I’ve lost count how many times a parent with a child who has borderline personality disorder has come to me in horror because their son or daughter has told the school officials, their friends and their friend’s parents that they are being abused and/or that the family is now being investigated by child protective services. The profound shame, embarrassment and anger experienced by parents is difficult to watch.
There are other common “stories” many of which appear to me to be variations on two themes, one of the child with BPD being victimized in some way or two; of the child engaging in dangerous behavior, or having extreme experiences that have in fact never happened.
Because lying behavior happens so frequently in this population it has resulted in some misconceptions. Even though many people believe lying is part of borderline personality disorder the link between BPD and lying is not so clearly defined.
In fact, if you review the symptoms of BPD, lying is nowhere to be found. In the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Illnesses-5th edition, which is the standard source healthcare providers use to make appropriate diagnoses, lying is not part of BPD’s diagnostic criteria.
People say that lying is one of the BIGGEST challenges in their relationship with their loved one
Of course, that doesn’t necessarily mean that those with BPD do not lie or that they aren’t more likely to lie. In fact, many family members and friends of those with BPD tell me that lying is one of the biggest challenges in their relationship with their loved one.
In order to understand why a loved one with BPD may tell outrageous lies about themselves and others—to the point of damaging the reputation of someone who has done nothing more than love and provide for them—we can look toward some basic principles of human behavior.
- We all lie occasionally
- People in general tell an average of one or two lies a day.
- People lie most often about their feelings, their attitudes and opinions. Less often they lie about their actions, plans, and whereabouts. Lies about achievements and failures are also commonplace.
- Some people lie more than others.
So why do people lie?
Some reasons people lie:
- To save face.
- To avoid punishments such as being disapproved of or rejected.
- To gain advantage over, cause harm or obstruct others.
- To avoid shame, humiliation, or embarrassment.
Common lies you may have used yourself:
WHAT I SAY
I was a bit disappointed
I’m sure it’s my fault
I guess so
I don’t know
Let’s do it your way
WHAT I MEAN
No OR It’s highly unlikely
I don’t agree OR I’m unhappy
You’re wrong OR You’re an idiot
No, and here is how you’re wrong
I was really annoyed / upset
It’s your fault
I plan on doing nothing
No, what you suggest is ridiculous
I know, but I’m not going to tell you
I don’t agree, but I’m giving in
I hate it
When lying occurs in BPD
There are a few potential reasons as to why lying may occur in people with BPD.
1. Intense Emotional Experiencing
People with BPD experience emotions more intensely than others. These feelings can be so severe that the individual’s thinking becomes clouded, the result of which can be that their perception of a situation is different from how other people see it.
When this occurs the individual looks for details that confirm what they are feeling and the intensity at which they feel it, feel and ignore facts that will contradict them. This is known as confirmation bias.
I can remember a conversation with my then 12 year old daughter when responding to a comment about her concern about her weight. I said, “You’ll never have a weight problem because you are so active. As long as you move, your body will take care of itself.”
To this day she insists I said she was fat.
This can be tremendously frustrating for friends and family members. It’s important to understand that the person with BPD isn’t consciously lying—he truly believes his viewpoint is correct even when it’s blatantly false.
BPD is also associated with impulsivity, the tendency to do things without thinking about the consequences. So it stands to reason that some instances of lying may be the result of a person with BPD just not thinking before giving a response. The action urge associated with the emotion they are experiencing may carry an associated urgency to act fast to avoid a potential threat.
In addition, people with BPD often experience deep and entrenched shame, so lying may be one way to conceal mistakes or weaknesses that increase shameful feelings.
When people believe they are unworthy, they may believe they have to say the “right” things (whether true or untrue), so they can look different than they really are.
It’s like creating a false identity or a cover story. I once had a male client who told everyone in the group that he had been team captain when he played varsity baseball at his old school, when in fact he had never engaged in any sport previously and would have been too young to play on a varsity team.
4. Rejection Sensitivity
People with BPD are often also very sensitive to rejection, so one function of lying could be to “cover-up” mistakes or to make themselves interesting and exciting so that others will notice them and desire their company vs rejecting them.
In a desperate attempt to fit in, a young woman told friends that her father had been in jail for several years. In fact this was untrue and the father in question was currently running for a school board position!
5. Distorted or lack of sense of self
People with BPD may have difficulty identifying cause and effect. In order to make their own chaotic world more predictable and manageable, they may create a false narrative that explains why things happen to them the way they do.
If you refuse to go along with their wish, they may accuse you of any manner of nefarious motivations or actions without realizing their behavior caused the refusal they are experiencing in this moment. AND they will believe it to be true!
No matter why a person with BPD lies, whether it’s because he truly thinks his skewed worldview is correct or if he’s feeling fearful and ashamed, the impact on his life and on the lives of his loved ones and friends can be devastating.
The potential for broken relationships and ill will is high. Resentment, confusion, frustration, and burn out on the part of the family or the therapist is completely understandable.
This is why it’s tremendously important for the client to understand that they must change this behavior if they want to maintain and improve important relationships. The threat of abandonment can be real.
Another significant problem with lying is a phenomena known in DBT as apparent competency. Apparent competency occurs when the individual appears more functional than they really are.
We see this quite often when the person with BPD has a narrative that suggests they are “fine.” It is typical for the client to underestimate the difficulty of being skillful in daily life outside the treatment program, therapist office, or group setting. It also communicates to the treatment team, family and supports that the individual is more capable than they are, leading to unreasonable expectations and more contention when expectations are not met, as well as an increased sense of failure or self-hatred when the individual is unable to do as well as they believed they could.
Just because someone “should” be able to take care of themselves at their age does not guarantee that the person has the skills or the ability to do so.
Behaviors such as lying are typically treated in comprehensive Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) which refers to teaching skills interpersonal effectiveness, mindfulness, emotion regulation, and distress tolerance. These skills can be used to target lying behavior and others such as aggression as well as to reduce the appearance of apparent competency through the emphasis on developing prosocial skills to replace what are at the core dysfunctional behaviors.
I may be able to help you find a certified DBT therapist, accredited higher level of care, residential treatment, or boarding school for your loved one.
In cases where finances or local access to treatment are obstacles, I can teach you how to interact with the local providers to come up with the best available plan for your loved one. Family members also benefit from skills training.
I offer individual and group parent skills training, group parent education and support, and individual and group parent coaching for more specific concerns. My approach includes a combination of weekly therapy sessions and a weekly 2-hour skills training group.
There is also a wonderful program for families provided by NEABPD (National Education Alliance Borderliine Personality Disorder) called Family Connections.