C-PTSD or Borderline Personality Disorder or a little bit of both?

To date, this post has been viewed over 11oo times (and counting) since I first published it.  Let me just say, I’m glad you found your way to this post.  I know you, or someone you love is struggling with moods.  I get it.  It’s tough, painful, scary.  I know.   I wrote this post for me…and you.  Wherever you are at…you aren’t alone.  With or without a label, we’re ALL struggling with something.

Other posts you might find relevant (after you read this one, of course)

The Myth of Mental Illiness

 Why Recovering from Suicidal Crises is Hard

Understanding PTSD

I have a tab at the top for Holistic Healing from PTSD, which is useful for Complex PTSD and BPD.

I wanted to add, I’ve started attending Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACoA or ACA) meetings, which are also good for other types of family dysfunction, even if alcohol was never present in the home.  ACoA/ACA is based on a trauma model which seeks to provide fellowship and support while you learn tools to cope because you weren’t given (m)any when you needed them, in childhood.

I want you to know I wish you or your loved one well on your healing journey.  I do not think it’s impossible to heal the deep wounds of childhood.  Hard? Yes.  Time-consuming?  Yes.  Impossible?  No.


I have to admit, as a person ‘officially’ diagnosed with complex-PTSD, highly intelligent, and the daughter of a narcissist, I’ve been a really poor subject for talk therapy and I’m really just beginning to understand why (but better late than never, no?).

Ever since my teens, I had a fairly insightful mind and an intellectual grasp of the dangers of living in a dysfunctional home and could articulate what I saw the problems were.  Most counselors and therapists (the few that I’d seen way back when) were impressed with my level of understanding.  Ever obsessed with understanding how I got to be who I am and the problems my dysfunctional family of origin caused each other, I’ve done a lot of personal observation, journal writing and scientific research into what I was experiencing.  With my last therapist, I even brought her research articles and books that helped her to understand what I thought was going on with me.

I could probably write a very effective dissertation on all of the knowledge I’ve acquired.

Still, a year and a half later, I wasn’t really much better.  In fact, as we talked about things, I became more upset and unstable in between sessions than I had been before, and, as a result, acted out more than ever, and was more suicidal.  As long as I was able to intellectualize, I could distance myself from re-experiencing the traumatic incidents I was talking about in her office.

There’s a HUGE difference between intellectually understanding and emotionally processing trauma.

I keep coming back to a memoir I read – called Get Me Out of Here:  My Recovery from Borderline Personality Disorder.  I found myself really relating to her story.    It’s my gut feeling that while my therapist assured me I was not a full-fledged borderline  (even assured that because of our increasingly disconnected culture, we are “all a little borderline”) my own recovery from complex PTSD veered precariously close to borderline territory.

Then again, my thyroid was malfunctioning too (my Hashimoto’s thyroiditis was my immune system attacking my thyroid) also causing mood issues that could resemble bipolar symptoms, further complicating my self-diagnosis.

For me, whether or not c-ptsd is the same as borderline, and my intelligence and absorption into my work kept me ‘high functioning’, or merely kissing cousins, it’s irrelevant to me.  I’m becoming more comfortable in the idea that maybe they are different names for the same animal, and, like everything else, has a wide spectrum of presentations from the mild to the severe.

Being a mother of three girls in 3.5 years and quitting my medical genetics job to become a stay-at-home mother created a huge identity crisis and I was increasingly depressed and thought it was just the stress of mothering without a map (which didn’t help me any).

More alarmingly, in the book Lost in the Mirror: An Inside Look at Borderline Personality Disorder, sometimes it’s not until adulthood when borderline symptoms first break through.

“Whether it’s an anniversary or a symbolic event, a painful current experience, a loss, a stressful change, or an interruption of routine that first unleashes powerful old feelings and memories, these feelings are not likely to go back into hiding.”

Well, let’s see, I had three daughters in 3.5 years, I had no good role models for mothering, I had no emotional support from trusted women, and I quit my highly routinized laboratory job, lost touch with ALL my friends (some by accident, some quite on purpose as I drew back from toxic people).

Yup, I would say that powerful old feelings and memories were unleashed.

I have to admit (and fortunately I am not afraid to admit anymore), I probably was exhibiting borderline behavior.   It used to scare me, but now that I’m moving beyond my acting out behaviors and using more body healing modalities (craniosacral therapy, myofacscial release, and yoga) and researching more compassionate resources for healing emotional regulation problems (including mindfulness and meditation) and art therapy, I can see myself with more kindness.  Even if I am a recovering borderline (presenting atypically because generally I have had stable relationships with people, at least until the last four years or so), I’m growing more comfortable with the possibility that I had been dealing with that.

In the past 10 years, I was more depressed, more anxious, had more body aches and pains, was more self-harming (hitting the walls and tables and things with my hands), destructive of property (usually telephones, walls, and my laptop), thinking suicidal thoughts, engaging in high risk behaviors, having trouble relating to my daughters emotional intensity and picking more fights with my husband than ever (though to be honest, my husband had a problem with binge drinking and passive aggressiveness, so that was big reason I fought with him).  I didn’t understand why the more I understood, the more problems I encountered.  It didn’t make a whole lot of sense to me because talk therapy is supposed to help resolve problems, not create new ones.

I can see though what some of my problems have been caused by, from reading another book called Trapped In the Mirror:  Adult Children of Narcissists and their Struggle for Self.

The pressure from a narcissist to conform to expectations is like the water in which a fish swims, so relentless and uniform that the child is hardly aware of it. Struggles are infrequent while the process of shaping is going on. Of course, there are moments when the child feels mentally assaulted and may fight or cry, but even then she also feels bad, wrong, and confused. She feels what the parent indicates she should feel, since her shortcomings are a shameful disappointment to the parent. To be included under the parent’s umbrella of grandiosity, the child must exhibit pure excellence in whatever the parent deems important. Otherwise she is pushed out.


Proper teaching involves the concept of improving functioning, something external to the self, not improving the inner person, which must be seen as intrinsically acceptable. Identification of the inner child with the behavior or the product of her behavior damages her self-esteem. She comes to believe that even if she does succeed she is merely gold over shit, the facade of beauty over true ugliness. The “successful” child of a narcissist feels like a fake since the true self is identified with failure.


Children of narcissists emerge from this crucible with a common and most serious problem. They feel that they do not have the right to exist. Their selves have been twisted out of their natural shape since any movement toward independence is treated as a betrayal and something that can cause the parent irreparable harm.

Narcissistic parents can contribute to the creation of borderline children (and well, to future narcissists).  I also see how an implanted message of “not having the right to exist” act as a ticking time bomb in the psyches of tender young children who grow up without having any real idea why they struggle with suicidal ideation.

(Yes, yes, sure biochemical imbalances contribute to this too, but what caused the biochemical imbalances in the FIRST place?  What if the mind is simply carrying out the implied wishes of the internalized narcissistic inner parent?)

In the spirit of radical acceptance and radical self-forgiveness and real progress in my healing journey, its safe for me now to consider that I was acting borderline.  Rather than judging myself harshly for my mid-life/postpartum mood swings, I used them as clear signals telling me that I really, REALLY needed to find healing for the trauma I lived with most of my life.

As trauma is encoded as sensations and not as cohesive memories, most times, talk therapy doesn’t do diddly squat.  I’m going to be sharing some research supported  resources in the near future that helped me and could possibly help others.


For a list of resources you might find helpful, please see my page:  Holistic Healing for PTSD.

About Casey

“the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes ‘Awww!’ ~ Jack Kerouac, On The Road Again
This entry was posted in Anger, anxiety, Borderline Personality Disorder, Complex-PTSD, depression, Disconnection, Emotional Intelligence, Emotionally Absent Mother, Father Loss, Hope, Lost in the Mirror, Mindfulness, Motherhood, Narcissistic Mothers, Narcissistic Parents, Self-harm, suicidal pain, Trapped in the Mirror, Trauma. Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to C-PTSD or Borderline Personality Disorder or a little bit of both?

  1. Free Monkey says:

    Hi Sprightly, have you read “Trauma and Recovery” by Judith Lewis Herman? (the book contains triggering content to give you a heads up), she talks a bit about what you have mentioned.

    Trauma is a very new area of study, I believe the way they are coming at it is misguided, dangerous and cruel. The reaction you describe is typical, expected during that type of work and comes with a warning to look out for just what you have mentioned so I am shocked your therapist not only didn’t warn you about it and discuss a contingency plan with you but didn’t check if you were getting enough support in your life in general to get you through it. I would argue any benefits come from the information, habits and support that surrounds the therapy rather than the therapy itself. Good news though is the reaction settles down again when the trauma is no longer being worked on directly.

    I would steer well clear of the “borderline” tag, PTSD can throw up similar symptoms but the two are chalk and cheese and it has some nasty (and sexist) connotations within the medical community. There is a lot of discrimination and it can be quite sadistic. It would be very difficult to be listened to with that label and you may miss out on vital healthcare since physical complaints are read as a “psychosomatic” manifestation and your rightful reaction to being mistreated is seen as a symptom of a mental illness, once it’s on your file it’s near impossible to get it back off again.

    I’ve seen too many therapists dig up perfectly healthy ground and create problems where there were none under the pretence of being thorough and I have a problem with therapists who treat their clients as though they are incompetent making them doubt their own ability, undermining their agency and invalidating their decisions, it’s the exact opposite of what a trauma survivor needs. Therapy in my opinion is best done on an need to basis and with a light touch if at all, there is more than one path to recovery and as much as therapists think they have the market on trauma they are mere babes at understanding it.

  2. Free Monkey –

    You bring up some very good points. I can’t address them right now, as I have to finish up something for my daughter’s science project poster board, but I want to come back to this soon.

    Thanks so much.

  3. Casey says:

    Actually, my therapist was discouraging me using the negative label. But, no, I don’t think she understood trauma very well.

    She was very much an empathetic woman and her therapy was client-centered (based on Carl Roger’s humanistic approach). I relate to the stories of borderline people in some deep ways. Not all, but some. It’s not been my way to desperately cling to people, but instead, keep them at an arm’s length…well, until I started falling for someone (yeah, even though I was married) who was already out of arm’s length. For four years I kept trying to pull him closer. I was acting very clingy, very desperate. Very borderline. I loved him, I hated him. We shared a lot emotionally, but he triggered my ‘abandonment’ fears, mostly because I became too demanding of his time and would get angry at him and then he said he’d not be able to be my friend anymore under those conditions.

    In short, I do think I behaved in exactly a borderline way. There’s no other explanation for doing what I did. I’ve always had intimacy difficulties. I could be kind and generous, but internally blanch at being ‘tied down’ by relationship. My husband wanted me to do what he wanted (which early in our marriage was just to hang out at the suburban bars), I wanted freedom to explore the city (the art, the architecture, the history, the yummy food) with many colleagues who were my friends. And I did. I had a great 4 years of freedom within marriage before I became a stay-at home mom.

    My entire world shrank to the four walls of my home. My middle daughter was so sensitive we could not go anywhere because she would having shrieking meltdowns if I did the wrong thing (like open up a granola bar package the wrong way). It turned out she had sensory sensitivities, asynchronous behavior, and selective mutism.

    I started resenting a great deal of things. I started having so much trouble being a mother and seeing my husband not have to put up with the loss of control over things and the imprisonment I felt. It was a bad combination. I lost my entire social circle when I quit my job.

    The thing of it is, the thing I’m not clear on, is that there is such an overlap of symptoms between C-PSTD and borderline that I worry that I’m somewhere on the spectrum of borderline. There are books that distinguish sub-types and with what they describe, it’s not that difficult to imagine I do fall into that category.

    From what I can gather, borderline’s experience of the world differs in that they only have fragmentary images of the world and themselves, not a ‘continuous picture’. That has not been my experience, though I know, once or twice in my childhood, I’ve partially dissociated. I never went fully “away”, but I remember dealing with my mother a few times looking outside myself with an odd detachment.

    I need to read up more about C-PTSD. Because doesn’t childhood abuse and neglect lead to a borderline personality? But I’d say my sister, who has had a LONG history of being a drama queen, and fighting with her friends constantly, falls more into the category of BPD, than C-PTSD, since I don’t think anyone had ever struck her in the family (she was, after all, the baby and my step-father’s only girl). I don’t ever remember my oldest sister hitting her or treating her like shit or chasing her around the house with a knife (then again, she was 15 years younger and not threatening). But my baby sister has had a history of calling up and screaming at me for not living up to her expectations, stalking me online and trying to get me booted off message boards, and sending me hate mail to my email inbox.

    Yeah. I never did anything like that.

    And at which point does one actually cross over the threshhold? And are my mood swings truly because I have C-PTSD, or is the failure of my endocrine system to blame? Or is it simply perimenopause?

    I drive myself nuts just wondering about this.

    I spent too much of my life angry, upset, in pain, getting blamed for things I had nothing to do with, wanting to die and be done with trying to keep my family in my life without them triggering me and staying married when I’m so tired of what happened for the past 15 years. We were so damn in love and nurturing towards each other, but the Mr. Hyde that came out when he drank too much was unbearable. He wasn’t violent, just sometimes a jerk, then would do or say something hurtful, or puke his guts out, and then be totally apologetic and remorseful and I’d pity him…until it kept happening over and over and over again.

    And yes, I blame myself for much of our failures in this marriage. Maybe if I’d spent more time doing what he wanted (stay in the suburbs and drink), instead of what I wanted to do (go to the city and explore), he wouldn’t have given up on me and gotten carried away in his dysfunctional patterns. I don’t know.

    I’m sure I need to research more about C-PTSD specifically and how it manifests and how it’s different than BPD. Right now I’ve been listening to a teleseminar series on neuroscience and trauma recovery, but not on how trauma got there in the first place.

  4. Casey says:

    Oh, yeah, I do have Judith Hermann’s book round here. I read it ages ago. I also have the 8 Keys to Safe Truama Recovery by Babette Rothschild. I tried to speed up the process though and didn’t take it safe. 😦

    The talk therapy was also becoming problematic for me because when I’d get to session, I wouldn’t really talk about the madness I felt in between sessions. I didn’t want to call her up when I could have used her, but suffered through the tough times on my own. Then when I got to therapy, the mood had past and all been forgotten about, until like the last few minutes of therapy. I’d present only the positive stuff, or the research I’d found, not discuss the pain I’d experience in between sessions. I was afraid to admit I was really struggling. I thought it was abnormal.

    I kind of assumed she wanted to hear things were getting better for me, not worse. I think I didn’t want her to think her therapy wasn’t helping me. But…it didn’t seem to be helping me. And I was feeling more and more pain and anger and didn’t know I was supposed to tell her, especially since I sometimes got mad at HER for stirring it up.

    It’s only been after reading the experiences of borderline patients that with the right therapist, who is grounded and healthy enough to handle it, being angry at them is something they can actually help one work through. A compassionate and strong therapist who knows the extreme pain and anger one can have can help you dissipate the energy and correct the thinking that goes behind it.

    Marsha Linehan was the first therapist to handle BPD with compassion. It’s probably due to the fact she healed herself from severe BPD. There are some who followed in her footsteps.

  5. Free Monkey says:

    I haven’t seen anything that suggests to me you could be borderline, as you mentioned with your sisters example there is a difference between how different people from the same background behave. Borderline to me screams being dismissed and everyone telling you you’re wrong and manipulative, it’s too easy to be abused under that label. Worse if you can’t trust your own intentions and instincts then what can you trust? You don’t want people telling you you don’t know your own mind, even accusing you of being underhanded when you have already been through so much that was not your fault. You’ve been through enough already, you are being too hard on yourself.

    The mind demands answers as it grapples to come to grips with what has happened but these impossible puzzles don’t matter in terms of recovery, it happens in spite of them. Recovery is experiential like the trauma and cannot be pinned down in words because it wasn’t using that language in the first place. Recovery as I have seen it there is only a slow loss of interest in the whole thing and a loosening of its grip as life expands and moves on, it creeps up slowly, an evolution that passes unnoticed until one day you see yourself and realise the puzzles you thought had to be solved to progress (but weren’t) are behind you. When questions become a driving force the first thing that comes to mind is grief (the stages of which I’m sure you’re familiar with), “If I could just nail this that would go away” is bargaining and it’s a phase sufferers cycle though more than once.

  6. Casey says:

    Wow. I’m extremely touched by your response. I mean, so touched I’m crying. I really needed to hear that. I think you are right that there will come a time when I’ll stop asking questions and I’ll just look up and see that I have made bigger strides than the baby steps I’ve been taking.

    It’s one of the reasons I love making art. For the duration I’m creating, I’m not thinking about anything but my art. I’m not remembering, and I am not feeling bad, guilty or alone. I feel even moments of happy. I wish I could make art all the time.

    Anyway, it’s good to know what I’m going through is normal. Yes, I suppose I should understand the stages of grief. I mean, I knew them once upon a time, but forgot. I think that’s the worst “loss” of all the things I’ve had – my memory of things that could actually be helpful.

    I hope to come back to this and answer more, but I’m tired. Went on some errands and to a little school science fair this evening. I’m beat.

    Thank you so much. You’ve been a great source of comfort. I owe you an email but it will have to wait.

  7. Free Monkey says:

    You’re welcome, have a good rest, there’s no hurry to reply I’m not going anywhere. And don’t worry about your memory, it hasn’t failed you, stress just has a way of crowding everything else out, what you know will come back to you when things settle down.

  8. Justine says:

    Wow…well this is odd! It’s like I completely heard myself ‘talking’. Bizarre! After years of my own research, I came to the same books. I have the same diagnosis, and the same experience of being able to talk and observe very well (amazing some therapists) but my problems increasing rather than decreasing. I how ever come from the other diagnosis, borderline personality organization, and sometimes doubt if it is not c-ptss. For I do not find some of the trauma seizures and episodes such as twitching and the freeze hyper arousal etc. response that is making me so dysfunctional in life. Really, I am leaving a comment because I would love to get in touch with you if you would like, because it seems you have exactly the same experience, set of problems, strong observer and self / science research as me. I am a bit baffled, in a positive sense! I do feel very alone in this whole experience, trying to find out what is ailing me and how to cope AND heal. The ‘help-industry’ is not always helpful – often times I feel almost as if my knowledge of all the above is more up to date than theirs. Frustrating, and doesn’t help build a bond of trust. I am 34 now, but I was 8 when I first told my mom I needed help. I find that quite bizarre too, but it’s a true story. In ALL of these years, I haven’t been able to pin point what is going on with me, but have often felt very misunderstood, ill-diagnosed, alone and always ‘saving my life.’ I’ve also dealt with a lot of ill judgments of people on my character (a friends of mine ended our friendship today, with character assassination, which made me feel she was in fact a toxic person too anyway) and behavior. Very frustrating! I feel like a person without legs, all the while being shouted at ‘walk walk, be normal like other people’ – because they do not see and fail to understand that I can’t in fact walk. Yet. That is. So, I’ve been looking for prosthetics all along…
    Yet something inside me is very intact, and it keeps telling me, that some of my behavior, or trauma bonding outcome, is not me, it’s nurture, not nature. I feel very strongly about that. It’s sometimes almost like I can feel the electronic short circuit in my brain….

    I am very motivated to heal. If I do not, there is no life for me. There’s no choice, really. I am glad I have come to these crossroads, the path is clear; I am willing to do anything, the push is finally strong enough, to open up. But I can’t do it alone. And as a Dutch person, it’s a little harder to find counselors and programs as deeply rooted in experience and research as in the USA. Or at least that is my impression.

    I am also dedicated to make all this knowledge both you and I have been researching, more easy to access for others. That is why, I am going to blog (I am a media maker) about my road to recovery. Opening up, showing my real face and struggle to the world is scary, and I have to be ready, but I think it can serve a larger purpose, if I make sure I do it in a safe way. In the end, we become experts on the human spectrum, and there is nothing stronger and more healing than helping others heal too. So, thank you for sharing…It’s great to read your post, really!!!! Take care!

  9. Damn, I wrote a LONG comment this morning, and it totally got eaten. I have to take my daughters to their softball game today, so I don’t have a chance to re-write it. I’ll come back later to.

    I’d recommend Albert Ellis’ work on rational emotive behavioral therapy. It might help you make some big changes in your life.

    All the best,


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