Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) is a difficult disorder to navigate, not only for the person experiencing it but often for the people around us as well.
Each person with BPD experiences it in a different way, but there are certain things that repeatedly crop up, and one of those is certain unhelpful things that people say to us. These may not come from a bad place, but rather from a place of exhaustion or feeling overwhelmed, which is absolutely understandable. However, even if they aren’t meant with malice, they can have deep, long-lasting negative effects on a person with BPD.
I’ve put together a list of them, along with explanations of why they’re unhelpful, and an alternative way to approach the issue that may be more helpful to the situation.
1. Stop overreacting
This is a big one. Those of us with BPD are often accused of “overreacting” to situations that “the average person” wouldn’t get so upset or angry about. However, while it may be true that this may seem like an overreaction, for us, it’s our reality. We’re not acting up or being dramatic – we’re expressing our reality at that moment. Our emotions are significantly more intense than “the average person”, and due to circumstances in our lives, we may not yet have been taught the skills to manage and cope with these distressing emotions, for example with DBT or another therapy model.
More helpful: I understand that’s how you feel right now. Let’s talk about it.
2. I’m going to leave
Threatening to leave is extremely unhelpful to those of us with BPD. Part of our disorder is that we are terrified of abandonment, and we may see these threats as a punishment. It may also push us to “act out” in order to prevent the perceived abandonment. If you need some space, that is absolutely fine, but communicate that with us, but let us know you’re coming back.
More helpful: I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed and I need to take a break right now. I’m going to go for a walk for half an hour, then I’ll come back and we can talk it out. I’m not abandoning you.
3. The silent treatment
Sometimes not saying anything at all can be the worst thing you can do when dealing with someone with BPD. Again, our fear of abandonment goes into overdrive if we are purposely ignored. We understand that there may be times that you don’t want to talk, but again, this needs to be communicated beforehand.
More helpful: I don’t feel up to talking right now, I need a bit of me-time. I will ring you tomorrow morning at about 10am. I’m not abandoning you.
4. I can’t cope with you
Telling someone that you can’t cope with them can invoke in that person a feeling that they are inherently unlovable, or that they are inherently a bad person. There is a huge difference between letting someone know that you can’t cope with a specific behaviour, and making them feel like they are a bad person.
More helpful: When you [do a specific behaviour], I feel like I can’t cope with it. Can we talk about it?
5. You’re attention-seeking
This one can be really dangerous. For starters, we need to identify what we mean by “doing this for attention”, and I need you to stick with me while I go into it. People (not just those with BPD), do things for attention. But what do I mean by that? Trying to “get attention” is a way of communicating a need. The need might be that we are feeling neglected or unsafe. It’s perfectly natural that someone would want to communicate that need with a person who they feel could make them feel loved and supported. The problem when it comes to BPD is that we regularly feel neglected or unsafe, or a myriad of other distressing emotions, and we may also lack the skills to effectively communicate that. This does not mean we are “attention-seeking” in the negative way it is usually portrayed – we are simply trying to let you know that we need help. We’re trying to communicate with you. Accusing someone of doing something purely so they can get attention, or to garner sympathy, is both hurtful and false, and it may force someone to retreat and hide their destructive behaviours for fear of being accused of this. This can, in some situations, lead to self-harm and suicide attempts. We’re just trying to communicate. Please listen.
More helpful: I feel like you’re trying to communicate a need with me, but I’m not understanding that need. Can you explain it to me? What are you feeling? What do you need from me?
I hope that these explanations go some way to helping you understand how your words can affect your loved one who is experiencing BPD, and that the “more helpful” suggestions will help to facilitate more effective communication between you. While it is the responsibility of the person with BPD to engage with their therapy and work towards managing their emotions, it is also important that we are surrounded by a loving, caring support system, and people who make us feel safe.
What unhelpful things have you been told about you and your experience with BPD? How do you manage your communication with loved ones? Let me know in the comments!