The Dos and Don'ts When Someone You Love Has Borderline Personality Disorder
When someone you love lives with a mental illness like borderline personality disorder, it’s only natural that you’d want to help them and support them as best as you possibly can. Unless you also live with BPD, though, it’s hard to know how you can best support them without hurting their feelings or making the situation worse. So, here are some suggested dos and don’ts when someone you love lives with borderline personality disorder.
Don’t: Make assumptions about their diagnosis.
Between online forums and mainstream media, there are lots of false narratives about BPD that people can use to quickly make assumptions about their loved one’s diagnosis. However, a lot of these fallacies don’t have any factual basis, and more importantly, BPD can manifest in different ways for each person.
Do: Make an effort to learn about their illness.
Borderline personality disorder is a highly stigmatized, often misunderstood mental health condition. However, you can change the narrative around the disorder and connect with your loved one in a more meaningful way by learning about BPD. There are several great books about BPD written by people with lived experience and by experts, not to mention there are lots of great online resources (like The Mighty).
Don’t: Call them “crazy.”
When we don’t understand a person’s feelings or actions, it’s easy to place labels like “weird,” “crazy,” or “abnormal” on the person we don’t understand. However, calling someone you love crazy just because their perspective doesn’t align with yours isn’t supportive or helpful. This invalidation is hurtful, and it can ultimately make a person with BPD feel even worse about themselves and their diagnosis.
Do: Validate their feelings.
Psychologist Marsha Linehan once said, “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.” In other words, what may feel like a minor sting to you can feel extremely painful to your loved one with BPD.
Although you may not always understand how they feel, you can listen to them explain their emotions to you and validate their feelings. Validation is a simple, yet powerful tool that helps people with BPD feel seen and heard. By simply showing someone you care, you may encourage them to open up more and continue working towards recovery.
Don’t: Walk out on them if they’re genuinely trying their best.
Fear of abandonment is a common symptom people with borderline personality disorder experience. Unfortunately, this fear of abandonment can drive a lot of other maladaptive behaviors and grows even more intense each time someone “walks out” when times get tough. In many cases, the person is simply trying their best and doesn’t always realize the full extent of their actions, especially if they’re still in denial about their diagnosis or in the early stages of recovery.
Do: Set healthy boundaries if needed.
As I mentioned, walking out on someone who is trying their best is incredibly defeating. However, your emotional health matters just as much as theirs. So, don’t be afraid to set healthy boundaries with your loved one as needed.
Some examples of healthy boundaries include setting limits on phone conversations, making reasonable requests regarding behavior, and refusing to do something that goes against your morals. Sometimes, boundaries can be clearly communicated in a calm, matter-of-fact way, such as, “I will be silencing my phone at 10 pm every night. If you call after that, I will respond in the morning.” Other times, you may simply create boundaries for yourself like, “I will not get in the car and go to their house every time they seem upset. I will offer a list of suggested coping skills instead.”
Boundaries can be tough at first, but they are also important for both you and your loved one. Just remember: boundaries aren’t a weapon or threat you can use against someone (i.e. “I’m setting a boundary until you get your feelings in check.”). They’re just a measure you can put in place and uphold to take care of your own needs.
Don’t: Ignore mentions of suicide or self-harm.
If you spend any time on the internet, you have probably seen all of the posts in online forums about how people with BPD are “attention-seeking” and “fake” their distress. However, that’s not really true at all. In fact, approximately 80 percent of people with BPD make at least one suicide attempt during their lifetime, and close to 10 percent die by suicide. For this reason, all mentions of suicide or self-harm should be taken seriously, even if that means you contact a hotline or your local crisis support center.
Do: Encourage them to get help.
Although you should always take mentions of self-harm seriously, you are probably not an expert trained in crisis stabilization — and that’s OK. The best thing you can do for your loved one when they are in crisis is offer support and help them contact the appropriate resources to get professional help. Many times, people who live with BPD have already created a crisis safety plan with their therapist, and you can reference that as needed. If they don’t have a safety plan already in place, encourage them to create one when they are no longer in crisis so it’s available for the future.
Don’t: Blame everything on their diagnosis.
Phrases like, “Quit being so borderline!” and “Your BPD is showing!” feel so common in modern society. However, these phrases can be quite damaging because they tie everything about a person back to their diagnosis. This can make people who live with BPD feel like they aren’t a person, but rather just a disorder.
I have had several friends and loved ones connect my behaviors to my diagnosis over the years. While I sometimes understood their point, I don’t think they ever realized the way their words affected me and inhibited my progress. But once I recognized the connection between their words and my self-esteem, I was able to (with the help of my therapist) reframe these negative views and see the difference between my behaviors and my worth as a person.
Do: Hold them accountable for their actions.
As I mentioned, connecting a diagnosis to everything a person does can be damaging. However, accountability is an important part of the recovery process for BPD because it provides awareness. Oftentimes, a person’s maladaptive behaviors occur automatically, so pointing them out and holding someone accountable to the changes they’ve committed to can help them in early recovery.
For example, splitting can be a maladaptive behavior that the brain jumps to automatically as a means of protection and a “fight or flight” response. It’s not a helpful way to cope, though, and should be replaced. If your loved one splits on you, you can point out the behavior, then encourage them to use skills they’ve learned in therapy to work through it. You can even say something like, “I’d love to talk to you about what you’re feeling right now, but I need you to remain calm while we talk. Is that something you can commit to?”
Most of all, love them unconditionally.
Most people with borderline personality disorder just want someone to care about them the same way they care about everyone they love. By following these suggested dos and don’ts and taking the time to learn more about ways you can make your loved one feel supported, you’ll go a long way towards helping them feel loved just the way they are.
Getty image by Tim Robberts