I am a specialist in Cluster B personality disorders who has worked with people with disabilities and mental illnesses for over 10 years.
When someone with borderline personality disorder (BPD) gets close to another person emotionally, that other person will often become the "enemy." They expect that you will eventually hurt them, and they behave accordingly, punishing you for things they think you have done or will do. The reason behind this is that people with BPD believe they are fundamentally broken or damaged, and they project that onto other people. The problem isn’t you. It’s their illness.
With BPD, There Is Only Black or White
Loved ones are seen as either iconically benevolent or cruelly punitive and there is no in-between because people with BPD cannot really sustain ambivalent or contradicting emotions. They cannot love somebody and be angry at them. They do not see shades of grey. Their thinking is extremely black and white. A person is either all good or all bad in their perception and this changes with their moods. One minute you are the best thing that ever happened to them and you have made them the happiest they’ve ever been, and then literally the next minute they cannot remember anything good you have ever done, you are scum, you are trash, you hate them and are trying to destroy them, you are the lowest piece of crap that ever came along. This is called “splitting.”
Borderline Persons Think Differently
Trouble With Emotional Permanence
The reason for this is multi-faceted. People with BPD have problems with something called emotional permanence—similar to the concept of object permanence. If you have ever interacted with a baby, you know that if you play peek-a-boo with them, they will cry the second you cover your face with a blanket, but they'll smile and laugh when they see you again. This is because they don’t yet understand that even though they can’t see you, you are still there. Playing peek-a-boo and similar games teaches them about object permanence.
People with BPD have this same problem, only, it's emotional in nature, not physical. They have trouble “remembering” someone’s love and connection when the person is not there or when they can't feel it. Because of this, they are never confident that really cares about them, and they are always anxious and unsure. This is why you may notice that they are able to walk away remarkably easily in some cases; they truly embody “out of sight, out of mind.” Past interactions—even in the very recent past—often seems impossibly distant to them. It is not uncommon for them to have difficulty remembering these events, and their emotional connection with others can be lost very easily.
Problems With Schema
People with BPD also have problems with something called “schema.” Schemas are the little things in your brain that help you remember and categorize things when you see and interact with them. For example, when you see a staircase, the “staircase schema” helps you remember what the staircase is and how to use it. Otherwise, every time you saw a staircase, it would be a new experience for you, and you would need to re-learn how to use it.
Schemas aren't just for objects; they also apply to people and our relationships with them. People with BPD tend to put everyone into certain categories rather than evaluate them individually. Because of this, it is very hard to change their perception of you because, essentially, the perception has already been formed.
On top of this, the borderline patient's schemas have an affinity for negative interactions. Any positive interactions you may have had with them will likely be overwritten by a negative interaction—similar to how a file will be written over if you save a new version of it. This is why they cannot remember anything good about the person they are angry at. And even when they aren't angry, they'll have trouble remembering the good things about the person. The memory literally isn’t there.
Distorting the Facts
Complicating things even more for the borderline patient, when something good happens that does not fit into their "this person is bad" schema, it is simply ignored or forgotten. So if the borderline patient perceives a person as "bad," and that person does something good, it does not register with them, or it may be perceived in a negative light—even if they have to really stretch and distort the facts to see it that way. For people with BPD, facts are fit to their feelings. For everyone else, feelings are fit to the facts.
Example of a BPD Person's Thought Process
Here's an example. Let's say you ask a simple question, "Is that the dress you're wearing to the party?"
Average Person's Response:
The average person would typically answer with a simple, "Yes, it is." The question is heard as it is spoken—as a normal question.
BPD Person's Response:
In contrast, someone with borderline personality disorder will have a more irrational response. They might ask, "Why? Is there something wrong with it? You think I look bad in it, right? I look fat, right? You are always insulting me! I'm never good enough for you!" The question is perceived as a personal attack. They are likely already on the edge, and this event just pushes them over. In the BPD person's mind, there is more to the question than what was said. In later conversations, they may bring this issue up again and spin it so that you were the one who said that they looked bad or were fat, even though they were clearly the one who voiced those beliefs.
There is also a more passive-aggressive form of BPD. In this example, they may say something like, "Why, what's wrong with it? You don't like this one? I'll just change into one you do like then!" When you try to explain that you were just asking, they will continue their behavior, blaming you for not liking the dress and trying to provoke a confrontation.
Understanding Why a Borderline Patient Acts the Way They Do
Their Behavior Is Based on Their Feelings
Borderlines interpret reality according to how they feel. Situations that aren't threatening are perceived by the borderline patient as threatening because the borderline patient already feels threatened. Comments that aren't hurtful or rejecting are perceived as hurtful and rejecting because the borderline patient already feels hurt and rejected. This is why no matter how much care is taken not to upset a loved one suffering from BPD, you can't avoid upsetting them. They are already upset.
They Often Play Victim
In your relationship with the borderline personality disordered person, in their mind, you are the enemy, and they are the victim. Their illness precludes them from taking personal responsibility for themselves or their lives, or even understanding what personal responsibility really means. Indeed, they expect to be taken care of. It is always somebody else’s fault because their defense mechanisms are in place to protect them from being hurt or blamed. They cannot tolerate having to take responsibility for their actions. If they have to choose between you or them, they will always choose themselves. Always. Sadly, their illness creates a situation where no other choice is possible. Therefore, you are the enemy because they feel bad, and it has to be somebody’s fault. It can’t be theirs, so it must be yours.
Their Actions Are Selfish, But They Can Feel Remorseful
Most people cannot comprehend the selfishness of someone with BPD unless they live with someone with this disorder. For those that do live with someone with BPD, it can be an unbearable burden, but this is not the borderline patient's fault. I cannot stress this enough. Nothing matters to them but themselves when they are upset.
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When you tell the borderline patient how their actions have affected others, they cannot understand what you are saying, and even if they do, it is not something they feel they can control. If they have to hurt someone to get what they think they need, they will do so because they are so emotionally fragile; they feel they are constantly under attack by everyone around them. In their eyes, their selfish behavior is self-defense.
The borderline patient sees things in an extremely distorted way. They often believe things that are not true, and they will continue to believe these things, even when the facts in front of them spell out the complete opposite. No amount of arguing, persuading, reasoning, or logic will change their mind. As stated before, the borderline patient interprets the facts to match how they feel, often claiming that people have done or said things to them that have not been done or said.
There's no question of whether they care about other people’s needs and well-being; the borderline patient is just not wired that way. It never even crosses their minds when they are upset. However, afterward, they may feel very guilty and remorseful, even to the point of being suicidal. This may be one of the only differentiating characteristics between borderline personality disorder and narcissistic personality disorder: the borderline patient is capable of remorse. The narcissist is not.
The Burden on the Borderline Patient's Loved Ones
They Don't Understand That Their Actions Are Hurting You
One of the hardest things people living with borderline patients may find is that any attempts to change the subject or talk about someone else’s feelings are perceived as rejection and that the other person doesn't care. Attempting to call them on the things they've done to hurt others routinely ends up with the borderline patient sobbing, exclaiming that these things are just being said to upset them. This type of response hurts loved ones very badly; it is extremely dismissive of their feelings. Indeed, it implies they have none, or that their feelings only matter as far as they affect the borderline patient. The borderline patient responds in this way because they simply don't believe anyone else’s feelings are real. It isn't really a manipulative device to hurt their loved ones; at least, not intentionally. Therefore, they cannot understand that their actions may be hurting others, especially when they are upset. This is an area of overlap between BPD and narcissism.
Over Time, You May Just Stop Caring
The biggest hurdle families face is that even though they know how much pain the borderline patient is in, and they understand that he or she cannot control the way they act, after years of being exploded on, screamed at, accused, harassed, threatened, exploited, manipulated, emotionally blackmailed, physically assaulted, and having their possessions repeatedly destroyed for, essentially, no reason, it can be very hard to care anymore about how the borderline patient feels.
Everyone has their limits. Spouses, children, siblings and even parents may carry around great anger or resentment toward the borderline patient for constantly disrupting the peace in the home and for constantly provoking or abusing the other people in the family. On some level, they may even hate the borderline patient. This is, of course, exactly what the borderline patient was afraid of all along, and they are often unable to understand that they've caused it with their own behavior.
Try to Remember That It Is Not Their Fault
Loved ones can try to counteract these feelings of resentment by remembering that it is not the BPD person that they hate, it is the disorder itself. BPD is the bad guy here, and the borderline patient is just as much of a victim of it as their loved ones are. It can be very hard to remember this when faced with a screaming, shrieking, hysterical family member, but it's true. Most of us would rip BPD out of our loved one's brain with our bare hands if we could, but we can't. We can only try to remember that the disorder is hurting them just as badly as it is hurting us—and probably even more so.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.
Holly on December 15, 2019:
This is probably one of the best reads I have found that explains both sides of a BPD relationship! It's so hard to live with this, and this explains why!
Kendall Michelle Martin on May 12, 2019:
I have no and severe anxiety disorder I also have PTSD and skitzoeffective disorder I really need help but I don't really know where to turn to..... Can someone help me please???!!!?????
Konnie on March 04, 2019:
Well it's funny, reading this... was rough but i'm used to it, some parts like the "manipulating thing" is annoying... that's the funny part, not admitting it...
it's a nightmare but it's treatable with medication and therapy Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT)
Suzanne Clark on February 20, 2019:
This is EXACTLY what my husband is. This article fits him perfectly. I want to thank you for sharing this. Is there any advice on how immediate family members should deal with someone like this?
JaneL999 on October 26, 2018:
DBT - Dialictical Behavior Therapy. It’s a lot of work, but it can be very helpful.
Amanda ward on October 03, 2018:
Is a total wantingness and craving of a person to not want to be this way or hurt anymore or hurt anyone else the key to a "cure"and or coping skills and therapy maybe might work? Like sobrirty only happens and stays if one is wanting truly wanting to change that part of them? Cause if so this info shoukd be free for us unfortunately overlooked, ignored, and abused kids who are now confused adults or adults that want to not be this way anymore than we can help it.
Minnie on September 19, 2018:
Yes but is it treatable? Others shouldn’t have to stop being who they are to accommodate a label/ excuse!
Jaco Prinsloo on August 24, 2018:
So what is the solution or treatment?