Loving Someone Who Has BPD (Borderline Personality Disorder)
Many people who have borderline personality disorder (BPD) choose not to disclose their diagnosis for a number of reasons, the top one being the stigma that is still unfortunately associated with it. Why does BPD have such a bad reputation?
A sufferer of BPD may act out in upsetting and unsettling ways that when observed by others can lead them to be fearful of the sufferer, but compassion for the underlying causes of the person’s behavior is what is often desperately needed to move them toward healing. They may truly not be conscious of the severity of the maladaptive nature of their behaviors or may feel helpless or uncertain about how to change behaviors that were learned and ingrained long ago.
This article is not about making excuses for those of us who have borderline personality disorder, BPD traits, those who are in recovery, or those who identify as emotionally sensitive. It is about illustrating some of the experiences we have so that others will better understand that people with BPD are individuals who must work harder than the average person to manage emotions and behaviors. Does this excuse hurtful behavior such as lashing out in anger, lying, becoming obsessive, or manipulating (which some people with BPD do some of the time)? Not entirely, but I would argue that until a person receives proper treatment and begins to learn new and more effective, healthier ways to cope with emotional surges, mood swings, and other features of BPD, it is understandable why he or she would behave in such ways.
WHAT DOES HAVING BPD FEEL LIKE?
Having BPD means that you experience your emotions much more intensely than the average person. Sadness often isn’t just sadness. It’s deep despair. Hours later, you may not feel just happy, but so euphoric that it is scary. Anxiety can feel like terror.
Having BPD can mean that the world, relationships, and situations sometimes appear to be very black or white or all-or-nothing (“I hate you” or “I love you.” “You are the best,” or “You are the worst.” “I love this job,” or “My boss was mean. This job sucks, and I’m quitting.”) It can mean that you are completely and utterly terrified of being alone or of being rejected or abandoned.
The pain associated with these various forms of emotion dysregulation and distorted thinking contribute to our emotional sensitivity. Dr. Marsha Linehan has said that people with BPD are like third degree emotional burn victims. There is a very high sensitivity to emotional pain, and it can be excruciating. It can be really hard for someone not suffering from the disorder to truly understand, and it can be quite difficult for them to compassionately empathize when they are on the receiving end of the sufferer’s difficult behaviors, but trying to do so can help reduce suffering all around.
FEARS OF ABANDONMENT & CLINGINESS
For example, one of the criteria for BPD is “frantic efforts to avoid real or imagined abandonment” (DSM5). This can manifest as being very clingy, needy, refusing to be alone/having immense difficulty being alone, even for short amounts of time. There can be resistance and fights when a loved one simply wants to take time to him or herself, go out with friend, or even just go to work. I remember it being very painful for me in all of the above situations, and handling a loved one traveling for business was incredibly difficult for me to accept. I’d cry for days, not be able to eat or sleep much, and would be calling my therapist and the psychiatric crisis line repeatedly.*
Innocent gestures, facial expressions, and words can be misinterpreted by the suffer as meaning “You no longer love me, “You’re no longer interested in me, “or “You’re going to leave me.” Can you imagine how incredibly terrifying it is for someone to experience this level of fear on a routine basis? It’s exhausting! Keep in mind that while it may seem completely irrational, bewildering, and over the top to you, this is a very real experience for the sufferer.
DESPERATE ATTEMPTS TO AVOID ABANDONMENT
The outward behaviors exhibited (creating drama so you won’t leave, crying hysterically, threatening to hurt one’s self) may seem and even actually be manipulative in nature, but I know when looking back on my own issues in this area and in my conversations with my students who are working hard to learn effective Interpersonal Effectiveness skills, the manipulation was not done maliciously. It was a desperate means of trying to create and secure a sense of safety in my/their world when intense, terrifying feelings would arise.
So what can you do? Loving someone who has BPD can have its challenges, but it can also have its rewards. Underneath it all, emotionally sensitive people are some of the most compassionate and empathetic people I know (as am I!), and as they continue to work on their issues (for example, by learning DBT skills) and become healthier in relationships, they can make some of the best friends.
HOW CAN LOVED ONES HELP?
What was most helpful to me from loved ones when I suffered the most was, instead of judgment, expressions of disapproval, and “tough love” (which can really trigger an emotionally sensitive person to spiral down), was an acknowledgment or validation of my suffering. Something like, “I can see how fearful it’s making you that I’m going away. I want you to know that my need to go to XYZ doesn’t mean I love you any less, or that anything is wrong with our relationship.” A hug was also very comforting at such times.
Remember that validating a loved one can work wonders and it doesn’t mean that you approve of, completely understand. or believe that her or his behaviors are rational or acceptable. You are just meeting the person where she or he is, acknowledging that her or his experience is very real for them.
It’s not that often that people with BPD or who are emotionally sensitive receive this type of understanding. In addition to validation, learning all you can about BPD and DBT, including first hand accounts from those of us who have overcome the disorder and are in recovery (no longer meeting the criteria for the diagnosis) can be very helpful and encouraging.
You may also consider recommending that your loved on looks into our online DBT skills course.
If you are a person with BPD or who is emotionally sensitive, can you relate to being misunderstood as being manipulative, malicious, etc.? What do you wish that loved ones knew about the pain beneath these behaviors? Are you ready to learn emotional coping skills to help you in relationships and to cope with intense emotions? Check out the online DBT Course that I cofacilitate with Dr. Kathryn Holt.
If you are a loved one, what have you found helpful in coping effectively when the person you love is experiencing deep emotional pain and having outward manifestations of troublesome behaviors?
Thank you for reading.
* My life has changed since learning I had Borderline Personality Disorder. I am now in recovery, meaning I no longer meet the criteria for the diagnosis. This disorder can be overcome! I am no longer at the mercy of my emotions when loved ones choose to spend time away. I could never have imagined getting to this point, but I have, and I have hope for you and your loved ones, too.
You can learn more about me and my online dialectical behavior therapy skills course, and if you are loved one, you may want to sign up for my LOVED ONES email list.
Great post as usual, Debbie!
Thank you so much Joyce! I appreciate your encouragement! :)
God BLESS you Debbie!
My niece was recently diagnosed with BPD after living with me for 2 months. I took my first DBT workshop last week and your article reinforced many of the points covered in the workshop. I am reading and learning more about BPD and DBT in order that I can be a supportive part of my nieces’ life. I didn’t understand before she came to live with me that her actions were not malicious and so had a lot of anger and did not understand. Education is key when you have someone you love with BPD. Thank you and MUCH LOVE for helping me take another step closer to my niece.
What a kind message. Thank you so much! I am so glad you’re finding my articles helpful as you study DBT to help your niece. I got the chills when I read your message, because due to your willingness and openness, any resentment you had toward your niece sounds like it is changing form to compassion and understanding…and I couldn’t ask for something more after reading this article!
Much love to you, too, and may you and your niece find new healing and strength with each coming day.
I wanted to write you for so long .Have followed your journey for 3 years and it helped me immensely in my own recovery.You were always positive about that recovery is possible and I kept this in mind.When patience had left me,when I had thoughts that weren’t helpful,when I sabotaged my recovery there was always your “voice” inside me who believed that I will get better.
I am now giving pottery classes for adults with alcohol and/or drug addiction,I am attending a drama group where I can become comfortable in taking on characters (for exempel more assertive ones) .My marriage is thriving because I have learned to trust my husband .I communicate clearly about my own needs without getting guilt feelings.
I have a life worth living now and I want to thank you for your help.Your words are always caring,honest and inspiring.
I wish you all the very best,Debbie.You so deserve it.
Thank you so much for following my journey for so long! I am so happy to hear that doing so has helped you in your own recovery. You have no idea how much your comment means to me! ♥
How fantastic that you are now giving pottery classes and helping others. You’re out there creating a life worth living…doing things like drama group…working on your marriage…building your self-respect! I am incredibly proud of you Mia. Keep it up, because YOU deserve the very best, too!
Thank you,Debbie <3 :-) <3
Debbie, this is the first article of yours I’ve read since being on your Loved Ones list and I’m so very thankful for the insight. This is very helpful. Thank you so much.
Welcome to my blog! ♥ I’m so glad you found this post helpful and hope you find some of my other (past and future) articles helpful as well. Thank you for reading and commenting.
Thankyou so much Debbie! I myself suffer from BPD, but noticed a change for the better when I was diagnosed. There was so much more understanding from my loved ones, we still had arguments but most of them were resolved with strategic methods learnt from my psychiatrists. I’m sharing this post with my loved ones so that maybe they can understand my behaviour a little more. Thanks again! Xx
Thank you so much for sharing your encouraging personal experience. I also hope that passing along this article is helpful. Let me know how it goes!
Very well written and informative article Debbie! I am a loved one on someone who had BPD traits. I’m not sure she would meet the criteria anymore. Her life turned around on a positive note after both of us started learning and practicing DBT skills. I think the things that help the most is that I understand a little of what she was experiencing. Validation has been the most important tool for sure. Thank you Debbie for all your efforts, experience, skills and wisdom. You are inspiring :-)
Thank you for your kind words! I am so glad to hear that your friend began to improve after you both studied DBT skills. These skills can be life changing! Thanks for sharing how empathy and validation were helpful to you in your communication with your loved one, and I appreciate your very kind words! ♥
With your permission, I’d like to link this particular post on my own blog. You put into words what I have been trying to say for a few years. Thank you.
Thank you for asking, and please do! I’m so glad that my articulation of this situation is helpful to you. ♥
Thank you for your post.
You are very welcome, Abigale. Thanks for reading and commenting!
Debbie, I took your DBT for Loved Ones Class, and I learned SO much, and I have so much compassion now for my mother, myself and my daughter, I love you! This article is great, it’s what my daughter says, I’m not trying to manipulate you, Mom. I now see it as “she is in pain right now, how can I help her?”
Have you ever researched Complex PTSD, as my therapist replaces the diagnosis of Borderline with CPTSD. Just curious!
Thank you and Amanda!
Yes, I remember you. :0) I am so moved to know that as a result of the course you learned a great deal and that you grew in compassion and understanding for your family members. That is so amazing and encouraging. I appreciate you taking the time to let me know. And regarding CPTSD, yes, and that was one of my diagnoses as well. There is so much overlap with BPD.
My daughter who is 16 has bpd traits but has not been diagnosed. She is getting individualized dbt this summerand did not want to participate with a group. She is very private. She is such a wonderful person. It is so hard to watch her suffer. She lacks friends. I hope this changes for her in college. Thank you for sharing your insight. You give me hope.
Thank you for sharing regarding this difficult and painful situation with your daughter. She is fortunate to have a Mom who is looking for early intervention regarding her emotional sensitivity. This gives her more of a fighting chance, I believe. ♥
Please keep that hope!
I joined this website to help support my girlfriend, and it always makes me feel stronger reading things like this blog post. Those with BPD require lots of emotional support to get through the pain that BPD can bring, but the loved ones who support them can need motivation and support as well.
I appreciate your advice of validating the pain and suffering. I tried the tough love approach one time, and while it got my point across, it ended up being very painful for both of us. I’ve since tried to be calm, kind, and loving while still strong in my opinions and beliefs about doing the things I want with my friends, having quiet time, etc, and it’s been very helpful. Not easy, but helpful.
I guess my advice as a BPD loved one is that we should be actively seeking out love and support too. From other friends and relatives that understand what we’re going through, from others online that share the same experiences, and maybe even DBT therapists.
Charlie, thank you for your kind comment! You sound very insightful and caring. ♥
your material on BPD has been the most informative and sensitive and understanding that I’ve read to date. in my school i notice that there a number of students who present with the symptomology of BPD and i have one in my care that has been given a diagnosis of BPD. i bought her your book, directed her to your site but i’m looking for support material for her mom. do you have any material, or can you direct me to some or suggest a book, that is about negotiating the BPD sufferer in the family space? there is a lot of tension there between mom and daughter and i would like to provide mom with some tools to help eliminate some of those tension and get her to assist with her daughter’s recovery to help her end all the suffering that she puts herself through. there are siblings as well in the household who also need to have some tools to help them work with sister. any suggestions you make will be welcome. thank you for this very generous space that you have made as the info is strong and resonates well with this educator.
Thank you so much for reading and for your kind reply! Mom can look into finding a local Family Connections meeting, which is a free resource by the National Education Alliance for Borderline Personality Disorder (NEA-BPD). Here’s the link: Family Connections NEA BPD. I really hope this helps! ♥