Borderline Desire

Christopher Bollas, New York, USA

Bollas C. Borderline Desire. Int Forum Psychoanal 1996;5:5-10. Stockholm, ISSN 0803-706X.

Resumen en Castellano
Bollas C.
El deseo en el paciente borderline

La personalidad borderline busca inconscientemente emociones turbulentas porque la complejidad afectiva es el estilo de su objeto de deseo. Si estos pacientes fueron intrinsicamente perturbados com niños, o, si el mundo objetal primario fue perturbado, ellos conocieron el objeto materno en su efecto disruptivo. Este efecto entonces, transformó el estilo del objeto, y así buscando turbulencias construyen de hecho su objeto primario. Como el dolor y la perturbación de estos acontecimientos, no es deseado por nadie, el estado de malestar encontrado por ellos mismos, es inconscientemente gratificante.

Estas personas cultivan «objetos borderline» los cuales evocan estructuras turbulentas de su monte. Dado que los objetos habitualmente tienen un potencial para tales turbulencias, así el borderline podría cambiar los hechos desagradables y ordinarios de la vida-ambiente contaminado, molestias en el trabajo-y transformar estos hechos en objetos estimulantes del self. Ellos recogen unas respuesta tóxica que constituye su objeto de deseo.

La personalidad borderline en ocasiones encuentra momentos de desavenencia con el psicoanalista, paradojicamento suficiente, en el sentido de sentirse cerrado en la clínica. Si el siente que el analista está enfadado o irritado, el paciente siente que él y el analista están compartiendo juntos una experiencia primaria. Por la persistencia en la interpretación del carácter inconsciente del deseo del paciente el analista puedo efectivamente deconstruir la patología del analizando atacando y ayudando al paciente a comprender la compleja dinámica que mantiene siempre con su persona en un agudo conflicto consigo mismo y que le deja solo frente a los otros.

The borderline personality unconsciously seeks emotional turbulence because this complex of affect is the shape of the object of desire. Whether these people were intrinsically disturbed as infants, or, whether the early object world was itself disturbing, they knew the maternal object as disruptive effect. This effect then became the shape of the object, so, in seeking turbulence they are in fact constituting the primary object. As painful and disturbing an event as this is, it is nonetheless desired and finding themselves in states of distress is unconsciously gratifying.

This person cultivates «borderline objects» which evoke turbulent frames of mind. Such an object usually has an escalatory potential to it, so that the borderline may turn to ordinary distressing facts of life-environmental pollution, harassment of workers in the work place-and transform these facts into self stimulating objects. They bring about a toxic response which constitutes the object of desire.

The borderline personality often seeks moments of misunderstanding with the psychoanalyst paradoxically enough in order to feel closer to the clinician. If he feels that he is bringing about irritation or distress in the analyst, the patient feels that he and the analyst are sharing the primary experience together.

By persistently interpreting to the patient the unconscious desire of his character the analyst can effectively deconstruct the analysand’s pathological attachment and help the patient to understand a complex dynamic that has always put this person at acute odds with himself, let alone with others.

Christopher Bollas, Ph. D., 32 A West 94th Street, New York, NY 10025, USA

This paper was presented at the 39th Congress of the International Psychoanalytical Association, San Francisco, USA, July 30th
August 4th, 1995.
© Scandinavian University Press 1996. ISSN 0803-706X

Some years ago, well into the analysis of a borderline patient, it seemed that her frequent emotional storms-occasions of profound fragmentationwas a curious object of desire. When emotionally upset by something recollected from her life or something I said or did not say, did or did not do, her feelings rocketed into that enraged «homing» intensity that clinicians working with the borderline patient know only too well; except that with this patient, it was also clear-because fortunately she was unusually self aware-that once the experience arrived it was feverishly embraced. What does this mean and what can it tell us about some if not all borderline analysands?

Customarily we give the objects of the internal world a figurative character. A good object, a bad object, a bizarre object call to mind a specular other, in one form or another. What if the primary object, however, is not so figured? Not any object, because of course all persons form internal objects. But what if the primary object-the paradigmatic object of objects formed within the first year of life-is experienced not only as disruptive but as disruption and is therefore represented as emotional turmoil? What if the essential status of this primary object is less in its specular character than it is in the emotional turmoil occurring within the self upon thinking it?2’3

An affect resides where otherwise the matrix of an «ordinary» object, the «material» of representation, would begin to live. Feelings are the object. Hence, borderline collapses into ego fragments creates a sadly ironic relation: although dreaded-it is simultaneously the primary object; inevitably therefore, desired.

As a frame of mind becomes the object it would otherwise represent in its own right, we may see how what Andre Green (1) terms «the negative» applies in a very particular way to the borderline, who maintains attachment to the object through primarily negative affects. Indeed, many of the issues raised in this essay bear affinities to Green’s exceedingly important work, Le Travail du Negatif, especially his examination of the borderline personalities passion for the negative.

3 The borderline primary object would be held in this patient as something known but not yet thought, what in an earlier work I termed the «unthought known» (2) and which was explored in terms of the borderline patient in the essay «loving hate»

f) C Bollas

One day my patient flew into a deeply disorganising fury when she felt I made an insensitive comment. In addition to plunging her from respite through idealisation of myself into belief that I was now useless and untrustworthy, in addition to creating intense pain over the loss of me, in addition to causing her to fear that she had mangled me and was now infested by my revenge, in addition to many other threads which were woven into this emotional state her turbulence also seemed blissful. It was as if she found an other who had been missing for a while, someone who she knew very well, someone who received her evacuative shitting and vomiting as she flew into it, a forceful movement «into» an object gained by a devolution of herself into invading furies.

«You have seized my comment with an intense pleasure, as if I have given you opportunity to be stirred up yet again» I said, Even though she pursued her object-now in the form of fragmented elemental turbulenceshe felt closest to me when I became the occasion of such anguish. Later in the session: «I think this turbulence is a most familiar place, as if you are hugging something you cannot bear, but cannot bear to lose». Another day: «I
think this is a kind of mamma whom you do not want to leave, a mamma feeling that allows you to empty yourself into her, and for her to empty herself into you.» many times subsequently: «You are enraged with me now-I have upset you-and become the disturbing spirit, who, now it has at last arrived, you do not want to leave you.» Other times: «By upsetting you as I have, I think you feel I have offered you this shit-fitting mamma, and you are confused because you both want this and abhor it at the same time.»

Work with borderline patients suggests the following hypothesis. Whether inherently disturbed as infants or disrupted by the environment, or both, the primary object is less an introjectable possibility (not a specular phenomenon available for progressive revisionary development) than a recurring effect within the self. Like the wind through the trees, it is a movement through the self. As any emotion hints at the presence of this object, the borderline is always tempted to find this object by escalating an ordinary feeling into a powerful moving experience.

Such turbulence is not simply an affect. Characteristic of this state of mind is violent mental intensitya thinking and thinking and thinking

Int Forum Psychoanal 5, 199E

again about xoften followed by fruitless talking about x that ultimately floods the mind with excessive mental content on the one hand anc overwhelms a listening other with too much dis. course on the other. The object becomes a «widen. ing gyre» of thought that defies a center to hold it Neither thinking or speaking in this manner is

relief-as it might be with another sort o: person-but quite the opposite: it further aggra vates the pain that has been the occasion of the response in the first place. Put in a familiar verna cular, these people are «finto» mind fucking: either molesting their own psychic life with overwhel mingly disturbed thoughts or fucking with the other’s mind by endless anguished talking. They create this forceful primary object within the other as they unconsciously believe it establishes true intimacy. The non borderline other feels invade( and may take «evasive action». The borderline other feels that however disturbing the relation, i is nonetheless the source of deepest truth an( beauty. But finally even the borderlinesuffering from too much or being too much-must retrea into self isolation for recovery before inevitable returning to the object of desire4.

The limited focus of this paper is to indicate how this turbulence is an object, one that arises out o an intense emotional moment, but which grow into a more complex form, as it becomes a type o thinking and a type of speaking, providing an inner shape constituted by a configuration o affect, thought, and speech.

Even though this turbulence exists in the plan of the primary object, the borderline forms tertiary objects constructed to exist «outside» the domi nating realm of the primary object. Such object bear the character of false self work, construction brought together in a fragile and deliberate wayand are felt to be an avoidance of an essentia truth. They screen the self from otherwise oppressed self states regarding as too endangerin; to be liberated. One may think of Dante, deeply stricken by Beatrice (4). He stares at her across

room transfixed and tormented and momentarily fears that others have seen his love object, but the, have instead seen another woman «in direct line: with his vision. «At once», he writes «I thought o making this good lady a screen for the truth» (4 : 7 which calls to mind the way borderline people create screen objects, stand‑ins for the sequestered objects of desire: enough to get many of these people through a childhood.

But this primary other is disturbance «itself and Dante comes very close to saying that emotion is the thing. «It . . . could be puzzled at my speaking of Love as if it were a thing in itself, as if it were not only an intellectual substance but also a bodily substance. This in reality is false, for Love does not exist in itself as a substance, but rather it is an accident in substance» (4:53). An accident in substance. Think of how borderline persons fall into fragmentations. They seem psychically accident prone, thrown into torment by the apparent insensitivities of the other. What if the primary object for this person, however, operates accidentally? What if for whatever reasons, the infant or child experienced the mother as disruptive movement, eventually knowable as a negative transformation of the self? An accident in substance? If so, then the object of attachment is the deeply disturbed emotional wake of the other which includes the fright, rage and destructive hate aroused within the borderline self, a persecutory anguish that further binds the self and its effective object in a psychically indistinguishable combat of negative forces.

Like Ahab following the wake of his tormentor-Moby Dick-the borderline unconsciously follows the object that stirs the self. (5) «Ahab never thinks; he only feels, feels, feels; thats tingling enough for mortal man!» he says to his crew a few hours before his death. In the same passage he thinks next of the wind: how it can be a «vile wind» that blows «through prison corridors and cells, and wards of hospitals and ventilated them, and now comes blowing hither as innocent as fleeces» (5 : 460). There is says Ahab, «something so unchangeable» and strong about the wind that has blown him around the seas of the world. «Would now the wind but had a body; but all the things that most exasperate and outrage mortal man, all these things are bodiless, but only bodiless as objects, not as agents» (5 : 461). The object as agent has a particular kind of body-that different sort of thing in itself of which Dante wrote-a primary object that we know as its effect.

That «tingling» of which Ahab spoke, or the love racked states of Dante and other poets who wrote of their loves as afliictions, is the psycho

Borderline desire 7

sensational trace of a particular object of desire. The self roused by the other, perceiving it sensorially, brought into the transference by instilling in the analyst’s countertransference a sensationally rousing storm of feelings that bind the self and other in a con-fusion. Not a confusion of thought as such, but a merging through affliction, both participants in respiratory relatedness, linked by racing hearts, adrenal highs. This desire is not from the instinctual core of the self, working its way to the wish proper; it is emotion evoked by disturbing impact. Once roused, the fury of the self’s persecutory force assumes a life of its own, becoming a body shaped and sustained by fury.

Borderline persons sustain the other within by marrying partners who continuously rouse them, or by preserving a «borderline object»-i.e. the thought of that partner or often an arousing cause such as victim rights or the environment-which allows them to conjure self-aflicting turbulance at any time, one that has an escalatory function: starting from a single «infraction»-in a case of harassment or toxic spillage-to the furious widening gyre of the psychic apocalypse that surrounds the issue. The borderline object functions as an emotionally impacting stimulus, that upon evocation arouses the sensorium. The fact that the borderline object is most often on the border of the external and the internallinked to an external happening, yet immediately evocative internally-testifies to the unconscious place of the borderline’s primary object: an outside that is simultaneously an inside. The self is on the border of a simultaneity of valorisations: the object that impacts the ego and causes it alarm; the object that is formed by the precise character of the subject’s internal life at the mome

Borderline personalities will often try to share a borderline object with others, a form of breaking bread in the communion of turbulence. They have an uncanny knack of bringing up in conversation topics that are designed to evoke maximum emotional impact in the other, often unconsciously playing on the other’s situational vulnerability. In doing so, this object of conversation brings self and other into a brief encapsulated merger through shared anguish, although the non borderline personality will usually rebuff efforts to turn personal distress into a festival of anguish.

Recognition of his desire enables this patient to consider resistance to psychic change. To work this through is to progressively abandon relation to the primary object, which occasions a very particular type of anguish. Outbursts could often be seen as defiant resurrections of an attachment to the primary object: the affect as thing. 5 That kind of truth that is disaster, one which devolves ordinary life into madness, is tempting indeed to the borderline. The catastrophic feels enlivening: a strange irony indeed. But if we see the absence of catastrophe as the empty space following the other’s vanishing-and one need only read Moby Dick to see Ahab’s profound loneliness and emptiness as he searches the empty seas for his tormentor-then it is possible to see how the borderline perceives non catastrophic ways of knowing as self destructive.

If turmoil is the presence of the object, then the borderline person’s absence of turmoil is also an affective representation of the lame primary object.

Indeed, psychic emptiness is part of the other’s residence within the self, an inevitable outcome of the moving effect of this object upon the self: stirred up and then abandoned. Full of enranged anguish and then empty. Fullness and emptiness: self states that expresa contad with this object.

Renewed emotional turbulence, when the primary object reappears is strangely nourishing. Feeding off his or her emotional tempests-it is, after all, what this other provides- searching for catastrophe from which one takes succour is by no means unknown to us; the world’s literature and art illustrates many examples of the self feeding off rage, feeding off jealousy, feeding off loas. These feeds are compensatory nourishments as the borderline turna the object-as-agent into a feeding occasion in order to transform a traumatic relation into something of a nurturing one. The analyst’s good enough technique is sometimes experienced as strangely depriving as it seems to prevent such feeds and misunderstanding may be sought in order to gorge the self on disturbed states of mind.

A «vertiginous self», always on the brink of catastrophe, the borderline patient awaits catastrophic moments to «milk» them when they arrive. Turmoil is the primary object beckoning them to plunge into the depths and it is hard to resist the temptation. «I know I like to live on the

Kristeva (6) argues that the depressive’s affect is the evocation leas of an object, than of the thing, a conjuring of the real.

Int Forum Psychoanal 5, 1996

edge» one patient told me, referring to a kind of low level thrill, never knowing whether he would fall into the maelstrom of intense conflict or pull himself back to safety. The edge or the borden A fine which this personality known only too well, a feelable border which he traverses, balancing himself, coming continuously close to falling, yet often able to bring himself back.

Borderline personalities often seek work with catastrophe services, such as counselling people in earthquakes or natural disasters, serving as volunteers in victim support services. They have an uncanny knack of knowing that such victims are disturbed by the object as agent, by something impersonal yet familial, something that touches the core of a self and lives in malignant residence. They know what it feels like to believe that one’s life is now irreversibly defined by a shocking event but their unconscious addiction to that shock, their search to revive it in order to gain excitement from it-to be close to what is believed to be the ultímate knowing truth-disables them from weaning any other true victim from a life catastrophe. We know only too well the unconsciously devoted victim: the man who never recovers from an automobile accident, the woman who never recovers from a rape, the man who cannot talk about anything other than an earthquake he was in. The cathexis of the object is barely hidden: an object the memory of which stimulates the sensorium and gathers the person into this truth.

Borderline sensationalism binds the self as the ego fragmenta. It is as if the self failed by an apparent object attacks it violently in mind and comes to pieces in the procesa; yet paradoxically, coheres the self by shit fits: mental torment is both the other disrupting the self and the self’s grasp on a reality. In their most extreme states-usually in hospital borderline patients will actually spit shit, and urinate in states of rage, which amongst other things-and of course this is always overdeterminedconstitutes attempted recovery through libido: a libido turned to the body, contributing to a psycho-sensorial-sensationalism supporting the body ego. One is reminded in these moments of the excretory territorialism of the psychotic who uses body excretions to mark himself, his living space, and his valued objects. More typically, however, the borderline is covered in mental paro and range, using affect for its sensational effect, rather than its communicative function. There is an autistic-somatic function to such use.

It is unfortunate that many of the well intentioned therapeutic endeavours designed to get the borderline patient to understand and use boundaries, to find socially appropriate expressions, and to adapt to their surroundings often support this person’s false self. Here the false self is a move to be without affect, to avoid engagements that still stir the self. The patient may be unusually «contractual», trying to settle conflicts by redefining agreements and gaining assurances. When I arrived two minutes late for one person’s session, he spent that hour and the next two enumerating agreements between us for what was proper under such a circumstance, trying to get me to sign a contract, so, that if I did it again, I would be bound to receive a just retribution from him. This false self, however, is constructed against any feeling. As feelings are unconsciously exciting, rousing a hunger, the borderline feels himself sliding into a relation defined by intense turmoil. So when the analyst makes a mistake the patient does not know what to do. Has the analyst momentarily offered them succour from the primary object…»Le. Hungry for something? Do you wish to feed off this?»-and the borderline is tempted. But he will often try to rope in a false self and come to a contract to stem the slide.

Psychoanalytic writers from numerous schools of thoaght have quite rightly emphasised the nature of the borderline’s developmental deficiencies. In focusing on borderline desire, I wish to concentrate on a particular clinical problem for the analyst. If we see the patient’s desire for turbulence not simply as a decompensation occasioned by internal objects falling from structural place or triggered by blows in reality, but as a conjuring of the primary‑the self feeding on its own anxiety and hate-we may see why he pursues the very disturbance with abandon. When the patient understands that he takes a form of pleasure in communing with this object, much of the seemingly senseless chaos of borderline attributes makes dynamic sense. «I know what you mean» said one patient «I have always gotton off on it [turmoil], like s
ome kinda sexual thing.»

However painful it is to the borderline to discover through analytical interpretation that his coercive emotionality and clinging grievousness is the realisation of a wish for a state of mind that is the object of desire, it eventually enables him to see the unconscious gratifications sustained through his character, ones which when lessened allows the redistribution of pleasure along different lines.

Until then, borderline desire seeks what the patient experiences as his deepest truth. Behind the ostensibly offending other (whether analyst or someone else) is the intangible ghost of a profound familiar «other» who inhabits the self and becomes indistinguishable from it., This desire does not have to seek the object, it knows that this intangible force will visit the self regularly enough-in life events or in memory-and when it feels itself being called to this communion, believes it is moving toward some awful truth that is at the very essence of the formation of the self. The borderline’s desire is to meet his truth and to be moved by it.


1. Green A. Le travail du negatif. Paris: Les Editions de Minuit, 1993.

2.Bollas C. The shadow of the object: psychoanalysis of the unthought known. London: Free Association Books, 1987.

3.Steiner J. Psychic retreats. Pathological organizations in psychotic, neurotic and borderline patients. London: Routledge, 1993.

4.Dante Alighieri. La Vita Nuova (1292‑4). Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1962.

5.Melville H. Moby Dick (1851). New York: W W Norton, 1967.

6.Kristeva J. Black Sun (1987). New York: Colombia University Press, 1989.