In psychological circles, there is a label called Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD). According to the NHS official website, there are four main symptom groups:
- unstable emotions (in extreme cases, suicidal feelings)
- impulsiveness (in extreme cases, self-harm and recklessness)
- unstable relationship patterns (in extreme cases, strong love-hate cycles)
- distorted thinking (in extreme cases, hallucinations or psychosis)
BPD can be associated with childhood trauma, neglect or abuse.
DIFFICULT THINKING PATTERNS
There are a few troublesome thinking and behavioural patterns traditionally associated with BPD. What they have in common is the adoption of a childlike relationship with others. As quoted by the NHS, these are:
- idealising others
- expecting others to parent you
- expecting others to bully you
- behaving as though a child surrounded by adults
HOW THESE TRAITS CAN CAUSE FRUSTRATION IN SELF AND OTHERS
At first sight, the above four traits can seem harmless, even endearing. Why should they cause problems in relationships? One of the keys is what the behaviours can do in terms of power dynamics.
Here is a fictional example which might bring home the connection between the above thinking patterns, and poor relationship quality.
PETRA’S RELATIONSHIP CYCLES
In the first days of her new relationship with Joss, Petra idealised her new acquaintance. He couldn’t do anything wrong in her eyes. it was as though she really wanted to find ‘the one’, and was blind to any evidence to the contrary. But, after a week or two, Petra started picking Joss up on things he said. If he postponed a meeting, Petra would question him intensely, as though she did not believe he really wanted to see her. The questioning was so persistent that Joss became a little angry and dismissive. Petra then interpreted this as coldness and bullying, and started postponing meetings herself. The dating relationship fell apart due to frustration, suspicion, and a lack of commitment on both sides.
As the brief relationship failed, Petra would say things symptomatic of the four above traits – for instance: ‘I think he’s fantastic’ (idealising), ‘I like it when he looks after me’ (fishing for a parent), ‘he says some really horrible things to me’ (framing a bullying relationship), ‘I just don’t know what to do’ (playing the child role). Her friends experienced real conflict in listening to her, as she seemed to be loving him and hating him at the same time. Whenever they agreed with a good thing, Petra would cite a bad thing; and vice versa. Crucially, Petra seemed unpredictable in her love-hate relationship with Joss, never conclusively accepting or rejecting him, constantly taking the role of the confused and abused party.
Those relating to Petra, as a rule, felt trapped in a series of dramas, none of which had a resolution. She lost many friends, because they would get tired of hearing the same old unresolved stories. If they supported the upside and suggested engagement with Joss, Petra would soon bring the downside and suggest separation. If they empathised with the downside and suggested separation, Petra would present the upside and re-enlist herself in the relationship.
HOW TO DEAL WITH BPD-STYLE BEHAVIOURS
Of course, we are all subject to these behaviours at times, and some argue that we can all dip in and out of BPD traits. But it may be that some of us get more stuck in the patterns than others. What’s the best way of dealing with these patterns, in ourselves or others? Here are a few suggestions:
- Stay calm and detached. BPD-style behaviours will try to wrap you in to the dramas. The constant vacillations will frustrate you. Try to be aware that this is part of the condition, part of the delusion. Remain as calm and detached as possible. When hooks and triggers are offered to you, remain aware, and decline to join in the cycle of idealisation or trashing.
- Be very boundaried with your time. BPD-style behaviours will try to suck up your time. There will be a never-ending cycle of new dramas to replace the old ones. Be aware that the aim may be to draw you into constant discussion, whereby social contact is used to pacify, like a baby’s dummy.
- Don’t try to solve the world in one day. BPD-style behaviours will try to present an unending list of problems. Try to understand that these problems are long-standing, part of the mental condition. Don’t get distracted trying to plug the life-leaks temporarily. Otherwise, BPD-style thinking will enlist you as a constant firefighter. Allow yourself to leave things where they are, and come back to them later.
These techniques apply whether the sufferer is someone else, or yourself. You can be calm and detached, boundaried, and patient, with your own anxious delusions, as well as with others’.
USEFUL PHRASES WHEN DEALING WITH BPD-STYLE THINKING
- Non-committal phrases. ‘That’s interesting.’ ‘Tell me more.’ ‘What do you think?’ These phrases stop you being enlisted in a drama yourself, and prevent you having to take sides.
- Silence. Staying silent, for instance while listening, stops you adding energy to the drama.
- Time-limiters. ‘I have to go, but we can pick this up next time.’ You can win back your time, but reassure others that life continues tomorrow.
- Loose empathy. ‘What a problem!’ ‘That’s tough.’ These phrases offer empathy without condoning any particular perspective or course of action being dangled in front of you.
WHAT IS THE OPPOSITE OF BPD-THINKING?
Finally, a brief discussion of what it looks like to be completely free of BPD-style thinking.
A person completely free of the above traits will be a good listener, and a calming influence. They will not get caught up in mental dramas which sap energy. They will be able to let things happen without events overly affecting their mood.
With a person free of BPD-style thinking, there is no idealisation or trashing of others and their behaviour. There is only awareness, the ability to watch, the ability to listen.
Finally, with a person free of BPD-style thinking, there is learning from experience. BPD-style patterns often repeat themselves time and time again, with little, or very slow, behavioural learning. When free of BPD-style patterns, the energy that used to be applied to all the dramas, can now be used more constructively to increase awareness and wise action.
As you might guess from the above, I am not fond of diagnostic labels. At the same time, if you do experience some of the extreme symptoms above, you may wish to visit your doctor to discuss options, and a BPD diagnosis may help you to access help.
The fictional example above is for illustration only. BPD-style behaviours can overlap strongly with other fairly typical relationship behaviours. The aim is just to give some idea of how traits can work together to produce consistently difficult relationships.
If you want to work on yourself in any of these respects, then it can help to access counselling with a therapist experienced in working with BPD-style traits. I suggest you try to find a counsellor who will give you the calmness and empathy you need, but who is also prepared to challenge you at times, and work constructively with you, so that you don’t simply repeat your old behaviours.