- Those with BPD often cannot rein in their emotions and therefore struggle to rein in their behavior.
- Saying "Stop over-reacting" or "I don't understand you" invalidates a complex inner experience and can create more defensive volatility in BPD.
- Acknowledging the space they are in and asking to return to it later can have better outcomes when you're both in a better place.
Hair-trigger reactivity is a strong trait of borderline personalities (Millon, 2011; Bogetti & Fertuck, 2022). This can be in rage, self-destruction, or expansive emotionality, which may be mistaken for mania if one doesn't know better. Anyone who is familiar with borderline personality disorder (BPD) knows that this reactivity can, in turn, trigger impulsive, defensive reactions in observers/targets. Unfortunately, this renders them part of the problem sequence.
Interacting regularly with someone with BPD can be frustrating and often brings family, lovers, or colleagues to therapy. Years of working with people close to someone with BPD taught me that no matter how well they know the person, the propensity "to get their buttons pushed" remained high, lending itself to their own reactivity.
It's easy to wag fingers at those with BPD for not being able to contain what seems like an atomic temper tantrum. This is especially true if it concerns something most others deem a trivial disappointment, like rescheduling a get-together. However, the volatile dynamic can quickly become a two-way street if observers' reflexive, defensive commentary is not kept in check. Ideally, people learn to protect/defend themselves from the dysregulation in a way that does not encourage a circular dynamic.
While I don't want to minimize how vexing and frustrating the actions of the person with BPD can be, helping others understand the internal dynamic of this personality style is essential in becoming more responsive instead of reactive. Readers are invited to visit my earlier post, "Empathy for the Borderline," for a detailed, inside-out look at the BPD experience and understand why these individuals interact the way they do. It's not necessarily as personal as it might seem.
For the sake of this post, it's perhaps most important to remember that, as so well put by psychiatrist Francis Mondimore (2011), "Because they cannot reign in their emotions, they cannot reign in their behavior." Hence, it's easy to see how the following statements may be particularly problematic to say to BPD sufferers.
Avoid these two phrases:
1. "Stop overreacting."
Similar to telling someone panicking to "just calm down," if the person with BPD could simply stop their runaway train reaction, they probably would. Just because this is their modus operandi doesn't mean they enjoy having volatile, hair-trigger reactivity.
Those with BPD can realize they are acting poorly, and there is often shame involved in situations that engender negative evaluation (Gatz et al., 2010; Warren, 2015), and shame is correlated to later self-destructive behavior (Brown et al., 2009; Casiello-Robbins et al., 2019). Anyone who has worked with BPD individuals is familiar with the penchant for later self-punishment in the face of acting unacceptably.
For the uninitiated, viewing Back From the Edge (2006) may be helpful. In this documentary, three people with BPD are interviewed about their experiences, followed by commentary from experts like Marsha Linehan.
For someone who doesn't know any other way to react (learning to be responsive ad not reactive is a large part of BPD treatment), "stop overreacting" is invalidating/dismissive of the BPD sufferer's experience and implies they know how to and could stop if they wanted to. It's easy to see how invalidation can indicate rejection to someone with BPD, keeping the defense and interpersonal tension high.
2. "I don't understand you."
BPD is extremely vexing, perhaps no better illustrated than the propensity for black-and-white thinking, otherwise known as splitting. (For a detailed look at splitting, readers are invited to read "Splitting: It's Not Just for BPD.") When people or events are categorized as either "all good" or "all bad," it makes it hard for reactions not to be extreme. If you've ever felt like someone with BPD maintained you on a pedestal, only to suddenly caustically devalue you for suggesting an alternative to their idea, you've encountered this dynamic.
"I don't understand you" or similar can easily escape the lips, fanning the flames of the heated BPD individual. Such an utterance can magnify the initial "insult."
First, suggesting an alternative plan is perceived as "not good enough" and thus a sign of rejection. Adding "I don't understand you" implies a tone of incredulity towards the person's state, an invalidation of sorts, in turn, digested as you don't care about their view, and solidifying feeling rejected.
When facing any interpersonal volatility, it's natural to feel defensive, and it's important to protect yourself, either physically or from being verbally abused or otherwise threatened. When put on the spot, it's easy to fire back a charged reply. While interacting with more stable people, such a reply may be irksome to the other party but isn't likely to supercharge a situation.
When dealing with BPD, however, it must be remembered that one is interacting with someone whose emotional state is akin to a heavy foot on the gas pedal and no brakes. Even if they know they need to pump the brake, they can't locate it. Therefore, thinking of an effective response to conflict with a BPD person helping steer and put on the brakes may be helpful.
Perhaps the best way to achieve this, in my experience, is to begin by being firm but respectful. A clear line must be drawn that any destructive interchange will not be tolerated. This is followed by requesting to return to the topic when both feel less defensive. Such a tactic is defusing because getting permission to return to the topic shows partnering, and thus, that they matter and are not being rejected. Second, suggesting you're both not in the best spot helps seem less accusatory (i.e., "You're crazy and need to settle before I can talk to you") and can keep things reigned.
The following example might serve as a template of sorts for a more carefully-responsive reply, based on a couple (names disguised) where the pair was learning to communicate better:
Mark and Jenna loved each other, but their relationship was not without periodic turmoil, usually based on Mark's amicable relationship with his ex-wife, Jackie, with whom he co-parented their two children. Mark would attend his kids' extracurricular activities during the school year and sit with Jackie.
Jenna didn't like this, feeling it had the potential to draw them back together. Early on, Jenna demanded Mark "act like other divorced couples" who avoid their exes. He maintained his boundary, and Jenna came to see she was jealous of their constructive co-parenting, given that her parents hated one another. Rationally, it posed no threat since Jackie was also in a new relationship. Despite this, it could still get the best of Jenna, exemplified during a session when Mark reminded Jenna he had to drive Jackie home from the kids' gymnastic meet as her car was being repaired.
"Do you have to do everything for that woman?!" Jenna snapped, turning aside from him.
Mark knew Jenna had become more rational but was still prone to feeling threatened. Instead of engaging in a circular debate, he visibly steadied himself and replied, "I recognize something just happened that isn't feeling right to you, and this is your way of saying it needs to be addressed. Can we come back to this when we're both in a better spot to talk about it?"
As mentioned above, there are no silver bullets, and if you interact with someone prone to more aggressive/threatening traits and characteristics, you may require more self-protective measures. For readers interested in learning more about successfully interacting with people with BPD, I suggest the following books:
- Borderline Personality Disorder: New Reasons for Hope, by Francis Mondimore, MD, and Patrick Kelly, M.D.
- Fatal Flaws: Navigating Destructive Relationships With People With Disorders of Personality and Character, by Stuart Yudofsky, M.D. (2005).
- Stop Walking on Eggshells: Taking Your Life Back When Someone You Care About Has Borderline Personality Disorder, by Paul Mason, M.S., and Randi Krieger, (1998).
To find a therapist, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.
Disclaimer: The material provided in this post is for informational purposes only and is not intended to diagnose, treat, or prevent any illness in readers or people they know. The information should not replace personalized care from an individual’s provider or formal supervision if you’re a practitioner or student.
Facebook/LinkedIn image: Prostock-studio/Shutterstock
Bogetti, C.C. & Fertuck, E.A. (2022). Borderline personality disorder. In Feinsten, R.E. (Ed.). Primer on personality disorders (473-500). Oxford University Press.
Brown, M.Z., Linehan, M.M., Comtois, K.A., Murray, A., & Chapman, A.L. (2009). Shame as a prospective predictor of self-inflicted injury in borderline personality disorder: A multi-modal analysis. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 47 (10), 815-822.
Casiello-Robbins, C., Wilner, J.G., Peters, J.R., Bentley, K.H., & Sauer-Kavala, S. (2019). Elucidating the relationships between shame, anger, and self-destructive behaviors: The role of aversive responses to emotions. Journal of Contextual Behavioral Science, 12, 7-12.
Esmaeilian, N.; Dehghani, M.; Koster, E.H.W., & Hoorelbeke, K. (2019). Early maladaptive schemas and borderline personality disorder features in a nonclinical sample: A network analysis. Clinical Psychology & Psychotherapy, 26 (3), 388-398.
Gratz, K.L., Rosenthal, M.Z., Tull, M.T., Lejuez, C.W., & Gunderson, J.G. (2010). An experimental investigation of emotional reactivity and delayed emotional recovery in borderline personality disorder: The role of shame. Comprehensive Psychiatry, 51 (3), 275-285.
Millon, T. (2011). Disorders of personality: Introducing a DSM/ICD spectrum from normal to abnormal (3rd ed). Wiley.
Mondimore, F.M. & Kelly, P. (2011). Borderline personality disorder: New reasons for hope. Johns Hopkins University Press.
Warren, R. (2015). Commentary: Emotion regulation in borderline personality disorder: The role of self-criticism, shame, and self-compassion. Personality and Mental Health, 9, 84-86.