Why is it so hard to communicate with Borderline Personality Disorder?

As someone who has had many severe symptoms of borderline personality disorder for more than a decade, I know that there is no simple “trick” for creating easy conversation between someone who suffers from this disease and their loved ones. The illness presents many obstacles to good communication, all of which can only be overcome if everyone involved is willing to adopt a nuanced and patient approach to each one. At the core of any effective communication, however, is empathy. While I can’t provide a one-size-fits-all miracle solution for the issue of communicating around BPD, I can (partially) explain why it can be so difficult for people on either side of the disorder to talk to each other, in the hopes that improving everyone’s understanding will pave the way to greater compassion on all sides.

BPD sufferers’ core qualities change.

BPD, true to its name, is a disorder of personality. Specifically, a person with the disorder likely experiences frequent changes in their basic sense of self. One day, their beliefs and devotions present one way; the next, they may swing like a pendulum to the opposite end of the personality spectrum. This lack of consistency can make it difficult to communicate over time with someone who has BPD. As their perspectives shift, they may disagree with things they believed only a short time earlier, causing them to abruptly change their minds or go back on agreements they made with others.

BPD often afflicts people from a young age.

When a person grows up with borderline personality disorder, which happens frequently in cases of the disease, their symptoms color their worldview before their brain is even done forming. To them, common symptoms of BPD, like emotional sensitivity or black-and-white thinking, are the norm. This may partially account for the widely-held perception that people with BPD are “stubborn”. Asking a child, teenager, or even a young adult with BPD to see things more “reasonably” may be as effective as describing a color to someone who was born without sight. They literally don’t have the capacity to “see” what’s being explained to them, because they’ve never experienced it before.

BPD causes overwhelming emotions.

Virtually everybody has had the experience of feeling so angry at another person that they yell, call them inappropriate names, or storm off, etc., even when it would be more effective to stay calm and work out the conflict mindfully. For people with BPD, the experience of anger (as well as pretty much every other emotion under the sun) is often an order of magnitude more overwhelming than it is for most other people. Understandably, these emotional storms that rage inside borderline sufferers are so powerful that they can swallow up that person’s ability to speak calmly, express themselves rationally, and make progress toward solving their problems through conversation. Instead, they may express the emotions that are consuming them – with as much extreme intensity as they’re feeling them.

BPD-influenced feelings frequently contradict each other.

One common symptom of BPD is experiencing simultaneous emotions that seem like they should be mutually exclusive. These contradictory urges and feelings are extremely difficult to put into words. For example: BPD sufferers tend to crave the company of other people while simultaneously pushing those people away; sometimes they hurt themselves physically in order to relieve emotional pain; the thought of being anxiety-free can conversely make them feel anxiety. The list of contradictory feelings associated with BPD goes on. Because it can be so challenging to explain the mechanisms behind these seemingly paradoxical emotional states, those with BPD often have trouble talking about them.

People with BPD may not have the medical background they need to contextualize their experience.

In many ways, BPD is an illness like any other: it has biological origins and measurable symptoms. However, someone who hasn’t had the benefit of learning to mitigate those symptoms with medicine and therapy – or someone who doesn’t know they have BPD to begin with – likely doesn’t possess the medical language that would aid them in communicating about their illness with other people. They may staunchly believe the things their disease tells them, like they’re hopeless and their pain will never abate, instead of understanding that those thoughts are the result of a disorder that can be treated. A person in this situation may show up as tough to reason with. It’s difficult to break someone of the belief that their future is endlessly bleak if they don’t have the medical context to realize that they’re being fed exaggerated thoughts by a legitimate psychiatric disorder.

It’s worth stressing that it’s not a person’s fault if they suffer from symptoms of borderline personality disorder. Managing overwhelming emotions, shifting personality traits, and the difficult-to-describe mental (and physical) pain that BPD causes – often all at the same time – can make communicating from a borderline perspective difficult. While it can be easy to get frustrated with the inconsistencies and anger a person with BPD sometimes presents, it should be understood that even at their most intense and confounding, people with this disorder are simply doing their best to play the medical hand they were dealt.


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