Psychoanalyze Your Characters 2

Thank you for your great comments on the first post of this series about understanding psychopathology as a means of providing more depth for your characters. Today the focus is on Borderline Personality Disorder. I wanted to cover this diagnosis not only because Joanna St. James asked me to but also because I can sum up Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) in one word: DRAMA! What better traits can you achieve for your character?

The term “borderline” refers to the time in the early 1900’s when individuals were diagnosed as either neurotic or psychotic, yet some patients seemed to be right in between: teetering on the borderline between neurotic and psychotic.

Which famous character is the poster child for BPD?

Bunnies boiling on the stove, anyone?
(Glenn Close’s character in Fatal Attraction likely has Antisocial PD–criminal behavior–too).

For a discussion about BPD I must reference the brilliant work of Marsha Linehan, Ph.D., the creator of Dialectical Behavior Therapy specifically for the treatment of BPD.

Emotional instability wreaks havoc for individuals with BPD, who have impairments in three main areas: emotional regulation, interpersonal effectiveness, and crisis management.

Emotional dysregulation: heightened emotional sensitivity, quick and intense emotions, wide mood swings, insecure self-image, often feeling empty or bad; heightened anxiety, depression, and anger. “I can’t handle this feeling!”

Interpersonal ineffectiveness: turmoil in social life, love-hate relationships (idealizing people and thinking they are the scum of the earth), black-and-white thinking, intense fear of abandonment. “You’re a bastard . . . but please don’t leave me!”

Chaos and crisis: suicide attempts, self-injury (like cutting), engagement in impulsive and risky behaviors such as unsafe sex, compulsive spending, drug use, reckless driving, and gambling. “If you leave me I’ll kill myself.”

If you’re feeling helpless and manipulated in a relationship, the other person might be exhibiting symptoms of BPD. So how does this exhausting, painful disorder develop?

Dr. Linehan’s theory is that individuals with BPD experienced an invalidating environment as children. They are highly sensitive, perhaps starting as “difficult” babies and continuing with anxious or “touchy” temperaments. This sensitivity in itself is not a problem if the family can understand and nurture this special child. However, if family members are not as emotionally sensitive, they may have trouble with comprehension and acceptance, and may unwittingly reject the child, creating an environment that fosters BPD.

I like this theory because it doesn’t blame the individual or the family, but rather the poor fit between the two. Family members often believe the loved one is choosing to “overreact” when in fact the individual is wired to feel emotions more intensely, and needs to develop skills to cope with this increased stress.

Dialectical Behavior Therapy is a skills-based approach, targeting the most destructive behaviors first and incorporation Eastern teachings like mindfulness.

Joanna asked a great question: “Can any of these disorders be treated without therapy?” As a therapist, I’d have to say that therapy is one of the best ways. But I don’t want to be so narcissistic as to claim it’s the only way. A psychiatrist would say that medication can assist with some symptoms of these disorders. A minister would say that faith is the way to heal. I just watched a fabulous movie, I’ve Loved You So Long, about a woman released after serving 15 years in prison for the death of her son. Instead of prison rehabilitating her, it was connecting with her sister and her family, new friends, and fine art that healed her. I think we can find healing in many different places.

So, how about you? Would you like to create a Teddi Forrester character in your novel? God help us!

Hey, it’s Monday. Stop your booing and join our Meet an Author Monday Bloghop.

22 thoughts on “Psychoanalyze Your Characters 2”

  1. Fascinating topic, Jennifer. I like that theory that the child and parents are a poor fit, rather than one or the other being to blame. That's a good point to remember while I'm writing.


  2. This is really interesting…I have to admit to being able to completely relate to BPD for a few days every month (if ya know what I'm sayin'). This post gives a great framework for creating a fabulous character. I like what you say about fit – and it seems that can apply to more than just the parent/child relationship.


  3. I have a love/hate relationship with these types of characters. They're so fun to read about or watch in a movie. I don't think I know of anyone who actually suffers from this, which I suppose is a blessing!


  4. Ha ha Nicki. I've heard it said that ANYONE put under enough stress can begin to act like a borderline, and the vicious Aunt Flo can certainly be stressful. ;)I'm glad my sexy veggies didn't scare you away, Demetria!Julie, the drama can provide a lot of fun to observe, but it probably isn't so fun over time for the individual experiencing the chaos. Can you think of some other characters that fit this diagnosis?Thanks for your comments!


  5. Oh Jennifer i heart you so much today. You have saved me I am writing about a character with borderline and she is so erratic it could take me a year to write her.I even had to google her symptoms before i found out what disorder she has.xoxoYou have been a great help.


  6. Kelsey, Fatal Attraction is a must see. It will freak you out for days! (And I love Michael Douglas)Joanna, I'm glad this was helpful! She sounds like a fun but complicated character to write.


  7. Such an interesting post!!! A character with BPD sure gives a writer a lot to work with! It sounds awful to live through – or live WITH – though. I had wondered what “borderline” refers to! :)What I like about this series of posts is that you don’t merely describe the symptoms of personality disorders; you explain how such disorders (could) develop, which goes a long way towards creating believable characters. I also like how you don’t claim that therapy is the only (or even the best) way for a person to heal. I can see how tempting it would be to make that claim since you’ve spent so many years ‘learning the trade’ (and being taught by people IN the trade!) and have no doubt seen many people make great strides in therapy. Thanks for sharing your knowledge with us! 🙂


  8. Tony, thanks for your insightful comment. I'm always fascinated by how we become the people we are, and I'm glad that interests you too. While I think therapy is a wonderful thing, I realize that it's not for everybody.Niks, I THOUGHT you'd appreciate that, hee hee. I guess I just contradicted what I said about not everybody needing therapy. 😉


  9. Liz, I'm glad these posts are interesting. Glenn Close is an amazing actress–she portrayed Teddi a little TOO accurately, I think!Ash, yikes! That's why it's so important to work as a team, huh? We definitely take a team approach at the clinic where I work, in order to avoid splitting. If anyone reading this comment doesn't know what splitting is, it refers to the tendency of an individual with BPD to idolize one person and vilify another, pitting them against each other. It can create a huge mess!


  10. Thanks for this enlightening post (and for explaining what splitting is!)I can understand how easy it would be to vilify a psychologist… or an author… or a giant carrot, grrr. 😉


  11. Sue, personality disorders can't be diagnosed until the individual is 18, so if you're writing middle grade fiction then sticking with erratic is good. 😉 (wouldn't want to further tire out the working mom!)


  12. Oh, and I forgot to mention gender differences for these disorders. Borderline PD definitely is more common in women, and Narcissistic PD tends to be more common in men (though I don't have the stats in front of me).


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