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Borderline Personality Disorder: Social Survival Skills

Borderline Personality Disorder is not just about mental illness and emotional distress, it is also about social skills (or lack of them), empathy, manners, conflict resolution and self-care. Most children learn these vital social skills early on at pre and primary school where they observe other children’s behaviour, learn a “theory of mind” or how other children think and feel (mentalising) and experience compassion and empathy for others. These things come naturally to them.

But some children, through no fault of their own, are unable to learn and remain totally clueless about how to survive socially in the playground. These are the kids who suffer social neglect, rejection and abandonment. These are the children who need a step by step guide or a “recipe” on how to learn empathy, how to be a team player, how to get on with other children, negotiation skills, conflict resolution, the rough and tumble of give and take and sharing toys with grace and dignity.

These kids need to learn that when this happens, this is the correct response. I was not one of those naturally cluey children; I lived in social Siberia most of my school life and became a library refugee.

Here are five survival techniques desperately needed when suffering from BPD:

Some people with mental illness lack manners and social skills, and this is not their fault. While I have no personal evidence to back this up, I know that when you are barely surviving the environment, it is near impossible to pick up on social cues from other children that you are not conforming or cooperating and that your behaviour is socially unacceptable.

When this carries on into adulthood it means job losses, social exclusion, lack of friends and relationship difficulties. However, having a mental illness and having non-acceptable social skills are two different things. I have seen many badly behaved people not taking responsibility for their actions, blaming everyone but themselves, simply because they lack manners, dignity and basic social skills.

It is never too late to learn, it is never too late to be aware of your own role in your mood swings and emotional distress.

There is much internet anecdotal evidence which correlates Borderline Personality Disorder with Asperger’s Spectrum Disorder. People with Autism (high functioning in the case of Asperger’s Spectrum Disorder) have a distinct lack of empathy and mentalisation ability due to their neural wiring. But empathy along with social skills can be taught recipe-style by a competent therapist.

If there is a BPD/Asperger’s Spectrum Disorder correlation then the lack of empathy Professor Simon Baron Cohen states is part of the BPD syndrome may instead be due to the Asperger’s factor. I would appreciate anyone reading this to enlighten me further with a scientific evidence based journal paper (if one exists).

Even people with BPD know how to say please and thank you. But in times of crisis and distress, manners can easily get forgotten. I know, I’ve displayed appalling manners when cognitively/emotionally challenged. Part of the process of getting well is remembering manners.

Even if you have to carry a sheet of paper around with correct responses to various social situations — and I have done this — then it is worth it. Once I learned to remember my manners and took responsibility for my lack of them at times, I started to get on with people, reduce my mental distress, avoid much conflict and start to feel like a regular member of the human race.

Two words in the English language that can avert national disasters, world wars, nuclear holocausts, unemployment, divorce and ripped up relationships, and they are “I’m sorry.” You could, if you wanted, add, “I made a mistake.” How empowering, how liberating those words are. Saying this means you are responsible, you have taken ownership of your words and actions. Then look at yourself and think, “Aha! That’s where I went wrong, next time I will do it differently.”

Also, use statements like: I feel…when you…because it makes me feel… According to Norman Cousins, wisdom consists of the anticipation of consequences.

When I get something right, like an apology or taking responsibility for something that didn’t go well, I reward myself with flowers, an ornament, a book or something to remind myself I got it right, helped someone, said something, avoided saying something, or added value to the office harmony.

Being a person with a BPD diagnosis, I gave up smoking and drinking, starting eating well and exercising regularly (80 percent of the time). I cannot stress enough that there is a poisonous connection between drugs, alcohol, smoking, eating unhealthy foods and mental irritability. The best gifts you can give yourself if you have a BPD diagnosis also includes routine, regular sleep and tuning into your sixth sense about how you feel internally. HALT if you feel that gut feeling. Are you Hungry, Angry, Lonely or Tired? HALT and sort yourself out. Sit down for five minutes and evaluate your inner self.

Social skills and mental illness are separate entities. Don’t blame yourself or beat yourself up on either count; learn what manners and social skills are. Become your own expert on yourself and watch yourself grow and mature emotionally.

I work in mental health and I have seen this and experienced it. It is a thing of beauty to behold.

Photo: Black Swan and Ducks – Sonia Neale 2011

Borderline Personality Disorder: Social Survival Skills

Sonia Neale

Sonia Neale was recently awarded the Inaugural Barbara Hocking SANE Australia Fellowship to study and research Borderline Personality Disorder overseas in the USA, Canada, UK and Ireland. Her previous Psych Central blog was called Therapy Unplugged. She is the author of two books, The Bad Mother’s Revenge and Death by Teenager, both published by ABC Books/Harper Collins. She lives in Western Australia, is married with three adult children, has studied psychoanalytic psychotherapy, has a Certificate IV in Mental Health and is studying for a Psychology/Counselling degree. She currently works as a peer support worker in the mental health field.

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APA Reference
Neale, S. (2012). Borderline Personality Disorder: Social Survival Skills. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 19, 2020, from


Last updated: 10 Aug 2012
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