This post is based on the chapter entitled "Make Believe Children" in Dr. Christine Ann Lawson's book, "Understanding The Borderline Mother: Helping Her Children Transcend the Intense, Unpredictable, and Volatile Relationship."
Most people would not believe what goes on in Borderline families. The dynamics are intense, destructive, and subtle and not readily apparent to the casual observer. However as Dr. Lawson points out,
"Children of borderlines learn to sacrifice their true selves because survival requires that they meet their mother's emotional needs." p. 155 - 156.
An adult client told me of a conversation he had with his mother who wondered why she had no relationships with her other adult children and grandchildren, and the client said that he said to her, "Because mom you create an emotional vortex. It is too draining." He told me he wasn't sure if his mother understood but his siblings understood immediately and the term "emotional vortex" has become a catch phrase in these adult siblings' discussions of their mother.
The emotional vortex refers to the fact that the borderline mother needs to be the center of attention all the time. She often creates high drama in order to get and keep attention. She has a need to be right and does not tolerate disagreement or points of view other than her own. People learn quickly that to get along with her they must go along otherwise there will be conflict or the emotional cut-off. Every issue and topic is all about her. Other people's feelings and ideas are disregarded or denigrated as not important or being unworthy of consideration.
Dr. Lawson writes further:
"Autonomy, the freedom of self-direction and self-expression, is impossible for the borderline's child. Because the borderline mother views separation as betrayal and punishes self-assertion, the child develops a false self. The true self is buried alive." p. 156
Children of borderline mothers often are afraid of their mother. She is unpredictable, emotional intense and volatile, can be accusatory, unreasonable, and denigrating. Dr. Lawson says,
"However, children of borderlines experience a qualitative difference in their experience of being mothered. Fortunately, most children do not get 'the willies' when hearing their mother's voice." p. 157
Children of borderlines are continually doing a "risk assessment" monitoring their mother's moods so they can manage the situations and protect themselves.
Borderline mothers often do what is called "splitting" which means that she spits off the good and the bad in herself and projects that onto others. Therefore, it is common for the borderline mother to have the "all good child" and the "all bad child" or the "fair haired boy or girl", the so called "golden child", and the "black sheep" or the "scapegoat."
As Dr. Lawson describes the borderline mother often does "forced teaming" with the good child saying to the all good child things like, "You're just like me" and "You're the only one I can depend on" and "If it weren't for you, my life wouldn't be worth living." This all good child is often called "the parentified child" because the child is forced to behave like a parent taking care of the mother in a role reversal where the child takes care of the parent and the other siblings. Dr. Lawson says:
"A parentified child intuitively knows that her role is inappropriate and is terrified knowing that she is solely responsible for her parent's happiness. She should never be placed in the impossible position of being responsible for her parent's life." p.163
The all good child of the borderline mother often grows up to be a caretaker. She/he is very good at meeting other people's needs, but does not feel worthy to meet his/her own. The all good child often feels guilty that they survived the abuse especially relative to the no-good child. As adults the all good child of the borderline mother is depressed and anxious and doesn't know why. A friend of mine told me that his therapist told him repeatedly, "You deserve to be happy. You deserve to have a high quality life." He told me that at first he brushed his therapist off and then intellectually agreed that this was true but with repeated statements over months he said he became annoyed and then angry. He said one day it hit him that yes he did deserve to be happy and he was angry that no one had ever told him this before. He said he went into his therapy session and cried and said "I understand now what you have been telling me and I am pissed that in all these years no one has ever told me before what you are telling me, that I deserve to be happy! This, of course, is the birthright of every child, but with children of borderline mothers, it is clear that their role is to meet the emotional needs of the mother not the other way around. The satirical point is made with the needle point hung on the living room wall which says, "If mama ain't happy, ain't nobody happy!" This, unfortunately, is no joke for a child growing up in a borderline family.
This is post #19 in a series on borderline parenting based on Dr. Christine Lawson's book, Understanding The Borderline Mother.