance, suggesting a high – yet to be proven – correlation existing between genes and the development of BPD. The following quote is from the article abstract, “Genetics of patients with borderline personality disorder “:

“An overview of the existing literature suggests that traits similar to BPD are influenced by genes. It is too early to say to what extent BPD is also influenced by genes, but because personality traits generally show a strong genetic influence, this should also be true for BPD. Nonetheless, if the equal-environment assumption were to be violated for MZ and DZ pairs, twin studies may be overestimating genetic effects and hiding the effect of common family environment. The less than-ideal reliability of measurements used in this research may also reduce the effects of genes and common environment while increasing the effects of unique or nonshared environment. The effect of genes on the development of BPD is likely substantial. The effect of common family environment may be close to zero. More studies, large and small, are needed to reach firmer conclusions about the influence of genetics on BPD.”

Essentially, both authors seem to conclude that further research is required. This begs the salient question, “Is there any good research being done exploring BPD and genetics?”

As late as 2009, a group in the Netherlands did indeed complete research on genes and the development of BPD. In the discussion of their findings, they suggested that individuals genetically predisposed to BPD were more likely to develop it in an unfavorable environment, opposed to individuals who were not as genetically “sensitive”. This is an obvious but important conclusion:

“The interaction, however, between the influences of genes and environment on the development of BPD has not been studied. Gene by environment interaction implies that genes determine the degree to which an individual is sensitive to an environment. In the presence of gene-environment interaction, individuals with a ‘sensitive’ genotype will be at greater risk of developing BPD if an undesirable environment is present, than individuals with an ‘insensitive’ genotype. In the present study, gene-environment interaction would be included as part the unique environmental variance. Future research should focus on possible sources of unique environmental effects and gene-environment interaction to develop a comprehensive model of the development of BPD.”

Source: “Familial Resemblance of Borderline Personality Disorder Features: Genetic or Cultural Transmission?

Overall, one definite conclusion can be reached: studying BPD and the genes of those who have it is difficult in settings where twins are not present, as is the case in nearly all instances of BPD. I myself am not a twin but a first degree relative (mother-son relationship) of someone who certainly also has BPD. My other siblings DID NOT develop a BPD diagnosis, which could be attributed to two reasons: they are not as genetically “sensitive” as I am, and/or the environment of their upbringing was different than mine.

The second conclusion of my own discussion of BPD problems raises in interesting question: could evolving parenting styles used with subsequent children lessen the degree to which they might get a BPD diagnosis? Based on my own life experiences, I wholeheartedly say YES!

Think about it: if your mother or father has BPD but eventually raises your siblings differenly than you who does have BPD, parenting styles, ie. upbringing and environment, clearly matter. My parents did not raise me properly, and since my genetic predisposition to BPD was already present, I was essentially “ripe for the picking”.

Ultimately, my parents – comprised of one BPD mother – adapted their parenting methods by chance or because they realized they screwed up with the first one; ie. me, who was eventually diagnosed with BPD. Either that, or their style DID NOT evolve and my other brothers simply didn’t have the genes to react successfully with their problematic parenting to eventually create a BPD diagnosis of their own.

Although I lack the clinical credentials to reach a scientific conclusion about the unfortunate path towards living with BPD, I am willing to venture a guess that genes do matter as much as environment.

If anyone wishes to examine me for the purposes of scientific research, I am happy to comply, but will the rest of my family? Doubtful! 🙂