Please Note: The ideas contained in this FAQ are the opinions of the writer and are communicated without reference to supporting documentation in most cases. Other inspiration and influence for the writing came through consultation with other mental health professionals but the writer “Peter Quintano” is also fully qualified in DBT making him qualified to talk about the things discussed in this article.
The main challenge when working through Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) is learning how to independently manage your emotions (to emotionally regulate). Another similar challenge is learning to effectively get your emotional needs met while in a relationship, meaning that you can request emotional support in ways that increase the chances of receiving that support. If you look at the BPD challenge as mostly being an emotional learning curve, then many of the other needed adjustments (thinking, behaving, relating) have a better chance of coming together. If you are not open to the idea that all humans need to develop themselves emotionally (especially the sensitive ones who find themselves in the throes of BPD) then you might as well stop reading now.
The problem for many people suffering from BPD is that they are in relationships, whether with family members or with partners (but usually both), who don’t understand the “mental health game plan”. As a therapist myself, I am quite often astonished at how little involvement or genuine interest family members and partners of those with BPD demonstrate for their suffering loved one. Not only does the person suffering from moments of emotional disturbance in BPD need to get skilled so as to take more emotional responsibility, there is a pattern of interaction with significant others that needs to shift as well. If both are not pursued, then the chances of “breaking free” from that toxic pattern that is BPD can be much harder to do.
So what does a significant other of someone suffering with BPD really need to know and do differently?
The first thing is to stop assuming that your loved one can take responsibility for their emotions. They can’t because they never learned how to do it properly during childhood development. This may be hard for everyone to acknowledge and accept, but it happens to people everywhere, and in many instances evolves in the BPD pattern. On the other hand, it is perfectly understandable that a person experiencing all the traits of BPD will not want to admit this and feels ashamed because they know that people generally assume that emotional mastery happens naturally as they age into adulthood. But it doesn’t work that way! If you believe that age equals emotional maturity, then please toss that idea out right now – it does not help matters in BPD.
The next thing is to recognize that a person with BPD is going to react to emotions that they havn’t yet learned how to tolerate/manage. Believing that someone with BPD should not have big emotional reactions is like expecting a third degree burn victim not to react to being touched. This means that it is very important for everyone involved to approach emotions with curiosity rather than animosity. If the tendency for everyone involved is to react to emotions, or to invalidate emotions (“you don’t need to feel that way!”), or to threaten punishment because emotions have made an appearance (“cut that out or I’m gonna….!”), then it is incumbent upon everyone involved to step back an inquire with curiosity where the emotions are coming from. This opens the door to understanding, and therefore also to emotional regulation – exactly what the person suffering with BPD needs.
Another very important piece of significant other information is to not always take away the emotional challenges your loved one with BPD is facing. Taking the emotional challenge away is like lifting weights for someone who is going to the gym to lift weights and eventually strengthen their muscles. For example, this could look like a person with BPD seeking out personal information from a partner because they are worried their partner is cheating on them (“where have they been?”, “who are they talking to?”, “what are they doing on his phone?”, etc.). They constantly feel insecure and don’t want to work through the feeling. They want to avoid working through the insecurity feeling by getting information they don’t need (assuming the partner has proven themselves trustworthy).
I have heard many stories in therapy of partners giving in to these demands for information, most likely because they don’t want to fight, or because they can’t handle seeing their loved one with BPD in any emotional distress, or because they don’t know what else to do since they don’t understand mental health. A better approach is to bravely offer assistance with working through the insecurity feelings using curiosity and validation, rather than just giving in to the information demand.
The key points to remember here are that if you are seriously working on developing emotional awareness, emotional intelligence and emotional regulation, then you need to be working on that. Breaking the BPD pattern is not possible if it is constantly being undermined by well-meaning, uninterested, or unmotivated individuals. In most cases, I would say that people just don’t learn about or keep these ideas in mind when attempting to help their loved one working through BPD. But if you really want to be helpful to a sensitive human being who has developed BPD, then help them follow through with gaining these essential skills so they can unleash the floodgates of their love, all that they are and all that they have to offer.
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