If someone you care about struggles with borderline personality disorder (BPD), it’s likely you’ve had trouble maintaining your relationship. Being the mood swings and impulsive behaviors that characterize this condition, it comes as no surprise those on the outside only want to help. But before they can, they need to know how to handle someone with a borderline personality disorder.
Is your friend with BPD exhausting you? Are you having trouble getting through to him or her? Throughout this article, we’re going to take a look at how to better handle someone with BPD. At the end, we invite you to ask further questions.
What is Borderline Personality Disorder?
Borderline personality disorder (BPD) is a mental health condition that’s defined by mood swings, impulsive behaviors, and difficulty in maintaining relationships. Due to these characteristics, BPD can be detrimental to a person’s day-to-day life. ¹
The most common symptoms of BPD include:
- Abandonment issues (whether real or imagined)
- Distorted self-image or sense of self
- Feelings of dissociation
- Feelings of emptiness
- Intense mood changes (known as episodes)
- Lack of trust in other people
- Participating in impulsive behaviors (i.e. spending sprees, unsafe sex, etc.)
- Self-harm (i.e. cutting)
- Severely unstable relationships (with friends, family, loved ones)
- Suicidal ideation
While not everyone with BPD will experience all these symptoms, they may experience a few. Usually, symptoms can be triggered by what appears to be ordinary events – with minor inconveniences causing severe BPD episodes.
What Causes BPD?
Since the causes of BPD aren’t yet clear, researchers only have a basic understanding as to how this condition develops. Currently, most scientists agree BPD is caused by at least one of the following factors:
- Brain Chemistry – Studies have found that people with BPD have structural and functural differences in areas of the brain responsible for impulses and emotional regulation. ²
- Genetics – If you have a close family member (such as a sibling or parent) with BPD, you’re at a higher risk of developing the condition.
- Social, Environment, and Cultural – Many of those who struggle with BPD have usually experienced a traumatic life event, most commonly in childhood. This can be abuse, abandonment, adversity, or instability in previous relationships. ³
While these risks can give insight into whether or not someone develops BPD, they are not indications that someone will develop BPD. Furthermore, people with BPD may have not experienced any of the above causes.
How to Handle Someone with Borderline Personality Disorder
If someone you love struggles with BPD, it may be difficult to handle their energy. Since many symptoms of BPD are unpredictable, it can be assumed you’ve undergone difficulties in following your loved one’s frame of thought.
We’ve developed a list of some key points to keep in mind when trying to handle someone with BPD. While these won’t all work for every situation, you’ll likely find them useful in the long run of your relationship.
1.) Recognizing the Signs and Symptoms
Before you do anything, it’s important to understand the signs and symptoms of BPD. Since BPD is not commonly diagnosed, it can be difficult to initially see these signs. Furthermore, BPD symptoms often overlap with other mental health conditions and there’s a chance you’re loved one may be struggling with something else, such as depression, anxiety, or bipolar disorder.
One way to determine your loved one struggles with BPD is by observing how they react to specific situations. People with BPD have a tendency to become severely emotionally upset over the slightest inconvenience. In turn, they’re unable to think straight and may respond in inappropriate manners.
In order to get a better idea of your loved one’s condition, consider the following questions:
- Do you feel more aware around your loved one? As though you have to consider what you’re saying in order to avoid hurt feelings and arguments?
- Does your loved one experience a sudden shift in emotions that appears irrational?
- Does your loved one have a black and white view of you? Either good or bad? Either perfect or selfish?
- Do you feel like you’re unable to win whenever you and your loved one disagree?
- Does your loved one always blame you for moments that cause their BPD episode?
- Does your loved one’s behavior make you feel manipulated?
If you’ve answered “yes” to the majority of these questions, there’s a chance your loved one is struggling with BPD.
2.) Remember to Take Care of Yourself First
When someone you love struggles with BPD, it’s easy to find yourself caught up in efforts to make them feel better. While you’re justified in feeling this way, it’s not necessarily the best place to put your energy.
At the end of the day, you also have emotional needs that must be met. And trying to appease your BPD partner may leave you feeling burnt out, depressed, resentful, or even with a physical health condition.
How to Take Care of Yourself
In order to avoid such stress, here are some things you can do:
- Do NOT Isolate Yourself – If you live or spend a lot of time with a person with BPD, make sure to maintain your connection with other family and friends. These people will become your support group when you’re dealing with difficult times.
- Continue with Your Own Interests – Just because you love someone with BPD doesn’t mean they have to become your entire life. Consider activities you enjoy and encourage yourself to participate in them more often.
- Follow Up with Your Health – Maintaining your own physical and mental health is key in ensuring you can help someone with BPD. Be sure to follow up on appointments and seek out professional help is you believe you’re struggling with stress or a mental health condition.
- Develop Stress Management Techniques – If you’re stressed or anxious, it’s likely you’re going to make your BPD partner feel the same. ⁴ There are a number of ways to relieve stress in a healthy and productive manner. Learn these skills and apply them to your day-to-day life.
- Find a BPD Support Group – If your BPD partner is receiving professional help, it’s worth enquiring about a BPD support group. If there are none in your area, you may be able to find some online BPD communities.
It’s natural if you feel guilty focusing on yourself in moments when your loved one is experiencing a bad BPD episode. However, it’s important to keep in mind that you didn’t cause their mental disorder and cannot cure it.
3.) How to Communicate with Someone with Borderline Personality Disorder
It’s no secret that communication is key in any relationship. However, you may find it’s challenging to have a clear discussion with someone struggling with BPD. These individuals tend to have difficulty reading body language and understand nonverbal cues in a conversation. ⁵
Furthermore, being as they’re susceptible to intense mood swings, they may say things that appear cruel or irrational. Yet, through their fears of abandonment, they may also overreact in certain situations.
With this in mind, it’s understandable that people with BPD receive distorted messages and have difficulty in expressing themselves. ⁶ While acknowledging a BPD person’s feelings is one of the best ways to calm them down, it’s even better if you understand them.
Tips for Communication
When it comes to talking to someone with BPD, there are cues you need to be aware of. For example, if your loved on is having a bad episode (i.e. verbally abusive, making threats, etc.), you may want to hold off on a conversation. It’s best to talk when both you and your partner are in a calm state of mind.
Once you’ve reached that point, here are a few things to keep in mind:
- Be Sure to Listen with Sympathy – The most difficult aspect of a BPD relationship is how much you’ll need to pay attention. Furthermore, you’ll need to do so without any judgement or distractions (i.e. your cell phone). Beyond giving clear assertion that you’re interested in what your BPD partner has to say, you’ll also be more mentally prepared to come up with solutions.
- Emotions are Key – Most of BPD symptoms are caused by underlying emotions, such as trauma. ⁷ By understanding these emotions and working towards resolving them, your BPD partner has a much better chance at recovery. Furthermore, you’ll want to encourage your BPD partner to express emotions, to make their voice feel heard.
- Remain Calm – If your partner ends up experiencing another bad BPD episode, it’s important to remain calm. Acts of self-defense (i.e. criticisms or accusations) can easily make things worse.
- Develop Distractive Hobbies – It may help for your BPD partner to distract themselves when an episode arises. This may include exercising, listening to music, painting, gardening, or writing, depending on their interests.
- Don’t Just Talk About BPD – People with BPD hear all too much about their disorder. It may be helpful to discuss other interests and lighter subjects. Beyond distracting your loved one, it can help to reduce any conflict you may be experiencing.
Saying No to Someone with Borderline Personality Disorder
You may run into instances where you have to disagree with your BPD partner. Or, even more so, refuse to help them in a certain situation. This can be difficult as people with BPD don’t enjoy hearing someone tell them “no.”
However, there are moments where it’s necessary. Here are a few things to keep in mind when saying no to someone with BPD:
- Don’t forget about yourself (see above)
- Genuinely listen to what they have to say before saying “no”
- Look at things through their perspective
- Remind them that their emotions are valid, but not their behavior
- Set boundaries where necessary (see below)
There may be moments where you simply feel like walking away from someone with BPD. In such moments, it may be best to simply calm down before confronting your BPD partner.
Keep in mind that people with BPD tend to experience self-harm and suicidal behaviors. If you believe your loved one is going to commit suicide, there are resources to help. Call 911 in case of an emergency and, if there is no emergency, reach out to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK.
4.) Set Boundaries
While it’s always in our best interest to help someone with BPD, sometimes its best to set boundaries. By limiting the amount of time you spend with your loved one, you’re giving them the opportunity to face real world demands, such as school and work.
Naturally, your loved one is going to have to face a lot of trials and errors. But without these boundaries, they’re more likely to inflict their erratic behavior on you.
Still, it’s important for both parties to acknowledge and accept the boundaries put into place. If your loved one is having difficulties with the boundaries you desire, it’s best to further communicate and see where their mental space is.
Of course, boundaries won’t suddenly fix the relationship. In fact, you may find it causes things to initially get worse. As we’ve discussed, people with BPD fear abandonment and such boundaries can be an extremely sensitive area.
How to Set Healthy Boundaries
With that in mind, it’s in your best interest to ensure you’re setting healthy boundaries that are agreed upon by both parties. Before you set these boundaries, it’s important to consider what you will and will not tolerate from your BPD partner.
From there, you can lay out a clear direction for how boundaries will be put into place:
- Avoid making threats or acting out in an antagonistic manner
- Be sure to discuss and calmly reassure your partner about limits
- Consider the act of setting boundaries as a process (not a single event)
- Don’t allow your loved one to get away with negative behaviors
- Ensure all parties agree on consequences if boundaries are broken
- Make sure all parties agree on the boundaries
- Restrict abusive behaviors from your loved one (both physical and verbal)
It’s going to take some time before you notice progress in the boundaries you set. With that in mind, it’s important to stay committed to boundaries and enforce any rules you’ve laid out.
How to Detach From Someone with Borderline Personality Disorder
Still, even with boundaries, you may find your partner isn’t making improvements and continuing to weigh down on your life. While we’d never suggest abandoning someone with BPD, some people may find that’s all they can do.
In such cases, it’s important to detach from someone with BPD with as much compassion as possible. If you leave on a negative note, your partner may resort to self-harm behavior or suicidal ideations.
Furthermore, it’s important to be clear with your loved on about why you’re leaving them. If you tip-toe around the truth, they may get ideas that you’re going to stay.
5.) Provide Support in BPD Treatment
If you find that boundaries are effective, then the next step is to ensure your partner continues with a treatment path. While BPD is a very treatable condition, many with it avoid treatment or deny that they struggling with the disorder.
You may find that your partner is avoidant of treatment and you’re facing difficulty in getting them to apply it. In such cases, you’ll want to:
- Continue implementing boundaries
- Encourage your loved one to seek professional help
- Improving on communication
- Offer as much support as possible
As of this time, there aren’t any medications that can help with BPD. Most often, a mental health professional may find someone is struggling with both BPD and another mental illness. In such cases, the person will likely be prescribed a medication for the other illness rather than BPD itself. ⁸
Most people find relief from BPD through a variety of therapy options, including Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) and schema-focused therapy. Some counselors will offer group therapy sessions – in such instances, you and your partner may find more benefits by going to therapy together.
How to Motivate Someone with Borderline Personality Disorder
It can be difficult to motivate someone to continue with treatment, especially if results aren’t immediate. If your partner won’t acknowledge their need for treatment, it may be in your interest to:
- Communicating your desire for your loved one to get better
- Explore stress management techniques (i.e. breathing exercises)
- Find a couple’s therapy
- Researching and participating in step-by-step self-guided programs
It may also help to set realistic goals with your loved one. As mentioned, treatment is a slow process and your BPD partner may find encouragement in reaching smaller goals.
The borderline personality disorder relationship cycle can be tricky to maneuver. In some instances, things may seem to be going great. In others, you may find yourself desperately trying to figure out how to stop a BPD episode.
There’s no denying that BPD relationships are a rollercoaster to go through. However, we guarantee that you’ll find a sense of satisfaction if you and your loved one work together to manage symptoms.
While there is plenty you can do as a loved one, success ultimately comes down to treatment. And it’s essential your loved one understands this and makes the commitment to get better. Remember, this isn’t a one-way street. All relationships require an effort on both ends and there’s no reason you need to take all the responsibility under your own belt.
Still have questions concerning how to handle someone with borderline personality disorder?
We invite you to ask them in the comments section below. If you have any further knowledge to offer – whether personal or professional – we’d love to hear from you.
¹ National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH): Borderline Personality Disorder
² Journal of Psychiatry for Neuroscience: Neuroimaging and genetics of borderline personality disorder
³ BMC Psychiatry: Borderline personality disorder and childhood trauma
⁴ frontiers in Psychology: How Do Stress Exposure and Stress Regulation Relate to Borderline Personality Disorder?
⁵ frontiers in Psychology: Borderline personality disorder is associated with lower confidence in perception of emotional body movements
⁶ HHS Public Access: Improving Patient-Centered Communication of the Borderline Personality Disorder Diagnosis
⁷ The Psychiatric clinics of North America: Trauma and the development of borderline personality disorder
⁸ Therapeutic Advances in Chronic Disease: Borderline personality disorder: current drug treatments and future prospects