Caring for someone with borderline personality disorder

borderline personalityPeople who care for a loved one with borderline personality disorder (BPD) often feel like they’re walking across a minefield. The slightest false move – a word, an action, a look – could set off a bomb and send the caregiver flying through the air. It truly is no wonder that people with relatives who have BPD either go all in like troops landing in Normandy in Saving Private Ryan, or entirely refuse to leave the trenches like the French soldiers in Paths of Glory. Curiously, they are emulating one of the symptoms of BPD; seeing everything as absolutely good or absolutely bad, with no gray areas. However, you neither have to sacrifice every inch of your being for your loved one, nor leave them completely to their own devices.


You may be inclined to communicate less instead of more with the person with BDP especially when anything you say can and will be used against you. The problem is that sometimes talking with a person who has BPD is like a two-way game of Chinese whispers in which the information somehow becomes distorted between emitter and receptor. But if you pay attention you may figure out how the person hears what you say and adapt. This is a case in which less is indeed not more; you just need to figure out more of what it is that you need.

BPD communication tips

  • Wait for the right time

Do not attempt to start a conversation when the person is angry, abusive, or menacing. Put it off until you’re both calm.

  • Pay your undivided attention

Listen to person carefully without distractions or interruptions. Let the person speak their minds and nod in agreement or intersperse monosyllables or sounds to indicate that you’re paying attention, but do not contradict them even if you don’t share their opinions.

  • Read between the lines for emotion

Sometimes how the person says something is more important than what they’re actually saying.

  • Diversion tactics

Try to distract the person with soothing activities such as exercising, yoga/pilates, listening to music, going for a walk, etc.

  • Talk about something else

It’s not a matter of ignoring the elephant in the room, either; BPD is always going to be there but it’s not all there is. Feel free to discuss other, lighter common interests.

Remember that communicating with a loved one with borderline personality disorder is not about winning or losing, or about right or wrong. It’s about listening. On the other hand, and as Sun Tzu put it, it is best to win without a fight. Thus, instead of defending yourself of accusations – regardless of how preposterous they are – just walk away.*

Limits and boundaries

A person with BPD’s behavior can easily get out of control. In order to keep things manageable you may consider establishing and – more importantly – enforcing healthy limits. This is a very delicate issue and it can also be a double-edged sword. The person with BPD is likely to view this setting of boundaries as a personal attack. Moreover, they will be tempted to test these limits to see whether they hold or break. Limits can make things better but they can also make them worse. Keep in mind the following so that it is the former and not the latter:

  • Every member of the family has to know about and agree on the limits and how to enforce them.
  • Do not make threats or ultimatums – which should be resorted to only when all other options have been exhausted – if you’re not ready to make good on them. Otherwise the person with BPD will conclude that you’re all talk and no action and will make a mockery of your boundaries.
  • Don’t take any crap. Your loved one is not to blame for having BPD, so what he or she says or does is not really their fault. That said, you do not have to tolerate any verbal or physical abuse.
  • Conversely, do not shelter the person from the consequences of their actions, because that would just be enabling them.

*The one time you should never leave a person with borderline personality disorder alone is when they threaten suicide. Instead, call 911 or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-TALK).

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