As someone with borderline personality disorder (BPD) I know it can be sometimes overwhelming to support me. BPD can impact every aspect of our everyday lives and wreak havoc in our relationships. Considering the stigma, the lack of sufficient research and the lack of public education on mental illness – especially heavily stigmatized disorders like BPD – it can be challenging to know how to support friends and family facing symptoms of BPD or even how to approach the subject of mental illness in a way that’s respectful and effective.
The powerful stigma associated with BPD labels us as inherently violent, abusive and manipulative. This causes many people with BPD to avoid speaking up about their disorder altogether, and the stereotypes demonize and often alienate those with the disorder. In reality, people living with BPD tend to be notably empathetic, passionate, loyal and resilient, and there are many ways to provide support. It’s true the symptoms of BPD tend to infiltrate friendships and relationships, but – like anyone struggling with overwhelming emotions, mood swings, impulsivity and more – a little effort goes a long way. Here are some tips for supporting someone in your life living with traits of borderline personality disorder.
1. Validate, validate, validate.
Even if you don’t understand why someone is feeling a certain way or if their reaction seems overdramatic, it’s important to recognize that whether or not you agree, that doesn’t make the emotion any less real. Whether or not it seems like someone “should” feel a certain way doesn’t change the fact that they are. Often, someone with BPD has a history of emotional invalidation, neglect or abuse. This leaves them afraid to trust their own emotions, so a little validation can go a long way. Sometimes living with BPD can feel isolating, and external validation and acknowledgment of our experience can be an important step to recovery or, at the very least, surviving a moment of distress.
2. Listen, ask questions when appropriate and do your research.
If someone with BPD opens up to you, pay attention. Rejection is difficult for anyone but can be especially debilitating for someone with BPD; if we feel silenced, ignored or sense you’re generally uninterested in what we have to say, that can be painful enough to stop us from opening up at all. Make a point to do your own research rather than expecting us to do it all for you. Scour through other articles on The Mighty, read about BPD from the perspective of people who have it, familiarize yourself with the symptoms and treatment options, read a book about it, etc. Assure the person you care about them by putting forth the effort to learn about what they’re dealing with, ask how you can help and show genuine interest in their well-being.
3. Learn their triggers.
When it comes to BPD, triggers can be difficult to avoid as they’re generally based on relationships and interpersonal interactions. Each person is different, but common triggers for people with BPD include harsh criticism, the perceived threat of rejection or abandonment. Abandonment sensitivity may seem inconsequential to someone without the disorder, but it can be very real for us. Additionally, people with BPD may be triggered by their own thoughts, memories or reminders of past trauma. Despite the stigma associated with triggers, they must be taken seriously. There’s a difference between feeling hurt or offended and being triggered by something; when I encounter a trigger, for example, I face intense emotional reactions in addition to debilitating physical symptoms such as difficulty breathing, chest pain, extreme nausea and vomiting, hot flashes, uncontrollable shaking and sweating, body aches, loss of appetite and total exhaustion.
4. Learn their preferred coping skills.
Dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) is a common and reliable treatment option for people with BPD. DBT is a year-long program divided into four basic modules — mindfulness, emotion regulation, distress tolerance and interpersonal effectiveness. It isn’t for everyone, but much of the content of DBT can be beneficial to anyone with or without BPD, and most of the skills, tips and tricks are available online. Everyone has their own preferred coping skills, so while some people find peace in practicing, for example, the “Nonjudgmental Mindfulness” skill, others may find it challenging and frustrating. I personally find the TIPP skills to be the most effective way to calm down during moments of intense distress, and it can be helpful to have someone remind me of these skills when I’m feeling particularly worked up.
5. Be honest, direct and respectful.
One of the most frustrating symptoms of BPD can be our tendency to ruminate over comments, moments and mistakes that affect the way others perceive us. In my experience, the threat of rejection can be enough to send me spiraling into a paralyzing panic attack or worse. I’ve found the best way to avoid this kind of thing is just to address the situation directly but graciously, keeping our triggers in mind. When it comes down to it, compassionate communication – while not always easy – is fundamental.
6. Try to remain patient, gentle and empathetic.
Remember that people with BPD tend to be particularly sensitive when it comes to interpersonal interactions, and triggers can be everywhere. One of the most prominent symptoms of BPD is the debilitating fear of rejection, abandonment and isolation. Keeping up with relationships can be an overwhelming roller coaster in itself when you have BPD, and although we – like anyone else – are bound to make mistakes, try keep in mind the risks we take every time we open up or let someone into our world. This also means we deeply treasure the people who put forth an effort to understand our experience. Often, effectively supporting someone with BPD is as simple as reaching out or actively listening with empathy and compassion.
Everyone is different and heals in different ways, but it’s important we make the effort to support one another – especially when faced with a disorder as frightening and life-threatening as BPD. You don’t have to live with the same symptoms in order to support someone who does. Really, these tips can be useful for any relationship; validation and respect for another’s emotional experience can be a relief to anyone, whether or not they have BPD or exhibit any traits of the disorder.
I don’t want to gloss over reality here: it can be challenging to keep all of these things in mind at times. Still, if you find yourself feeling irritated, try to consider the obstacles they overcome every single day. Personally, BPD causes me to feel conflicted by my desire to maintain close relationships and the urge to isolate myself as a way to avoid feelings of rejection and abandonment. When you’re used to feelings of emptiness and isolation, support from loved ones, friends and acquaintances is often what keeps us afloat. It’s important we have allies by our side as we navigate a disorder as unpredictable and stigmatized as BPD.