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- Personality Disorders
When Your Loved One Has BPD: The Enemy is You
When someone with BPD gets close to someone emotionally, often that person automatically becomes The Enemy. They expect you will hurt them and they react accordingly, punishing you for things they think you have done or will do. The problem is that people with BPD believe they are fundamentally broken or damaged and they project that onto other people. The problem really isn’t you. It’s their illness.
Loved ones are seen as either iconically benevolent or cruelly punitive and there is no in-between because people with BPD cannot really sustain ambivalent or contradicting emotions. They cannot love somebody and be angry at them. They do not see shades of grey. Their thinking is extremely black and white. A person is either all good or all bad in their perception and this changes with their moods. One minute you are the best thing that ever happened to them and you have made them the happiest they’ve ever been, and then literally the next minute they cannot remember anything good you have ever done, you are scum, you are trash, you hate them and are trying to destroy them, you are the lowest piece of crap that ever came along. This is called “splitting.”
The reason for this is multi-faceted. People with BPD have problems with something called “object permanence.” If you have ever had a baby, you know that if you play peek-a-boo with a young baby, they will cry for the second that the blanket covers your face and hides you from them but smile and laugh when they see you again. They will also cry when you go out of the room or they can’t see you anymore. This is because they don’t understand that even though they can’t see you, you are still there. Playing peek-a-boo and other games like this teaches them object pemanence. People with BPD have this same problem emotionally; they have trouble “remembering” someone’s love and connection when the person is not there or when they can't feel it. Because of this, they cannot be confident that a person cares about them and are always anxious and unsure. It is also because of this they are able to walk away remarkably easily in some cases; they truly embody “out of sight, out of mind.” The past (even the very recent past) often seems impossibly distant to them; it is not uncommon for it to be hard for them to remember it and emotional connection with others is lost very easily.
People with BPD also have problems with something called “schema.” Schema are the little things in your brain that help you remember and categorize things when you see and interact with them. Like when you see a staircase, the “staircase schema” in your brain helps you to remember what the staircase is and how to use it. If it was not for the schema, every time you saw a staircase, it would be a new experience and you would need to re-learn how to use it. Schema also applies to people and how we categorize them. People with BPD tend to put everyone into the same category rather than evaluate them individually. Because of this, it is very hard to change their perception of you because essentially, they had it before they ever met you. The borderline patient's schema are also faulty in that they do not work correctly; when they have a negative interaction with someone, their schema for that person is “overwritten” with all negative material, the way a file will be written over if you save a new version of it. This is why they cannot “remember” anything good about the person when they are angry. It literally isn’t there. This is also why they cannot “remember” much of anything good you have done in the past, even when they aren’t angry. It has been overwritten with bad things, just like the files on a computer.
Complicating things more for the borderline patient is that often when something good happens that does not fit into their "people are bad" schema, it is ignored by the brain or immediately forgotten. So if the borderline patient perceives all people as "bad" and someone does something good, it does not register with them at all, or it is perceived in a negative light, even if they have to really stretch and distort things to see it that way. This is known as fitting the facts to their feelings. "Normal" people fit their feelings to the facts.
Non-BPD person hears the question, "Is that the dress you're wearing to the party?" from her husband and answers, "Yes, it is." The question is heard as it is spoken, as just an inquiry. No feelings are involved in answering or interpreting the question.
BPD patient hears the question, "Is that the dress you're wearing to the party?" from her husband and answers, "Why, what's wrong with it? I look bad in it, right? I look fat, right? You are always insulting me! I'm never good enough for you!" This borderline patient already fears her husband does not find her attractive and may leave her, so the question is perceived as an attack on her looks and an insult. She has taken her own feelings and projected them onto her husband, attempting to say they are his feelings. She may later recall that during this exchange, he is the one who said she was fat and repeatedly accuse him of thinking this is true, even though we clearly see it is she who said it.
*There is a more appeasing type of borderline patient, and instead of attacking her husband she may say something like, "Why, what's wrong with it? You don't like this one? I'll change into one you do like." If he tries to say he was just asking, she will likely continue on and on about him not liking the dress until he becomes angry.
Borderlines interpret reality according to how they feel. Situations that aren't threatening are perceived by the borderline patient as threatening because the borderline patient already feels threatened. Comments which aren't hurtful or rejecting are perceived by the borderline patient as hurtful and rejecting because the borderline patient already feels hurt and rejected. This is why no matter how much care is taken not to upset a loved one suffering from BPD, it is never enough. You can't not upset them. They are already upset.
The other reason you are The Enemy is that people with BPD must always be The Victim. Their illness precludes them from taking personal responsibility for themselves and their lives or even understanding what personal responsibility really means. Indeed, they expect to be taken care of. It is always somebody else’s fault because their defense mechanisms are in place to protect them from being hurt or blamed. If they have to take responsibility, this means they are not The Victim and this cannot be tolerated. When it comes down to you or them, they will always choose themselves. Always. Sadly, their illness creates a situation where any other choice is not possible. Therefore, you are The Enemy because they feel bad and it has to be somebody’s fault. It can’t be their fault, so it must be yours.
Most people cannot comprehend the selfishness of someone with BPD unless they are among the those who have lived with someone with this disorder. This is not the borderline patient's fault, and I cannot stress this enough, but for the family, it is very hard to live with. Nothing matters to them but themselves when they are upset. It's not a question of not caring about other people’s needs and well-being; the borderline patient is just not wired that way. It never even crosses their minds when they are upset. Afterward, they may be very guilty and very remorseful, even to the point of being suicidal. This may be one of the only differentiating characteristics between BPD and Narcissistic Personality Disorder: the borderline patient is capable of remorse after a fashion. The narcissist is not.
When you tell the borderline patient how their actions have affected others, they cannot understand what you are saying and even if they do, it is not something they feel they can control. If they have to hurt another person to get what they think they need, they will do so because they are so fragile emotionally they feel under attack by everybody all the time. In their eyes, it is self-defense. The borderline patient sees things in an extremely distorted way. They often believe things that are not true, and they will continue to believe these things, even when the facts in front of them spell out the complete opposite. No amount of arguing, persuading, reasoning or logic will change their mind. As stated before, the borderline patient interprets the facts to go along with how they feel, often claiming that people have done or said things to them that have not been done or said.
One of the hardest things people living with borderline patients may find is that any attempts to change the subject or talk about someone else’s feelings is perceived as rejection and that the other person doesn't care. Attempting to call them on the things they've done to hurt others routinely ends up with the borderline patient sobbing that these things are just being said to upset them. This type of response hurts loved ones very badly; it is extremely dismissive of their feelings. Indeed, it implies they have none, or that their feelings only matter as far as they affect the borderline patient. The borderline patient says this because they simply cannot see anyone else’s feelings as real. It isn't really a manipulative device to hurt their loved ones; not directly. Borderline patients believe that these things are being said for the sole purpose of making them feel bad because they don’t understand that other people really do have feelings just like they do. Therefore, they cannot conceive of hurting others, especially when they are upset. This is some of the overlap with narcissism that we tend to see in BPD.
People with Borderline Personality Disorder have trouble sustaining ambivalent emotions. When the borderline patient is angry or hurt, they cannot remember that the person they are angry with cares about them and that they care about that person. This is how they are able to do and say such terrible things: because in that moment, they really don’t love the person. They are perpetual victims who repeatedly orchestrate situations in which they will make another person angry at them, then use that situation to further their belief that they are The Victim, because now someone hates them “for no reason.” They feel victimized, which in turn causes them to feel empowered. This is the narcissistic cycle of abuse. They are being victimized for sure, but it is by their disorder, not their loved ones. Sadly, many borderline patients cannot see how their behavior looks to the world; most lack insight and have no understanding of why others feel about them the way they do. To the borderline, it really does feel like people are angry at them for no reason. This is a terrible shame, because if they cannot see it, they can never stop it.
The biggest hurdle families face having a loved one with Borderline Personality Disorder is that even though the borderline patient's loved ones know how much pain the borderline is in and they understand that he or she cannot help the way they act, after years of being exploded on, screamed at, accused, harassed, threatened, exploited, manipulated, emotionally blackmailed, physically assaulted and having their possessions repeatedly destroyed for essentially no reason, it can be very hard to care anymore about how the borderline patient feels. People have their limits. Spouses, children, siblings and even parents may carry around great anger or resentment toward the borderline patient for constantly disrupting the peace in the home and for constantly provoking or abusing the other people in the family. They may even hate the borderline patient on some level. This is, of course, exactly what the borderline patient was afraid of all along, and they are often completely unable to see that they've caused it with their own behavior.
Loved ones can try to counteract these feelings of resentment by remembering that it is not their loved one that they hate, it is Borderline Personality Disorder. BPD is the bad guy here, and the borderline patient is just as much of a victim of it as their loved ones are. It can be very hard to remember this when faced with a screaming, shrieking, hysterical family member but it's true. Most of us would rip BPD out of our loved one's brain with our bare hands if we could, but we can't. We can only try to remember that the disorder is hurting them just as badly as it is hurting us. Probably more.