Updated: May 18, 2021
“Why is she so crazy?”
“It’s like she has bipolar or something. One minute she’s fine and the next, it’s like BAM! Crazy town.”
“I never know what version of her I’m going to be interacting with.”
Have you ever heard these phrases before? Or thought them? Or even worse, said them?
It’s okay, we are all a little guilty of mislabeling someone from time to time. The shitty thing about those labels though, is that they become definitive and don’t give a person room to grow. By labeling certain people, we create a preconceived notion of them to fit in. When we don’t let them know that they are capable of growth, they begin to internalize it. They struggle to look for and find answers, and we treat them like there are no answers, and they’re the problem. That vicious cycle keeps spiraling and both parties end up feeling like the victim in the never-ending cycle of hurt.
One of the most difficult disorders for people to understand (and break that cycle of hurt) is Borderline Personality Disorder. Personality Disorders are normally viewed as lifelong personality traits that are “disordered” because they don’t fit into our stereotypes of how people should relate to the world. Anyone who suffers from a personality disorder can attest that they understand that there is something different about their personality, even if they can’t quite put their finger on it. Maybe they are told frequently that they are more sensitive, or that they are more odd or quirky than normal. Or maybe they are called crazy.
Because the personality traits are viewed as long-term (i.e., pervasive for anyone who reads clinical jargon and doesn’t understand it), they typically can’t/shouldn’t be diagnosed in children or individuals under 18. Our personalities are too fluid at that young of an age, and we are too emotional in our reactions to the world for others to get a true look at what will be long-term. We are all little balls of destructive emotions until our logic center (i.e., frontal cortex) starts to develop more. That being said, for those who suffer from Borderline Personality Disorder, their emotions are wired to be stronger. That’s right, they are born with genetics that make them more likely to have higher emotional responsiveness.
You’re probably confused now. Thinking, how can someone be born with it, but you can’t diagnose it until later in life? Well, check out our podcast on “Why Am I Like This?” for a little more in-depth information. If you don’t have time right now, add it to your listen-to list. The long and the short of it is that just because someone has a genetic marker for BPD doesn’t mean they have a 100% chance to develop the trait. So people who are born with a higher likelihood of emotional intensity (and potentially Borderline Personality Disorder) need to have an environment that fosters that level of emotionality. Normally, the environment needs to be invalidating of their emotional responses. That’s right, they need the genes for it and an environment that tells them to stop being such little sissies.
Borderline Personality Disorder is frequently confused with Bipolar Disorder to many innocent (or maybe not so innocent) bystanders. Two of the telltale signs of Borderline Personality Disorder are instability in relationships and poor mood regulation. To an onlooker, that can really look like a poor stereotype of Bipolar Disorder. People think the erratic roller coaster of emotions and different interactions are the up and down swings of Bipolar. But Bipolar doesn’t shift that rapidly normally.
The fear of abandonment and the altering between idealizing people and devaluing them is really what causes some of the confusion and outward mood swings. People with Borderline Personality Disorder have this innate drive to avoid any and all forms of abandonment. Even the forms they make up in their own heads when they are obsessively analyzing relationships. They can sometimes change core features or interests of themselves just to receive “acceptance” from others. The charade can’t last forever. That, or they start to get fearful that it can’t, so they push people away before they can leave. Any small sign of abandonment such as a couple cancelled plans or failure to follow through on your word, and they will start to push away so you can’t hurt them anymore (sometimes, they push away in their head without actually showing behavioral differences outwardly).
The other part of that comes from how the person struggling with BPD (Borderline Personality Disorder) views you. They have the tendency to think people are perfect shiny beings or that they are god-awful creatures. Sometimes, this leads to them being very loving toward you one minute, and then very spiteful the moment you fuck up. People who suffer from BPD really dislike this about themselves. The fact that one minute they think someone can be the shit, and the next, they realize that that person will let them down like everyone else in their lives. They unintentionally idealize people and create “champions” in their lives until they learn that the person they’re idealizing is just as flawed as the rest of us. That’s the reason why they struggle to maintain long-term meaningful relationships.
But wait, there’s more. Remember how I mentioned mood swings and high emotional reactivity? One of the diagnostic criteria is mood instability. The DSM-V even states “intense episodic dysphoria, irritability, and anxiety usually lasting a few hours and rarely more than a few days.” This is another reason outsiders looking in frequently label their behaviors and emotional responses as “bipolar.” After all, thanks to inaccurate portrayals in the media in the 80’s and 90’s, we think of bipolar as people inexplicably losing their shit for a couple of hours and then coming back to reality. That’s rarely the case with bipolar. If someone is manic and irritable, it’ll last more than a couple of hours.
Some of the aspects that we don’t see on the surface quite as much with BPD are the unstable self-identity, impulsivity, recurrent suicidal thoughts (and behaviors that are self-harming), chronic feelings of emptiness, intense (and inappropriate anger), and occasionally stress related paranoid ideation or dissociative symptoms. This all means that their inside worlds feel even more chaotic and misunderstood than their outside worlds. Whatever you see on the surface with someone who struggles with BPD, there is two to three times as much going on under the surface.
Imagine constantly feeling like you don’t know who you are, while simultaneously disliking yourself, while chronically feeling like something is missing inside of you, while having intense emotions just flashing through you, while thinking everyone will find out the deep dark truth about you and leave you, while impulsively spending or eating to try to fill the void inside, while wanting to die because everything inside of you feels so off from the rest of the world. Now, imagine trying to maintain relationships with others that are deep and meaningful and being able to appropriately respond to every upsetting situation while ALL of that is going on inside of you. Easy, right?
Now you might be starting to understand why that person loses their shit. If that person that chronically loses their shit without really understanding why. I hope you can give yourself a little more empathy. While this post can’t be everything you ever wanted or needed to know about BPD, it can at least be a starter guide. One to hopefully help you (or others) curb some of the judgments surrounding yourself or others. One of the first steps to helping yourself or someone else who may be struggling with BPD is to hold all of the negative judgments back and to de-personalize things.
Whoever may be dealing with BPD feels just as lost at combating the symptoms of the disorder as those around them. People with BPD don’t want to feel crazy. They don’t want to lose their shit. They don’t want to feel like they can’t handle their own emotions. They didn’t ask for their brain to work the way it does. They are just as much stuck in it as the people around them are. Who in the world would ask for an internal world that feels shattered, broken, empty, and hollow while simultaneously feeling storms of emotions that brew at random times? No one would willingly be like “yeah, sounds like a great time, sign me up.”
One of my favorite assumptions for Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (the treatment most commonly used for BPD) is the assumption that just because someone didn’t create the problem, doesn’t mean that they aren’t responsible for solving it. So people with BPD didn’t create their emotional difficulties, but that does not mean that they can be excused from solving them. Think about it, if someone hit your car last night in a hit and run, does that excuse you from solving the problem of getting your car fixed? I mean, you were sleeping when they hit your car. It is totally their fault and their insurance should cover it. They are long gone and you have absolutely no way of tracking their information down. Are you just going to wait for your car to be miraculously fixed since you didn’t ask for it to be hit? I’d hope not. I’d hope you’d be on the phone with your insurance company first thing. Well, maybe after you broke down a little and had your adult go-go juice - caffeine. We still have to solve our own problems. Even if we didn’t cause them.
Some of the ways that either you or someone you know can improve how you handle BPD are:
That’s right. Reading this and various other articles or blogs online is not going to make anyone actually proficient at diagnosing Borderline Personality Disorder. It is a complex disorder with complex symptoms. The last thing I want anyone to do is inappropriately label themselves or someone else with a diagnosis. If someone truly has BPD, it is extremely difficult for that person to overcome it without counseling. There are just certain disorders we can’t DIY and “fix” with self-help.
Don’t Take Reactions Personally.
This one is probably one of the trickier ones. It is pretty natural for us to take things personally. However, when we take things personally and respond emotionally, we create the roller coaster of interactions that fills the preconceived notions of those who struggle with Borderline Personality Disorder. Now, being void of emotions and our personal reactions can be very difficult. That’s why counseling is really helpful. Because counselors are trained to depersonalize the emotional expressions of others. Counselors have an easier time not feeding into the roller coaster.
Give Empathy and Patience.
A couple paragraphs ago, I highlighted how tumultuous the internal world of a person with BPD can truly be. We can respond with cynicism, invalidation, and impatient, but that would be extremely detrimental to ourselves and others. Instead give yourself and others empathy and patience. By understanding how chaotic a person’s internal world may feel, we are able to be patient with them (or ourselves) while we would through that internal chaos. Patience does not mean any person gets to treat another like a punching bag. It means that when we can see emotions hijacking someone and the response seems unwarranted, we attempt to see the factors that led up to it while encouraging handling the situation more appropriately.
Boundaries are extremely important for anyone who has BPD and for those who surround them. Boundaries set the guidelines for our expectations of each other. We acknowledge what we will and won’t tolerate from another person. The natural consequence of someone failing to follow our boundaries is letting them know that trust was broken while re-asserting our boundaries. By setting up these guidelines, we avoid people overidealizing us, or worse, devaluing us later if they try to encroach on those boundaries.
Work Toward Building a Life Worth Living.
Many people with BPD really struggle to find value and worth in themselves and their lives. One of the best ways to help is to work them (or yourself) is to work toward building a life worth living. Some of the ways that you could start is identifying hobbies and activities that are enjoyable to engage in, work toward identifying values and priorities for the person and how they can start to be more congruent with those, and working on helping them create plans for what they can do if their emotions are overwhelming to them.
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