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What Not to Say to Someone With Borderline Personality Disorder

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Borderline personality disorder (BPD) is a condition that is extremely painful for the person living with it. Those with BPD experience possible symptoms which may include dissociation, impulsive behavior, extreme moods, self-harm or suicidal tendencies, fear of abandonment, unstable relationships, unclear self-image, explosive anger and chronic feelings of emptiness. In some cases, the person will experience all nine of these symptoms.

Many people who live with BPD are incredibly sensitive and the way they are spoken to by others can have a huge impact on their mental health. Living in constant fear of being abandoned, in combination with self-harm tendencies and extreme mood swings, means the person can easily perceive rejection, even when it isn’t there. As someone who struggles with BPD myself, I know there are certain things people say that aren’t malicious, but which invalidate my feelings and experiences as someone with BPD. Here is a list of some of the things to avoid saying, along with suggestions of things to say instead.

1. “You seemed fine earlier.” 

Obviously this comment comes in a lot of variations, but essentially the gist of this statement is making a comment that suggests having a good understanding of when you are OK and when you are not, and it belittles any suffering that is being experienced. I have had people say this to me when I am having a breakdown and it is quite a difficult thing to hear. These kinds of statements are problematic for two reasons.

Firstly, this has accusatory or disbelieving undertones (whether they are intended or not). Anything that invalidates the extremely painful and all-consuming emotions I feel as someone with BPD makes me feel misunderstood and can be incredibly isolating, as it sends the message that someone distrusts the authenticity of what I am experiencing.

Secondly, this kind of statement assumed you always know what someone with BPD is going through. This is absolutely not the case, I often try to display the best parts of myself to those around me, I will walk in smiling and making jokes, but when I am at my absolute worst or even just feeling slightly down, I will either deal with it alone or only allow a very select group of people to see me in such a state.

The pain of having BPD cannot be overestimated; chances are that if you know someone who has it you only see the tip of the iceberg of what they are going through, so any comments that try to trivialize or question their struggles should be avoided. Instead it may be better to apologize if you didn’t realize how much they were struggling; this removes the blame or assumption and lets them understand that you do care, but just misread the situation. It is also fine to not refer to their previous apparent moods at all and listen to what they are telling you in the moment.

2. “Stop trying to make me feel guilty” / “It’s not a big deal” / “You’re overreacting” 

There is a common misconception that those with BPD are manipulative, however, in my experience this is absolutely not the case. Often if you upset someone without meaning to, this makes you question your own behavior. The outcome of that is to be defensive and make comments which belittle the struggles of the other person in order to place the blame on them and make yourself feel better. However, the likelihood is if someone with BPD is communicating to you that you have upset them, they are not doing it with the intention of trying to ruin your day or make you feel bad — they are probably doing it because they are in a huge amount of pain and want to avoid that happening again.

People with BPD tend to fear rejection, so it often takes a huge amount of courage for them to be honest about when they have been hurt. What may seem like a small comment to you may be hugely damaging and upsetting to someone with BPD. In this case the person may not be thinking logically enough to understand that the situation triggering them may seem small or inconsequential to the average person. When someone with BPD is highly distressed, the best thing to do is show compassion and understanding. Even if you believe you have done nothing wrong and didn’t mean to cause upset, the fact of the matter is that person is suffering and most likely doesn’t have the emotional resources to deal with the situation rationally.

If you upset someone with BPD, to the best of your ability, try to be as apologetic and comforting as you can in the moment. Even if you don’t understand why they are upset, treat them as if their response is valid while they are feeling unstable. This will keep them safe and minimize the damage done. Then, once they have calmed down you can talk together to find a solution moving forward and work out how such situations can be avoided in future. This is the time where you can defend yourself or explain any concerns, but in moments of emotional distress it is best to put the safety of the person first.

3.“Don’t be upset” / “Don’t be so sensitive” / “Don’t worry about it”

These are all phrases which most likely have good intentions; we want to make our loved ones feel better so we try to simplify their problems to something that is easily solvable and to offer simple solutions. However, for the person with BPD, emotional invalidation can be very upsetting and triggering. As a general rule of thumb, avoid telling anyone with mental health problems to just snap out of it in any form, because if they could they absolutely would. The undertones of statements like this are minimizing and belittling. While your intentions may be supportive or helpful, what you are doing is no different to telling someone with a physical illness to “just get better.”

Borderline personality disorder is not something we choose to have. Those with BPD have to work so hard each day to remain safe and as stable as possible. Therefore, try to avoid comments which either belittle their suffering or suggest it is self-inflicted. Instead, remind those with BPD that you love them, you are not going anywhere and you are here to listen if they need it.

Getty image by LUMEZIA

Originally published: March 31, 2021
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