We receive so many questions from many people who are in relationships with people with Borderline Personality Disorder. (BPD) The question most asked is: “Can I help the Borderline in my life?” Sadly the answer is, for the most part, NO!
The biggest problem with this dynamic of the “non-borderline” (for lack of a better term) trying to help the borderline is that with very few exceptions any attempts made to “help” the person with BPD will not be in the best interest of the “non-borderline.” It is also a tricky place to be with anyone. Whenever we think that we can change someone else, or that our “helping” them is dependant upon their changing we are setting ourselves up in codependent/enmeshed styles of relating.
Most borderlines (until a certain amount of healing takes place) do not see “other”, they do not see you, they see only themselves. You, if you exist, emotionally to your borderline are likely just a mirror reflecting back what the borderline chooses to see about him/herself. More often than not, the borderline will not accept what is in this reflection and will transfer on to “others” what is unacceptable to him/herself about him/herself.
In my opinion, you (non-borderline) cannot “make” a borderline see anything, understand anything or “get it”. The changes necessary for any borderline to “get it” (to emotionally grow up) and be able to relate in an age-appropriate way — consistently must come from within. The borderline has to want to first recognize that change may be necessary in order for him/her to be able to build and sustain relationships. The borderline has to come to an understanding of how he/she affects those around them. Then he/she has to learn how to be in touch with their conscience and the ability to hear what others say, to appreciate how others feel etc, aside from oneself. The borderline is often caught in a very self-absorbed trap which itself is a defence mechanism by which the borderline seeks to not feel annihilated. (That is to say, it is a protection against any perceived or real threat to what is already a fragmented and vulnerable ego)
When I was in the worst throes of BPD, no one could help me. I know this first hand. Many people tried. I would just use them and turn everything on them. I didn’t know any other way to relate. I didn’t know I was doing that for a long time. Whatever I felt those around me had better feel too or there would be hell to pay. If I felt something that no one else felt then it left me feeling unreal because my existence was dependent upon and defined by “other” and not from within myself. I had no identity all on my own. This is one of the major reasons why you can’t help a borderline. It takes a lot of dedicated work in therapy over time to unwind the defence mechanisms that operate in BPD.
The people who tried to help me were played with and manipulated in my past. Sometimes it was calculated. Other times it was just habit. It was one of the toughest things to heal and to learn to STOP. Until a borderline takes personal responsibility for his/herself the games, manipulations and lies will not stop. Until a borderline learns how to feel their own feelings, cry, and take care of themselves emotionally there is just nothing anyone else can do to help them or to change how they relate to anyone else, or themselves for that matter.
The best thing to do if you love someone who has BPD is to put your energy toward suggesting that they get professional help. Even this can cause explosions and difficulties.
Each and everyone of you who loves someone with BPD the single-most important thing I want to convey to you, is this:
Take care of yourself first. By taking care of yourself and by staying out of the borderline dance of intimacy, dance of anger, dance of…….etc etc you can send a clear, honest, and loving (tough love, but loving) message to the person with BPD.
What helped me to change the most, aside from therapy and a dogged-determination to work through the thoughts and behaviour was beginning to realize what I was doing to myself and to others. It was the honest mirroring back of people, therapists first, people in my life and secondly, as I slowly began to let more people know me (and as I came to “know me”) that made all the difference in the world for me. If people had continued to try to please me (which was IMPOSSIBLE anyway) I might never have suffered the heart-wrenching losses that I had to suffer and learn from in order to grow and to grow up.
Each of us must take care of ourselves. It is nice to be able to care about someone else and to have some positive impact in their life. However, when it comes to personality disorders, and especially to BPD, the only saviour that exists is the individual borderline, him/herself.
Try to be supportive but in taking care of yourself you will have to give clear messages and stick with your boundaries even when they are challenged by the borderline in your life.
I can honestly say that after all I have gone through with this personality disorder one of the hardest things to reconcile and live with is how I treated people in the past and how my closer relationships unfolded, and blew apart. It was only my own willingness to look at my role in these life experiences that enabled me to make changes. I had to heal my past, let go of old-patterned maladaptive ways of coping. I had to change to fit into what is deemed “healthy relating”. Anything short of this and I would still be being emotionally abusive. The line between “appropriate” and “abusive” can get very blurry when one is in a relationship with a borderline. I urge anyone in this situation to keep that line in sharp focus at all times.
Not a popular answer, not the answer that most want to hear, but, NO, you cannot help a borderline. Each borderline has to help him/herself. Even if you could lead the “horse” to water you can’t necessarily get him/her to drink.
I think it is important to care. But, if in the process of caring for yourself you have to put space, time, distance, etc between you and a borderline — most of which many borderlines find totally intolerable and will experience as abandonment, then do it. Do what you have to do for yourself and or any children involved.
In the case of BPD, it is cruel to be kind to the extent that you enable abuse of any kind. It is cruel to insist on anything less than acceptable adult behaviour.
This post was written by Counsellor and Trauma Recovery Coach A.J. Mahari who is the author of many books you can find on Amazon.