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  • Writer's pictureLiz Vines

When a Loved One Has Borderline Personality Disorder, Part 1

Updated: Mar 21

What is Borderline Personality Disorder?

Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) is a mental health disorder that affects a person's interpersonal relationships in such a way that it interferes with the general functioning of their life. BPD often involves black and white thinking, projecting, high levels of emotional disturbance, difficulty self regulating, and alternating between extreme idealization and extreme devaluation of others.

BPD is thought to involve a kind of splitting that protects the sufferer from extreme emotional pain. As a trauma related disorder, BPD very often originates from high levels of suffering at a young age. When this kind of trauma (often attachment related) is unable to be fully integrated, we usually develop lots of ways of coping. If BPD arises to help us cope, we might develop a 'splitting mechanism' that allows us to only see people as good or bad, helpful or not, kind or mean, loving or hating, etc. Because we all contain good and not so good parts, we cannot ever live up to the pedestal that someone with BPD might put us on, and we also won't fit into a one dimensional negative view. People with BPD often fluctuate very quickly between idealizing someone and demonizing them because neither category actually fits anyone. Projection (assigning feelings, thoughts, or experiences onto another and responding accordingly) is also common in BPD because it supports black and white thinking. If I believe that someone is a horrible person, that process likely involves assuming that I know their thoughts and the assumption that they are horrible thoughts. This all comes from inside of me and may not actually be true. The high level of emotionality and difficulty self regulating in BPD is also common with other trauma disorders and may be related to chronic nervous system disturbance, and/or coping skills that don't effectively soothe. While the coping patterns of projection and black and white thinking may be intended to reduce suffering, they often exacerbate it.

At this point, you might be wondering if you have BPD. It's important to remember that we all do these things. Black and white thinking is common, and projection is basically universal. It's all about how much we do these things, if we ever don't use these coping mechanisms, and how much they interfere with our life. It's common for people with BPD to not really ever be able to hold down a job, and to have tumultuous relationships with virtually everyone with whom they have a relationship, whether it is deep and intimate or casual. It's also good to not try to diagnose yourself. It is so so hard to step back enough to see ourselves objectively. Experience is nuanced, diagnosis exist on a spectrum. I still can't figure out if I have ADHD. But more on that in a future post, back to our loved ones with BPD.

How to Be in Relationship with a Loved one with BPD

Boundaries. This is the most important thing. And yes, there is likely to be a reaction from someone with BPD when you set a boundary, especially if you haven't really done that before. But still do it! It's good for both of you. Boundaries give us the space that we need in order to be able to love someone. The amount of space depends on you and what you need. Everyone with BPD is different. Some people will be able to maintain equilibrium for longer than others, and equilibrium will look different for everyone. Ask yourself what you're willing to face in your interactions with them, and know that this will change depending on what you're already dealing with in your life, how rested/healthy/well fed you are, etc. Strong boundaries help you show up with more energy and compassion, and they also send a message to your loved one that they won't receive the connection they're looking for if they behave in an unkind way. One of the theories of how BPD develops involves parents with exceptionally loose boundaries that leave children feeling unsupported and uncared for, so again, boundaries help everyone.

What Do Boundaries Look Like?

So very different. Here are some possibilities. Notice what you feel in your body when you read these. If there is a fear or an "I can't do that!" notice it, set it aside to look at later or in therapy. For now, focus on the boundary itself - do you feel relief, excitement, less tension, softening in your chest, or nothing much? Initial reactions give us useful information.

-Spend only short amounts of time together. You decide what this amount is: 1 hr? 2 hrs? Half a day? 10 Minutes?

-Only hang out outside if being outside seems to help

-Decide that you won't go to them for emotional support if they are not able to give you emotional support

-Limit the amount of time and energy you will put in to providing emotional support

-Call them out. Tell them (with kindness) that you will not support them in trash talking so and so and that you will have to leave unless they'd like to talk about something else.

-Cut them completely out of your life

-Communicate only via phone calls

-Communicate only in person, ie. no texting

-Communicate once a month, once a quarter, only on holidays and birthdays

These boundaries might work best if the person in your life who suffers from BPD isn't a close relative or someone you live with. If that's the case, you might want a slightly different strategy for coping. See part 2 for information on living with someone with Borderline Personality Disorder.


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