Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Characterizing Borderline Behavior: The Waif

Hello Everyone! I hope you all my U.S. readers had a wonderful extended Memorial day weekend. I hope everyone had a great weekend. The only problem with long weekends is that when you get back to work you have to do two days’ worth of work in one, hence my extra day off from blogging. I hate when that happens because I have so much lined up! However, we still have one last order of business to cover when it comes to Borderline Parents. The final characteristic behavior that Dr. Christine Lawson describes see is The Waif.

The Waif

Typical Thoughts

"I am a worthless victim. I do so want to be loved and protected, but I am not worthy of it." Philosophy: The glass is not only half-empty, but is about to spill all over the floor I just washed.

Oh goodness. I hate every single sentiment in that sentence but I know I’ve felt all of it while rebelling against them at the same time.

Typical Feelings

Helpless, hopeless, and despair. Rage can be masked by sadness and depression, but released by rejection or abandonment. Waifs distort their own errors or disappointments, leading to more shame. They feel vulnerable, defective, anxious, moody, and irrationally fearful.

Helpless in terms of life stuff; holding a job, paying my bills, going to the grocery… I am not. In terms of relationships though ::sigh::. This is very typical for me. Or at least it has been traditionally. It’s getting better.

Typical Actions and Central Dilemma

They look to others to "save them," but ultimately refuse assistance because helplessness makes them feel safe. Ironically, if they mistrust everyone and let no one get close, they stay in control and no one can abandon or disappoint them. Waifs may hurt themselves to express shame, but they are capable of raging if they feel rejected or abandoned. They don't ask for what they need, then appear Martyr-like because others can't read their minds and give it to them. Waifs may have crying spells and be unable to give nurturing to others.

            I don’t want anyone to “save me”, but I do want someone that I can be with that won’t mistreat me. Often we’ve had so many horrific relationships, abuse, and neglect, that it’s impossible to reconcile what we want and need between our ability to accept it for fear of it being used against us yet again. Just because we want it, doesn’t mean we trust it, because we’ve learned that things can go horribly wrong. This mistrust of everyone doesn’t just magically appear. We’ve learnedto mistrust by experience. When things have been forced beyond your control in ways that are extremely hurtful, yes, staying in control to protect ourselves becomes a priority. When abandonment and rejection are the things that hurt the most, not letting people close enough to you to allow for this possibility seems logical. It’s lonely, but logical. It’s hard to ask for what you need when you believe you won’t receive it, or you’ll be judged as incompetent for needing help or something from another person. I have an extremely difficult time asking for anything of others. It feels like a threat to my independence and like they may judge me as being less than the perfectly capable person I need to project. I don’t want others to see those vulnerabilities. Even if those vulnerabilities, or mere requests for assistance, are extremely acceptable. They’re not acceptable to me. Exposing yourself allows an opening to be wounded.

Bleh. I think this description of the Waif is very limited. Crying spells, sure. Everyone has times where they’re going through something so difficult that they can’t be as nurturing as they should be.

Typical Thoughts, Emotions, and Actions of Family Members

·         "The greater the sacrifice, the more I show I love her."

·         "She desperately needs help, so I must save her, no matter what."

·         "My needs are not as important as hers."

·         "If I learn enough about BPD, I can heal her."

·         "I like being needed, but sometimes I feel overwhelmed by the Borderline's neediness."

·         "I get confused and frustrated when she rejects my help."

·         "Her behavior isn't all that abnormal. I can manage it and so can the kids."

·         "I try to help, but she turns it down again and again."

·         "If a method for coping with this doesn't work, I plan to keep trying. It will eventually succeed."

·         "I am unable to protect my children or myself from this behavior."

The Effects of the Waif's Behavior on Children

·         They feel angry, afraid and alone.

·         Children may feel like failures for not making the Borderline happy, or they may keep trying and trying until the mother's death. This enmeshment (inability to separate) may hinder grown child's relationships, which may be fraught with dependency.

·         The child may become cynical, angry, and feel manipulated or turn into an over responsible nursemaid seeking elusive approval.

·         The message to children is that life is something to be endured until you die.

·         The Borderline shelters children to such an extent they find autonomy disconcerting.

Ugh. I couldn’t imagine sheltering anyone so much. On the one hand knowing how tragic a lot of my experiences have been, I think it would be absolutely reasonable for anyone to want to protect a child from the harshness of this world and that kind of trauma. I’m not crazy to think that. Of that I’m sure. But at the same time, I know that I’ve survived and I have had many beautiful experiences as well. I wouldn’t want to inhibit anyone from seeing the light in all that darkness either.

The Waif seems to want soothing and often leaves others feeling helpless because she is often inconsolable. As Dr. Lawson writes that the Waif might say, "I can't allow myself to need your help and be in control {myself} at the same time." The irony is that the Waif feels that in accepting help she is losing control.


The Waif can self soothe with the compulsive use of alcohol, drugs, money, food, sex, work, and likes to play the role of the martyr. She can often become hysterical to get attention.

I rarely get hysterical, but otherwise this is not foreign to me. He keeps saying martyr and it bothers me, because I have never set out with the idea that I wanted to be martyred. It’s not like I’m trying to manipulate people into seeing me as a victim. Self-sacrifice, however, is something that is ingrained into part of who I am. Remember my schema discussions? Taking care of others is often how we hope to make ourselves indispensable to them so they won’t abandon us. It’s not about building up this superhero image of ourselves, it’s about not losing the love of people we feel we need in our lives. When the prospect of losing them feels real, yes, it’s painful enough to get hysterical about.

Unfortunately, nothing others do for the Waif seems to be quite good enough. She could be described as a bottomless pit in that if you give an inch, she will want a foot, and if you give a foot, she will want a yard, etc. (I know plenty of people that aren’t Borderline that will do this) Others usually wind up feeling "used" and burned out and then will avoid her only compounding her fears of abandonment and rejection which leads to the dysphoria and anxiety which are the beginning of the self-reinforcing cycle all over again.

I’m Other-directed as opposed to Self-directed. I’m much more likely to give an inch, food, yard, than take. But I guess that’s what would make me a martyr. This guy seems to be contradicting himself. We’re martyrs that don’t ask for anything, but then we take more than what others can give? How does that work?

The Waif rarely has insight into her own behavior and is more likely to play the victim than to take any responsibility. If challenged to take responsibility she will either further sink into helplessness or flip and accuse others of persecuting her.

Sigh. It’s not “playing” if you actually feel like a victim, which let’s face it, has often been the case if you’re dealing with someone who has been abused and not fully healed from that trauma. I do think I’m rarer in the idea that I can usually take responsibility for myself… if I see how I’ve done something wrong… which I know is often difficult for those of us with BPD, but I’m the kind of person that sees myself as inherently flawed so while I might rage against the idea that something is my fault internally, I can acknowledge the fact that I’ve probably screwed up too and my behavior wasn’t good enough. I’m pretty self-aware too. If I did something, I can own up to it. While I do still have that voice screaming in the back of my head that people will leave me if I’ve done something wrong, I have noticed, that if I have actually done something wrong AND own my responsibility of it, people are actually LESS likely to leave and MORE likely to respect the fact that I have some integrity. Good thing to keep in mind when it comes to challenging our maladaptive thinking.

Dr. Lawson writes that the Waif Mother's motto is "Life is too hard" to which I would add, "Nobody loves me", "you'll be better off without me", and "you'll be sorry when I'm gone."

            Life is hard. We often have a hard lot. But is life TOO hard? I’ve managed to get through it so far. The rest though, I’m certainly guilty of those thoughts.

Children of Waifs often become excellent caregivers and often enter the helping professions as nurses, social workers, psychologists, EMTs and other crisis workers. These adult children of Waifs have spent their whole lives making order out of chaos, managing other people's emotions for them, and consoling the inconsolable in situations where there is a high level of subjective distress. These are skills which are invaluable in situations where most people would fear to tread and become paralyzed. For the Adult Child of a Waif, they, many times, have "been there and done that".


I think it’s really important to keep in mind that things are not always this way. Things may often be this way, but they’re not a pre-determined path of unending emotional rollercoasters. Good days happen. Fun days happen. It’s just that there is a lot of pain, frustration, fear, and anger mixed in.
I have mixed feelings about posting about the Witch and Queen types because I don’t feel like those describe me at all and therefore I can’t give an enlightened view of what people actually feel in order to respond to things that way. I can imagine, but I can’t say for sure. It’s good to know that those descriptions are there, but it’s also to keep in mind that there are ‘reasons’ that people become that way and act as they do. These kind of descriptions written by those that are not afflicted with these kinds of thinking processes do not have the same kind of insight. I’m not saying that any kind of nasty behavior is justifiable, but I am saying that it’s more complicated than just saying someone is a mean person. I recognize a lot of The Waif characteristics in myself, but how these authors describe those traits are overly simplified and don’t give an accurate or complete view of what these feelings mean. That’s the problem I have with a lot of mental health professionals turned author. I appreciate the information and the effort to educate, but there’s a level of understanding, a depth, that is difficult to portray if you’ve never experienced it.
Of all the Characteristic Behaviors of the Borderline “Type” I think I would best be described as the Waif with Hermit qualities. It’s also important to keep in mind that no one fits into a box. Or a label. There are types, but even these authors emphasize that each ‘type’ is limited and people are more than just the group of characteristics that make up that particular check list. Grouping helps, labeling helps, but only if it’s used constructively and as an aid to understanding and healing. Otherwise what’s the point? These descriptions were primarily aimed at Borderline Parents. I have read quite a bit about the description of The Waif as applied to Borderlines in general (not just parents) and I’d like to explore that further…


  1. you speak so eloquently to what you have experienced thoughout your life, and your internal struggles to understanding this condition and how to heal from the messages you received over the course of your life. As a Mental Health worker, I can't appreciate your words enough. I hope you will continue to have the courage to speak out to others in this way because you humanize this "disorder," in a way that the DSM IV-TR could never describe. I say, "disorder," because I don't like that term. I think people are remarkably complex and we all have ways of surviving and coping with the tragedies we've experienced... behaviors that we developed out of need, not because we were inherently flawed. I hope your messages will reach other professionals and other people who are struggling with BPD, because your insight is remarkable. Wish you all the best! -RMM

    1. Thank you so much. I definitely plan to continue writing about anything and everything I can concerning BPD. I love that you said my blog is humanizing. That's exactly what I aim for. Seeing the person behind the personality disorder. I agree, people are so very complex. Thank you again for such encouraging words. I really appreciate it.

  2. I'm 4 months out of a year long relationship with a person who is a bpd waif. It's very hard for me to explain the experiences that I had with her. Ultimately, I think this is probably one of those things that one has to experience themselves to fully understand the implications of being in such a relationship for the partner who doesn't have bpd.

    I wanted to comment on a few things:

    "Taking care of others is often how we hope to make ourselves indispensable to them so they won’t abandon us. It’s about not losing the love of people we feel we need in our lives."

    If the reason why you do the things you do for others is because you don't want them to leave, doesn't that mean that you're really doing these things for own benefit?

    "We’re martyrs that don’t ask for anything, but then we take more than what others can give?"

    My ex never asked for anything, but she expected many things of me. The way I experienced this was that she was very demanding of my time and of emotional support. There never seemed to be an end to her needing emotional support, no matter how much of it I gave her. But if I ever tried to help in other ways, financially, for example, she wouldn't hear a word of it. She was also not very good at giving emotional support. "She didn't know how to", she would say.

    Her love was very need based. And at some point, I started to realize that she might never come to love me as deeply as I did her. To truly love someone, you would need to accept both their positive as well as their negative aspects. Black and white thinking prevented her from being able to do this. In the end, these issues left me feeling very used.

    This site was one of the best that I come across on my quest to get a better understanding of that relationship:

    My ex could also get bored extremely easily, of everything and everyone. Does this happen to you as well? If so, I would love to read about your take on it.

    I appreciate your blog and all the time you've put into it. It is very insightful and I hope you'll continue to share your experiences with us. You have helped me get a better understanding of certain things.

    Best of luck.

    1. I think people need to keep in mind, that everyone treats people a certain way so that they will not, in effect, leave them. If you're a jerk to someone all of the time, do you think they'll stick around? No, of course not. With BPD there's just more anxiety built into this. It is put into a more extreme focus than it is for most people.

      Everyone does things for people because it gains them something in return. This is human nature. Even if it's just a feeling of accomplishment.

      Oh goodness. I've read that woman's site and she's horrible. She is incredibly negative and paints a very one sided picture of what she thinks a waif/Borderline is without taking into account that even though it is hurtful to be in a relationship with a borderline, it's hurtful to BE a borderline. She talks about us as if we're not even human and like we don't have the capacity to care for people when we absolutely do. She does have some sound information on her site, but she also has some very misleading and outright wrong information on her site that is the product of her own jaded perspective.

      That's exactly the kind of thing I'm try to work against. It's why I'm being as honest as I can be to show how it actually feels to us, and not just some guess about how a monster thinks. ::sigh:: Sorry, it's a sore spot.

      You're right though. To truly love someone you have to accept the good with the bad, all. The problem with Borderlines I think is that we fall in love with the idea of who we think someone is coupled with an idea of what we think we need and it's hard to see past an ideal that isn't rationally obtainable. We have to learn to live with a more realistic view of the world, which is why I encourage therapy so much.

      I've written about boredom before. Check out:


      Thank you. I know how hard it is for everyone involved with someone with BPD, including the person with BPD. I just want to raise awareness so I'm glad my blog has been helpful to you.

  3. Yep. She's also a waif with hermit qualities. Trying to love her from a distance now.


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