Many family members, loved ones, or relationship partners of those with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) (non borderlines) often think and believe that the borderline in their lives is just seeking attention when they engage in self harm or self-harming behaviour.
Do borderlines harm themselves to get the attention of others? Do borderlines self harm to manipulate others?
There are times when a borderline harming his/herself may do so out of need for attention and/or to manipulate someone else. There is often, however, not a conscious understanding of this. That is not to say that a borderline does not ever self harm without knowing that they are attempting to induce guilt in the non borderline that they hope will illicit the emotional response they want or need to help them with dysregulated emotion.
Regardless of any and all potential motivating factors with borderline self harm, however, borderlines engage in self harm often impulsively and compulsively. They are often addicted to it as a means of attempting to cope with dysregulated emotions. Borderlines tend to experience dyregulated emotions most often in attempts to relate to others – often the non borderlines in their lives. This is one major reason why it may appear that borderline self harm is aimed at you or merely to get your attention.
Self harm in those with BPD, while it serves many functions, for most has some element of attention-seeking to it. Now, this may not be something that many with BPD are aware of when they do self harm. But self harm, for the different reasons it is engaged in, used, and done, is in many ways about the borderline saying – through actions – "Look how much I hurt", "help me", "I can’t take the pain", "I don’t know who I am or how to cope" among many other things.
Self harm gives the borderline a sense of control when the reality is that emotionally they are out of control and unable to cope. The focus on physically self harming oneself does give the illusion of a type of pseudo-mastery if you will. A pseudo mastery that attempts to make up for what is the absence of emotional mastery or competence.
Self harm, for me, when I had BPD, was a way of converting my pain (a lot of which, back then I was clueless about) from the emotional where I had no competence to deal with it, face it or feel it, to the physical where I felt that I had some control over it.
Self harm, in many with BPD becomes an addiction of its own. I think even more than any physical or biological response to it or relief gained through it, the real addiction is in defending against the intra-psychic pain – the pain of the core wound of abandonment – abandonment trauma – that is experienced by those with BPD as being something that feels as if it will kill them if they touched it, acknowledged it or even felt a bit of it.
It is what I refer to as the the abandoned pain of BPD. It is the source of not only self harm but so much of the borderline defense mechanisms that definitely interfere with any and all attempts to relate. It is the borderline’s way of trying desperately to manage and cope with dysregulated emotion that is often triggered through relating by the threat of one’s abandonment trauma rising up to an almost conscious level and that is a terrifying experience that most borderlines in the active throes of BPD must avoid at all costs because to them and for them it feels like impending death and they do not have any healthy interpersonal coping skills to cope in any other way with these dysregulated emotions that create such distress.
Self harm, is among other things, a legitimate, albeit pathological and self-destructive attempt by the borderline to cope with the distress of his/her dysregulated emotions in the absence of any other means of coping.
Self harm is a cry for help while at the same time it is often self punishment. The cry for help comes from the reality of the abandonment trauma no matter how dissociated from. The self punishment essentially comes out of the shame of the core wound of abandonment. Borderlines have often learned to associate need with shame.
Both the feeling of a need and its accompanying shame overwhelm the borderline and trigger the borderline back to his/her unresolved abandonment trauma.
copyright © A.J. Mahari, April 11, 2008