About Randi

Randi Kreger has brought the concerns of people who have a family member with borderline personality disorder (BPD) and narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) to an international forefront through her best-selling books, informative website, and popular online family support community Welcome to Oz.

 
 

Tips for Communicating with Someone With Borderline Disorder


1. Be realistic. You will not eliminate another person's borderline behavior, no matter how well you communicate. Only that person can do that. Your goal is simply to communicate in a way that respects you and the personal with borderline personality disorder (BP).

2. Leave if necessary. You do not have to tolerate physical threats or emotional or verbal abuse.

3. Simplify. When speaking with a BP, especially about sensitive issues, remember emotion is likely to be so strong that neither of you can do high-level thinking. Make each sentence short, simple, and direct. Leave no room for misinterpretation.

4. Separate the person from the behavior. Make it clear to the BP that when you dislike behavior, you do not dislike the person. You may have to reinforce this often.

5. Address feelings before facts. In ordinary conversation, we put facts before feelings. We assess facts and react with our feelings to them. But people with BPD often reverse this process. They have certain feelings—such as the fear that a partner will abandon them—and so they change the facts to match their feelings.

For example, their partner isn't going to the grocery store; he is walking out on the relationship. A non-BP confronted with that accusation may want to try to point out the facts (he's taking a grocery list, there is no food in the refrigerator, or so on), but in the BP's emotional state, that will be irrelevant. Instead, the non-BP may get farther by acknowledging an empathizing the BP's feelings (not facts) rather than discounting them. Then the non-BP can insert her reality.

For example, "You sound really upset. I would be upset too if I thought you were walking away forever. However (however is better than "but") I'm just going to the store and I'll be back in an hour."

6. Keep focusing on your message. Ignore the BP's attacks or threats or attempts to change the subject. Stay calm and reiterate your point. If you're feeling attacked, calmly say that things are getting too hot and you'll be back in an hour. Then leave.

7. Ask questions. Turn the problem over to the other person. Ask for alternative solutions, by saying, for example, "Where do you think we should go from here?" Or "I'm not able to say yes, and you seem to really want me to. How can we solve this problem?"

8. Remember the importance of timing. There are good times and bad times to bring up certain subjects. An incident that may make the BP feel particularly vulnerable—the loss of a job, for example—could lead him or her to feel rejected, abandoned or invalidated. Your conversation is likely to be a lot more difficult. Postpone it if you can, or at least take into account the BP's greater vulnerability at this time.

9. In the midst of an intense conversation that is escalating and unproductive, practice Delay, Distract, Depersonalize, and Detach.

Delay. Tell the other person, "Why don't we think about things and talk about this later?" or "Give me some time to think about what you're saying." Speak calmly and in a way that affirms the other person as well as yourself, without necessarily confirming their claims: "I'm feeling upset right now. Your feelings are important to me and I need some time to understand them."

Distract. Suggest, for instance, that the two of you run an errand together.

Depersonalize. Throughout, you will do better if you remind yourself frequently that the BP's harsh criticism of you is not real, but still feels very real to that person. Don't take the other person's comments personally, however cutting or cruel they may feel to you. This is the nature of the disorder.

Detach. Remove yourself emotionally from getting caught up in the emotional whirlwind. Resolve to yourself, "I'm not going to get so involved in this."

This is especially true not just in moments of high negativity, but in moments of high positive emotions. Impulsivity is a key trait of people with BPD, and while it can show up in negative actions—like throwing something through a window or telling you you're a monster and he never wants to see you again—it can also show up in positive actions: Telling you she adores you and wants to get married, right now or tomorrow. A BP's positive impulsivity can be very seductive. Detaching yourself can help you guard against it.

The emotional cycle that a person with BPD goes through can be compared to a row of dominos. One trigger, one push of the first domino, and the entire row falls in rapid succession. Your job is to try to remove your own "domino" from the row. You can also learn what makes the dominos fall. Pay attention to your experiences and anticipate ways to keep things calm. If you can calm yourself, the adrenaline doesn't flow through your system, and you can begin to try to steer the volatile relationship into less stormy seas.

It may help if you remind yourself, "I can't help that person's splitting. I can't help that person's shame. I can't help that person's fear. I can't control those things. What I can control is how I respond. And if I respond calmly, not impulsively, perhaps I can lower the temperature and help us find new ways to respond to each other and manage the BPD."

This doesn't mean caving in, however. Simply adopting a "whatever you say, dear" is not good for your own mental health, and it's not good for the person with BPD, either.

These are just tips, not a complete guide. For a complete explanation, see my book The Essential Family Guide to Borderline Personality Disorder.

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