A recent comment on one of my posts made me think a bit more about all of those unfortunate souls looking in on BPD from the outside – the families and partners and friends who have no idea how to help someone struggling under this pernicious disorder. I often think about what I would do if someone I cared about started acting the way I have over the past 15-20 years, and the best approach I can come up with is: 1) Stop saying the things that harm; and 2) Start saying the things that help (which will form a second, follow-up post to this one).
So, without further ado, here’s a list of the five most harmful things I think you can say to a borderline:
1) Tell me everything.
Ah, the classic after-school-special approach to comfort. For many years, I thought this was exactly what I wanted to hear. I thought all I needed to do was spill my guts to a perfectly sympathetic, listening ear, and I’d feel understood, validated, reassured… Except oddly, talking about it never actually made me feel much better. In fact, sometimes it made it dramatically worse; for example, when I’d tell someone way too much, freak out and hate myself for it, then self-harm as punishment. The problem is that BPD is a lot like a dam in that many of us only have two settings when it comes to emotions: sealed up tight as a drum or gushing billions of gallons of turbulent feels. It means that the very fears that make us so walled up in the first place (e.g. emotions are scary and they make me miserable and vulnerable and nothing helps) get reinforced 99% of the time that we actually work up the courage to talk about what’s happening. Until I saw the right therapist, I thought I was broken, damaged, unfixable. After all, I’d done what was supposed to help – talk and talk and talk about my “issues” until I was blue in the face – and I’d gotten nowhere. Conclusion: I must be beyond help. It wasn’t until I found someone who actually knew the first thing about BPD that I realised how harmful all this previous “help” had been. You don’t delve into a dormant volcano without packing some basic equipment, but that was exactly what I was doing every time I cycled through all the crap that had plagued me since childhood. I was totally unprepared to handle what lay in the darker corners of my psyche, and I had no tools to get myself out of the many pitfalls that came up along the journey. Conclusion: don’t encourage over-sharing when it comes to mental health (certainly/especially, don’t push for information). You could be setting your loved one up for serious self-loathing and regret, not to mention the fact that they may eventually turn on you for not knowing what the hell to do with all the explosive information they’ve been vulnerable enough to share.
2) What do you want me to do?
If there’s one thing sure to drive me towards dangerous levels of frustration during a crisis, it’s this phrase. I DON’T FUCKING KNOW, DOES IT LOOK LIKE I KNOW WHAT I WANT?! DO SOMETHING, DO ANYTHING. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again (even though it’s a bit demeaning to acknowledge): being a borderline means being a bit of a tantrum-y toddler now and then. Would you desperately ask a flailing, screaming, red-faced child what they wanted you to do? No, because they need an anchor, not someone adrift beside them in an emotional storm. In addition, many borderlines have this deep-seated and unfortunate belief that people who “really” care will be able to intuit exactly what they need/want (especially when it “really” matters). When you tell them that you have no idea what they need, it just feels like a reminder that they are alone with their pain. Try to remain calm and offer suggestions (as in “let’s do this.” not “well, would you maybe like to…?”): suggest a drive or a walk, make a cup of tea, put on a podcast or even read aloud (this is actually one of the most amazing things someone can do for me when I feel really trapped in my own head). Try not to take it personally if they reject your attempts to help and please don’t give up.
I’m not going to pretend that it’s fair or okay that the borderline acts like this and requires this kind of delicate handling, because it’s not. It’s not fair when someone’s cancer or schizophrenia or autism causes them to lash out either. But when you love someone and want to help them, I guess these are the kinds of things you do because you know they are more than their demons.
3) Try to take your mind off it.
Borderlines are hyper-(HYPER) vigilant for signs of rejection or dismissal. Suggesting that their all-consuming mental anguish is a pesky thought they can just push aside is likely to be interpreted as intentionally dismissive and hurtful.
4) People get over far worse things than this.
Ouch. This phrase was actually said to me once, by someone very close to me, and I still remember the instantaneous and irreparable damage it did to our friendship. Again, not only is there a fairly large dose of derision and dismissiveness about this statement (as in “well your problems are obviously nothing compared to ___”) but borderlines already feel this way. Trust me: during really dark times, we have this thought about 1,000 times a day, and it fills us with guilt and self-hatred. In fact, I think this is a fairly common refrain for people with mental illnesses in the developed world. Without something physically, visibly and tangibly “wrong,” it’s hard to convince yourself that your feelings are justified. You think of the Holocaust and Hiroshima and AIDS and wonder how you dare to feel sad, how you dare to hate your existence. But it doesn’t matter. No amount of comparison works. In defense of the person who said this to me, I think she was simply trying to give me a dose of perspective or something. However, at the time, it felt like she was agreeing with every voice in my head, telling me to just give up immediately if I was going to be so useless, over-sensitive and pathetic.
5) I will never let you down.
This might seem like a nice, reassuring thing to say to someone with a rampant phobia of disappointment. But make no mistake, it is, hands down, the single worst and most dangerous thing you can say to a borderline. The minute these words leave your mouth, you’ve got a target on your back. Because having BPD means everyone lets you down eventually. Everyone. Remember what I said about hyper-vigilance? As badly as borderlines crave intimacy, we also fear the risks involved in it so much that we set a thousand invisible traps to make sure it never, ever happens. Someone’s getting kinda close? Well let’s just see if they remember that today is the five-year anniversary of my hamster dying and do something special to demonstrate that they know how hard this day is for me. Wait – WHAT?! They did NOTHING?! They came home as if this is just a NORMAL DAY?!?! WHY DO YOU FUCKING HATE ME?????
I wish to God I were joking, but anyone who has BPD (or knows someone with it) knows that this is a completely accurate depiction of the lengths borderlines will go to in order to “prove” that no one truly cares about them. Meanwhile, the completely unsuspecting individual is now blacklisted forever, caught up in the classic cycle of idealisation/devaluation that borderlines view their relationships through. Never try to be someone’s saviour. It will blow up in your face and destroy the relationship, 100% of the time. Instead, make it perfectly clear that although you love them and will do your best to help them, this is something you simply can’t fix. Remind them that treating BPD with love and attention is as ludicrous as treating infected wounds with promises and hugs. Curing this disorder requires specific therapy, medication and – perhaps most importantly – intensive self-care.
I know this list is far from exhaustive – anyone else have other suggestions for truly disastrous things to say to a borderline?