Editor’s note: This article was submitted by Steve Becker, LCSW, CH.T, who has a private psychotherapy, hypnotherapy, and clinical consulting practice in New Jersey, USA. For more information, visit his website, powercommunicating.com.
It is not unusual in my clinical experience to see, sometimes, some quite chilling sociopathic activity from my “borderline personality-disordered” clients. When someone has a “borderline personality,” it’s quite likely, among other things, that he or she will present with a history of emotional instability; a pattern of chaotic interpersonal relationships; and poor coping skills under stress, reflected in self-destructive/ destructive acting-out and a tendency to suicidal behaving.
These unstable trends are not explained by a core psychotic orientation, although individuals with borderline personality can sometimes lapse into psychotic thinking when feeling hurt and rejected enough. Borderline personalities tend to see others in “black and white,” as either all-good or all-bad; they struggle to retain more flexible, ambivalent views of others. Others are either idealized, or devalued; these swings of perceptions can be sudden, volatile, and complete.
Perceptions and/or experiences of abandonment often elicit the borderline’s dysfunctional responses and psychological deterioration. In his or her more stable state, the borderline personality can sometimes function well and seem to be well-adjusted. But more intimate involvement with him or her, over time, will expose an underlying, poorly disturbed sense of self and incapacity for mature relating.
A question I’ve found myself considering is: When the borderline personality is acting, and looking, like a sociopath, is it the case that he or she, in these states, effectively is a sociopath?
It should be noted that behaviors per se are never sociopathic, only the individuals perpetrating them. Sociopathy is a mentality from which antisocial, exploitative behaviors gestate and emanate with a destructive, historical chronicity. But one can infer the presence of the sociopathic mentality from a telling pattern of behaviors.
Clearly there are fundamental differences between borderline personalities and sociopaths, differences which I appreciate. At the same time, when the borderline personality’s rage or desperation is evoked, one sees (and not rarely) responses that can closely correspond to the sociopath’s calculating, destructive mentality.
Once inside this mentality, I’m suggesting that borderline personality-disordered individuals can lapse into a kind of transient sociopathy. Commonly, victims of the “borderline’s” aberrant, vicious behaviors will sometimes react along the lines of, “What is wrong with you? Are you some freaking psychopath?” They will say this from the experience of someone who really has just been exploited as if by a psychopath.
Because this isn’t the borderline personality’s default mentality (it is the sociopath’s), several psychological phenomena must occur, I think, to enable his temporary descent into sociopathy. He or she must regress in some way; dissociate in some fashion; and experience a form of self-fragmentation, for instance in response to a perceived threat—say, of abandonment.
These preconditions, I suggest, seed the borderline personality’s collapse into the primitive, altered states of self that can explain, among other phenomena, his or her chilling (and necessary) suspension of empathy. This gross suspension of empathy supports his or her “evening the score” against the “victimizer” with the sociopath’s remorseless sense of entitlement.
I worked not long ago with a male, 24, who slit his ex-girlfriend’s tires in the parking lot of the restaurant in which she tended bar. He’d suspected her of cheating with her manager. Notably, they were still together at the time of his act. Although his girlfriend surmised his guilt, he wouldn’t admit it, suggesting foolishly that the perpetrator was probably the manager. While his suspicions of her infidelity had some basis, the important point is that they activated an inner-self crisis and desperation characteristic of borderline personality structures.
Specifically, he feared losing her—a prospect so traumatic that rage was summoned to help mobilize his fragmenting self. His rage was experienced as cold, not volatile. He regressed into paranoia, as one who had been betrayed and, cruelly, left helpless. His failure to soberly examine the circumstances and his inflammatory reactions represented a form of mild dissociation/detachment from reality that enabled the paranoid experience, and processing, of his fear; his detachment (and regression) enabled him to formulate and execute his revenge with his empathy (and guilt) conveniently iced. In other words, he could perpetrate his vengeance with the detached calm of someone who has experienced a trauma, as in a state of depersonalization.
Upon emerging from this state, it would be as if emerging from a sort of dream, or seizure. The rationalization would kick in: what I do in those states really isn’t me, so I don’t really have to take full responsibility for it later on. It’s as if the borderline individual surfaces from his dip into sociopathy once again a borderline (and no longer a sociopath).
Motives that drive patterns of problematic behaviors frequently illuminate and distinguish the personality disorders. In this case, what seems to have driven my client was his crumbling sense of self in the form of an inarticulate terror of being abandoned. For this reason (among others), I can confidently say that he wasn’t a sociopath. But when he was in that regressed, dissociated, fragmented state—for as long as it lasted—I suggest he was.