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How to support your loved one with Borderline Personality Disorder

4 November 2019

If someone close to you has Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD), you’ll be familiar with the complex and distressing nature of this mental illness.

BPD is one of the most commonly misunderstood mental illnesses. It’s often misdiagnosed as ADHD, Bipolar Disorder or PTSD. And its symptoms can also be dismissed as anger issues or attention-seeking behaviour – creating further stigma.

But the past 20 years or more of research into BPD tells us otherwise.

BPD is the result of biological emotional traits combined with environmental factors, which is also worsened by invalidation. It’s not the person’s fault and they did not cause it. And whatever way BPD manifests, it can cause a lot of pain for those affected and the people closest to them.

The trials and tribulations of loving someone with BPD

BPD is characterised by a pattern of intense relationships and stormy emotions, so it’s no wonder if you feel like you’re riding a rollercoaster.

The intensity of emotions felt by those with BPD, and the unpredictability of responses, poses­ real challenges for family and friends. Normal everyday occurrences, such as a greeting or request to put dishes away, can trigger irrational and angry reactions. Feeling like you’re walking on eggshells is also common, which is unhealthy for both of you.

There’s no question that loving someone with BPD is hard work. So, here’s how you can provide support and stability – while enhancing feelings of empowerment for everyone involved.

It all starts with caring for yourself

Begin by acknowledging that unless you look after yourself, it’s not easy to care for someone else.

Throughout your relationship, you will undoubtedly experience your own pain, suffering and sadness – along with feelings of guilt and despair.

Here are things you can do to look after your own wellbeing and assist your loved one with BPD:

  • Know that your feelings are valid: It’s not solely about the person with BPD.
  • Seek and accept help: You shouldn’t go it alone. There are support programs for family members of people with BPD – such as Family Connections™ and the Australian BPD Foundation Limited.
  • Live your own life too: Give yourself permission to have a life and build connections with people other than your loved one with BPD.
  • Look after your physical health: Don’t neglect eating well, exercising and getting quality sleep. We handle stress and emotion better when we’re healthy.
  • Find strategies to manage your reactivity: Meditation or mindfulness practices make you less likely to respond to emotional volatility.

And remember, create boundaries so you feel safe and help your loved one understand and respect those.

Become an emotional anchor

A sense of stability can be encouraging for someone with emotional dysregulation or an intense fear of abandonment. That’s why you should try to listen, comfort, and get help when required.

There are many ways you can offer emotional support to someone with BPD.

  • Validate their distress: Help them understand, with words and actions, that you realise the experience is very real for them. While invalidation is upsetting for anyone, it can be a major trigger for people with emotionally sensitive or vulnerable personalities. Relating current situations back to their personal background can be helpful, too.
  • Listen actively and with empathy: Reflect what they say back to them, without parroting. If you understand why they feel the way they do, tell them. And when you can’t make sense of their feelings, ask them to explain further. Don’t say you understand when you actually don’t.
  • Do your best to stay calm: Try not to get defensive or angry, no matter how unfair their accusations or criticisms may feel. Avoid phrases such as ‘calm down’. And don’t ignore them. Start by taking some long deep breaths to help you remember this is someone you love and care about.
  • Talk about other things: Remember you and your loved one are not defined by the disorder, so encourage and foster other interests or light-hearted conversations. This will be particularly effective if you have already validated their thoughts and emotions.

Offer hope and encouragement

In the past, psychiatrists and other mental health specialists tried to steer clear of treating those with a BPD diagnosis. Some believed that it was untreatable, but we now know this isn’t the case.

It’s important to trust and reassure your loved one that people with BPD can, and do, get better with treatment. Treatment can help the person develop a better understanding of themselves and draw greater self-awareness to the surface. Over time, relationships can become more stable and rewarding.

Avoid labels and stigma

Diagnosing BPD can be a complex process, and not everyone who receives a diagnosis presents in the same way.

Instead of looking at it like a ‘label’, consider it a way of describing a set of symptoms that enables effective communication between your loved one and professionals. A diagnosis is essential for planning treatment, however, it shouldn’t define them.

Understand their management plan

The guidance of a qualified therapist can make a huge difference to your loved one’s recovery.

BPD therapies – such as dialectical behaviour therapy and schema-focused therapy – can help work through relationship and trust issues and explore coping techniques. Therapy has been described by carers as placing a metaphoric protective layer on raw nerves.

To share a calmer and happier life, it can help to know your loved one’s management plan. This can help you speak the same language, offer guidance when things veer off track and strengthen your bond.

Set goals for recovery

Be patient and realistic when setting goals. Take baby steps rather than attempting ambitious leaps, to avoid setting yourself up for failure. A step-by-step approach has a greater chance of success.

Supporting your loved one with BPD can be undeniably challenging – but also very rewarding. It will be a journey that will help you grow as an individual and strengthen your relationship.

If you’re supporting someone with BPD and need support, our team of psychologists can help. Call us on 1300 995 636 to learn more.