When they say that BPD can be caused by a combination of genetic sensitivity coupled with trauma, abuse or inconsistent parenting, I think it’s important to think about the role of parents in this. Let us remove abuse from the equation for the moment and consider parental influence as a separate issue.
Parenting has a direct impact on identity development. Initially, I thought about the effect of parental expectations, i.e. I think a lot of parents have an ideal of what their child should become. Now we all have our dreams about the perfect life we want for our child, but if we don’t recognise the little person our child actually is, and then try to mould them into what we want, they are not going to develop into who they are meant to be, are they? I read a great little article the other day on a fellow BPD blogger’s site https://antiparrot.com/2017/11/01/bpd_identity/. She describes the issue most eloquently.
This article got me thinking about what caused my identity disturbance. Basically, it comes down to other people’s expectations of me, so that’s where I initially thought my problems began. Then I pondered upon this further. I considered people I have met over the course of my life, and it got me thinking about when identity starts to form, and I think this starts from shortly after birth.
Consider this: your first child is born, and it is the most amazing, beautiful thing that has ever happened to you. You want to hold the baby, nurture the baby, gaze at it, love it, comfort it, keep it safe. All wonderful and absolutely what you should do. But I think the problem starts to develop if you either under nurture or over nurture.
By over nurture, I mean the mother who cannot put down the child. Who picks it up and soothes it the moment it cries. How is that child, who for months has been developing inside of the womb going to realise that they are a separate being? How are they going to become self-aware? They are going to, in their limited way, think they are still a part of the mother. If the mother soothes them at first murmur, they don’t learn to self-soothe. If the mother deals with all their emotions as they start to develop by holding them, they are not going to learn how to self-regulate are they?
The child is going to become increasingly confused and distressed when physically parted from the mother. Is that a fair thing to do to a child? No, it’s not. They need to be encouraged to grow into their own little person. They have to learn to explore their own blossoming emotions and develop their unique blooming identities. It’s a gentle thing; a considered, slow separation, it requires strength from the mother and consistency and balance from both parents.
Think what it must feel like for that child when a new sibling comes along if all they have known is constant over-nurture. Their lifeline is there in front of their eyes, but the physical contact has diminished. Their control mechanism has gone. The one thing that made them feel whole and safe is now fractured and shared.
As a small child, you would feel quite lost. You as the mother are part of them, part of their identity. You are the answer to everything. Change in contact is going to cause damage. Your child is going to feel like he or she is being thrown off an emotional cliff.
This could conceivably traumatise a sensitive little soul and cause permanent emotional damage.
I believe over nurturing inhibits identity and emotional development as much as neglect, under-nurturing and abuse.
Secondly, there is the phase they go through when they try and explore and express their identity through the choice of clothing. A child needs to be able to safely to this. It doesn’t matter if their selection of outfits is a mish-mash of clashes of fabric, colour and styles. It doesn’t matter if it looks as though your child has rummaged through a box of clothes from a jumble sale. It is crucial that they can express what feels right for them, for that part of identity that is blossoming in that moment. My youngest used to come up with the most bizarre outfits, but I would always smile and congratulate him for doing a good job and getting himself ready to go out. He would beam from ear to ear and confidently stride out to the shops with me. Most mothers would understand, smile and comment – it was the fathers that were generally the problem.
Your child is developing their own style, their own personality. Do not put your self-image over and above theirs. It doesn’t matter what the neighbours think. If you try to mould your child into an unrealistic image that suits what you want and how you want to be perceived, you are denying your child identity and causing long-term harm.
What do you actually want for your child, hmm? Just imagine for a moment two sets of parents each with a sensitive, intelligent, creative daughter.
The first set of parents recognise this in their child. She is allowed to express her creativity, her uniqueness and develop her own style. This child feels validated. Her confidence grows. She is free of spirit, happy, balanced and attracts good people toward her. She glows with life, and love and sincerity and becomes a natural leader and in time, successful in her chosen field.
The second set of parents have a strict view of how their daughter should behave, what she should become, how she should dress, and express herself; who she should play with, associate with? She is discouraged from being her natural self and taught to shut that side down in favour of parental expectation. She makes connections, has plenty of appropriate acquaintances, is successful at what she does, but is she happy? Is she fulfilled? Does she feel complete? No, she doesn’t. This is the little girl who will always be lost, alone and afraid. This is the sensitive child who is more likely to resort to alcohol abuse, self-harm and fall apart at the seams in the future.
Do not put your expectations upon your child. Any child, let alone a highly sensitive one. Respect them for who they are not what you want them to be.
I know for myself that parental expectations played a big part in my own loss of identity and warped self-image: I was always a tomboy and loved t-shirts, jeans and boots. I didn’t mind playing dress ups, but I just wanted to dress in my own disordered, colourful way. Once I reached puberty, I had free access to my mother’s wardrobe, jewellery and makeup – but I would combine things in the way I wanted to. It would probably not be so distressing if mum had taken me aside to discuss my wardrobe choices, but she didn’t. She would just tell me how ridiculous and absurd I looked in front of others. I was always shamed and mortified.
Body image was another issue. My mother had her dreams, she wanted to model and as is often the case being thin was the thing. I believe she developed an eating disorder – but it was not openly discussed. I was the kid with the hollowed out, skeletal, unhealthy looking mum.
Looking back, I was never fat, never over-weight by any stretch of the imagination but even as an eleven and twelve-year-old I still weighed over two stone more than my mother. She would call me her ‘fairy elephant’, tell me I was ‘big boned’, ‘heavy’, ‘unfeminine’, unladylike.
I liked to run around and rough and tumble, play outside in the dirt, in the woods and the paddocks; that was part of who I was. Outdoors, nature-loving, grotty little tomboy. I didn’t want Barbies; I wanted action men and tanks.
When indoors I had to practice walking slowly and precisely; being graceful; learning to balance books upon my head; jumping off chairs ‘lightly’ repeating over and over ‘lightly on your toes, lightly on your toes.’ It was considered important to be dainty, ladylike and graceful. For makeup to be perfect, to grow strong nails and paint them. I hate growing my nails long; they get in the way. It’s completely impractical. I can’t abide nail polish and can’t envisage ever going to a beauty salon or a spa. I am a person. I am not insipid. I am not a doll to be dressed as you wish.
Graceful? Me? Even now I cannot be graceful – I am inherently clumsy, always walking into things, forgetting there’s a shelf above my head, that there’s a low branch in the way, etc. I’m often bruised, and people ask how I get hurt – I tend to bump into things. I was not born with natural grace and it cannot be forced.
I am fair-skinned, whereas the majority of my family have olive complexions and dark hair. I was once told I was only liked because I was “white”. I immediately felt like an oddity within my own family.
I always felt like a square peg, being forced into a round hole. Short, dumpy, clumsy, tomboy me was always a disappointment. I was never ‘girlie’ enough. It made me feel like a failure.
Somehow, despite the pressure to conform to be a pretty little princess, I managed not to develop an eating disorder, but I have always been self-conscious about my weight and my looks. I still tend to think I’m short, dumpy, ugly and cumbersome. The person I see in the mirror is a lot different to the woman I see in photographs. I don’t recognise me, and if they weren’t selfies, I wouldn’t think they were me.
I am fifty-one and still have no clear identity of my own. I am trying to build one, but right now I will still drift, and bend, and warp and twist myself into whatever you want me to be.
And that, just should not be.