We all use defense mechanisms to get us through the day. But people with personality disorders use them to a greater extent, which makes it seem like they're living in their own little world. If you spend too long isolated in a crazy environment, you may start to think in these ways yourself. This is one reason why it's essential that you maintain your friendships--even if your personality disordered family member insists that you give up other people.
Feelings Create Facts (emotional reasoning)
In general, emotionally healthy people base their feelings on facts. If your dad came home drunk every night (fact) you might feel worried or concerned (feeling). If your boss complimented you on a big project (fact) you would feel proud and happy (feeling).
People with borderline and narcissistic personality disorder, however, may do the opposite. When their feelings don't fit the facts, they may unconsciously revise the facts to fit their feelings. This may be one reason why their perception of events is so different from yours.
Splitting: (I Hate You—Don't Leave Me)
People with BPD and NPD may have a hard time seeing gray areas. To them, people and situations are all black or white, wonderful or evil. This process of splitting serves as another defense mechanism. Peter, who has BPD, explains: "Dividing the world into good or evil makes it easier to understand. When I feel evil, that explains why I am the way I am. When you are evil, that explains why I think bad things about you."
Tag, You're It : A Game of Projection
Some people with BPD or NPD who act out may use a more complicated type of defense mechanism — we've named it "Tag, You're It"- to relieve their anxiety, pain, and feelings of shame. It's more complex because it combines shame, splitting, denial, and projection.
People with BPD (and some with NPD) usually lack a clear sense of who they are, and feel empty and inherently defective. Others seem to run away from them, which is lonely and excruciatingly painful. So borderlines cope by trying to "tag" or "put" these feelings onto someone else. This is called projection.
Projection is denying one's own unpleasant traits, behaviors, or feelings by attributing them (often in an accusing way) to someone else. Projection is like gazing at yourself in a hand-held mirror. When you think you look ugly, you turn the mirror around. Voila! Now the homely face in the mirror belongs to somebody else.
Sometimes the projection is an exaggeration of something that has a basis in reality. For example, the borderline may accuse you of "hating" them when you just feel irritated. Sometimes the projection may come entirely from their imagination: for example, they accuse you of flirting with a salesclerk when you were just asking for directions to the shoe department.
The BP's unconscious hope is that by projecting this unpleasant stuff onto another person-by tagging someone else and making them "it" like a game of Tag — the person with BPD will feel better about themselves. And they do feel better, for a little while. But the pain comes back. So the game is played again and again.
Projection also has another purpose: your loved one unconsciously fears that if you find out they're not perfect, you will abandon them. Like in the Wizard of Oz, they live in constant terror that you'll discover the person behind the curtain. Projecting the negative traits and feelings onto you is a way to keep the curtain closed and redirect your attention on the perfect image they've tried to create for themselves.
How can people with BPD and NPD deny that they are projecting when it is so obvious to everyone else? The answer is that shame and splitting may combine with projection and denial to make the "Tag, You're It" defense mechanism a more powerful way of denying ownership of unpleasant thoughts and feelings.
Some adults who enter into relationships with borderlines feel brainwashed by the BP's accusations and criticisms. The techniques of brainwashing are simple: isolate the victim, expose them to inconsistent messages, mix with sleep deprivation, add some form of abuse, get the person to doubt what they know and feel, keep them on their toes, wear them down, and stir well.
Everything Is Your Fault
Continual blame and criticism is another defense mechanism that some people with BPD and NPD who act out use as a survival tool. The criticism may be based on a real issue that the person has exaggerated, or it may be a pure fantasy.
Family members have been raged at and castigated for such things as carrying a grocery bag the wrong way, having bed sheets that weighed too heavily on the BP's toes, and reading a book the BP demanded they read. One exasperated non-BP said that if by some chance he didn't make an unforgivable error one day, his wife would probably rage at him for being too perfect.
If you object to the criticism or try to defend yourself, your loved one may accuse you of being defensive, too sensitive, or unable to accept constructive criticism. Since their very survival seems to be at stake, they may defend themselves with the ferociousness of a mother bear protecting her cubs. When the crisis has passed and the person with BPD seems to have won, they may act surprised that you're still upset.
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Taking Your Life Back When Someone You Care About Has Borderline Personality Disorder
The Basics of Borderline Personality Disorder for Beginners
Protecting Yourself While Divorcing Someone with Borderline or Narcissistic Personality Disorder
Conversations with William A. Eddy
Featuring Ken Lewis and James Paul Shirley
Protecting Your Mental Health When Your Partner has Borderline Personality Disorder