How To Talk To Someone With Borderline Personality Disorder

What is Borderline Personality Disorder? (1)

Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) is a mental disorder characterized by extreme mood swings, trouble with interpersonal relationships, a tendency toward impulsivity, intense fear of abandonment, and an unstable self-image. 

BPD is most common in females ages 18 to 27 years old and can diminish with age. The main feature is a pervasive pattern of instability in interpersonal relationships and self-image, marked by impulsivity. 

BPD is not a multiple personality disorder, although at times it may seem that way as people with BPD tend to flip the script very quickly. One second, they may be happy, and the next second there may be a huge emotional change. These reactions can be unsettling for a partner, though remaining compassionate and understanding in your point of view can aid you in your communication with your partner with BPD.

Symptoms of Borderline Personality Disorder: (1)

  • Intense fear of rejection, separation, or abandonment.
  • Rapid changes from thinking someone is perfect to believing they are evil.
  • Risky behaviors include unsafe sex, gambling, drug use, or accumulating credit card debt.
  • Polydrug use is often common in individuals with BPD as well as the use of sedatives, hypnotics, and alcohol as a means of self-medicating. 
  • Threats of suicide or self-harm.
  • Difficulty empathizing with other people.
  • Mood swings from euphoria to intense shame or self-criticism.
  • Frequently losing one’s temper.

Communicating With Someone With Borderline Personality Disorder (2)(3)

Keep in mind that individuals with BPD experience heightened emotional pain around perceived abandonment and the idea of being alone. Starting out with compassion, a gentle approach to language, and avoiding blame and defensiveness will help with detachment. It may also provide modeling of healthy interpersonal effectiveness.

People with BPD have trouble reading body language or understanding the nonverbal content of a conversation. They may say things that are cruel, unfair, or irrational. The problem for people with BPD is that the disorder distorts both the messages they hear and those they try to express. Listening to your loved one and acknowledging their feelings is one of the best ways to help someone with BPD calm down. When you appreciate how a borderline person hears you and adjust how you communicate with them, you can help diffuse the attacks and rages and build a stronger, closer relationship.

Basic Pointers: (1)

  • Be patient.
  • Be realistic.
  • Try to separate facts from feelings.
  • Validate feelings first.
  • Listen actively and be sympathetic.
  • Seek to distract when emotions rise.
  • Do not allow yourself to be the product of the intense anger; attempt to diffuse it, but sometimes you may have to walk away.
  • Understand the symptoms and triggers.
  • Offer constructive criticism.
  • Help to set realistic goals.
  • Keep schedules consistent.
  • Encourage treatment.
  • Attend therapy together.
  • Keep your word and be honest.
  • Be realistic in your expectations of your partner.

Things to Remember: (1)

  • Safety is important for you and the person with BPD
  • Be understanding and patient
  • The person with BPD has an intense fear of rejection and abandonment
  • It is possible to diffuse a possibly volatile situation by verifying and validating the person’s feelings first
  • In a crisis: listen first instead of reacting, acknowledge the person’s point of view, suggest ways to make an improvement, and be ready to walk away if the crisis continues
  • If you need to reduce the conflict: listening & reflect are the best ways.
  • Listening and verifying the person with BPD’s feelings doesn’t mean you agree with them.

Keys to Communicating: (3)

  • Recognize when it’s safe to start a conversation: it is better to postpone the conversation until everyone is calm.
  • Listen actively and be sympathetic: avoid distractions and try not to interrupt/redirect the conversation to your concerns. Set aside your judgment, withhold blame and criticism, and show your interest in what’s being sad. You don’t have to agree with what the person is saying to make it clear that you’re listening and sympathetic. 
  • Focus on the emotions, not the words: people with BPD need validation and acknowledgment; listen to the emotion the person is trying to communicate without getting bogged down in attempting to reconcile the words being used.
  • Try to make the person with BPD feel heard: don’t point out how you feel that they’re wrong, try to win the argument, or invalidate their feelings, even when what they’re saying is totally irrational.
  • Do your best to stay calm, even when the person with BPD is acting out: avoid getting defensive, and walk away if you need to give yourself time and space to cool down.
  • Seek to distract your loved one when emotions rise: anything that draws your loved one’s attention can work, but distraction is most effective when the activity is also soothing.
  • Talk about things other than the disorder: make the time to explore and discuss other interests. Discussions about light subjects can help to diffuse the conflict between you.

Never Ignore self-destructive behaviors and/or suicidal threats.

  • If the BPD person is at risk for these:
    • CALL one or more of the following:
      • 9-1-1
      • Their therapist
      • The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK