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The Truth About ‘Manipulation’ in Borderline Personality Disorder

According to Merriam-Webster’s dictionary, “manipulation” is defined as “to control or play upon by artful, unfair, or insidious means especially to one’s own advantage.”

The word is used with a negative implication; most people wouldn’t like to be called manipulators. However, it is the biggest stigma that people diagnosed with borderline personality disorder (BPD) face. Automatically, people assume that people living with BPD are overreacting because of a desire to manipulate a certain reaction out of others.

On one hand, those who live with this disorder have an emotional hypersensitivity. As Dr. Marsha Linehan, creator of the dialectical behavior therapy explains, “People with BPD are like people with third-degree burns over 90% of their bodies. Lacking emotional skin, they feel agony at the slightest touch or movement.” When people with BPD “overreact,” it’s because they are really feeling intensely. There is an absence of emotional regulation.

On the other hand, a person with BPD has a distorted vision in regard to their relationships. From idealizing someone and rapidly devaluating them to having difficulties setting limits, relationships tend to be a roller coaster of extreme emotions and confusions. There’s an almost vital necessity to feel loved and needed, to feel validated, to receive from others what the person can’t give to themselves. And, just like a baby cries when they are hungry, tired or lonely to get a reaction from their caregiver, the same way a person with BPD is trying to communicate that they have a pressing need to be met. It’s not a healthy way to communicate but it’s still a way of communication and not actually manipulation.

Through psychotherapies, the person with BPD is taught to express themselves more effectively, to regulate their emotions, to work on those situations that gave way for the person to adopt such harmful mechanisms. But other than the work the person with BPD has to do, it’s necessary that the stigma of the disorder ceases to have such an accusatory tone.

When we assume the person is acting erratically because they want to manipulate, a normal reaction would be one of anger. Nobody likes being played upon. But if we understand the person is acting erratically because they are unable to tolerate the intensity of their own emotions, and that the person is trying to communicate their incommodity through their behavior, then we’ll understand that people with BPD are the people most affected by their behavior. In this case, help the person stabilize their emotions. This can be done through conversation in which we aim to verbalize the emotions underneath the anger or desperation the person exhibits.

After a crisis, people with BPD feel guilty, sorry and shameful. They don’t want to hurt others, even though they sometimes do. They don’t want to lose control. Their intention is not to trick others; their purpose is not an evil one. So, let’s listen to the message their mouths don’t say, but their hearts desperately scream.

Photo by Alireza Dolati on Unsplash