Object Permanence, Emotion and its Effects on Relationships in BPD. 

I just read a really interesting article on an extremely important and debilitating aspects of BPD that’s rarely talked about “object permanence“.

It made me think about my experiences of it and I wanted to add a little to what she says, which is excellent – definitely read the linked article so you know what I’m talking about as I’m not really going to explain object permanence here; this article by Katie Mae already does a great job of that.

I’m just going to write about what it means to me and to some of my close friends with BPD, who also experience this to varying degrees. And how it can impact on relationships and cause immense distress for the person with BPD and their loved ones. It is, I think, the silent root of many arguments. But generally even the person with BPD isn’t really aware of exactly what is driving  their behaviour and it’s even tougher for those around us.

I feel lucky that I don’t struggle so much with object permanence myself. I do struggle to believe people exist when they aren’t around, but I identify that much more with my difficulties with accepting reality. I don’t tend to forget people exist altogether, unless they are new people. But I definitely struggle with emotional object permanence; for me it’s more my feelings for people get shut off and I very easily assume people hate me, don’t want to hear from me or are angry with me. And it’s this last one that causes the most problems.

Although I don’t struggle with object permanence to the degree described in the article, I do know what she means and I know others who struggle with it a lot too. For me, it more takes the form of a mild surprise that the world outside of whatever place I am in is still there, and still exists, and that the feelings I cognitively know people have for me remain constant when they are not with me.

It’s a very difficult thing to explain to others without sounding like you don’t love them – most people find it painful to have “been forgotten” but it causes even more distress to be on the inside of it. Often, for me, it takes the form of not so much forgetting the person, but re-casting them in a new role that fits with the negative core beliefs often held by people with BPD, that we are “broken”, “bad”, “horrible”, “unfixable” and “unloveable”.

In our world, it makes sense that everyone would dislike us. It is difficult to hang onto the concept that someone views you as a good person when you find it near to impossible to believe that about yourself. And so, for me it’s not so much that I “forget” people it’s that I transpose my own negative self-image onto them.

This means that although I am immensely good at intuitively picking up on the emotions of others and the reasons for them and calming and comforting them, as soon as I come into the equation, it all goes out the window. So, if my partner comes in from work stressed out or doesn’t smile at me and hug me straight away, I immediately think he is angry with me.

I don’t stop to think “why” or to find a “wise-mind” perspective in which I would be able to see that there are many many other things in his life that affect his mood, and that he is allowed to have emotions too. Instead my autopilot reaction is to go into what I think of as “fix it” mode. I behave as if he is angry with me, and frantically make efforts to defend myself or diffuse the situation (which doesn’t actually exist).

Depending on my mood this results in me smothering him, demanding to know what I’ve done, or being withdrawn and sullen because I know I haven’t done anything and it’s “not fair that he’s angry with me”.

I have been with my parter for 13 years. And in that entire time, he has never once been angry with me. Ever. Yet this behaviour persists. And since being in therapy I have learnt to notice the difference, so every day when it comes to time for him to arrive home, I tell myself “be normal, be normal, be normal” over and over. And I still get the feelings of guilt and unfairness and fear that he has suddenly decided he hates me. But I keep them inside and I greet him with a smile, and affection. And when I started doing this, so much of the tension we used to have started to fizzle away. So I began to try it in other situations too, and I learnt that my internal world; my interpretations of others’ behaviour towards me, is out of sync with reality. So now I check in, I ask for reassurance, or I practice opposite action. And I am very careful in my communications with others, to ensure that they understand that I might misunderstand them, and if I do, they can stop me, and check in with me as to why I appear to be behaving irrationally. And often we end up with them reassuring me, and us laughing at me for being such a silly to have decided they hated me for absolutely no reason.

I am very very fortunate (and careful) in the people I surround myself with, so that I have this level of closeness, patience and understanding from them. And it has also taken a lot of communication and explaining on my part, which initially required a lot of introspection and “trial and error” attempts at changing my behaviour to match the reality of the situation instead of my imagined perception of what is going on. Which is hard when I struggle to see the reality but it has got easier with practice (which is not to say I always get it right).
I have been working on this since starting therapy 18 months ago, and I am now so much better at communicating and recognising when I may be misinterpreting a situation and checking the facts. And since then, all of my friendships and relationships have improved immensely.

~ Reference The 2 Aspects of BPD We Don’t Talk About, by Katie Mae on The Mighty.


  1. I used to always think that my husband was angry with me. I rarely do this anymore. I am a lot better since doing DBT. Hurray for DBT!