Borderline: Narcissist’s Mirror (and Avoidant Personality Disorder)

Uploaded 10/5/2022, approx. 24 minute read

The late psychoanalyst James Grotstein had suggested at the time that a borderline patient is a failed narcissist. The child attempts to develop narcissism as a defense against abuse and trauma in early childhood, and if the child fails for a variety of reasons, the child remains stuck at the borderline phase.

Grotstein was a giant in the study of borderline personality disorder. He was the one who developed the metaphor of the black hole. Together with Wilfred Bion and Tustin and others, he suggested that at the core of the borderline patient, there is a black hole, an emptiness.

Kernberg developed the same concept and then Seinfeld with the empty schizooid core.

Today, I'm going to take this a step further. Rather than merely suggest that the borderline is a failed narcissist, I'm going to propose that borderline personality disorder is a mirroring, a mirror of narcissism.

The exact opposite of narcissism is as if the child had tried to become a narcissist, had failed, and then the child said, well, I'm going to do everything the opposite way.

Whatever I've tried to do in developing pathological narcissism, I'm going to try a different path. And this path is going to be a mirror image of narcissism.

As you know, your image in the mirror is not reality. It's the opposite of reality. Your left side is your right side. Your right side is your left side. You never look in reality the way you do in a mirror.

The borderline is the narcissist mirror. My name is Sam Vaknin. I'm the author of Malignant Self-Love, Narcissism Revisited. I'm also a professor of psychology.

And today, let us delve right into the rabbit hole of borderline versus narcissism.

It is important to realize that the narcissist is bothered by your presence and the borderline is bothered by your absence. The narcissist finds your presence intolerable. The borderline finds your absence menacing.

The narcissist tries to dispense with your presence. The borderline tries to secure it.

This is the first mirror element.

While the borderline has extreme separation insecurity, abandonment anxiety, the narcissist is far more concerned with managing and controlling his intimate partner in order to accomplish separation. We'll discuss it a bit later.

But both of them engage in strategies of control. Both of them are very concerned to micromanage your life. They are very worried about you getting out of control.

So both of them, the borderline and the narcissist, try to dissolve you. They try to eliminate your separateness. They try to reduce or eradicate your agency, personal autonomy and independence.

They find these things very, very threatening, each for his or her own reasons.

Before I proceed, narcissism and borderline, narcissistic personality disorder and borderline personality disorder are nowadays diagnosed equally among men and women. Yet I'm going to use the male pronouns for the narcissist and the female pronouns for the borderline because of historical reasons.

So let us proceed.

I said that the narcissist is concerned with your presence. He feels that your presence is a foundational threat to the precarious balance of his non-existent personality.

The borderline similarly is threatened by your absence. The borderline in your absence is half a human being. She needs you. She uses you to regulate her internal environment.

And so both of them try to control you for different reasons. The narcissist renders you inanimate. The narcissist tries to convert you into an ancient Egyptian mummy. He tries to embalm you like an ant in amber. And he does this via the process that I call snapshotting, clinical terms, internalization, introjection and identification. He tries to take a photograph of you and then Photoshop the photograph. This is known as idealization and then continue to interact with a photograph which feels safe. The photograph is safe. It's a secure base. The photograph will never abandon the narcissist. The photograph will never separate from the narcissist. The photograph will never challenge or undermine the narcissist's grandiosity. The photograph will never disagree with the narcissist or criticize him.

The narcissist far prefers to interact with your snapshot than with you. He is therefore incapable of discerning external objects and interacting with them.

You have never been in the narcissist's life. Only your representation in his mind, only your avatar. You have been a figment of his fiction, a piece of his narrative, participant in his script and shared fantasy.

This is the narcissist's solution to reconcile your presence in his life with his need to separate from you. Your presence grates on him. Your existence challenges him. Your independence and autonomy terrify him and tries to get rid of all these things by rendering you frozen, a stalactite, a fossil.

So this is the narcissist's solution. He penalizes you for any deviation and any divergence from the snapshot.

This is how the process of devaluation starts actually.

The borderline has a totally different solution. The borderline tries to merge with you. She tries to fuse with you. This is her way of securing your presence in her life.

If you become a single two-headed organism, you can never separate. This is how she solves her separation insecurity, aka abandonment, anxiety. Not only does she merge with you, not only does she become one with you in her mind, but she outsources to you all the critical psychological needs and functions.

So you become an extension of her mind and gradually you become a substitute to her mind. She outsources her mind to you from that point onwards.

You are supposed to regulate her emotions for her, stabilize her labile moods, offer her reality testing, participate in her cognitions or even generate her cognitions. You are subsumed inside her skull in her mind.

Let us recap.

The narcissist is terrified of your presence. He resents your autonomy and agency and independence. He doesn't want you to exist. He wants to separate from you at some stage. So he tries to put you down, so to speak, by converting you into a symbolic, iconic, avatarsic representation in his mind. That's his solution.

The borderline is terrified of exactly the opposite. She is afraid that you will abandon her, reject her, disappear on her. And so what she does, she becomes one with you. She takes over you. It's a kind of hostile takeover. She is all over you. She wouldn't let you have a minute to yourself. She constantly monitors and supervises and spies on you. She has persecutory delusions. She's a bit paranoid. She is romantically jealous, insanely so.

And all these mechanisms of controlling you take, assimilating you and thereby rendering you in separate from her.

This is the core issue. Both the narcissist and the borderline do not recognize your separateness. Not only they don't recognize it, but they want to vitiate. They want to negate it. They don't want you to be separate from them. The narcissist wants you to become an internal object inside his demented mind. The borderline wants you to disappear into her in a kind of cosmic, erotic, sexual act. And no wonder the borderlines are highly focused on sexuality as an instrument of intimacy and merger with their intimate partner.

So these are the diametrically opposed solutions of the narcissist and the borderline in terms of managing intimate relationships and intimacy.

And this is the first example of the borderline being the mirror image of the narcissist.

The narcissist denies your existence and separateness as an external object. The borderline simply accepts your externality and merges with it. She becomes the external object.

The narcissist converts the external object into an internal one. The borderline converts her internal world into the external object that is her intimate partner.

Both of them, the narcissist and the psychopath, need to devalue and discard you.

The relationship dynamics is very similar. They both need at some point to reduce you, to diminish you, to demean you, to reject and humiliate you and then to get rid of you.

The narcissist does this because he has a very strong need to reenact his early childhood.

The narcissist had failed to separate from his mother of origin, his original biological mother. He had failed to separate from the primary caregiver, from the primary object and therefore he couldn't become an individual.

The narcissism, pathological narcissism, is a failure in separation, individuation from a mother figure.

The narcissist converts you, his intimate partner, into a mother figure and then is compelled to separate from you.

To do this, he needs to devalue you, to have a good reason why to separate from you and only then does he feel in control, empowered and on his way to becoming an individual.

This is the narcissist. These are the narcissist reasons for devaluing and discarding you.

The borderline does the same. She devalues and discards, but she does this for a totally different reason. She does it because of an anxiety disorder.

The more she merges with you, the more she fuses with you, the more she becomes one with you, the more she hands over internal psychological functions and needs to you, the more she expects you to cater to her internal landscape, stabilize it, ameliorate it, mitigate it, regulate it, the more in other words she becomes dependent on you, the more she feels enmeshed and engulfed, the more she feels as if she were disappearing, which is exactly what is happening by the way.

So this engulfment anxiety, this enmeshment anxiety pushes her to devalue you and discard you.

But it's an important distinction here. The narcissist devalues and discards our one time events.

In other words, they constitute the absolute end of a phase in the relationship.

Henceforth, the narcissist will be looking for another intimate partner. He may come back to you and try to hoover you because he has a residual snapshot of you in his mind.

He may try to re-idealize you and reanimate the relationship or reestablish the relationship, but he could equally as well go on with his life and never come back to you as an intimate partner.

This is not the case with the borderline. The borderline devalues and discards in order to ameliorate her anxiety, her engulfment anxiety, to reduce it.

The borderline devalues and discard is an anxiolytic step. It's her way to reduce anxiety and sometimes concomitant depression.

So once the anxiety is gone, once she has recovered, she will try to hoover you.

The borderline goes through cycles of devalue, discard, hoovering, devalue, discard, hoovering with the same individual.

Not so the narcissist or rarely so the narcissist.

With the narcissist, devalue and discard is a period full stop. With the borderline, devalue and discard is just a phase in what is known as approachavoidance, repetitioncompulsion.

Again, the narcissist may try to hoover you. The borderline will hoover you.

That's the difference between them. One of them acts because it has a problem with the management of internal objects. The other one acts because she can't do otherwise. She has a repetition compulsion.

The word compulsion is important. Both the borderline and the narcissist become avoidant and schizoid at some stage. They isolate themselves socially. They become asexual. They avoid having sex and are not attracted to any sexual potential, sexual partner. They stay at home. They watch Netflix. They play with their cats.

Every narcissist and every borderline goes through such phases. And these phases could sometimes be extremely long up to years or even decades.

But again, the reasons the psychodynamic background to this kind of behavior is very different in the narcissist than it is in the borderline.

The borderline is a mirror image of the narcissist. The narcissist becomes avoidant and schizoid because of deficient supply. When the narcissist is unable to secure narcissistic supply, he usually tends to withdraw in order to forestall and avoid narcissistic injury, rejection. The narcissist does the same when he is subjected to negative supply. Negative supply is narcissistic injury or narcissistic mortification.

When faced with the vagaries and exigencies of daily life, when confronted with criticism, humiliation, rejection, disagreement, and so on, many narcissists become avoidant. They withdraw.

And another reason they do this is when they need to process a corrupt introject.

Following the devaluation phase, having devalued you, the narcissist remains stuck with the introject of you, with the internal object that represents you, with a part of his mind that is your avatar.

But having devalued you in reality as an external object, the narcissist now faces a mismatch, a massive discrepancy between the idealized introject in his mind and the devalued external object, which happens to be you.

To process this, to somehow put the bits and pieces together, the narcissist usually withdraws. He usually becomes avoidant for a while.

So there are three reasons why narcissists would become avoidant and schizoid hermits isolated.

One reason is deficient narcissistic supply. Another reason is negative supply.

And the third reason is a corrupt introject.

The borderline behaves exactly like the narcissist. She has phases, sometimes protracted phases of avoiding people, avoiding sex, avoiding social interactions, isolating herself, pondering and brooding over her life.

These periods are characterized usually by depressive illness or depressive moods.

But the borderline does all this for a totally different reason to the narcissist.

She withdraws and she avoids in order to leak her wounds. She had been rejected or humiliated or abandoned, or she had anticipated rejection, humiliation and abandonment in her mind.

There's no difference. So now she's wounded. Now she's injured. Now she's hurting. Now she's in pain and she withdraws into her niche to leak her wounds.

As she does this, she begins to develop abandonment anxiety. She devalues the intimate partner, discards the intimate partner, withdraws into her lair, into her nest, into her den and then she begins to miss the intimate partner. She begins to develop severe anxiety.

Will I ever see him again? How am I going to get in touch with him? He has been so good to me.

She withdraws actually to re-idealize the intimate partner.

A similar process happens with the narcissist, but while the borderline applies idealization to the external object, to the real intimate partner, the narcissist idealizes the internal object, the introject of the partner, the representation of the partner in his mind.

Again we see a mirror image. The borderline operates with and on real external objects, real people like the intimate partner.

The narcissist interacts with internal objects exclusively. Even when the narcissist idealizes or re-idealizes, he first does it with the internal object, with the introject.

The external object catches up with the introject.

The borderline is actually incapable of developing stable introjects. She has introject inconsistency and I encourage you to watch the relevant videos on my channel.

Let us summarize the avoidant and schizoid behaviors of narcissists versus borderline.

The narcissist gets rid of the external object, gets rid of the intimate partner, but still has in his mind a corrupt introject, a representation of the discarded and devalued intimate partner that had not been processed to match the external object.

So now he needs to work around this.

Similarly when his supply is deficient or negative, in all these cases the narcissist needs time off. Time off, he withdraws, he isolates himself, he avoids company, he doesn't interact with people, he goes through a phase of self-supply.

Watch the relevant videos on my channel regarding self-supply.

The borderline acts exactly the same. From the outside they look indistinguishable, but actually the reasons for the borderline's behavior are very different. She withdraws and avoids in order to lick her wounds and then she develops abandonment anxiety and this triggers another round of approach avoidance, repetition, compulsion.

In other words, the borderline's avoidance has two functions, to allow her to recover her sense of identity and separateness and then to approach her intimate partner again.

Having discarded and devalued the intimate partner, she now approaches the intimate partner, again idealizes him, the real object, the external object, idealizes him and tries to be with him and tries to have another relationship.

So approach avoidance, approach owing to abandonment anxiety, avoidance owing to engulfment anxiety and it's a repetition and it's a compulsion and the avoidance part includes a schizoid phase.

Now all this should not be confused with avoidant personality disorder.

Avoidant personality disorder, exactly like borderline personality disorder, is founded on abandonment, on anxiety. The borderline's anxiety is twofold, she is anxious about being rejected, abandoned and humiliated and she is also anxious about being engulfed and meshed, digested, assimilated. She is concerned about disappearing, vanishing. So there's anxiety, a foundation of anxiety which underlies borderline personality disorder and it's the same for avoidant personality disorder.

But in avoidant personality disorder, the anxiety is a reaction to perceived or anticipated rejection. It sounds like borderline but it's not.

Let me try to help you to disambiguate and differentiate the two.

Both the borderline and the avoidant anticipate, expect and sometimes experience real abandonment and rejection. Both of them develop anxiety, both of them are terrified about being rejected.

The borderline is terrified about being rejected by her intimate partner, abandoned. The avoidant is terrified about being rejected by everyone.

But this is abandonment anxiety, this is rejection anxiety, separation anxiety and it underlies both disorders.

But the avoidance reaction to this anxiety is avoidance. The borderline's reaction to this anxiety is temporary avoidance followed by a psychopathic reaction acting out or by re-approaching the bottom.

The borderline therefore has a repertory of three reactions.

When the borderline perceives imminent looming abandonment and rejection or when the borderline experiences actual abandonment and rejection, she has three tools, three instruments, three weapons in her arsenal.

She can avoid, so she becomes avoidant or she can become psychopathic, a secondary psychopathic self-state and then she acts out, she becomes very aggressive and violent and promiscuous and reckless exactly like a psychopath.

And this is the third reaction, she can re-approach the reject, the devalued and discarded intimate partner.

Once the intimate partner humiliates the borderline, abandons her and rejects her, she devalues and discards him in her mind.

So she's capable of re-idealizing and so the avoidant personality disorder can be easily perceived as a subset of borderline personality disorder.

It's as if the avoidant person is a stunted borderline, a stilted borderline. It's as if the avoidant personality disorder is a failed borderline.

We can never, we can posit a hierarchy.

The child tries to become a narcissist, fails, becomes a borderline, fails to become a borderline, becomes codependent, fails to become codependent, becomes avoidant.

Avoidant shares some similarities with a borderline but the repertory, the reactive repertory, the repertory of reactions in the in-avoidant personality disorder is limited to avoidance.

Avoidants don't act out. Avoidants don't idealize and devalue their intimate partners or anyone else for that matter. Avoidants don't have the whole spectrum of behaviors and internal dynamics that are open or unavailable to the narcissist and the borderline.

Avoidant personality disorder is also intimately connected to behaviors such as people pleasing, indecisiveness, other schizoid states, risk aversion, conflict aversion, hesitancy and extreme self-doubt.

I recommend that you watch my video titled Hypervigilance and Intuition as Forms of Anxiety.

So let's delve a little deeper into avoidant personality disorder.

People suffering from avoidant personality disorder feel inadequate, unworthy, inferior.

Let me just play a bit with my computer because it's fun because I don't see a thing on the screen.

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, it's official. I'm getting old in front of your very eyes. Okay, people with avoidant personality disorder, they feel inadequate, they feel unworthy, they feel inferior, they feel lacking in self-confidence.

This is not the same in borderline. In borderline, people are grandiose, same with narcissists, same with psychopaths.

Avoidants are usually shy. They're socially inhibited. They are aware of real or even imagined shortcomings. They are constantly on the lookout, the hypervigilant, the hypersensitive. Even the slightest, most constructive and well-meant or helpful or innocuous criticism and disagreement, they perceive it as complete rejection, ridicule and shaming.

And in this, they're very similar to the narcissist and the borderline.

Consequently, people with avoidant personality disorder go to great lengths to avoid situations that require interpersonal contact, attending school, making new friends, going to a seminar, accepting a promotion or teamwork activities.

Inevitably, avoidants, people with avoidant personality disorder, find it difficult to establish intimate relationships.

What they do is they test the potential friend or mate or spouse to see whether these people accept them uncritically and unconditionally.

They demand continued verbal reassurances that they are really wanted, they are desired, they are loved, they are cared for and about.

When people around the avoidant are asked to describe the avoidant, people usually use terms such as shy, timid, lonely, isolated, invisible, quiet, reticent, unfriendly, tense, risk-averse, resistant to change, reluctant, restricted, hysterical, inhibited and even arrogant.

That's why it's easy to misdiagnose people with avoidant personality disorder as narcissists.

Avoidance is a self-perpetuating vicious cycle. The avoidance stilted mannerisms, fears for his personal safety and security, stifled conduct, they elicit the very ridicule and derision that they fear.

Even when confronted with incontrovertible evidence to the contrary, avoidants tend to doubt that they are socially competent or personally appealing or not wrong, that they are right. That's why they can't make up their minds when confronted with a dilemma or an issue or a disagreement between others.

Rather than let go of their much cherished self-image, avoidants sometimes develop the secretary delusions.

For instance, they may regard honest praise as manipulative flattery. They may ceaselessly fantasize about ideal relationships and how they would outshine everyone else in social interactions, but they're unable to do anything to take the first step to realize their Walter Metis fantasies.

In public settings, avoidants tend to keep to themselves and they're very reticent. When they're oppressed, they self-deprecate, they act overtly modest, borders on false modesty or what we call pseudo-humility, and they minimize the value of their skills and contributions.

And this sounds a lot like inverted narcissists and covert narcissists.

By doing this, by minimizing themselves, avoidants are trying to preempt what they believe to be inevitable forthcoming criticism by colleagues, spouses, family members, and friends.

So while the behaviors look very similar to covert narcissists, actually the reason, the etiology of these behaviors is very, very different.

I've written an entry in the open site encyclopedia on avoidant personality disorder, and I want to read a paragraph.

The disorder affects 0.5 to 1% of the general population or up to 10% of the outpatients seen in mental clinics. It is often comorbid with certain mood and anxiety disorders, with dependent and borderline personality disorders, and with cluster A personality disorders, paranoid, schizoid, and schizotypal.

Now I want to simulate to you a therapy session with an avoidant patient.

Notice the similarities with borderline personality disorder and narcissism, which makes it very difficult to properly diagnose avoidant personality disorder and may explain the why we underdiagnose this disorder in the general population and in outpatients.

So imagine Gladys, she comes to me for therapy, notes of a first therapy session with Gladys, female, 26, diagnosed with avoidant personality disorder.

I would like to be normal, says Gladys, and she blushes purple.

In which sense are you abnormal, I ask her.

She prefers reading books and watching movies with her elderly mother to going out with her colleagues to the occasional office party, she says. Maybe she doesn't feel close to them, I ask her.

How long has she been working with these people? Maybe they're new to her.

Oh no, she laughs. Eight years in the same firm and not one raise in salary, she blurts out, evidently hurt. Her boss bullies her publicly and the searing shame of it all prevents her from socializing with peers, suppliers, and clients.

I try a different tack.

Do you have a boyfriend? You must be mocking me, she says. Who would date an ugly duckling plain secretary like me?

I disagree with her wholeheartedly and in details. I disparage her self-assessment. I think that she's very intelligent. She half rises from her seat and then settles back down.

Please doctor, she says. There's no need to lie to me just in order to make me feel better. I know my good sides and they don't amount too much.

If we disagree on this crucial point, perhaps I should start looking for another therapist.

A glass of water and mounds of tissue paper later, we are back on track.

Gladys dreads the idea of group therapy. I'm a social cripple, she says. I can't work with other people. I declined a promotion to avoid working in a team.

Her boss thought highly of her until she turned his offer down.

So in effect, it's all her fault and she has earned the abuse that she's being subjected to on a daily basis in public.

Anyhow, the boss overestimated her capabilities and skills. She demurs.

Why can't she interact with her co-workers, I wonder?

Well, she says, that's precisely what we are supposed to find out, isn't it?

Everyone is too critical. Everyone is so opinionated and she can't stand it. She accepts people as they are and conditionally, why can't they treat her the same way?

She fantasizes about getting married one day to a soulmate, someone who would love and cherish her, regardless of her considerable blemishes.

I ask her to describe how she thinks she is being perceived by other people.

She contemplates my question. Shy, timid, lonely, isolated, invisible, quiet, reticent, unfriendly, tense, risk averse, resistant to change, reluctant, restricted, hysterical, arrogant and inhibited.

Wow, I say that's quite the least.

How does she view herself?

The same.

I largely agree with people's perceptions of me, but it doesn't give them the right to ridicule me or to torment me just because I'm different.

So this was an example of a therapy session with an avoidant patient and you can see the grandiosity at play. You can see the aggression or passive aggression, which are very similar to a covert narcissist.

And you can see, of course, the some elements of borderline personality disorder. This is why it's very difficult to tell apart.

Borderline personality disorder is a mirror image of narcissistic personality disorder as far as the etiology and psychodynamics behind the behaviors. The behaviors appear to be very similar, almost indistinguishable, but the behind the scenes machinery and reason, reasoning and energy, they're all very different.

An avoidant personality disorder is often confused with these two.

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