Anger is an acid that can do more harm to the vessel in which it is stored than to anything on which it is poured. ~Mark Twain
We are a psychologically sophisticated society. Emotional difficulties are now shared openly — not only by celebrities but by your average person. It’s not unusual for people to tell friends that they have an anxiety disorder, anger management problem, depression, panic attacks, phobias, eating disorder, substance abuse problem, OCD or ADD.
Yet, there is a widespread psychological disorder that most people know little or nothing about. Why? Because its symptoms are largely interpersonal, causing many to view it as a relationship issue, not a mental health one. Also, people shy away from the term because of its unflattering name: Borderline Personality Disorder.
“Borderline? Am I going over the edge into an abyss? Oh my gosh! Next topic.”
Enough ignorance. Let’s review the major symptoms of people who have borderline personality disorder (BPD):
- They have turbulent and stormy relationships, making it difficult to keep a job or maintain a close relationship.
- They have frequent emotional outbursts, often expressing their outrage with verbal abuse, physical attacks or acts of revenge.
- Though they’re acutely sensitive to being abandoned and rejected, they’re harshly critical of those closest to them.
- They view others as “good” or “bad.” A friend, parent or therapist may be idealized one day, yet viewed the next day as a terrible person for failing to live up to their expectations.
- They may act out with self-destructive activity (i.e. reckless driving, compulsive shopping, shoplifting, cutting, bingeing with food, alcohol, drugs or promiscuous sex) as a way to fend off feelings of unbearable emptiness.
Borderline personalities run the gamut from mild to severe. It’s generally only the people who know borderlines intimately who are aware of the extent of their emotional difficulties.
Some sociologists believe that we are living in a “borderline culture,” heavy on righteous anger, light on acknowledging another’s perspectives. Watch daytime talk shows and you’ll understand what they mean. Or better yet, listen to the rhetoric of Congress and watch them in action (or should I say inaction).
If you recognize your own borderline characteristics, what should you do? If you’re motivated to change, psychotherapy with a psychologist who understands BPD can be quite helpful.
If you’re living with someone with BPD, life probably feels like an emotional roller coaster. So what can you do? Certainly, suggesting psychotherapy is a good idea. Don’t be surprised, however, if he or she uses therapy not to seek understanding but to rage about others. So, if therapy for your loved one is not moving forward, try a few suggestions:
Be consistent and predictable.
Whatever you have told your loved one that you will do (or won’t do), keep your word. If you’re the recipient of a violent outburst of accusations or a tearful meltdown, it won’t be easy. However, if you give in to the outrage, the borderline behavior is reinforced. And if you think your problems are bad now, just wait!
Don’t become your loved one’s rescuer. Don’t be manipulated into taking responsibility for his irresponsible actions. If he smashes up the car, don’t replace it. If she racks up credit card debt, don’t bail her out. If you keep rescuing her from the consequences of her actions, she will have zero incentive to change.
Offer honest feedback.
Don’t reinforce your loved one’s belief that he’s been treated unfairly unless you actually think that’s true. People with BPD tend to be clueless about how their behavior affects others. Hence, offer honest feedback. Say, “I know it feels rotten when you’re fired” but don’t agree with his assessment that it’s all because of those awful, mean people he worked for.
Don’t escalate the argument.
Your loved one may misinterpret what you mean. Offer constructive criticism and you’re met with a tirade of how despicable you are. Offer a compliment and you’re accused of being patronizing. Explain your intentions and the emotions escalate. Don’t get hooked into a fruitless argument. Do your best to keep your cool and your sanity even though you’re feeling frustrated, powerless and defeated by your loved one’s behavior.
How can you keep your cool and your sanity under incredibly difficult circumstances? Check out these helpful books:
- I Hate You – Don’t Leave Me: Understanding the Borderline Personality, by Jerold Kreisman and Hal Straus
- Stop Walking on Eggshells: Taking your Life Back when Someone You Care about has Borderline Personality Disorder, by Paul Mason and Randi Kreger
- Loving Someone with Borderline Personality Disorder: How to Keep Out-of-Control Emotions from Destroying You, by Shari Manning and Marsha Linehan.
Still want more help? Consider investing in a few therapy sessions for yourself. You’re not the one with the problem, but borderline personality disorder affects the whole family. If you learn skills to cope with your loved one’s behavior, you will all be better off.