Fear of Getting Older and Borderline Personality Disorder (Age Regression, Trauma)



One of the major components of having Borderline Personality Disorder, and often for sufferers of PTSD who were traumatized as children, is an intense fear of being abandoned.  For many of us, even sensing a change in facial expression, tone of voice, or mood in someone we love can cause us to panic and worry that the person contemplating giving up on us and leaving for good.

Of course, there is always "cause" for the things that we think. Many of us were abandoned or rejected by important people in our lives when we were children.  We have become incredibly sensitive to such situations as a form of survival. As a child, after all, it's critical that you retain the love and protection of your caregivers.

As we get older, we may realize that continuing to engage in certain behaviors around this issue may no longer serve us and may be standing in the way of our continued healing and growth.  We may also be terrified at the prospect of giving up such behaviors -- after all, won't people abandon and reject us if we stop behaving this way?

Behaving Younger In Intimate Relationships

Often, when I am with my significant other, I engage in cute "baby talk."  I want him to think I am adorable. A moment of realization came for me when he heard me on the phone speaking to my sister and to colleagues, and he mentioned that I am a "totally different person" when I speak to them -- confident, and adult-like. I have experienced some inner turmoil over wanting to relate to my significant other as an equal but often feel compelled to relate to him as someone younger.


Behaving Younger When Re-Experiencing Trauma

I talk about in my book Healing From Borderline Personality Disorder: My Journey Out of Hell Through Dialectical Behavior Therapy of how I would frequently show up in the emergency room after feeling severely emotionally triggered.  When I would engage with the doctors, nurses, and other staff, I would go into that same, child-like demeanor and voice. During routine interviews with doctors and nurses, when they'd ask, "And your age?" My mind would either go blank, and I'd have to literally count up from the age I "felt" to my actual current age, or I'd darn well know my age and feel ashamed to tell the practitioner. I'd think, "Once she knows I'm in my thirties, she's going to treat me differently." 

How did I imagine her acting differently? By judging me, of course. I feared she'd think, "This woman is in her thirties, and she wants me to baby her? Ha! She just lie here in the bed and wait til I'm good and ready to deal with her."


Behaving Younger in Social Situations

When I am out and about in social situations, especially with women 40+, I find myself speaking and behaving in ways that I imagine younger people would behave (I'm thirty five.)  Often, at some point, someone will ask, "How old are you Debbie?" 

Suddenly, shame will come up. I start having thoughts like "I want them to think I'm young," "She's going to think I'm psycho when she finds out how old I really am," "She won't treat me the same way anymore when she finds out I'm old enough to know better and take care of myself."  It's as if I want these women to treat me in a motherly way -- to think I'm a new college student or something.



Do you see a theme? I seem to have had (and sometimes it still happens) a pattern of reverting to behaving at an age when I was more helpless, in an effort to get others to "save" or "rescue" me.  There is a part of me that has been desperate to receive this type of care, love, and support, and it's repeatedly tried to reach out all of my life.  When she's shown up, I've shamed her. I knew there had to be another way.

This was working "fine" for me until I started having the eye opening moments that I mentioned and then shamed myself.


In DBT, I've learned and am continuing to learn that there is cause for the things we think, feel, and do. Judging ourselves doesn't help. Having compassion, understanding the reasons for our behaviors, and then seeking out and working on more adaptive behaviors that help us reach our goals of wholeness and  healing is the direction I've found is most helpful.


Sound familiar? Do you tend to behave in ways that you hope will cause others to believe you are much younger than you are?   How do you react when you realize you've engaged in this behavior?  Do you judge yourself?  Do you see cause for your reactions, feelings, and behaviors? How might it help to remove judgment and work on building new behaviors and responses?

Thanks for reading.

20 comments:

  1. Hey Debbie :)

    I do exactly the same. When i am talking to my mother, I am always talking like a little child and the other way around, she also talks to me that way. We have moments where we discuss and talk normal, but mostly i talk like a little girl, especially when i am saying good morning, i wave with my hand and say hiiiiiii and just want to see them (my mom and my stepdad) to smile at me. I do that to see that they feel alright about me, that they are not mad at me, that i did not screw anything up. I also do the same with guys i am in a relationship with (as long as its lasting). I dont really feel ashamed of it as people around me always find me incredibly cute. I never experienced anything bad when I talked like this except from my real father who is the main cause of my bpd. he always told me to talk normal.

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    1. Hi Jocelyn,

      Thanks for sharing! I'm glad that you can see this behavior in your life in a non-judgmental way and that it is not causing you any perceived harm. There isn't anything necessarily "wrong" with behaving younger -- it depends on each individual's experience and interpretation of how the behavior affects his or her life. Thanks for commenting. :) ♥

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  2. Hi Debbie,
    I am 50 and feel young within. I am not talking about young because i'm extra youthful or anything, but more like what you're talking about. I was the baby of the family and want to stay that way, but it's also to do with what you are describing. I have been aware of this for some time and sometimes I'm very concerned about it. But it does have a positive too. I feel I stay young because of this. I can climb trees and still act like a kid having fun and being a nut! This keeps me young in spirit! But I do recognise where it comes from, the need to be treated differently, as though I'm fragile, cos that's how I feel! fragile! Unable to cope like the big people around me. It's my excuse to be treated a bit differently and have less expected of me cos life kinda scares me as an adult. So all in all it's not completely healthy and I do recognise negatives from this but I guess you could say it's a coping mechanism that I have adapted and all I'm saying is there are positives that come out of it too, like actually staying young and being less serious than all those boring big people out there that don't know how to laugh or come down from planet serious. One of my favorite sayings is 'grow down' instead of what we have always been told to be 'grown up' .... do you see my point?

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    1. Hi There,

      Thanks so much for sharing.Thank you for pointing out the positive aspects of a tendency to behave or act younger. Being a "young spirit" can certainly help us feel liberated and less inhibited to have fun int he ways you describe, like climbing trees. I personally don't see that aspect as being "dysfunctional" and enjoy that part of me, too. I find people who have the ability to play as adults to be quite fun to be around.

      I also thought it was VERY insightful that you said you feel like you "can't cope like the big people around me." I think this is a HUGE part of my behavior in this area as well. I bet many people can relate. I agree with you that it's a coping mechanism.

      I totally see your point! Thanks so much for sharing. :) ♥

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    2. I have experienced the same exact feelings and the confusement about them. Thank you for sharing.

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  3. THIS. So much this, Debbie. I always say that I am perpetually nineteen. I can't help it. I'm 28, will be 29 in September. I have two kids. My sisters are 19 and 20 and in college, and I'm going back to college, and they look to me for movie and music suggestions and I feel finally like I'm part of that. I cling to it because I essentially checked out from 17 til...well, NOW. I missed my twenties because it's when I was at my worst mentally. But you know I don't mind it (the me acting young thing). My husband says I act like a teenager sometimes because I get giddy over things I probably shouldn't at my age and I'm on tumblr and all that, that I act totally differently with my friends and family than with him, but he knows I'm also intelligent and articulate and can be very mature. I don't think you should have to get rid of that 'kid' part of you as you grow up; you just have to make adequate provision for it. :)

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    1. Thanks so much for commenting -- and I totally agree -- there is no need to get rid of the childlike part of you. For me, it is just the maladaptive behaviors of regressing to a more helpless state and behaving younger for "rescuing" and fear of being abandoned that I recognized as reasons to personally work on it. The childlike part of me will always be, and I hope yours is, too. ♥ ☺

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  4. Wow, Debbie, this article. This one is so frickin' relevant to me, you have no idea! In my first marriage, in which I was extremely passive, to my detriment, I would constantly act and talk in a way that was much younger and sometimes helpless. I knew I transformed into another, more confident person, even an "old soul" at school and work. It bothered me, and I demonized it completely. Slowly as my current husband and I grew more and more into our relationship dynamics, my "little" came out again in relation to his grounded, very nurturing side.

    ***Trigger Warning***

    That said, we're also kinky, so this also extends to our sexual life from time to time in a "Daddy"/"little girl" dynamic. It quickly became apparent, that the little girl was trying to work through something deeply hidden away and dark. That dynamic was giving the child things she never really had, but it started to hit too close to things at times, and I would quickly demonize that child-like part of me all over again. As my past traumas began boiling up again for me, the little girl was sweet, melancholy, needy, vulnerable, and precocious. As I've come more and more to terms with and been coping with that trauma, my "little" has transformed into an often petulant, cantankerous, and incalcitrant child filled with anger that her adult-self (me) is afraid of exhibiting.

    Right now, I need to be very conscious about when it's my little, and when it's me talking. I really don't think it's to the point of being something like DID, but the lines do tend to get too blurry if I don't set aside specific times for me to be the little girl vs. me, an adult and wife in recovery.

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    1. Aeshe, I responded to you back in January but noticed I posted my comment instead of replying it, so not sure you were ever notified. A reply is here, just below. ♥ Debbie

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  5. WOW Aeshe. Thank you for sharing. Your first paragraph sounded very familiar to me. Good that you NOTICED all of this and the judgments around it. In the trigger warning section (thank you VERY much for taking the time to include that), which I chose to read, as I'm feeling strong today, I could really relate to issues around intimacy, especially when that "Little Debbie" shows up during some awkward moments. Your insights and descriptions really helped me to tap into some things. I'm sorry that your inner child is now angry. I also believe you are going to love and nurture her/him through this, one breath at a time. Huge hugs and love. ♥

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  6. this... is exactly me... i feel really lost rightnow. i didn't know i was doing it... well i did, but i kept getting all mixed up, and people tend to cater to me alot ( I'm 22 but look like 16) and i talk like a baby all the time and no one ever thinks i'm an adult and i'm so scared of growing up. i have no ide how to tell my cpn. this has made me see things so different... and I only stumbled across this site whilst trying to understand my head.

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    1. Hi Joanne,

      I am sorry you're feeling lost right now. I am proud of you for noticing, acknowledging, and being able to put into words your experience. I encourage you to share with your CPN if this is an issue you want to work on. 22 is still very young. I'm excited for you that you are already taking steps to heal. When I was 22, I had no idea about any of these skills. Stay strong! ♥ Debbie

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  7. Wow Debbie - great post! I used to do this a lot - particularly at work if it became stressful and I needed help. Now that I'm nearly 40, not only does this approach look unprofessional, I also realised it didn't gain me any respect. Now I'm more aware of it, I instantly switch to 'wise adult mode' and almost always realise I'm a lot more capable and respond accordingly. (And feel better afterwards). Acting young and in need of rescue may have helped years ago, but it's time for a new, grown up approach. Thanks for the reminder! xxx

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    1. It's so awesome that you notice when and why this tends to show up for you, Katie. Proud of you that you are able to take control and get back into Wise Mind. Thank you for sharing! ♥ Debbie

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  8. I literally can't believe that you put into words the exact thoughts I have thought! lol! I am 35, and everyone thinks I'm 25. I admit, I do have good genes, and do look younger but it's more than looks - it's behavior, and maybe the way I carry myself. My friends are all younger than me and they pointed out that it's not that I'm immature....I just seem younger. Like the person wrote above, I "checked out" about 7 years ago when things got really bad and it's like I just "woke up" about 6 months ago - and I'm like holy shit - what have I been doing the last 7 years? I enrolled back in school and things are really turning around for me but still, I struggle with what a 35 year old "should look like or act like" and my true personality, which is a bit playful. I've consciously chosen to be more playful and fun than being overly serious and angry all the time, which is how I was. Maybe there is somewhere in between!

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    1. Hello there -- I am the author of this blog (and am 36 now). Isn't it amazing how our stories paralleled in this way? There is definitely a middle path. Keep up the great introspective work!

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  9. I just found this. It really hit home as I'm 48 !! Most people think i'm in my 30s. For some reason I like to make sure people know my age, I guess so I can hear they are impressed I look good for 48. I was diagnosed 8 months ago with BPD. I've been (very) bulimic since 13. I'm in therapy & on meds but struggling every single day. Feel like I need more of a peer discussion sometimes as I still am having a hard time dealing. Thanks for being here.

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    1. So glad you found this community. Welcome!

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  10. My husband who is 65 years old ,was recently diagnosed with BPD and I'm reading everything I can find on the subject. It took a long time for us to get the diagnosis,but I have known for a long time that he had a problem,I'm just glad to have a name for it. He has the impulsive behavior( I discovered recently that it included sexual ) and he is terrified of getting old. He doesn't look 65 and hes announces it everywhere, so he can hear people say in amazement how young he looks.....It's been a journey,but at least I know that there is help now..

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    1. Thank you so much for sharing, Fran. Wishing your husband (and you) the best on his road to recovery now that he has a name for what he experiences.

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