Lessons from ‘Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’: The Trouble with Black-and-White Thinking

A psychologist discusses what the season 4 premiere of the CW series teaches us about borderline personality disorder.

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This is the first in a series covering about Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, a CW comedy series.  The pieces will jump from episode to episode as well as season to season, so beware of spoilers!

One of the thinking patterns most associated with Borderline Personality Disorder is All-or-Nothing Thinking, also referred to as Black and White Thinking. 

In Season 4, Episode 1 of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, both Rebecca and Nathaniel demonstrate to viewers why this can be such a troubling symptom for folks with Borderline Personality Disorder.

For those of you who are unfamiliar, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend follows the misadventures of Rebecca Bunch, a character who displays many traits of, and is eventually diagnosed with, borderline personality disorder (BPD).  

At its core, BPD is a difficulty regulating affect, which can cause a person struggling with the diagnosis to engage in various maladaptive behaviors in an attempt to reign in emotions which, at times, feel unbearable.

The best explanation I’ve ever heard, comes from the treatment guru herself, Dr. Marsha Linehan – she describes the experience of BPD as the emotional equivalent of having third-degree burns covering your body, even the lightest touch can cause intense pain.  

If you haven’t read Dr. Linehan’s piece about her own struggle with BPD, it’s definitely worth your time.  

Despite immense strides in the understanding and treatment of BPD specifically, and the decreasing stigma surrounding mental illness generally, BPD continues to be one of the most stigmatized mental health diagnoses.

Despite the series’ name, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend manages to portray one woman’s struggle with BPD in an accurate (albeit heightened for TV) and highly empathic manner. The writers’ tackle nuanced topics on a weekly basis, and this episode was no exception.

The show doesn’t highlight Nathaniel’s experience in the same manner in which it does Rebecca’s, but he displays many characteristics of BPD himself (e.g. attempting to regulate strong affect through punishing exercise and restrictive eating, frequent displays of anger).  

Like many with BPD, the outset of the episode finds him using every trick in the book to keep Rebecca from abandoning him (e.g. ending up in jail for pushing her ex-stalker who was trying to kill him off of a roof, but that’s a story for another post). Eventually, he coerces her into entering a plea of guilty by reason of insanity, thus ensuring that he and Rebecca can finally start their lives together.  

Rebecca however, has a last-minute change of heart.

As impulsive behavior is often a feature of BPD, it’s not surprising when Rebecca decides at the last moment to change her plea to guilty; Rebecca believes she must be punished, she believes that she should go to jail.  

Now, I’m hardly advocating for pushing people off of rooftops, but if you had to make an argument that, in a completely fictional universe, anyone deserved it, it would be Trent—plus, it’s not like he died or anything.

Rebecca however, could have chosen a myriad of ways to make amends for her mistakes, both real and imagined, that weren’t as extreme. However, black and white thinking led her to the conclusion that the most extreme punishment was the most appropriate.  

In that moment in the courtroom, she was overwhelmed by feelings of guilt, remorse, and empathy—particularly for Paula, who is just about ready to give up on her. In one, impulsive act of self-destruction, Rebecca enters a guilty plea, and the judge sends her to jail for six weeks to rethink her decision.

Are you perhaps, confused by all of the emotions that came up for Rebecca during her plea hearing?  

It’s a myth that people with BPD do not experience feelings of guilt, shame, or remorse for behaviors which may hurt others.  

As a matter of fact, folks with BPD experience these feelings so intensely that they make herculean efforts to shut them off, until the emotions become so overwhelming that they bypass their defenses. This leads to more impulsivity and further self-punishment. It’s that all or nothing belief about emotional experience and expression that leads to this seemingly never-ending cycle of suppression, explosion, self-punishment for folks with BPD.

It’s a myth that people with BPD do not experience feelings of guilt, shame, or remorse for behaviors which may hurt others.  

Jumping back to Rebecca’s male counterpart, Nathaniel has his own intense affect to avoid.  

In her grandiose act of self-sacrifice, he perceives himself as having been abandoned by the woman he loves, and is also consumed by feelings of guilt and recrimination.  Much like many people with BPD, Nathaniel was subject to extreme emotional abuse as a child.  

Now, 20 years later, he could not save Rebecca, so rather than exploring areas that are more grey in nature, such as perhaps using his skills as a lawyer to help her, or even just being present as a source of support, he is so consumed by his own heretofore repressed affect, he believes he must be punished, and embarks on a torturous camping trip, which involves, among other things, a pre-trip beating, and drinking water off of leaves.  

During her time in jail, Rebecca tries and fails to connect with her fellow inmates.  She is so consumed with her own pain that she ignores the pain of those around her, and all of the many gifts that she does have which she might offer to mitigate it (here’s a hint, organizing a prison musical extravaganza is not one of them).  

Likewise, once Rebecca is out of jail, rather than any attempt to explore the intense, emotional pain that led to their extreme, self-imposed punishments, Nathaniel swings the pendulum back to suppression, thinking he can cure everything with an impulsive trip for two to Hawaii.   

Now, in addition to being a psychologist, I am in fact, a human, and I can’t lie, there was a teeny part of me (ok maybe not so teeny) that wanted Rebecca to allow herself to be whisked away by Nathaniel – it taps into the rescue fantasy that many of us have, and that those with BPD take to an extreme.  

Society does a disservice to women by demonizing their BPD symptoms.

As a psychologist however, I beamed when Rebecca chose to take the difficult, messy, grey path instead. Psychological pain and all, Rebecca marched back into prison, this time as a visitor, and was able to access her empathy to offer her former cell mates something they actually needed, free legal help.  I wish I could say that Nathaniel ended the episode in a similar place.

Society does a disservice to men with BPD, often normalizing and rewarding their symptoms (excessive drinking, extremely dangerous sports, promiscuity – whatever that means).  

Society does a disservice to women by demonizing their BPD symptoms. Perhaps as a whole, therapists and laypeople alike, we will learn to walk the middle path, and recognize, that like anyone with a mental illness diagnosis, people with BPD need and deserve our empathy, support, and treatment.  

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