When Your Mental Illness Drives People Away


I struggle with major depression, borderline personality disorder (BPD) and anxiety. The combination of disorders can make me act in unpleasant ways. My borderline is the worst, especially when it comes to attachment. The people I get close to are few, but when I like them, I really like them. I want their undivided attention, their support, their love. It’s exhausting for them, and for me.

Realistically, I know my expectations can be irrational. This means I often get disappointed and hurt when people don’t live up to them. If I’m not careful, I act out in response — usually with negative behaviors like withdrawing from the person, ignoring them or giving them the “cold shoulder.”

I know my mental illnesses aren’t me. But they do impact my behavior. If I’m not constantly aware of how I’m acting, I become the person people need to get away from in order to live their best life.

I’ve lost several loved ones this way. It hurts. It hurts more than anything, especially to see them doing better without me in their lives. But the key to changing this is recognizing my behavior.

Here’s what to do when you realize you might be “that” negative person other people move on from:

1. Recognize the behavior is happening.

For me, I usually become cognizant of irrational behavior by physical symptoms — feeling overheated, having a headache or tension in the neck and shoulders. This shows me I’m feeling upset about something and may be letting my feelings guide my actions. (This is a good tip for those of us who have trouble recognizing and understanding our feelings. Physical reactions are a great way to begin to identify the feelings we might otherwise not notice.)

2. Name the behavior without judgment.

Next, look at how that feeling is manifesting — how are you treating the people around you? For me, my behaviors are always directed towards my “favorite person.” Am I withdrawing from her? Being mean to her? Cold? How specifically am I doing this? Am I short when I talk to her? Do I not look her in the eye or avoid deeper conversations? For me, my borderline manifests in avoidance, not aggression, though avoidance can be just as hurtful.

3. Ask yourself if the behavior is hurting someone else.

In life, most people give what they get. I can tell when my FP is upset because she gets chilly towards me, just like I am with her. I know she takes it personally because she’s told me. It might not be so clear with everyone, though. Don’t assume someone is upset with you. Try to read their body language and nonverbal cues. Remember everyone has other things going on in their lives they could be reacting to. Think about how you would feel if you were treated this way. Would it hurt? If the answer is definitely yes, consider it might be hurtful to the other person.

4. If it is: ask yourself what you can do to change it.

Ask for help if you need. For me, coming up with specific actions to change my behaviors is helpful. Can I do the opposite of the behavior? For example, if I’ve been ignoring my FP, I try to consciously make eye contact with her, smile and ask her how her day is. It sounds simple but changing these small things will often make the people in your life feel better, respond more kindly, and in turn make you feel better. Don’t get stuck in a negative feedback loop.

5. Be honest with the other person involved.

Tell them you are struggling. Tell them you are working on it. Good communication (if the other person is good at communicating, too) can save a relationship. My FP knows about my disorder and makes a conscious effort to touch base with me, especially if we haven’t seen each other in a while. This commitment to communication has made both of our lives a lot easier.

6. Make a mental or physical note of the behavior and store it in your mind to be aware of if it comes up again.

The only way to really ensure change is to make note of the behavior so you can recognize it more quickly next time and correct it faster. Life is habit — do this enough and you might slowly break the behavior for good.

There are other, more general things you can do to make sure you aren’t bringing purposeful negativity into the lives of others.

Here are some suggestions:

1. Find a hobby.

Seriously. For me, it’s running. Whenever I feel really down in the dumps, I go for a run. It helps me work out all my negative energy without displacing it onto others.

2. Remove yourself from situations where you think you might react adversely.

If you feel like you might act aggressively towards someone (or passive aggressively in my case), leave the room. Go for a walk. Take a breather outside. When you return, hopefully the feeling will have eased enough that you can look at the situation with a cooler head.

3. Surround yourself with positive people.

This sounds intuitive, but being around positive people can help you reframe your thinking.

Sometimes, it feels impossible for me to change a behavior. I’ll recognize it, name it and know it’s hurtful. But for some reason, it’s hard for me to let go of. Most of the things I do are to protect myself in some way. I pull away before someone can abandon me, or I self-sabotage because that’s what I think I deserve. Sometimes, I’m in so much pain that I don’t care if I’m hurting someone else.

I know many of these feelings are due to my mental illness, but I also know I need to take responsibility for them. I don’t want to be “that” person for the rest of my life. I don’t want to drive people away. I want to be remembered for being someone who was inclusive, warm and tried hard to do the right thing. It’s a daily (sometimes hourly) struggle, but over time I’ve seen improvement, and I know my end goal is possible.

Unsplash photo via Spencer Dahl


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