5 ways to survive an argument when your loved one has borderline personality disorder
A heated argument can happen in various contexts, from personal to professional. In this article, we focus on what to do when you are arguing with someone you love or are close to who suffers from borderline personality disorder (BPD). These principles can be applied to other contexts when dealing with someone with BPD.
If it was a romantic relationship, their intensity, creativity, and deep capacity to love is what attracted you to them in the first place. But because they are sensitive to threats or cues of abandonment, they can become emotionally erratic and volatile in the context of a relationship.
If your family member shows BPD symptoms such as fear of abandonment, impulsive and self-destructive behaviours, self-harming and extreme mood swings, you may be left in a position where you feel dragged into storm after storm, only to be left powerless and frustrated.
Being with someone that has BPD feels as though you are constantly on an emotional rollercoaster. However, it doesn’t mean the relationship is hopeless. Below are some reminders that might help when you are trapped in a heated argument with someone with BPD.
Genuinely try to listen
People with BPD are exceptionally sensitive, especially to signs of rejection or abandonment. To understand more why this is, it might be helpful to read a bit about object permanence and the fear of abandonment. They are also highly perceptive; if you simply nod your head saying yes to whatever they say without listening, they will sense you are not paying attention.
They are sensitive to being dismissed or not heard because that was all they had as a child. You don’t always need to have the answer, but if your intention is genuine, they can sense it, and it will help them calm down.
Validate their feelings, not their behaviours
You don’t have to endorse what they are saying or doing, you don’t have to agree with anything, but what you could do is to validate their feelings behind. There are no right or wrong feelings; there are no logical or illogical feelings. If they feel angry or upset about something, even if it doesn’t make sense to you, it makes sense to them. You could validate their emotions.
You can say things like 'I can understand you feel ___' (even if it were you you wouldn’t feel the same), or 'I can hear you say you feel ____'. That way, you do not have to compromise your integrity. You are not lying or bending your values. You are simply telling them you hear what they feel, and their feelings are valid.
See their inner child
People with BPD are survivors of deep trauma. When arguing with someone with BPD, remember that you are not dealing with an adult, but a hurting child.
When someone with BPD is triggered, they regress into the state of a traumatised child. If you look at their body language, the intonations, etc, you will realise this. If you think of it that way, things they say or do will make sense. They may kick and scream and say 'I hate you', like a 5-year-old who doesn’t know what to say or do.
It might be hard to be the bigger person if you feel you have been treated unfairly, but try to see the wounded inner child in them. They are crying inside when they are screaming at you. The amount of relational fear they have is as paramount as that of an orphan. I hope this approach would help you to summon as much compassion as possible.
See if you can bypass the 'content' of what they say, and look at the unmet needs they are expressing. These needs might be legitimate, or they might be brought over from the past.
Setting kind but firm boundaries
Being compassionate and seeing their inner child does not mean you have to bend over or be the one who bears the weight of the relationship. It simply means you balance healthy boundaries with as much empathy you could have. Just like with a child, you can be loving but firm at the same time.
Setting boundaries with reasons might not be possible in the heat of the moment. When you are in the argument, you might just have to be firm and affirm your bottom line. Try not to walk away, as that is likely going to trigger more abandonment fears and reactions, but be firm and solid with your position.
For instance, you may say 'I can understand you feel ____. I will do ____ for you, but I will not tolerate ____'.
Be clear with the consequences in a non-punitive way; 'I don’t want to, but if you continue to ____, I will have to _____'. You will have to execute what you say. You may have to repeat yourself like a broken record.
When they are calm and collected at a later time, they are in their adult mode, and you can have a logical conversation with them. Together, you can come up with a plan - identify their triggers, what you can do or not do to not make it worse. Both your needs and theirs could be honoured.
Remember, you are not their saviour. The more you blame yourself for not being able to rescue the situation or help them, the less healthy the relationship would be as a whole. You cannot go back and change the past, and you cannot erase their trauma. Be warm and compassionate, but inside your heart, release them to be responsible for their own growth.
You can be their rock, their support, but ultimately they are in charge of their life. Please don’t believe that people with BPD 'can never get better'. They absolutely can.
They are not monsters, even if they can be challenging to be with. In fact, people with BPD are highly empathic, sensitive, compassionate, and have a lot to offer the world. The road to recovery may be long and hard, but it will be worth it.
You are not forced to stay, but if you decide to walk this journey together, your love and commitment can be a powerful healing tool for them.
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