Do you know the things you should do or the things you should say to someone with borderline personality disorder (BPD)? If not, join the millions of people who don’t. It is challenging to know what to say, how to say it, and when to say it to avoid problems, challenges, or conflicts with someone who has BPD. Things get even worse if there are other individuals with BPD around.
Despite these truths, compassion and understanding is the best tool to use with most individuals with BPD. This article will discuss 15 things you should avoid doing with someone who has BPD.
As a therapist it is my job to study the human mind and find the “key” to helping people change or alter their ways. But even as a trained therapist, there are times I miss clues or totally neglect to use the tools I know I should use. So it doesn’t shock me when parents, families, caregivers, friends, etc. come into my office desperately seeking help and suggestions on how to cope with a loved one with BPD.
To make matters worse, most individuals with BPD are intelligent, successful, and independent which makes it difficult for others to see they may struggle with relationships and emotions that, to others, may appear immature or petty. Because BPD can result in a host of negative and problematic behaviors, it is important not to:
- Feed into their need for attention/validation: Not all individuals with BPD seek attention or validation from others. But some do. So it is important that you are aware of how some individuals with BPD seek validation and attention. Triangulation is typically a “vehicle” used to either obtain validation from someone else or get attention. To avoid feeding into attention seeking behavior, you can shut-down or deter any over-exaggerations or harmful gossiping. To avoid feeding into the need for constant validation, you can avoid giving so many compliments or pull back on constant praise. It may be difficult, but it is necessary in some cases.
- Get pulled into drama/triangulation: I previously wrote an article on triangulation which you can read about here. Triangulation is a term used to describe an individual who often gets more than 1 person involved in a chaotic situation which results in more chaos.
- Be hurt by remarks or behaviors: Most individuals with BPD struggle with anger management. If you are feeling beat up by the person or completely disrespected, make that known and then create boundaries that make it clear that you will not tolerate abuse. If this does not help, distance yourself completely and make up in your mind that you will no longer be hurt by the person’s remarks or behaviors. Once you begin to see that the individual’s pattern of behavior is inconsiderate of your feelings, they don’t deserve the attention you give them by ruminating (i.e., constantly thinking) about how they treated you. It can be hard but it is worth it.
- Become “prey”: In some relationships with individuals with BPD, you can easily become “prey” when you allow the individual to use you and discard you when they get ready. Some individuals with BPD, especially those who have socio-pathic traits, can truly treat others like dirt. Sometimes it is intentional and other times it is unintentional. The best way to stay out of this trap is to keep boundaries up, make your needs known, and create space between you and the other person.
- Get into a “routine” or habit: Routines and habitual behavior can be helpful. But with individuals with BPD, you don’t want to get into the habit of allowing certain things such as calls after hours, visits to your home without announcing it, borrowing your things and never returning them, driving your car and keeping it longer than they should, etc. Once you allow this kind of behavior to always occur, you will have a difficult time trying to get your “life” or things back. Be ready for a fight…of some kind. I once had a young lady who would constantly say to her father “but…you always let me do it and now you don’t want me to. Hypocrite.”
- Be the “go to” person at all times: Being the “go to” person is something that should make you feel loved, needed, and respected. When family comes to me for things such as advice or suggestions, it’s a great feeling. Right? But for some individuals with BPD, being the “go to” person may also mean that you will become the one most manipulated and controlled. The individual may begin to believe that they are “so very close to you” and “in your good graces” that you will always go the extra mile. Once you become this person, it is going to be very difficult trying to establish boundaries. In some situations, trying to establish boundaries can result in a loss of the relationship completely as the person with BPD may begin to feel unloved or disliked. For some, any potential rejection will be fought.
- Allow boundary crossings: For some individuals, you must keep strong boundaries at all times. No questions asked. No doubt about it. Some individuals with BPD must have strong boundaries because if not, they will push them and sometimes with manipulation, seduction, or control. Your best bet is to make sure you know the person with BPD well enough to allow boundary crossings.
- Always go the extra mile: Going the extra mile is a wonderful thing to do and most of us really need this from time to time. But for some individuals with BPD, going the extra mile can open up a can of worms. Going the extra mile may mean that the individual begins to feel they can push the boundary, manipulate, or control. It may also cause the individual to feel too close (i.e., in a relationship) too fast or too soon. Keep your boundaries up.
- Look affected by attempts to control, manipulate, or dominate: Any sign of emotional distress, agitation, anger, or even pleasure can give way too much information away to the person with borderline personality. In other words, some individuals are so keen to the emotions of others that they are able to decide how to “make their next move” in the relationship (any kind of relationship) to remain in control. For example, I once counseled a young male with BPD who would report details of his life to me and then pause to see if I would respond in some fashion. I tend to be an expressive person and so when client’s tell me things, you can see my reaction. However, with this young man, I became almost stoic and would “downplay” some of his attempts to get a strong reaction from me. When he would tell me things to get a rise out of me, I would remain very calm and unassuming. You don’t want to be so obvious if you are dealing with a manipulator or someone who looks for strong reactions.
- Be manipulated by cyclical chaos: Chaos that occurs in cycles such as every spring, every school year, every anniversary, or every holiday may be intentional behavior. Although in some cases, cyclical behavior can be unintentional, you will want to avoid getting pulled into the person’s cycle. If the cycle is manipulative and intentional, you really don’t want to allow the person to gain that much control over you or anyone else. Disrupt the cycle by deterring it, blocking it, or switching up your plans/game. Because some individuals with BPD can display very immature personality traits, you’ll want to be a million steps ahead of things by preparing for the cycle to occur as you would a temper tantrum from a toddler. Know what to do.
- Engage in codependent behaviors: Co-dependence is the idea that two individuals lose their own identities, values, belief systems, feelings, thoughts, etc. due to the unhealthy fusion of two individuals in a relationship. Co-dependency (in a marriage or dating relationship) may come across to others as “sweet,” “romantic,” or even “charming” until the truth comes out. In families, co-dependency can come across as “closeness” or “supportive.” When co-dependence develops, the individual with BPD is likely to control and manipulate. If you begin to feel as if the person with BPD is “suffocating” you or making you feel as if you cannot be yourself, think the things you think, feel the way you feel, etc, don’t give in. Giving in may result in you developing co-dependent behaviors. You want to cut off the cycle by not engaging.
- Be pulled in by unsubstantiated fears of abandonment: I once counseled a young lady who exhibited every single symptom of BPD but was way too young to be diagnosed at the time. When she became a teenager she started dating a lot of guys. In almost every relationship, she ended up losing the guy because she pushed them away with her desperate attempts to avoid the anxiety and negative thought patterns that would arise every time the guy would temporarily leave her. Most individuals with BPD have an intolerance of aloneness, loneliness, or even being alone. The more you give in to irrational fears, the more the other person will feel you are validating them or making them feel there is some truth to how they feel. You can comfort the person or reassure them without enabling or confirming their fears.
- Normalize sexual promiscuity or risky behaviors: Normalization of risky or inappropriate behaviors will only make things worse. Most individuals with BPD tend to push limits, engage in risky behaviors, or seek stimulation in ways that are unhealthy. For example, a male with BPD may engage in frequent binge drinking of alcohol and sleep with someone he doesn’t know, drive home extremely fast and ten beat up his girlfriend after. This pattern of behavior may continue on and on and on until others begin to normalize the behavior in an effort to make him feel less negative about himself. While I strongly believe that people should be loved despite their challenges, normalization can become a stumbling block. It’s essentially…enabling.
- Believe they are capable of “snapping out of it”: Individuals diagnosed with BPD are not able to just “snap out of it.” They are being influenced by a variety of genetic, environmental, and social components that are also altered by or influenced by personality, thought patterns, and/or learned behavior. Although you don’t want to treat the person as if they are a “disease,” you don’t want to forget that most individuals with BPD tend to exhibit immature personality traits at some times that will have a major impact on others. Snapping out of it is not easy for these individuals. They have to learn what is and is not appropriate.
- Normalize things and minimize your intuition: If it appears that something is truly wrong, something is most likely truly wrong. Everyone gets angry. Everyone experiences intense emotions. And everyone will over-react at some point in their lives. But if these behaviors are intense and repeated, over long periods of time, something is wrong. Minimizing it or reducing its significance won’t help anything. Even if it is really, really difficult, acknowledge that something is wrong. Normalizing things is another form of enabling.