Asserting your needs with confidence and clarity
I told my borderline wife over and over again how much I loved her, that I would never leave her, that she was a beautiful and intelligent person. But it was never enough. If a female salesclerk’s fingers brushed mine as she was giving me change, my wife would accuse me of flirting. Trying to fill the emotional black hole inside a BP is like trying to fill the Grand Canyon with a water pistol—except the Grand Canyon has a bottom. –
From the Welcome to Oz Internet support community
You can respond to someone with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) in two primary ways: like a sponge or like a mirror. It is common for the same person to react both ways—sometimes absorbing, sometimes reflecting.
STOP “SPONGING” AND START “REFLECTING”
Some non-BPs absorb their BP’s projections and soak up their pain and rage (sponging). These non-BPs may be under the illusion that they are helping the BP. But in fact, by not reflecting the BP’s painful feelings back to their rightful owner (mirroring), they are rewarding the BP for using these defense mechanisms. This may make it more likely the BP will continue to use them in the future.
People who act like sponges say they feel like they are trying to fill a black hole of emptiness inside the BP. But no matter how much love, caring, and devotion they provide, it is never enough. So they blame themselves and work even more frantically. At the same time, the BP feels the terrifying pain of the aching cavity and urges the non-BP to work even harder and faster at filling the hole. If the BP is the acting-out type, she may castigate the non-BP for being lazy or indifferent to her anguish. If the BP acts in, she may tearfully beg the non-BP to help end the suffering.
But it’s all a diversion to keep the BP and non-BP from addressing the real issue: the emptiness belongs to the person with BPD, and the only person who can fill it is the BP.
The emptiness belongs to the person with BPD, and the only person who can fill it is the BP.
STAY FOCUSED AND OBSERVE YOUR LIMITS
Don’t get caught up in the borderline’s accusations, blaming, impossible demands, and criticism. Instead of soaking up the other person’s pain, try to:
• Maintain your own sense of reality, despite what the other person says.
• Reflect the pain back to its proper owner: the person with BPD.
• Express confidence that the BP can learn to cope with his or her own feelings.
• Offer your support.
• Make it clear that the BP is the only person who can control his or her feelings and reactions.
• Show by your actions that there are limits to the type of behavior that you will and will not accept.
• Communicate these limits clearly and act on them consistently.
You may also need to take steps to protect yourself or your children—not because you are judging or labeling anyone else’s behavior, but because you value yourself and your feelings. These steps might include:
• Removing yourself or your children from an abusive situation.
• Letting the BP take responsibility for his or her own actions.
• Asserting your own feelings and wishes.
• Disregarding name calling or provocative behavior.
• Refusing to speak to an enraged person.
• Declining to let anyone’s public behavior embarrass you.
• Simply saying no.
WHAT IS YOUR BOTTOM LINE?
You must know your own bottom line for different types of situations. It may be helpful to think through what you would do if anyone else besides the BP were to act toward you in the same way. For example, what would you do if a stranger in the grocery store began talking to you in the same way the BP in your life does? If you would take steps to stop a stranger from treating you in this way, why not take steps to stop the BP from doing the same? If you’re concerned about the BP’s behavior toward a child, what would you do if your child’s teacher behaved toward your child like the BP does?
Which do you believe is more potentially harmful: abuse from a teacher or abuse from a caretaker? Another way to think about these tough issues is to consider what advice you would give to a friend or loved one in your situation. Then ask yourself: is any of this advice applicable to you as well?
Avoid the words “all” or “never.” Instead of thinking everything is “this way or that way,” come up with three more alternatives.
If you find that you feel helpless in these situations, you may wish to work with a therapist to explore and set personal limits. This should help you in all your relationships-not just the one with the BP.
STRATEGIES TO HELP YOU REFLECT OR “MIRROR” BPD BEHAVIOR
There are some specific strategies that you can use while talking to an upset BP that can help you reflect BPD behavior instead of absorbing its effects:
1. Breathe deeply. When stressed, people have a tendency to take shorter and shallower breaths. The fight-orflight reaction kicks in, and it becomes hard to think logically. This can happen to the person with BPD as well. Taking slow, deep breaths can help you settle down and think logically instead of simply reacting emotionally.
2. Keep seeing shades of gray. Often, non-BPs pick up the borderline defense mechanism of splitting, or seeing things in black and white. Keep in mind the subtleties inherent in all situations. Don’t get drawn into the other person’s extreme reactions; trust your instincts and form your own judgments.
3. Separate your feelings from those of the person with BPD. BPs often use projection to try to get others to feel their feelings for them. You may need to keep checking yourself to determine whose feelings are whose. If you start to feel helpless or angry, is it because the other person is projecting his or her own helplessness or anger onto you?
4. Validate your own opinions and keep an open mind. The BP may state “facts” you know to be untrue or may assert opinions with which you strongly disagree. Yet, people with BPD can be perceptive. So objectively consider what the BP is saying. If, after reflecting, you still disagree, then remind yourself that your version of reality is equally as valid as anyone else’s. Your feelings need to be validated just as much as those of the person with BPD.
5. Be aware of timing. There are good and bad times to bring up certain subjects. If, for any reason, the BP is feeling rejected, abandoned, or invalidated by other life events, he or she may react strongly to what you have to say. So you may want to postpone the conversation for a calmer time.
6. Be aware of your own moods. If you are feeling vulnerable, lonely, or sad (or even tired or hungry) you may wish to wait until you are feeling stronger.
7. Remember that you have a choice about your feelings. The choice of how someone feels is largely up to him or her. If the BP says, “You’re the worst mother in the world,” you can choose to believe it and feel guilty or you can depersonalize these words because you know they’re not true.
ACKNOWLEDGE BEFORE DISPUTING
People with BPD may unconsciously revise their version of the facts to fit their feelings about a certain situation. While it may be tempting to argue about the facts with a BP, doing so neglects the real root of the issue: the BP’s feelings. Consider the following example of how to address the BP’s feelings without agreeing with or arguing over his or her version of the facts.
Fact: Cynthia, the mother of a borderline teenager, Jessie, occasionally has a glass of wine at night when a friend comes over for a visit.
Feelings: When Cynthia has friends over, Jessie feels ignored, depressed, and angry.
Jessie’s “Facts”: Because of shame and splitting, Jessie doesn’t take responsibility for her own negative feelings. Instead, she accuses her mom of causing them, actually convincing herself that Cynthia has a drinking problem. To Jessie (and other BPs), if an explanation feels right, it is right. Facts that don’t fit the BP’s theories may be denied or ignored.
If Jessie accuses her mom of being an alcoholic and Cynthia immediately begins defending herself (a natural response), Jessie will interpret this to mean, “You are wrong and bad for feeling this way.”
Don’t get drawn into the other person’s extreme reactions. Trust your instincts and form your own judgments. By addressing Jessie’s feelings before disagreeing with her facts, Cynthia will be able to share her version of reality at a time when Jessie is more open to hearing it. In the example that follows, notice how Cynthia allows Jessie to fully express her feelings before she presents the facts as she sees them. Cynthia doesn’t begin by addressing whether she is or is not an alcoholic, because that would be dealing with facts. In Jessie’s borderline world, feelings are all that are important right now.
Jessie: (angrily) You’ve been drinking out here on the porch with your friends for hours. You’re just a drunk!
Cynthia: You seem angry and upset.
Jessie: You bet I am! How would you feel if your mother was an alcoholic?
Cynthia: (sincerely) I wouldn’t like it at all. It would make me feel scared and worried that she wouldn’t be able to take care of me. Is that how you feel?
Jessie: I’m just mad! I am calling the child-abuse hotline tomorrow. I’m telling them that my mom lies around the house drunk all day!
Cynthia: No one would want a mom who lies around the house drunk all day. It sounds like that’s what you think I do. You have a right to your own feelings and opinions. I see things differently, though, and I also have a right to my feelings and opinions. The way I see things, I am quite busy all day, and I drink pretty infrequently. And when I do, I don’t do it to a state of drunkenness. I don’t feel drunk right now, and I don’t believe I’m acting drunk either.
Jessie: You’ve had too much to drink. You’re acting just like Grandpa when he is drunk. Why do you need to sit around the house with your friends? I hate your friends. They’re just a bunch of stuck-up bitches.
Cynthia: I know you don’t like my friends. You have a right to your opinions about them. We don’t always have to like the same people.
Jessie: I don’t see why they have to come over all the time.
Cynthia: I know that it seems to you like they’re here all the time. Actually, I haven’t seen Ronnie and Marta for several weeks. I have a good time with them, and I also have a good time with you when we go shopping and do stuff together, like yesterday when we went to pick up your dress for the prom and stopped for hamburgers and milkshakes. We had a good time, remember?
Jessie: (calmer) Yeah. But I just wish you didn’t have to drink with them.
Cynthia: (understandingly) Yes, I know you don’t like it.
Notice that Cynthia reflects Jessie’s feelings without agreeing that drinking is the same as being drunk. Of course it’s frustrating to be the subject of wild accusations that don’t make any sense. It’s not fair. Cynthia may go upstairs and grit her teeth with a knot inside her stomach. She may wish that Jessie lived somewhere else. But she has succeeded in talking with her daughter about the real issue that’s upsetting her. In addition, Cynthia has expressed her own opinions and observations without invalidating Jessie’s. That’s quite an accomplishment.
In these kinds of situations, it’s helpful to remember the developmental levels that you learned in chapter three. Jessie looks like a young adult. She sounds like a young adult. But emotionally, Jessie is a small, vulnerable child, feeling forsaken by a mother whom she believes doesn’t know or care she exists. But instead of crying for her mommy the way a toddler would, Jessie shouts and threatens. Her childlike feelings bring about very real adult consequences. Such is the nature of BPD. You may make things harder for yourself if you expect adultlike behavior from someone who is currently incapable of it or if you censor your negative feelings and scold yourself for having them.
Expect the unexpected. Accept your feelings for what they are and know that they’re normal for people in your situation. See through the BP’s exterior and realize that right now, they may not be capable of what most people would consider “normal” behavior.