Self-Sufficiency: The Ultimate BPD Coping Mechanism

by Sarah Myles

My CPN (Community Psychiatric Nurse) once asked “How do you think it makes people feel – that you have to be entirely self-sufficient, but you need them to need you?” This question has stayed with me for over two years – partly because I don’t like the answer, and partly because I don’t like the version of me it reflects. And, by definition, the version of me it reflects must be the version that other people see. But, I’ve been chewing it over and peering into the dark corners, and a realisation is upon me. It’s horrid and ugly, but I’m practising tolerating this discomfort so I’m going to share.

A little background: Self-sufficiency is my thing. It always has been. I am deeply uncomfortable being anything other than completely self-sufficient – physically, emotionally, financially – in every possible way. Obviously, it’s a vulnerability issue and, by “deeply uncomfortable”, I mean it makes me want to crawl out of my skin.

This has caused me some problems – most notably when we were expecting our first child and I left my job to build our family. As important as it was to me to be at home with our children when they were small (and yes, I fully appreciate how lucky I was to have that as an option at all), I struggled greatly to accept that I was to be entirely financially dependent on somebody else. I knew I was uncomfortable, although I had no understanding of why. Now, clearly, lots of people like to be self-sufficient. Lots of people prefer to be in control – it doesn’t mean they are mentally ill. However, unconscious over-reaction to not being self-sufficient indicates that this is at least a part of the manifestation of my illness – if not a significant factor. By “unconscious over-reaction”, I mean tipping into uncontrollable BPD spirals (either up or down) which prevent day-to-day basic functioning.

Even when I was diagnosed with BPD and began treatment, and my psychotherapist highlighted this issue to me, I still did not fully grasp where this self-sufficiency thing fitted into my puzzle. But now I think I’ve got it: self-sufficiency is the mother of all coping mechanisms, but also a trigger. It is the ultimate defence and protection for somebody with BPD, but can also set off a reaction that sparks other symptoms.

People with BPD often tend to fear rejection to the point of apocalyptic panic and anxiety.  This is a common feature of the illness, because it is usually characterised by emotional dysregulation, or extreme emotional states and reactions. So, to be entirely self-sufficient is to protect oneself from being rejected. However, the contradictory nature of the BPD sufferer is also a common feature – desperately wanting opposites simultaneously: I want to be somewhere else, but I don’t want to leave. I hate you, don’t leave me. I want to be alone, but I crave connection. I need to be needed, but don’t pressure me.

Therein lies the rub. In terms of self-sufficiency, here is my contradiction: I must be entirely self-sufficient, but I need others to need me. I have an unconscious need to assume the role of problem-solver for myself and everyone else. But, if I always assume that role, doesn’t that eventually make everyone else feel less capable in some way?

Here comes the dark stuff: What does this say about me? To me, it screams narcissism, which I hate. The idea that the version of me seen by others is a narcissist is just abhorrent to me.

But, bear with me, there’s another horrid layer to peel back: This is the ultimate coping mechanism – by always assuming the role of problem-solver, rejection is less likely. I am self-sufficient to protect myself from other people, but I am a problem-solver to protect myself from other people.

Don’t get me wrong – I help because it is the right thing to do. I am a spiritual person and believe strongly in the power of positivity, putting goodness into the universe and helping your community. That is just a basic fact of who I am and none of that has anything to do with BPD or mental illness. However, BPD is insidious and that natural trait gets mutated and distorted into something extreme and monstrous until it is an immovable object. I am problem-solving and connecting with others on my terms, while most others are unable to connect with me in any meaningful way because I am simply closed.

I find that all pretty ugly, myself. And a little bit shocking. Also, the more understanding I have of my coping mechanisms – how they work, where they come from and how they interact with my illness – the more I find them deeply disturbing. I am “uncomfortable”.

But, as ever, now I have discovered it, I can work on it. There is definite 'room for improvement' here.


Hi I can relate to everything you feel. I have severe BPD which was only diagnosed 6mths ago through a year of weekly CAT sessions. My problem is that I'm 53yrs old and it is somewhat deep rooted in me. I've had 4 long term relationships including 2 marriages, but all ended due to my behaviour. Out of the 4 partners/husbands only one saw something was seriously wrong and got me to a Doctor who inturn got me in to Therapy. Sadly he left me 6wks ago saying that he was exhausted with me and I'd taken the life out of him, but he also seems happy with his new partner too!!e the I now know what I have, it puts my whole life into perspective and I look back and now can see how chaotic my life has been with men, jobs, moving house, spending money. I feel that I've been on a roller coaster all of my life and suddenly it's stopped as I now know I have BPD...I know it's me and only me that can change'me' and my behaviour. I have loved and have been loved but now I feel that the time has come where I can safely say that I'm alone and have to be self sufficient, I have to stay strong, be focused and work hard to bring some sort of order into my mind and key things are security, consistency and love myself, invest my emotions in me, fix me and take care of me. I've never put myself first always been the fixer of everyones problems as it made me feel worthwhile and function, give me a purpose..but do know what? For the first time in 53yrs I am the purpose, I am worthwile and I'm going to work hard of getting that coat of emotional protection, stop be sensitive like a fragile crystal that could break at any second and I'm going to secure in my own skin and mind..even if I feel it for 1 hour, 1 day, 1 month I just want to know what it's like to feel normal.

Thank you for your comment and for sharing your story. Good luck with your recovery.

Best wishes,

Sarah Myles