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 family, friends, and/or coworkers who don’t. It is challenging to know exactly what to say, how to say it, and when to say it to avoid problems, challenges, or conflicts. Things can get worse if there are other individuals in the environment with an undiagnosed BPD.
Despite these truths, compassion and understanding is the best tool to use. 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. It’s often easy to do. So it doesn’t shock me when parents, families, caregivers, friends, etc. come to my office desperately seeking help and suggestions on how to cope with a loved one with BPD.
The language used to describe individuals with BPD can come across to sufferers as cold, detached, and uncaring. But the language is often reflective of individuals who have been hurt, manipulated, or controlled by someone with BPD.
To make matters worse, it is often easy to misinterpret the behaviors of those diagnosed with BPD which can lead to incorrect expectations within relationships causing miscommunication and frequent conflict.
For those unofficially diagnosed with BPD, intelligence, success, and independence can make it difficult for others to understand how individuals with BPD can go from mature and stable to unreasonable and self-injurious. This is frightening for those who lack knowledge about BPD.
What families and friends often fail to realize is that misdirected emotions, past experiences, and current stressors often make those with BPD vulnerable to conflict. I have spoken to many parents who are perplexed by their daughter’s over-reaction to a simple request or a perceived slight. The emotional reactivity and risky reactions often displayed by one with BPD is worrisome to many families.
Learning how to support someone diagnosed with BPD will require the acknowledgment that boundaries need to remain firm. Setting boundaries create a set of rules that can help confrontations or arguments dissolve more quickly. To begin setting these boundaries 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., bringing 3 or more people into an argument) is often a “vehicle” used to either obtain validation from someone else or get attention. Most people seek validation from people they trust and this is healthy. But some individuals seek validation to feel supported in doing things that aren’t okay. For example, someone with BPD may misperceive the intentions of a loved one and believe that they are being “treated like a child.” This individual may go to a close family member to gossip which causes this person to want to get involved in the argument and “make things better.” To avoid feeding into this behavior, minimizing over-exaggerations or harmful gossiping can be helpful.
- Get pulled into the drama triangle: 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 to others who then feel compelled to intervene. But this intervention only makes things worse. To avoid this kind of triangulation, you can avoid discussing the incident with others who have nothing to do with the initial problem.
- Feel emotionally destroyed by impulsive remarks or behaviors: Some individuals with BPD struggle with anger management and impulsivity. The foundation of relational problems is often anger and impulsivity. If you are feeling devalued or completely disrespected, make that known to the person and then create boundaries that make it clear you will not tolerate any abuse. If this does not help, gradually distance yourself until boundaries are “reset.”
- Become emotional “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 for money and then discard me when he got ready.” Individuals who are not in treatment for BPD and who may have sociopathic traits lack empathy. 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 setting the boundary. 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 makes most of us feel loved, needed, and respected. 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. You can’t allow them to push boundaries with manipulation, seduction, or control.
- Always go the extra mile: Going the extra mile is a wonderful thing to do. It’s something we all hope someone will do for us. However, boundaries need to remain firm as needed and respected by the individual who chooses to manipulate the relationship.
- 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 the 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. If cycles are unintentional, a more therapeutic approach should be utilized. You can’t truly help the person if you get pulled in emotionally.
- 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 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 may control and manipulate or feel vulnerable if the relationship does not work out. If you begin to feel “suffocated” or responsible for how they ultimately feel, clarify the boundaries of the relationship and then empathize with them. Some individuals with BPD struggle with feelings of abandonment and will do almost anything to decrease these feelings. This conversation must be empathetic.
- 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.
- Normalize sexual promiscuity or risky behaviors: Normalization of risky or inappropriate behaviors will only make things worse. Some 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 or influenced by personality, thought patterns, and/or learned behavior. “Snapping out of it” is not easy.
- Normalize things and minimize your intuition: If it appears that something is truly wrong, something is most likely 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, attention should be paid to the behavior. Minimizing it or reducing its significance won’t help anything. We aren’t being helpful by minimizing.
What do you think about this topic? What has been your experience?
All the best
Photo by ezhikoff