Borderline personality disorder (BPD) is a serious mental health condition characterized by difficulties regulating emotions and thoughts, unstable relationships, and impulsive, risky behavior. People with BPD are often sensitive and struggle when someone says something that invalidates their feelings or triggers abandonment fears.
If you have a loved one with BPD, you may unintentionally say things sometimes that upset them. It’s important to educate yourself on what to avoid saying, so you can nurture a stronger, more positive relationship.
Why People With BPD Are Sensitive to Certain Comments
BPD causes people to experience emotions very intensely. They also struggle to return to a baseline mood once upset. Certain statements can catalyze strong emotions very rapidly in someone with BPD.
Many people with BPD also deal with traumatic histories, such as abuse, neglect, or abandonment in childhood. Comments related to these painful experiences may be triggering. Additionally, people with BPD often battle feelings of low self-worth and intense fears of abandonment.
BPD makes emotions feel much stronger than they might for someone without the condition. A minor slight can provoke disproportionate anger, hurt, or sadness that the average person wouldn’t experience. It’s often challenging for someone with BPD to deescalate these emotions once stirred up.
Many people with BPD have survived childhood trauma. Comments related to painful past experiences can transport them back to those memories and make them feel they’re re-living the trauma. This causes great distress and emotional anguish.
Fear of Abandonment
People with BPD often have an extreme fear of abandonment. Remarks suggesting the other person may leave can provoke panic and despair. They may interpret any perceived slight as a sign you want to end the relationship.
What Not to Say
Some phrases and types of comments tend to be particularly upsetting for those with BPD. Here are some things to avoid saying:
Accusing the Person of Being “Too Sensitive”
Telling someone with BPD to not be so sensitive or that they’re overreacting is very invalidating. It dismisses their very real feelings and fails to take their BPD into account. Comments like these also make the person feel even worse about themselves.
Threats to Leave or Break-Up
With their intense fear of abandonment, any suggestion that you might leave can be terrifying for someone with BPD. Never make threats to walk away or break up, even if you’re feeling frustrated in the moment.
Too much criticism can quickly degrade a person’s with BPD already fragile self-esteem. Offer feedback gently and positively. Focus on how they can improve, not what they’re doing wrong.
Avoid making absolute statements like “you always…” or “you never…” This type of comment feels overly harsh and unlikely to be entirely accurate. Stick to how you feel in that specific moment instead.
The tone of sarcasm can be hard for some with BPD to pick up on. They may take literally what you intended as a joke. Err on the side of sincerity and directness when communicating.
Giving dramatic ultimatums like “it’s either me or your friends” is unhelpful. This forces the person with BPD to feel they have to choose or lose someone important. Ultimatums also feed abandonment fears.
Bringing Up Past Mistakes
Harping on previous errors, problems, or fights will likely just reopen old wounds for the person with BPD. Focus instead on the present and how to solve conflicts now.
Any Threat or Insult
It should go without saying, but any language intended to threaten, demean, insult, or frighten the person is unacceptable. This includes vague warnings like “you’ll regret this” or “I won’t forget this.”
When communicating with someone who has BPD, there are more constructive approaches than harsh criticisms or ultimatums. Here are some examples:
Use “I” Statements
When sharing feelings of hurt or frustration, use “I” statements. For example, “I feel concerned when plans suddenly change.” This avoids placing blame on the person with BPD.
Reassure the Person You Care
Offer frequent verbal reassurance that you care about the person and aren’t going anywhere. This helps calm abandonment fears.
Validate Their Emotions
Let the person know you take their feelings seriously. Comments like “It makes sense this is upsetting – I know it’s hard for you when…” can validate their experience.
Set Limits Compassionately
You may need to set firm limits on unacceptable behavior. Do this in a caring way. For example, “I won’t tolerate name calling because it is hurtful. If I feel that way again, I will need to take a break.”
Suggest Taking a Break
If tensions are running high, politely suggest taking a short break to regroup. This can calm the situation before things escalate too far.
Apologize When Needed
If you’ve said something hurtful or insensitive, sincerely apologize. Don’t be afraid to own when you’re in the wrong.
When to Seek Help
If communicating with your loved one who has BPD becomes too volatile or dysfunctional, it may be time to seek outside help. A few signs it’s time to get support include:
- You argue frequently with no resolution
- You dread interacting with the person
- You use hurtful language with each other
- You feel depressed, anxious, or exhausted from the relationship
- You worry the person may harm themselves or others
Some options for help include:
Seeing an individual therapist for yourself, the person with BPD, or attending couples counseling can improve communication and provide healthier coping strategies.
Joining a support group for family members of those with BPD can help you feel less alone and get advice from others in similar situations.
If the person expresses suicidal thoughts or becomes violent, call emergency services such as 911 or a suicide hotline right away.
Setting Clear Boundaries
While using compassion, it’s healthy to set some clear boundaries in your relationship with someone who has BPD. Example boundaries include:
- I will not tolerate physical violence or threats
- I need to take a break from conversations if I feel overwhelmed or disrespected
- I will end the conversation if I say I need some space and that request is not respected
Boundaries help keep communications constructive and prevent too much turmoil. State them clearly and follow through consistently.
Being Supportive Without Enabling
It’s important to be caring while also encouraging the person with BPD to take responsibility for their actions. Avoid enabling by:
- Not making excuses when they mistreat someone
- Allowing them to experience the natural consequences of inappropriate behaviors
- Recommending therapy to learn healthy coping skills
With empathy and good communication, you can build mutual understanding and have a positive relationship with someone who has BPD.
Certain remarks and communication patterns can trigger intense emotional reactions and conflict in relationships with someone who has borderline personality disorder. By educating yourself and applying more mindful approaches, you can help foster a stable, caring connection.
With time, effort, professional support when needed, and lots of compassion from both people, relationships where one individual has BPD can thrive.