(Part 2/follow-up to this post)
It was kind of telling that this post was so much harder to write than the first part. The truth is, even as someone who had/has BPD, I find the disorder totally bewildering, illogical, overwhelming and bizarre. When I picture myself in full borderline mode, I realise there are about a million ways to make things worse – and very, VERY few ways to help. That’s because most borderlines actually want the people who care about them to fail in these situations – they want (or maybe a better word is “expect”) to be triggered, upset, exacerbated and worsened. It feeds into the belief that no one cares, no one can help, no one can save us, and we might as well give up now.
With that in mind, it’s hard to say the following suggestions are surefire ways to help someone with BPD (as I really do believe a borderline is capable of twisting almost anything into “proof” of all their worst fears about being unloved), but they are all based on things that were said to me – things that really did help when I felt like nothing could.
1) I want to learn more about this.
This demonstrates a fews things: a) You really do believe that BPD is a thing, and not just this person acting selfish/manipulative/crazy. b) You care enough to invest time in understanding why they feel and act this way. c) You respect this person enough to tell them you’re doing your homework (instead of having them think you’re reading up on them “behind their back” and forming all sorts of secret conclusions). When I found a stack of books on BPD that a friend of mine had checked out of the library, it broke my heart because I had to admit that all my BPD-fueled rants against him and his supposed “betrayals” were bullshit. He obviously cared about me way more than I’d ever given him credit for.
2) You’re allowed to feel _________ (insert emotion).
The man I will probably marry was the first person to say this to me and if anything could have further cemented my gigantic crush on him, it was this. I think a lot of borderlines really need to hear this simple statement out loud, even if (like me) they’ve never realised it. That’s because many of us became divorced very early on from the whole concept of being allowed to experience normal emotions, allowed to react, allowed to cry or yell, allowed to feel. How much distress would be averted if we all felt 100% entitled to our emotions? If we all believed that our thoughts and feelings were okay and not reflections of how weak/stupid/sensitive/fucked up/awful we are? This statement gives the person a permission that they may not be ready to give themselves. It can also be expanded to, for example, “You’re allowed feel hurt, but it’s not okay to hurt me because of it.” This confirms that you care about the person but you also care about yourself; trust me, having a human punching bag never cured anyone’s BPD.
3) I cannot be the only person who knows about this.
Notice a theme here? The most helpful things you can say to a borderline have nothing to do with giving advice, and a lot to do with self-care — both for borderlines and the people who love them. Disclaimer: this phrase is far from soothing in the moment. In fact it could be explosive. But in the long run, I really do believe this is one of the best things to say to a borderline. Of course there is a big difference between gently but firmly saying this phrase to a person with BPD, and going behind their back and telling someone all about their situation (please do not EVER do the latter, unless it is literally a life or death situation and you are willing to sacrifice the relationship as a result). It’s not fair to either party to have BPD be your dirty little secret. Everything about it is a recipe for absolute disaster. Unfortunately, I would know: it’s a formula I applied to my closest relationships for many years. We get close, I tell you everything that no one else knows, now you’re literally the one person on earth who can help me, and everything you do is therefore held to an impossible standard. It’s way too much pressure on one person, eventually there’s disappointment, catastrophic fallout, and the relationship goes up in flames. Rinse and repeat with a new person. The only way to break this classic borderline cycle is to create a support system rather than a single lifeline. My own BPD wasn’t even close to treated until it involved numerous medical professionals, family members, friends, and online support networks. Did I loathe the person who pushed me in the direction of opening up for help? Yes. For a while. It was hard and awful and awkward and painful and against every fibre of my being to be honest about what was happening. But I don’t think I would be here now if this hadn’t been said to me.
4) I made this for you.
Whether it’s a cup of tea, a one-sentence note, a playlist or a special dinner, little gestures (especially if they’re “just because” and not in an attempt to fix something) go a long way with borderlines. They interrupt our perpetual inner narrative about how alone we are, how no one sees or understands, how we don’t deserve love or kindness, etc. They’re also more effective than simply saying “I care” or “I understand” because a lot of people find that words become pretty meaningless when they’re in the grips of depression; it’s like they’re part of this fake world where people just say all kinds of things they don’t really mean. Another weird aspect of BPD: it drives us absolutely crazy (perhaps literally?) to decide/choose anything for ourselves when we’re in a dark place. I don’t know why, but it does. Saying “Here, I made this, take it” doesn’t give us any choice in the matter – and that’s a good thing. It’s not a “Well gee, would you like me to…?” or “How about I get you…?” (which make me want to tear my hair out when I’m low). I know it’s a small/strange distinction, but just being forced to accept kindness, without any opportunity to deliberate or agonize over it or turn it down or feel obliged to decline it, is really really nice when you’re too depressed or upset or exhausted to choose anything. Plus, whose day, no matter how crappy, isn’t brightened at least a bit by something thoughtful?
5) I can’t fix this, but I want to help.
Never believe (and never let your loved one believe) that you can save another person from BPD. Untreated borderline personality disorder is a like a black hole: it will greedily suck in all the energy, sympathy, love, devotion and patience that you can muster, and just turn it into more meaningless darkness. Bleak but true. The only way forward is to support the borderline as they seek to heal themselves – a truly daunting quest for anyone. Letting them know you’re committed to helping with it is never unappreciated, even if it seems that way when you offer. Finding concrete ways to actually help – e.g. offering rides to doctors’ appointments, helping with the cost of therapy or medication (not that this is appropriate in all circumstances), little gestures of kindness on hard days (see above), etc. – is even more appreciated.
EDIT (May 9, 2018): I wanted to add a 6th item to this list that I’ve realized can be extremely helpful.
6) “Look at me.” Not said in a creepy or forceful way, of course (lol). If you want to reenact Avatar while conveying the same sense/emotion (but IMO why would you…), you could say “I see you.” I think whether you have BPD or not, any emotional situation that’s quickly escalating into patterns, habits and defences instead of real communication can be grounded or even dissolved with this simple phrase and action. Sometimes when I’m getting upset, my BPD behaviours will still start to take over: I’ll detach from the actual situation, start reliving old wounds and similar situations instead, and sink lower while hiding behind unhelpful coping mechanisms. When my husband takes my hand and says “look at me” and our eyes meet, it’s often like turning a key: the walls go down, and I can see that we’re still connected and still on the same team. It’s hard to tell yourself that this person doesn’t care about you when you can plainly read the proof in their eyes. Notably, this strategy may be invasive or weird if you don’t have a close relationship, but I’m assuming if you’re addressing BPD together, you have a close relationship…
What about you guys? What phrases/gestures have helped you (if any)? Cat xxxx