Monday, January 10, 2011

Life on the Line: Negotiating Relationships with Persons With Borderline Personality Disorder

Borderline. . .
Feels like I’m going to lose my mind.   
You just keep on pushing my love over the borderline. . .
                                                          ~ Madonna - Borderline

A few days ago I discussed the difficulties with establishing boundaries and setting limits with persons in our lives who have personality disorders or personality disorder traits.  Fear, exhaustion, confusion, panic, apathy, and Guilt with a capital 'G' are intimate companions in the lives of  many people who resign themselves to existing in a sort of half-life as they enable and perpetuate the very behaviors that are sucking the life from them and the ones they love.

Complicating relationships and interactions involving a person who has personality disorder traits is the fact that personality disorders seem to like to congregate in herds. . .or in professional jargon, the APA states in the DSM-IV-TR, "Individuals frequently present with co-occurring Personality Disorders from different clusters."  That means there are typically more than one or two unpleasant behaviors grazing nearby, and our happy tranquil picnic is oftentimes interrupted by charging, stomping and snorting.  And what do we do?  Do we jump up madly waving our arms and charge, stomp, and snort our way into the melee?  Do we snatch up our watermelon, juggle our lemonade, and try not to trip over the blanket as we run lickety-split in the other direction?  Or do we sit still and quietly while hoping our warmth and compassion will be enough to slow the charge before we are errantly gored by a horn or crushed by a hoof?

Randi Kreger, owner of and author of the well-known books "Stop Walking on Eggshells:  Taking Your Life Back When Someone You Care About Has Borderline Personality Disorder" and "The Essential Family Guide to Borderline Personality Disorder: New Tips and Tools to Stop Walking on Eggshells" has a blog on  After reading a recent blog on by clinical psychologist Kristalyn Salters-Pedneault, PhD, in which Kristalyn voiced her thoughts and feelings after receiving what she described as "incredibly hateful" reader comments and email toward people with Borderline Personality Disorder.  Kristalyn  stated that she was "shocked by the level of vitriol," that "People with BPD deserve your compassion." and "Be grateful that you don't have to live with BPD.  And do something to help, rather than spewing out hate.  It's not helping you or anyone else."

Randi dedicated a blog of her own to thoughtfully discussing the nuances involved in validating not only persons with Borderline Personality Disorder but also the persons who are partners and family members  She asserts that these people are compassionate persons who hang in and hang on "Despite their BPD FM's (Borderline Personality Disorder Family Member') unexpected and unexplained anger; their impulsive, possibly reckless behavior; despite their inconsistent abandonment engulfment pattern; despite the fact the FM's (Family Members) often don't get their own needs met." Randi discussed healthy and unhealthy anger and grief.  All in all, a relevant and well  thought out discussion.

After reading Randi's blog I decided to take a look at Kristalyn's blog and comments as well as a NY Times article with comments that Randi had referenced.  As much as I appreciated Randi's and Kristalyn's thought-provoking blogs, I appreciated even more the discussion and comments by the people I consider to be the true 'experts' on this topic, persons having Borderline Personality Disorder traits and family members and friends of persons having Borderline Personality Disorder traits.  As a counselor who has worked with clients with Borderline Personality Disorder traits and diagnoses, but, most importantly, as a family member of persons with these challenges I find myself in the constant struggle of trying to balance compassion with limit-setting and maintaining a safe emotional and physical place for me and three 16 month old toddlers.  As the June 16, 2009 NY Times article by Jane Brody describes:
People with the disorder are said to have a thin emotional skin and often behave like 2-year-olds, throwing tantrums when some innocent word, gesture, facial expression or action by others sets off an emotional storm they cannot control. The attacks can be brutal, pushing away those they care most about. Then, when the storm subsides, they typically revert to being “sweet and wonderful,” as one family member put it.
"Brutal" attacks are indeed brutal, but that brutality may take a much more insidious form than overt aggression.  It is patronizing toward family members of persons with personality disorder traits to define "brutal attacks" as yelling and cursing and name-calling and slamming and throwing without understanding the more dangerous brutality in quiet, seething, passive-aggressiveness.  Ask anyone who is a survivor in a relationship with a family member who mixes up their traits-of-the-day potpourri with flavors from other personality disorders and metes out his or her brutality through ambiguity, “forgetfulness”, blaming, obstructionism (resentment and opposition), victimization (complaining about feeling underappreciated or cheated), stubbornness, , inefficiency, procrastination, sullenness, irritability, AND/or cynicism.

As I related in my discussion about personality disorders a few days ago, it is problematic to openly express genuine feelings about our personal experience of the chaos that oftentimes occurs in relationships with persons with Borderline Personality Disorder traits.  I described one of the reasons for this being because it is not 'politically correct' to say something negative about a person who has an illness, and in a timely manner I happen upon Randi's and Kristalyn's blogs and readers' comments discussing this very issue.  Sure enough, some people maintain that your sainthood will be revoked, and you may be burned at the stake for uttering a disparaging remark about someone with an illness. . .  Another obstacle to expressing  how we feel or describing our experiences may be because discussions with persons with these traits can oftentimes be quite frustrating and dangerous on many levels.   

Adding another layer of complication is being a professional counselor or in some other helping field because your family member may nastily complain that you are NOT his or her counselor, nurse, doctor, teacher, etc. AND THEN LATER nastily complain that you should be more "understanding" (i.e. allow whatever negative behaviors he or she wishes to exhibit at the moment) because you ARE a counselor, nurse, doctor, teacher, etc.  So to say that it is easy to vacillate between anger and guilt and empathy and compassion and exhaustion and apathy is an understatement.  Not only is it easy, but I maintain it is normal. 

Anger is one of the many emotions we experience when we are dealing with the up and down and back and forth and black and white of the Borderline Personality Disorder experience.  How we express that anger is the key issue.  You can feel angry and express anger without reacting aggressively - and aggression being not just a physical behavior but also an emotional tone and verbal script.  Although persons with Borderline Personality Disorder traits tend to balk against, be unable to tolerate, and launch an attack against anyone expressing anger or any sort of negative emotion toward them, if we do not remain genuine to ourselves we can lose our hearts and our spirits.  And, ultimately, we can lose the person we love with Borderline Personality Disorder traits.  I firmly believe that some people end up stuffing their feelings because they feel they cannot express them with full-on empathy and compassion, and this can become toxic and poison the interactions as resentment builds and builds.  It is certainly a precarious line to walk because you may very much want to be gentle and supportive while also taking care to neither enable nor perpetuate the unpleasant behaviors.

I have experienced the range of severe behaviors one might experience when having a family member with Borderline Personality Disorder traits, and I experienced many of the worst while pregnant with triplets.  Trying to stay alive in a world that doesn't make sense during the times when someone with Borderline Personality Disorder is having difficulties managing his or her behaviors can be a challenge, and there may be times that simply breathing seems to take more effort than you are able to expend.  So ensuring that you filter all of what you say can be a crazy unreasonable expectation for even the most compassionate of peaceful love-muffins.  I desire to be a person who thoughtfully responds rather than impulsively reacts, but the humanity in me allows me to have moments of ugly thoughts and accidental verbal vomiting. 

Do I sometimes feel so angry that I can't imagine ever feeling compassion for the evil monster my family members with personality disorder traits can become?  Yes.  Do I still love my them even after the unmentionable things I have experienced in the throes of personality disorder rages?  Yes.  And one of the reasons I can still find love in my heart and go on after a particular grueling episode is because I have looked within myself and decided that I am not an infallible victim of Borderline Personality Disorder.  What I am is a regular human-being with a full range of emotions who sometimes sits quietly hoping.  . . .and sometimes charges wildly with an occasional snort.

You cause me so much pain.   
I think I’m going insane.   
What does it take to make you see?   
You just keep on pushing my love over the borderline. 
                                                          ~ (still) Madonna - Borderline


  1. (Just popped over from Randi's blog...)

    This is such an insightful post. You're absolutely right -- a big part of my healing is being able to name the abuse from my mom as what it was: abuse.

    As a kid, I wasn't "allowed" to feel anything "bad." I was taught to not have any needs of my own. Self sacrifice to the extreme, so as not to be "selfish."

    I have had to work really hard to find "me" underneath it all...the me that deserves to take care of myself, even if it comes across as "uncompassionate" to people who haven't walked in my shoes.

    I have twin boys...and being well, taking care of myself so I can in turn take care of them, is my top priority now.

  2. Marie,
    Thank you for sharing your experience. So many times people make excuses to others and to themselves for the behaviors of the person with Borderline Personality Disorder. Understandably, to admit that a parent might have been abusive is often a struggle for the adult child. More often than not I hear rationalization that he or she "wasn't always bad." Nope. People with Borderline are not 'always' anything, and that chaotic flip-flopping is crazy-making and leaves other, especially children, with a challenge in distinguishing what is real. How can mommy threaten to kill me and scream and break my toys and then later tell me that 'that' is not really her, and she "really" loves me?

    I am glad to hear you have found a way to take care of yourself and your boys.

    Wishing you peacefulness.

  3. Hello Kristie, this is Jess - I haven't figured out how to post as me without signing up yet lol. I wish I could have you diagnose my other half! We can't seem to get a diagnosis here, the NHS is not interested in adult cases of personality disorders/autism unless they are violent people. Many of the things you describe are so true to our relationship. Thankyou for sharing xx