“Are the monsters we’ve been taught to fear real? Or are there just people who have been mistreated who are using imperfect coping mechanisms and being called toxic for it?”
People with Borderline Personality Disorder frustrate and confuse everyone. There are more books written for people around BPD people than there are for BPD people. Even the best therapists shy away from working with patients who have this dreaded personality disorder.
Well, the good news — good news for you, at least — is that I have this dreaded personality disorder. You don’t need to wonder any more, folks. I can tell you what it’s like on the front lines. Spoiler alert: It sucks.
But there’s one simple mindset shift you can make that will make understanding people with borderline personality disorder much easier.
That mindset shift is: Always assume they have the best intentions, no matter what they did.
This is a difficult mindset shift for people to make. Let me tell you a story from my life that illustrates what I mean. (Other people with BPD will find this story familiar.)
Today was another hard day living with BPD. It was very far from the worst day I’ve ever had, but it still sucked. I tried to have a difficult conversation with someone I love and it quickly turned negative. The person I was speaking to accused me of saying something intentionally to manipulate them. Then they hung up on me.
I don’t want to recount the details because they don’t matter. The point is, they were right. I did manipulate them… sort of.
What I said came off as manipulative. I could have phrased what I said better, for sure. But I wasn’t manipulating them.
To me, the key difference is intent. To accuse someone of manipulating you is to accuse them of intending to control you or force a certain outcome. I didn’t intend to control anyone or force any particular outcome… at least, no more than anyone else does when they try to talk to someone about something important. The words I chose came off like a guilt trip, but that sincerely was not my intention.
The person I was speaking to could have said “I know you don’t mean to do this, but what you’re saying is coming off as manipulative.” That would have hurt, but I would have swallowed it and said “OK, what would be a more appropriate way for me to express this?”
Instead, they said “You’re manipulating me! I’m not tolerating this. I’m hanging up on you,” and CLICK. Conversation over.
I hate it when this happens. I hate it so much when this happens. It makes me hate being alive, honestly.
It happens more often than you would think. On a regular basis, I am accused of lying, manipulating, and being passive-aggressive. Even one therapist once told me she “was not going to play my little gossip game.”
I feel like I’m being gaslit by the world. I’m not lying, playing games, or trying to manipulate anyone. Never have, never will. Every word I say, no matter if it is on this blog or in real life, is the most honest and complete version of the truth I am capable of expressing.
Even writing to you, dear reader, I feel an impulse to type “I swear I’m not lying, I promise,” over and over, as if I need to beg you to believe me because no one ever does.
That’s not to say I’m perfect. I’m so far from perfect I could Chair the International Assholes Club. I am every day confronted by my many flaws. Easily, the worst part of having BPD is that all the symptoms are also character flaws reviled by society. Not only am I sick, but my sickness makes me evil.
But I’m proud to say being a liar or a manipulator are not among my flaws. They’re practically the only flaws I don’t have.
Always assume people with BPD have the best intentions. Those of us with BPD are trying our best. We have a mental illness we did not ask for that makes us behave like shit even when we are trying our best. Accusing us of having negative intentions we don’t have only makes it harder for us to do our best.
One of the key principles in my BPD-focused therapy is the idea of dual truths. It is true that I am not intending to deceive or control anyone — I am not lying, not manipulating, etc. — but I am inadvertently deceiving or controlling people sometimes anyway.
I’m not lying… but strong emotions often disrupt memory formation, making my memories unreliable. I will say one thing one day and another thing the next without realizing it.
I’m not manipulating… but I’m often unaware of the impact my words and actions have on others. What I intend to be a sincere plea for help comes off as controlling.
I’m not being passive-aggressive… but I’m doing my best to discipline my emotions and often failing. People often mistake my rapidly changing emotions for a passive-aggressive ploy.
The key difference is intent. Those of us with BPD are doing the very best we can to be kind and mature. But our brains are sick and our view of reality becomes easily distorted, so even our best attempts quickly go awry.
Readers have asked me what the best thing they can do for borderline people in their lives is. The best thing you can do is: always assume they have the best intentions, no matter what they did.
If you think you caught someone with BPD in a lie…
…remind yourself that strong emotions disrupt memory formation and access. Even neurotypical people remember different things when they’re upset vs. when they’re calm. You may think you’ve caught a BPD person in a lie, but we probably just don’t freaking remember.
Even if you have the text evidence, believe it or not. Often, what is “incontrovertible evidence” to you reads as “open to interpretation” to us. That may be extremely frustrating — and you are free to express that — but that doesn’t mean we’re lying. Lying requires an active intent to deceive, which we don’t have. Accusing someone with BPD of lying will only make things worse.
If you think someone with BPD is manipulating you…
…remind yourself the person with BPD is not trying to make you feel bad. This is hard for neurotypical people to understand, but when you are trapped inside BPD, the “manipulative” thing often seems like the most sensible thing to do.
For instance, in the classic example of “a crazy borderline threatening suicide because her boyfriend dumped her,” the girl is doing so because the pain of losing him is literally so huge to her that she’d rather die. When she says “I’ll kill myself if you leave,” she’s not making a manipulative threat, she’s stating her truth. She obviously needs an enormous amount of therapy, but what she doesn’t need is someone dressing her down for being manipulative. Trust me.
If you think someone with BPD is being passive-aggressive…
…remind yourself the person with BPD is probably not fully aware of how their actions come across.
When someone sets a boundary with me and says “I do not want to talk about this right now,” I often sulk. I don’t mean to be passive-aggressive. I do it because I have a hard time dealing with my emotions. I know it’s a problem and I’m working on improving this, but I have severe BPD, and this is a fucking hard diagnosis to have, okay?
In my opinion, the best thing you can do for someone with BPD who is acting passive-aggressively is to ask them directly “Is there something I can do for you?” They will say “yes,” or “no.” Either way, you can rest easy knowing you have your answer.
View Your Interactions with BPD People a New Way
Here’s a new way to look at your interactions with BPD people. (This trick works with neurotypical people too.) Imagine everything the BPD person says to you about themselves is true. If they say “I’m not lying,” then it is true. If they say “I’m not manipulating you,” then it is true too. Your challenge is to figure out how their truth fits with your observations.
Start by validating their emotions. “I see this is upsetting you.” “I know you are suffering right now, and I’m sensitive to that.” “I don’t want you to feel bad.”
Avoid mentioning their BPD if you can. That usually makes me feel belittled as if the person I’m speaking to is saying ‘your feelings don’t matter because you have BPD.’
Now imagine ways their truth and your truth can be true at the same time. It’s easier than you think. People with BPD often interpret things much differently than neurotypical people. We often misinterpret what you say and do. The vast majority of the time, my painful experiences boil down to a mental-illness-fueled miscommunication.
That’s not to say we with BPD are not doing anything wrong. As a rule, people with BPD need loads of therapy. I’ve been to more therapy in the last year than most people will attend in a lifetime to figure out what I’m doing wrong. I learned I’m doing lots wrong. I’m still doing lots wrong every single day. But none of it has anything to do with lying, manipulating, or any of the evil things they say people with BPD do.
Now imagine how you can get your needs met and they can get their needs met. You can say something like “I know you are extremely depressed right now and you want me to stay up with you, but we both need sleep. Healthy sleep will help with your depression and it will help me support you better. How about I call you on my lunch break tomorrow at work?”
The most helpful thing you can do for someone with BPD in your life — and for yourself — is to assume they have good intentions. Don’t accuse them of lying, manipulating, being passive-aggressive, trying to piss you off, or any other negative motivation. Use phrases like these instead:
- “I know you don’t mean to, but you are pushing my boundaries again and I don’t like it.”
- “I don’t think you realize you are contradicting yourself. Yesterday you said you would do the dishes, and now you are saying you never intended to do them.”
- “What you said hurt my feelings a great deal. Can we find a way to make sure you get your emotional needs met without hurting me in the process?”
If you’re like most people I know, this will be a radically new way of talking for you. It’s not the way we’re taught to talk to others in school or at home. It may even feel unnatural and ‘fake.’
You don’t have to take my word for it, though. Give it a try for yourself. See how it works for you. If this mindset shift doesn’t improve your life, feel free to drop it. But I bet it will.