Do you know the things you should do or the things you should say to someone with borderline personality disorder (BPD)? If not, join the millions of people who don’t. It is challenging to know what to say, how to say it, and when to say it to avoid problems, challenges, or conflicts with someone who has BPD. Things get even worse if there are other individuals with BPD around.
Despite these truths, compassion and understanding is the best tool to use with most individuals with BPD. This article will discuss 15 things you should avoid doing with someone who has BPD.
Note: The language used in this article is reflective of the terms/language of some laypeople who have experienced the following characteristics in someone with BPD.
As a therapist, it is my job to “study” the human mind and find the “key” to helping people change or alter their ways. But even as a trained therapist, there are times I miss clues when working with individuals who have BDP. So it doesn’t shock me when parents, families, caregivers, friends, etc. come into my office desperately seeking help and suggestions on how to cope with a loved one with BPD.
To make matters worse, intelligence, success, and independence often characteristic of some with BPD makes it difficult for others to understand how they can go from mature and stable to unreasonable. Misdirected emotions, past experiences, and current stressors often make those with BPD more vulnerable to conflict. Because BPD can result in a host of negative and problematic behaviors, it is important not to:
- Feed into a need for attention/validation: Not all individuals with BPD seek attention or validation from others. But some do. Triangulation (i.e., including 3 or more people into an argument) is often a “vehicle” used to either obtain validation from someone else about something or get attention. Most people seek validation from people they trust. But some individuals seek validation to feel supported in doing things that aren’t okay. To avoid feeding into this behavior, shutting-down or deterring over-exaggerations or harmful gossiping can be helpful. Validation seeking may come in the form of making statements to receive compliments. If this is an obvious pattern that does harm to the relationship, minimizing the compliments may be helpful.
- Get pulled into drama/triangulation: Triangulation is a term used to describe an individual who often gets more than 2 people involved in a chaotic situation which results in more chaos. Instead of solving the problem with the person the problem started with, the individual may gossip or tell others who then feel compelled to intervene. To avoid triangulation, you can avoid discussing the incident with others who have nothing to do with the initial problem.
- Be hurt by impulsive remarks or behaviors: Some individuals with BPD struggle with anger management as well as impulsivity. The foundation of relational problems is often the result of anger and impulsivity. If you are feeling beat-up by the person or completely disrespected, make that known and then create boundaries that make it clear you will not tolerate abuse. If this does not help, gradually distance yourself until boundaries are “reset.” It can be hard but it is worth it.
- Become “prey”: In some relationships with individuals with BPD, you can easily feel like you are “prey.” I once had a client tell me they felt their son would “use me and then discard me when he got ready.” Some individuals with BPD, especially those who have sociopathic traits lack empathy. The best way to stay out of this feeling of “entrapment” is to keep boundaries, make your needs known, and create space between you and the other person as needed.
- Get into a “routine” or habit: Routines and habitual behavior can be helpful. But with some individuals with BPD, you don’t want to get into the habit of allowing certain things such as calls after hours, visits to your home without announcing it, borrowing your things and never returning them, driving your car and keeping it longer than they should, etc. Once you allow this kind of behavior to always occur, you will have a difficult time trying to get your life or things back. It isn’t unusual to have a fight on your hands once you make the boundary clear. I once had a young lady who would constantly say to her father “but…you always let me do it and now you don’t want me to. Hypocrite.”
- Be the “go to” person at all times: Being the “go to” person is something that should make you feel loved, needed, and respected. When someone comes to me for advice or suggestions it’s a great feeling. Right? But for some individuals with BPD, becoming the “go to” person may also mean that you will become the one most manipulated and controlled. The individual may begin to believe that they are “so very close to you” and “in your good graces” that you will always go the extra mile. Again, it’s great to be needed but with boundaries.
- Allow boundary crossings: Some individuals require you to maintain strong boundaries at all times. No questions asked. No doubt about it. Some individuals with BPD must have strong boundaries because if not, they will push them and sometimes with manipulation, seduction, or control.
- Always go the extra mile: Going the extra mile is a wonderful thing to do and most of us really need this from time to time. But for some individuals with BPD, going the extra mile can open up a can of worms. Going the extra mile may mean that the individual begins to feel they can push the boundary, manipulate, or control. Again, boundaries are needed in all relationships but may be needed more in certain other relationships.
- Look affected by attempts to control, manipulate, or dominate: Any sign of emotional distress, agitation, anger, or even pleasure can give way too much information away to someone who intends to manipulate or control you. Some individuals are so keen to the emotions of others that they are able to decide how to “make their next move” in the relationship to remain in control. For example, I once counseled a young male with BPD who would report details of his life to me and then pause to see if I would respond in he fashion he had predicted. With this young man, I became almost stoic and would “downplay” some of his attempts to get a strong reaction from me. Sometimes having this response can change the entire encounter for the better.
- Be manipulated by cyclical chaos: Chaos that occurs in cycles such as every spring, every school year, every anniversary, or every holiday may be intentional or unintentional behavior. In any case, you will want to avoid getting pulled into the person’s cycle. If the cycle is manipulative and intentional, you really don’t want to allow the person to gain that much control over you or anyone else. Disrupt the cycle by deterring it, blocking it, or switching up your plans/game. If the cycles are unintentional, a more therapeutic approach should be utilized.
- Engage in codependent behaviors: Co-dependence describes two individuals who lose their own identities, values, belief systems, feelings, thoughts, etc. due to an unhealthy fusion of two individuals in a relationship. Co-dependency (in a marriage or dating relationship) may come across to others as “sweet,” “romantic,” or even “charming” until the truth comes out. In families, co-dependency can come across as “closeness” or “supportive.” When co-dependence develops, the individual with BPD is likely to control and manipulate or feel vulnerable if the relationship does not work out. If you begin to feel as if the person with BPD is “suffocating” you or making you feel responsible for how they ultimately feel, clarify the boundaries of the relationship and then empathize with them. It is my belief that a lot of individuals with BPD struggle with feelings of abandonment and will do almost anything to decrease these feelings and codependence may be their first attempt.
- Be pulled in by unsubstantiated fears of abandonment: I once counseled a young lady who exhibited every single symptom of BPD but was way too young to be diagnosed at the time. When she became a teenager she started dating a lot of guys. In almost every relationship, she ended up losing the guy because she pushed them away with her desperate attempts to avoid the anxiety and negative thought patterns that would arise every time the guy would temporarily leave her. Most individuals with BPD have an intolerance of aloneness, loneliness, or being alone. This can result in unhealthy patterns of behaviors. You want to be careful with reinforcing these fears by how you respond. You can comfort the person or reassure them without enabling or confirming their fears.
- Normalize sexual promiscuity or risky behaviors: Normalization of risky or inappropriate behaviors will only make things worse. Most individuals with BPD tend to push limits, engage in risky behaviors, or seek stimulation in ways that are unhealthy. For example, a male with BPD may engage in frequent binge drinking of alcohol and have multiple unsafe intimate relationships with others while being married and holding a great position at a law firm. This pattern of behavior may continue if others begin to normalize the behavior in an effort to make him feel less negative about himself.
- Believe they are capable of “snapping out of it”: Individuals diagnosed with BPD are not able to just “snap out of it.” They are being influenced by a variety of genetic, environmental, and social components that are also altered by or influenced by personality, thought patterns, and/or learned behavior. “Snapping out of it” is not easy for these individuals. Most people have to learn what is and is not appropriate through experience and negative consequences. Individuals with BPD are no different.
- Normalize things and minimize your intuition: If it appears that something is truly wrong, something is most likely truly wrong. Everyone gets angry. Everyone experiences intense emotions. And everyone will over-react at some point in their lives. But if these behaviors are intense and repeated, something is wrong and should not be normalized. Minimizing it or reducing its significance won’t help anything. We aren’t being helpful by minimizing. We are reinforcing and maintaining the behavior.
What do you think about this topic? What has been your experience?
Looking forward to your comments.
All the best
Photo by ezhikoff