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New Study Demonstrates the Rejection-Rage Contingency in BPD

By April 21, 2011

Intense, inappropriate anger is a frequent symptom of borderline personality disorder (BPD), and some researchers have suggested that quick shifts in anger are a hallmark feature of the disorder. Many experts have observed that people with BPD tend to have their most intense anger in response to experiences of rejection, criticism, or perceived abandonment by loved ones, but few studies have looked at the relationship between rejection and rage directly. A new study published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology this month may elucidate this "rejection-rage contingency."

Researcher Kathy Berenson and colleagues at Columbia University examined the relationship between perceived rejection and rage in men and women with BPD compared with healthy controls. They first looked at this connection in a laboratory experiment, and later in an experience sampling study (i.e., they tracked the experiences of their research participants over the course of their daily experiences for 21 full days).

In the laboratory experiment, the researchers found a relationship between rejection and rage that involved even split second and potentially subconscious attentional processing. In this part of the study, people with BPD and healthy controls were asked to read words aloud from a computer while either neutral, negative, anger, or rejection-related words (i.e., "betray," "mistrust," "hurt") flashed near the corners of the screen. People with BPD named rage words significantly faster when they were preceded by rejection-related words compared to controls, suggesting that seeing rejection-related words for even a split second heightened their access to anger and rage-related concepts.

The relationship between rejection and rage was also supported by the experience samples; not only did people with BPD report far more rage than healthy controls in general, experiences of rejection predicted greater increases in rage for people with BPD than for healthy controls.

Source: Berenson KR, Downey G, Rafaeli E, Coifman KG, Leventhal Paquin N. The rejection-rage contingency in borderline personality disorder. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 2011.

May 1, 2011 at 2:09 am
(1) Annie says:

My bpd mother would easily trigger into red-faced, spittle-flying, screaming RAGE over things that most parents consider normal, everyday occurrences when one is raising small children, such as accidentally spilling juice, toilet accidents, boisterous play, etc. Mother’s rage would often escalate into physical abuse of my little sister and me: slapping, spanking and even being hit with objects like dad’s belt. As a result we became physically afraid of our own mother and developed symptoms of complex post-traumatic stress disorder and other psychological injuries due to a lot of unresolved trauma.

May 2, 2011 at 12:26 pm
(2) Randi Kreger says:

I must say, I always find it amusing when BPD research shows evidence for something already well known for those who deal with it.

On page 167 in my book “The Essential Family Guide for Borderline Personality Disorder,” I have a chart that describes what I call the Splitting Shame Fear Spiral that explains this respond.

Briefly, first comes an event that someone with BPD finds threatening (here, the triggering words).

Then comes the cognitive response SPLITTING, or seeing things in black and white; SHAME and FEAR. These are all internal and happen in a fraction of a second. These are not mentioned in the study, but obviously something internal must be happening before the behavior, evidenced by CBT theories.

At that point, the impulsive aggression (see Siever’s research into this) comes in: in this experiement, the rage.

But impulsive aggression (which I also call the “border-lion”) can be turned INWARD too and lead to self-mutilation and suicidal ideation. Were the experiement to track real instances of abandonment, I bet it would find these behaviors in a subset of people with BPD, too.

Randi Kreger

May 2, 2011 at 1:39 pm
(3) Mainer In Exile says:

Yes, I agree that this is stating the obvious….. Well, it was worth trying to quantify or document. This is trying to figure out something in biology by using the closest thing to a test-tube methodology, so i suppose they get credit for being clever. As Randi wrote above, this is extremely familiar to anybody who has ever been associated with a BPDer ( or should I say, in love with a BPDer…) – now a philosophical question: has anybody ever tried to quantify the point at which the recipient of rage attacks, gets their heart broken irretrievably? that’s the question I asked for about thirty years but for which science does not seem to have the answer….

May 2, 2011 at 3:35 pm
(4) David Harrison says:

Thank you Annie,
I identify with your experience.
It was not safe to be at home.
Although I have looked age 52, I have not felt safe enough to be married. It seems like too much trouble to put up with. ‘I love you, but you are killing me.’
At what point is the BPD ‘broken’ material for the state to pick up? At what point does the idealistic martyr partner spouse say this really hurts, how about chosing a healthy life…
At what point is the partner/spouse co-dependent to the abusive BPD, as if in the negative spiral to an alcoholic, rage-aholic, work-aholic and food-aholic?

May 2, 2011 at 4:12 pm
(5) adele says:

I too identify strongly with Annie – my mother was exactly like that and now i wonder if she had/has bpd. Last year after struggling with life in general for years i was diagnosed with bpd and depression, this site and these comments help me a lot to try to understand and make sense of things.
Also like David i have not felt safe enough – i am 45 – to marry and have children as i am afraid of my inner rage and doing the same things as mom.

May 2, 2011 at 4:38 pm
(6) Brenda says:

It took me six years to realize I could no longer continue my relationship with my partner’s two BPD children. I needed counseling and respite to resume my happy life. I have two wonderful children and three grandchildren. It just wasn’t fair to
let two BPDs ruin my life. I’m a nice person. I deserve to be treated well. I told my partner I either had to break up with him or with his kids. Now he sees them on his own and protects me from harm. I see my family on the holidays and don’t have every occasion ruined. If they hadn’t been his kids, I’d have moved on very quickly. My motto now: Let go; move on; be happy; be free.

May 2, 2011 at 5:57 pm
(7) David Harrison says:

Krystalyn, your next book could provide examples of the special needs of BPDs (for survivors/ therapists) with exercises to structure safe environments for BPD’s emotions. Perhaps tracking situations in which a BPD reacted to a situation (anxiety/fear of threat) from their perspective was ‘wrong’. Encouraging clinicians to listen repetitively by using a 2-hour video-taped session of a BPD explaining what went wrong, what happened step-by-step, why values or protocols were violated that provoked/triggered a BPD’s unregulated emotion may bring clarity. Constructing interactive tools for these sessions may move BPDs up the emotional developmental ladder of abstract thinking.

Yes, borderline anger presents different aspects than ‘normal anger’ in terms of the BPD’s response to a stimulus triggering an outburst measured as Amplitude, Content, Duration and Target (recipient). The BPD’s ‘perception’ of the triggering stimulus and the process the BPD uses to evaluate the danger-level of that stimulus, may directly influence the BPDs compulsion to react (not capable at that moment to be mindful of pausing to choose a response). My experience of BPDs involve issues of trust and feeling safe to ask for what they need or want. Some BPDs at a primal level recall their caregivers to have violated their trust, and are (in their opinion) not trustworthy, not safe, not rational, and not dependable or consistent in care. The BPD may be conditioned to show discontent from the emotional age of 5 with ‘outbursts’. The BPDs ‘Adult’ is protecting the Inner Child and does not trust anyone ‘out-there’ to be capable of connecting and/or identifying that ‘something is wrong and must be fixed ASAP’. The worst response a person can do to a BPD is to walk away, because that signals irresponsibility, unaccountability and further violation to the BPD of not valuing their Inner Child’s needs to correct the protocol and/or situation to become safe/acceptable.

May 2, 2011 at 7:12 pm
(8) Grace says:

Although i understand the feeling of some about the need to move on and be free in their own life; i hope it is understood that that is the kind of thing that creates the borderline in the first place. Besides the fact that they can’t move on and be free. It is my opinion that real love is the only thing that can heal such heartache. Real love doesn’t leave. Borderlines are wounded children. Just like you don’t just leave a 9 month old because they have emotional breakdowns (tantrums) but you guide them through with love and consistency, the same is true of borderlines. This world is empty when it comes to real relationships. Borderlines need real relationships with real love to build trust. If you take someone with a fear of abandonment and abandon them; you only make it worse for them; the opposite reaction of sticking with them could be all they need to be cured. After all, none of us are perfect and none of us deserve love anymore than anyone else.

May 2, 2011 at 8:54 pm
(9) Carol Reins says:

To Randi, You have described everything I experience daily and the inward(border-lion) is always with me. I had to apologize to alot of people today and they don’t understand why I spilt and rage over some very simple slights. Meds, therapy, ECT…and it continues and I am at a loss for what to do anymore. I have alienated all friends and family. After stopping my drug abuse, they are waiting for my mental illness to be cured. They will wait a long time and so will I …the only release will be death.

May 3, 2011 at 12:13 am
(10) Janet says:

I agree with you Grace, but at what point do you decide that your needs as the non-bpd outweigh the needs of the bpd? After the 3rd affair that was the impulsive behavior of raging because I didn’t fulfill the over the top I’m not sure what was expected of me expectations, I decided my emotional and physical health were more important than allowing the bpd’s self-destructive choices to continue with me regaedless of more abondonment. As far as I’m concerned, my ex-husband bpd was ensuring that the script in his head played out. It did. I’m divorced and happier and healthier. i told my husband at the time, that he was like a drowning swimmer and I was the lifeguard and if I didn;t let him go, he would have pulled me down with him.

May 3, 2011 at 8:42 am
(11) bunny says:

I am awed by David Harrisons’ comments. Wow, Really good.

I agree with Gracie in some respects where it concerns me. I can not speak for other BPDs.

My partner gets upset when I get angry.
He gets upset that he has upset me!!!!
It stops me in my tracks and makes me realise I have over-reacted to the situation.
Formerly in other relationships my anger was met with anger, defensiveness and dissaproval. It makes a world of difference when people validate my anger, even when it is an over re-action. That is LOVE

I am now at a point in my developement, that if I’m dwelling on something. I know to deal with it straight away.
I can recognise different emotions now like sadness, hurt, resentment, without having to pile them all into the anger catagorie.

If I am snappy and grumpy because I’m not feeling well I let people know and I go and have a nap.

This is how I am getting better

May 3, 2011 at 10:20 am
(12) Grace says:

I agree an Affair is over the top; but believe it’s probably more an individual issue rather than a ‘borderline trait’. All borderlines rage. Not all borderlines go have affairs.

May 3, 2011 at 3:15 pm
(13) Anne U. says:

This is very familiar to me. My BP-traits teenager flew into a rage this weekend while on a long drive with me (I’d driven 2 hours to pick him up after he’d visited a friend during spring break). He’d asked if another friend could visit us for a few weeks during the summer. When I said his dad wanted friend #2 to stay only a week, my son began shrieking and wailing and threatened at one point to throw himself out of the car and onto the Interstate highway. Fortunately our car’s door locks are always ON when the engine is running. After about 40 minutes he finally settled down and even apologized for the screaming and threatening. Later that evening, at dinner, I sat down with son and father and they worked out a compromise; the friend can stay for 2 weeks. Note that I coached my son while in the car, explaining that screaming would get him nowhere with his dad and would just make the situation worse. I’m glad my son seems to be learning from these experiences.

May 7, 2011 at 9:56 am
(14) pudelmom says:

Wish I could have part of this study. I am only now realizing the destruction I have caused to myself and others through this 0 to 900 trigger.

July 24, 2011 at 7:45 am
(15) kryp2nitegirl says:

What brought me to this page, was my search for an answer about how I can get over my mistrust after having been triggered.

I like the way my counselor has helped me come to the mindset that I am just like everyone else, but I have more needs than the average person.
I feel fortunate to have learned that I am very needing of attention and reassurance. I now look for a partner that is able to fill those needs. I am easily triggered into some sort of irrational, skeptical, angry, hurt being with the slightest hint of disapointment in me, or change of plans, or a partner saying something that makes me feel they may not care enough. Even if it isnt the case. I have a lot of pride, but that is what makes me embarrassed after a fit.

I usually cant let it go, whatever it was that broke us up. I always feel so confused as to how they went from loving me one day to letting me down the next. I do realize that you can love someone and still let them down, you just cant do that to me, because my heart turns off.

I am unable to open it up to that person easily, or I try to punish them by not going back to my loving, caring self?

Bunny, I think you are very lucky. It sounds like you have a good match with that dynamic. Your comment made me realize that the other thing I need is validation.

I think I need my partner to acknowledge that it was a trigger at least, even if it wasnt meant to, when my partner realizes that he has triggered me,I would like him to express that to me. Im wondering if that would give me the abiity to trust him again and get back to that happy place. I say trust “him” even though there is no him. There have been many hims. Which begs the question, is it real love, when it can happen so easily with anyone who pays attention.

So, now I go forward with one more pc. of my puzzle. Thank you all for sharing.

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