For those who may not know, Borderline Personality Disorder is a very complex psychiatric condition. Just simply listing the diagnostic criteria or common symptoms would not give an honest picture of this disorder, which many mental health professionals consider among the most difficult and demanding to treat. The disorder is characterized by an extremely unstable self image that leads the person to create polarizing relationships that are dominated by the most extreme of emotions and experiences. Borderlines feel the deepest of love for those in their path and then, seemingly without cause, warning or explanation, hate them with the same passion. Later they will love them again and desperately fear their abandonment and loss, only to experience the same hate and vitriol after some trigger that may or may not be known to them. And on and on the exasperating and destructive cycle goes throughout their life.
Understanding the whys and hows of the Borderline personality has captivated and baffled professionals for at least a hundred years and probably long before it had a label. Any clinician who has worked with the Borderline will admit they demand a great deal of energy and attention; clinicians are often left exhausted and second-guessing their competence (and career choice). The best available treatment – if it can be called that at all – only provides superficial symptom management and, if lucky, tolerance of the extremity of emotional experiences. Very few clinicians are daring enough to dive into the chaotic core of the Borderline.
At this juncture you may be wondering what this clinical discourse on a psychiatric diagnosis has to do with American culture. The answer is simple: American culture is the embodiment of the Borderline personality. Similarly, the Borderline personality organization defines American culture to a large extent. While that part of the answer is simple, it gets a little more complex from here.
Just like listing the criteria or symptoms of Borderline Personality Disorder does not do it justice, simply listing silly, nonsensical, and contradictory things about American culture does not do justice to the deep, pathological dysfunction. While I could explain that the Borderline struggles to tolerate difficult emotions, that does not help you to see and understand that beneath the surface, their identity is in utter disarray. That they are fundamentally fragmented at the core of their personality. That their emotions are unreliable and volatile, not serving as a guide or tool to manage the world, but leaving them a raw and exposed nerve ending that anything or anyone can tweak and send them spiraling into an abyss that confirms all of their worst nightmares. It doesn’t help you understand that in the very core of their being, they know that people will harm, abuse and exploit them given the chance, so they must pay extremely close attention to every nuance, every word, every action, lest the abuse catch them off guard. But wait, maybe they truly deserve the abuse because they are a wretched, worthless soul with no inherent value. So they invite the abuse, willingly accept it out of penance for their horrible existence, only to feel immense shame, guilt and anger, which they also cannot tolerate, so they attempt suicide over and over again. Each failed attempt is both loved and hated.
Yes, I’m talking about the Borderline, but I’m also talking about American culture. Just like the Borderline, our actions are a window into our unstable core. We honor a person, group or concept one moment, only to castigate it the next. We aggressively demand political changes by voting one party into office, only to grow weary 2, 4 or 6 years later and vote the other back in with seemingly no memory and with no felt obligation to explain our contradictory actions. We watch and then defend those same politicians when they make, at best, contradictory declarations or, at worst, lie to us in blatant and unapologetic ways. Like the Borderline, our emotions are in disarray and are often intolerable to us. When we get upset, offended or believe we’re wronged, we – just like the Borderline – demand extreme, impulsive decisions of our leaders, communities and world with little (or more often no) consideration of the consequences for tomorrow, next week or the next generation. When those inevitable and often foreseeable consequences arrive, we are quick to project the blame onto our neighbors or leaders – never ourselves – and, like the Borderline, demand they change things again.
We refuse to wait for facts or adequate information before vilifying (or vindicating) someone, or rendering an accused person guilty (or innocent), only to take the opposite position the next time an issue or person in the cross hairs is one we value differently. Our contradictions in behavior, voice and value are irrefutable and indefensible, yet we, like the Borderline, feel no need to defend our irrationality. We feel what we feel, when we feel it and want what we want. And the destructive cycle goes on with seemingly countless examples. But even with this, we are not done. If someone dares to recognize the cycle of dysfunction, we, like the Borderline, turn our venom on them, accusing them of bias, discrimination or hate, blaming them for inhibiting progress and wishing to return to or stay in an oppressive, unhealthy, or unfair status. Or worse.
If even a few of these qualities were present in the life of a patient, we would say they are diagnosably dysfunctional and need professional help. A good clinician would observe and point out the dangerous contradictions. They would challenge the patient to see that just a year or two ago, they made contradictory decisions and ask them challenging questions about whether they had considered what, if anything, had changed to warrant them taking the opposite position now. The wise clinician would probe for justifications and call out irrational contradictions and beliefs that interfere with psychological health. When Borderline patients project their own insecurities, emotions and beliefs on others, the observant clinician helps them see these fears, emotions and beliefs belong to them, not to the other person and they pursue personal responsibility and self control. They help the person tolerate emotions and explore and find peace in their own weaknesses instead of blaming others for their plight. A good psychotherapist will encourage patience and information gathering before making major life decisions or embarking on a path.
But American culture has no tolerance for the wise, observant and balanced clinician. In fact, the clinician is the enemy who must be destroyed for raising questions of accountability, recognizing contradictions and asking questions that challenge narratives. You don’t fully buy into or have questions about the latest hashtag or social movement? You must be removed, cancelled, discredited and ruined. You want to wait for the facts to emerge before you condemn or pardon the latest act caught on cell phone camera? You are on the wrong side of the issue. When the act is later proven to be a hoax, false or something altogether different than the original narrative said? No matter, you’ll get no apology from this culture, nor your job, credibility or reputation back. You should have allowed yourself to be swept up when the others were; now you’re ruined.
Just like those who have been in a relationship with a Borderline, many in American culture have decided to duck and cover. America is not a safe place to have reasoned, balanced dialogues – no matter how much we may hear that it is. The Borderline assures us that our opinions are wanted – needed – to make the relationship better and to advance progress and positive changes, but it is a bear trap with a hair trigger. No matter how lightly you step, carefully you choose the words or how earnest and well motivated your heart, you will spring the trap because the Borderline is a miserable person who is lost in a psychological cacophony of chaos that they are scarcely aware of – if at all. Thus, they are living their life in the only way they can; the outcome of which is that everyone they touch is infected with that chaos. You will spring the trap.
Almost every competent mental health professional would agree that the Borderline needs help. America needs that same help. The culture has slipped into that same chaos of which it is scarcely aware, if at all. It is also living the only life it knows how and is wreaking havoc on many that it touches. Most of us are unprepared. Few of us understand what is happening and many still naively trust Borderline promises that there is no trap while the wise duck and cover hoping the cross hairs will stop elsewhere.
To be healthy and sustain any meaningful change in our culture and world, we must abandon our Borderline ways. We cannot expect these unstable, chaotic methods to succeed. If we’re being honest (admittedly very difficult for the Borderline), we must recognize that destroying reasonable dialogues, scaring the opposition into silence, threatening to annihilate lives for dissenting, demanding blind allegiance, making impulsive decisions based on incomplete information, blaming others for our ailments and other such approaches can never produce positive, healthy results. Yet these methods, just like the Borderline, are the norm, even the expectation, in 21st century American culture.
This is not only not helpful or productive, it’s also artificial. There are entire, major swaths of the culture that are not part of the conversation out of (legitimate) fear. Simply trying to be reasonable, ask for facts, or challenging the narrative will unleash the Borderline retaliation which may be career ending, family destroying, prison sentencing, etc. Thus, these reasonable people have made the reasonable decision to protect themselves from an unwinnable battle. There is simply no way to say, do, believe, or the value the right thing, because the Borderline is fundamentally unstable. The right thing won’t stay the right thing for long and you will be on the wrong side before you knew anything changed. Both in the Borderline and American culture, there may be no identifiable reason why anything changed, but you’re still on the wrong side of it if you’re still using that old hashtag, acronym or catchphrase which is now insensitive, uncultured, etc.
Like the Borderline, we are bound for isolation and hopeless loneliness. There are only so many love-hate, erratic and irrational cycles and vicious attacks others can take before they inevitably leave out of self preservation. In time, the Borderline American culture will create the same. It will be (maybe already is) an echo chamber of chaotic and unstable dysfunction that will implode.
We are living in unreasonable times. The only solution to this terrifying problem is that we – all of us – must return to and demand reasonability. We need to demand it of our leaders and elected officials and rid ourselves of the ever increasingly extreme positions they take and the mindless, memory-less cycles of how we install them. Part of repairing the Borderline personality is not continuing to engage in the same mistakes of the past as well as seeking out healthy others who encourage making healthy changes. If we are reasonable people seeking reasonable leaders, then we will find them. Reasonable leaders, in turn, encourage the same in their followers. We must demand reasonability of our friends, family and others in our circles for the same reasons. Most importantly of all, we must demand it of ourselves. We have to abandon our willingness to be swept up in the chaos and settle for nothing less than balanced reasonability, both from our culture and ourselves, and even when – especially when – we disagree.