Not too long ago, I asked the therapist who runs the DBT (Dialectical Behavior Therapy) group that I attend why it might be that I have acted out in such childish ways when feeling needy or afraid. I asked after hearing a couple of other patients check in about their past week and noticing that several of them also referred to their behavior in ways such as “tantrums” and “being a big baby.”
Her answer was simple: human beings adapt. They act in ways that get their needs or desires met.
Think of a baby. If a baby learns that upon crying, her caretaker will give her attention, she now knows that crying is a way to get her needs met.
For those of us with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD), we may have certain behaviors that are now maladaptive – they either once worked in getting our needs met and now do not, or, we no longer feel that we can keep our self-respect intact while attempting to meet our needs in this way any longer (assuming that preserving one’s self-respect is a goal). An example of this is acting out just like a child when our needs are not met or we are in distress.
Sometimes when I am upset, I notice that I go into more of a childlike persona. I pout. I cross my arms. I stomp my feet. Even my voice changes to that of a young child. I don’t do this in all sorts of mixed company, mind you. This persona tends to come up in the context of my relationship with my significant other. I am realizing that I tend to behave this way almost automatically when I feel vulnerable, insecure, or when I don’t get my way. (And, by the way, it used to happen so often that I wasn’t always cognizant of the “switch.” It happens far less frequently now, but it still does occur from time to time.)
While my significant other often thinks it’s “cute,” but at times, he gets annoyed. A couple of times he has even asked me, with a concerned look on his face, “How old are you right now?” This behavior (among other issues I am coping with) has also stood in the way of having a normal physical bond. My significant other has confessed that he feels “guilty” going there with me because he feels like he is taking advantage – since my mind seems so much younger during these times. I have also struggled with being intimate, in part because the child part of me has so often been in the driver’s seat. I’ve tried to “overlook it,” but it just felt too weird to even consider.
With all this in mind, I am working on staying in adult mode most of the time and allowing for child mode when it is more appropriate, such as when playing or interacting with children or when I am being silly for the sake of being silly. It isn’t something that I plan, but as time goes on, I become more and more aware and able to redirect myself.
The “child part” of me has been a very significant and driving force in my life, and the last thing I want to do is abandon her the way she’s been abandoned by others in the past. Instead, I will love her through it and show myself compassion whenever she shows up. I will bring online the strong, compassionate, loving adult within to cope with whatever situation has caused her to emerge.
And, I’ll remember that we humans are adaptive, and if such coping mechanisms are coming up, it’s time to look at which needs are asking to be met.
The author wrote this blog post several years ago. She is now in RECOVERY from BPD and thriving as an emotionally sensitive person. She teaches all she learned in her live, weekly, global ONLINE classes. Learn more and sign up for a class at DBT Path.