M. Scott Peck on Dependency and Borderline Personality Disorder


I define dependency as the inability to experience wholeness or to function adequately and morally without the certainty that one is being actively cared for by another.

Dependency in physically healthy adults is pathological. It is sick. It is always a manifestation of mental illness or defect.

We all—each and every one of us—even if we try to pretend to others and ourselves that we don’t—have some dependency needs and feelings. We all have the desire to be babied, to be nurtured, to be cared for by persons stronger than us who truly have our best interests at heart. No matter how strong or mature or responsible or caring we are, if we look honestly and clearly into ourselves, we will all find the wish to be taken care of once in a while for a change. And each one of us, no matter how mature and evolved, still looks for and would like to have in his or her life, a satisfying mother figure and father figure.

But for most of us, these desires or feelings do not rule our lives. They are not the predominant theme of our existence.

When they do rule our lives and dictate the quality of our lives and our relationships, then we have something more than just dependency needs or feelings: we are dependent. And we have a psychiatric disorder.

Specifically, a person’s who life is ruled and dictated by dependency needs and insecurity suffers from a psychiatric disorder to which we ascribe the diagnostic name “Passive Dependent Personality Disorder.”

It is perhaps the most common of all psychiatric disorders.

(Peck was writing this in 1979. Since then, Passive Dependent Personality Disorder has been revised and replaced, and no longer appears in the DSM. Much, if not all, of what Peck is describing in this excerpt would now fall under the diagnosis of Borderline Personality Disorder, which is now one of the most common [and most difficult to treat] personality disorders.)

People with this disorder—passive dependent people—are so busy seeking love that they have no energy left to love. They are like starving people, scrounging wherever they can for food, and with no food of their own to give others. It is as if within them they have an inner emptiness, a bottomless pit crying out to be filled but which can never be filled, except very temporarily. Hence they never feel “full-filled” or have a sense of completeness or adequacy or ok-ness. Hence they are always insecure, even distrustful; sometimes even paranoid. They always feel as if a part of themselves is missing. They tolerate loneliness very poorly and are prone to boredom. Because of their lack of wholeness, they have no real sense of identity or of who they really are, and so they define themselves solely by their relationships.

Rapid emotional changeability is characteristic of passive-dependent individuals. It is as if it does not matter upon whom they are dependent as long as there is just someone.

And it does not matter what their identity is as long as there is someone or something to give it to them.

Consequently their relationships, although seemingly dramatic in their intensity, are actually extremely shallow and other people are actually very disposable and interchangeable for them.

The word “passive” is used in conjunction with the word “dependent” in the diagnosis because these individuals concern themselves with what others can do for them to the exclusion of what they themselves can do. This is not to say that passive-dependent people never “do” things for others, but their motive in doing things is to cement the attachment of others to them so as to assure their own care.

And when the possibility of care from another is not directly involved, they have great difficulty in doing things.

Passive dependency has its genesis in a lack of love. The inner feeling of emptiness from which passive dependent people suffer is the direct result of their parents’ failure to fulfill their needs for affection, attention, security, and care during their childhood.

Children who are loved and cared for with relative consistency throughout childhood enter adulthood with a deep-seated feeling that they are lovable and valuable and therefore will be loved and cared for as long as they remain true to their best selves (what’s best in them).

However, children growing up in an atmosphere in which love and care are lacking or given with gross inconsistency enter into adulthood with no such sense of inner security, no sense of inner identity, and no real sense of what’s best in them. Rather, they enter into adulthood with an intense inner sense of insecurity, a feeling of “I don’t have enough,” a sense of I don’t know who I am or who I’m supposed to be, as well as a sense that the world is unpredictable and frightening. It is no wonder, then, that they feel the need to scramble for love, attention, care-taking, wherever they can find it, and once having found it, cling to it with a desperation that leads them to all sorts of unloving, manipulative, Machiavellian behavior that undermines and destroys the relationships they seek to preserve and be nurtured by. (They also reject these same relationships just as desperately because their excessive neediness and dependency makes them feel even worse about themselves and even more vulnerable, and since they are already distrustful of others and even themselves and life itself in general, this distrust only compounds their unhappiness, insecurity, self-protectiveness, and erratic-ness.)

Unloving, uncaring, inconsistent, addicted parents are people fundamentally lacking in self-discipline. And so when they fail to provide their children with a sense of being loved, they also fail to provide them with a capacity for self-discipline and impulse control.

Thus the excessive neediness and emptiness and dependency of passive-dependent individuals is only the principal manifestation of their personality disorder. Passive-dependent people also crucially lack self-discipline. They are unwilling or unable to delay gratification of their hunger for attention and security. In their desperation to form and preserve attachments they throw honesty to the wind. And they cling to unhealthy relationships with their parents, hoping that maybe they will eventually get the consistent love and attention and care-taking they desperately crave the second, third, even fourth time round, when they should give up these toxic relationships and enter into therapy.

Most importantly, passive-dependent people lack a sense of responsibility—not only for their words and actions, but for themselves and their own happiness and attitude. They passively look to others—frequently even their own children—as the source of their happiness and full-fillment, and therefore when they are not happy or fulfilled they “feel” that others are responsible, and act out on this feeling. Hence, they are endlessly angry and unhappy, because they endlessly feel let down by others who can never fulfill all their endless neediness or make them happy.

One final significant aspect of dependency is that it is unconcerned with spiritual growth. A passive-dependent person may talk a lot about spiritual growth, but really, he or she is not concerned. Dependent people are interested only in their own nourishment, but nothing more; they desire filling, they desire to be happy, but they do not desire to grow and mature, nor are they willing to tolerate the unhappiness, the loneliness, the deferring of gratification, and the suffering involved in real growth. (The nourishment and “spirituality”—pseudo-spirituality, really—that passive-dependent people are interested in is the quick and easy and effortless type—quick easy fixes, half-baked solutions, the path of least resistance.)

In summary, dependency may appear to be love because it is a force that causes people to fiercely attach themselves to one another. But in actuality it is not love; it is a form of antilove. It has its genesis in a parental failure to love and it perpetuates the failure. It seeks to receive rather than to give, to exploit rather than to nurture and to grow. It works to breed immaturity and infantilism rather than maturity, respect, goodness, love, virtue, decency, and growth. And ultimately it destroys rather than builds relationships, and it destroys rather builds people.

(Abridged and adapted from “The Road Less Traveled,” pp. 98-106.)

(See also this related post: http://theplacesthatscareyou.wordpress.com/2011/06/16/the-vicious-cycle-%e2%80%93-abuse-in-childhood-and-limited-or-impaired-self-capacities-affect-regulation-skills-and-avoidant-behaviors-in-adulthood/

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About John

I am a married, 46-year old, Midwesterner, with four children. My primary interest is in leading a very examined and decent and Loving life; my interests that are related to this and that feed into this include (and are not limited to) -- psychology, philosophy, poetry, critical thinking, photography, soccer, tennis, chess, bridge.
This entry was posted in Antilove, Borderline Personality Disorder, Dependency, Love, Love is a Choice, Love is a Commitment, Love is Not a Feeling, M. Scott Peck, Passive-Dependent Personaility Disorder, The Road Less Traveled, Toxic Parents, What is Love? and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to M. Scott Peck on Dependency and Borderline Personality Disorder

  1. xd@cheerful.com says:

    A road less traveled is a great book–enlightening and full of truths.

  2. Superb description. Peck is fabulous. I’ve always found it kind of sad that BPD is sooo hard to treat, especially given how it starts. If only they could let go of that desperate need for love, approval and the poisoning techniques they employ cos the sadest irony is that they often end up alone because of these behaviours…..the very thing they fear, which twould then seem to affirm the thing they fear, that they are unlovable.

  3. Margot Beaupre says:

    Borderline personality disorder and bipolar are often mistaken as being the same thing. They are also often misdiagnosed, one for the other. This is because the symptoms for both illnesses are startlingly similar.Borderline personality disorder is actually less common and less known than bipolar. Borderline personality disorder accounts for only about twenty percent of hospitalizations for mental illness each year, while bipolar accounts for about fifty percent of hospitalizations. Borderline personality disorder is most common in young women, whereas bipolar is equally common in both men and women, as well as all age groups.:

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  4. mike says:

    I have lived most of my adult life with someone with this disorder. For the past 30 years she has been under the care of a psychiatrist or therapist. Not one has ever correctly diagnosed her illness. Most of them were either back rubbers or pill dispensers. Never able or willing to take the risk of telling her the truth that may have prevented so much pain. I know the feeling because after reading “The Road” knowing what I do I am afraid that the truth will drive her over the edge.

  5. woolly sheep says:

    Mike, good evidence of the failure of most modern psychiatry. I read Rachel Reilland`s book (not sure if that`s how her name is spelled) on bpd; very interesting. Rachel had the typical and severe variety of it. She was under the care of a psychiatrist but what stood out about this particular fellow is that while he was very gracious and loving, and obviously genuinely cared about Rachel, he was also very firm and held her accountable for her behaviour and capable of being responsible. He also did not turn a blind eye to her attempts at breaching treatment boundaries. She is well today. I think this is the key. I also think her therapist`s own level of solid health and good boundaries and identity was as significant or more so than that he held a psychiatric degree, athough knowledge is important in this situation. I think knowledge of what is healthy, responsible adult behaviour is probably just as important as knowledge of abuse issues. So is the concept of moral responsibility. Just because one has been hurt, doesn`t mean one has the right to hurt others or justify behaviour that is abusive, unfaithful or selfish. BPD`s are missing the guardrails on life`s highways. Discipline is much more than corrective punishment for misdeeds, it is also shaping, structuring and character building. Without it we remain a puddle of sand. In other words discipline is love. Love without discipline is not really love at all. It sounds as if you are thinking of ending this relationship or at least distancing. 30 years is a long time to be stuck in a repetitive cycle. I would suggest letting this person`s therapist know that you are needing to take some action so at the very least they can help prepare the person you speak of. Personally, I don`t buy the idea that it should take thirty years of costly and financially and emotionally depleting treatment for some significant improvement to be shown. I don`t think it should take one month either but thirty years is absurd. The therapist should be also accountable, as I think it is unconscionable to continue taking money from someone when they are not improving after a year or two of therapy. To allow a patient to continue to live by their emotions and past after thirty years is to demonstrate that one does not know how to treat bpd effectively.

    As someone with a bit of experience on the sufferer`s side, I can say that a choice must be made. One must choose whether one is actively seeking reclamation of their life, ie, do you want to get well, be whole. be able to function like a confident adult, or do you just want to ruminate and wallow in your grief and pain and have someone to commiserate with you and assure as to how hurt and abused you were, do you want to be absolved of responsibility and stay in emotional infancy; because one will move you forward and one will entomb you forever. One will hurt, be uncomfortable as all get out but will lead to growth, healing and wholeness and the other one will feel familiar though miserable and yet somehow comforting, require nothing but the retelling of your story and appearing on time for your appointment at which point you will relive your pain over and over, expressing and examining it from many angles, and then when the time is up, have to go home and stuff your insides back in until next time. In this scenario you will eventually become an expert on why you have such a crappy life and feel better about your crappy life but remain much the same. You will not experience much marked improvement. Responsibility and control go hand in hand. One of the worst concepts in modern treatment is the notion that one must relive over and over the pain of the past that helped created the problem. People are accused of being in denial if they don`t want to revisit their past over and over again and so I think some are stuck in the belief that they are SUPPOSED to be doing this. Its become a sort of sacred cow in the therapy industry.

    I hope Mike that if there is some possibility that the two of you can find a therapist who is able to actually help instead of agreeing only with the person`s pain, that perhaps your relationship need not be discarded. I don`t think you are necessarily saying you are not wiling to be in a relationship with this person but rather you are not willing to throw your life away for another thirty years on something that doesn`t work. Big difference. I wish you well.

  6. Vicki Jenkins says:

    Interesting comments. I was reading ‘The Road’ this morning and read the above section and thought that’s me. I went down and felt that I didn’t want to continue living after my de-facto of 3 1/2 years left without telling me why. We were also engaged. I believe that this could be a natural reaction. The thing that makes me relate though is that I hate being alone and have always started a new relationship immediately. I have had six long term relationships within 28 years. Without one I feel empty. I can’t get past the feeling that there should be more to life. I am seeing a psychologist. I have three children. I have been involved in business partnerships with my spouses. I believe I am mostly interdependent but it is only outside things that define me e.g. spouse, work, children. Like most mental illnesses there are varying degrees of problems so I guess I am not totally wrong in my self-diagnosis.

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