Wednesday, November 24, 2010

How to Disarm a Borderline, Part III: Overall Philosophy

Before reading this post, particularly if you are going to try this at home with a real adult family member with borderline personality disorder (BPD) (which is not recommended without the help of a therapist), please read my previous posts Part I (October 6) and Part II (October 29).

In this post I will discuss the general philosophy about approaching anyone who is trying to distance you (also see my post, Distancing: Early Warning [apologies to the rock group Rush] , from July 6), particularly if that person is very good at it like an individual with BPD is. In future posts, I will begin to run down specific countermeasures to the usual strategies in the BPD bag of tricks used to distance and/or invalidate you.

An observation held in common by many psychotherapy treatment paradigms for BPD is that respectful treatment of the patient by therapists in the face of the patient’s chaotic behavior patterns often seems to induce the patient to behave less chaotically with the therapist, although not with anyone else. It is particularly important for a therapist to respects differing values while not changing his or her own.

To disarm someone with BPD, you should look to find something that is wise, correct, or of value in the emotions, thinking, and behavior of the BPD person. You should never assume that the BPD’s problems stem primarily from crazy thinking, faulty interpretations, distortions of reality, or maladaptive assumptions. You should assume that individuals with BPD have unhappy lives and therefore, despite all evidence and appearances to the contrary, they really want down deep to act better.

Persons with BPD often have a high level of interpersonal skills, as evidenced by their ability to manipulate others. You should try to keep their considerable strengths in mind as you interact with them.

You should aim to validate the BPD’s reality and try to make sense of their behavior within their current interpersonal environment. See my post Validating Invalidation from Sept. 23 to get a better idea of the importance of being willing to validate someone when that someone is practically inviting you to invalidate him or her.

The troublesome behaviors of the BPD must be looked at not as a problem with the BPD but as imminently reasonable and understandable responses that derive from a problem for the BPD. You should not view the BPD as psychotic, malevolent, immature, or unintelligent but as someone who is struggling with a highly dysfunctional social network.

Remember, you yourself are very likely to be an important part of that dysfunctional social network, so please do not act like you think that you are superior to the BPD in any way. If you do, you are inviting the BPD to knock you off of the pedestal that you put yourself on, and you will not know what hit you.

Never treat the BPD as if he or she is fragile or incapable of being reasonable, particularly when tension occurs in your relationship. Ultimately, no subject should be thought of as too sensitive to discuss. While you should be sensitive to such issues such as incest or family violence, you should try to talk about them when they arise calmly and reasonably even in the face of the BPD’s anxiety or acting out (This ain’t easy, and it is where a therapist for you would be useful if not indispensable).

If you do not agree with what a BPD says, calmly say you disagree without making an issue of who is right and who is wrong. If you feel that something you have said or done is being misinterpreted or being taken out of context, kindly explain what you had meant to say or do without trying to convince the BPD that they got you wrong the first time. Therapist par excellence Lorna Smith Benjamin employs what she calls the Caribbean Solution, named for the behavior of a hotel clerk confronted by an irate guest. You remain calm and friendly but continually reiterate your own opinion about a disputed interaction.

Lorna Smith Benjamin
Be scrupulously honest. If you actually have done something wrong, do not deny or minimize it, but do not go into a big mea culpa either. (The best way to come clean if you were physically or sexually abusive to the BPD when he or she was a child is another matter and will be discussed in a future post). On the other hand, I have seen individuals admit to things they had not done in order to pacify someone with BPD. Not a smart move.

You will have to be comfortable with your own limitations concerning what you can or cannot do for the BPD. Be respectful of your own needs. Never rush in to “take care” of the BPD in an infantilizing manner even when the need to do so seems to hit you across the face.

You cannot be afraid of the BPD’s anger, neediness, or anxiety; and you must be completely unwilling to attack him or her in the face of provocation. Once again, this is where a therapist for you might be necessary.

In summary, be relentlessly respectful of BPD’s suffering, abilities, and values. Be humble without disrespecting yourself or your own well being. Be honest. Communicate an expectation that the BPD will be able to behave in a reasonable and cooperative manner, and play to the BPD’s strengths. And keep it up, or ye olde variable intermittent reinforcement schedule will rear its ugly head.


  1. Hi thanks for sharing this advice. I'm confused about a few points though, and hope you can help me to understand...

    At one point you said it's important to validate the BPD even when they are seemingly inviting invalidation.

    Then you said to treat them as reasonable people, and to be honest.

    How can I validate irrational statements and blaming, AND treat them as reasonable and be honest?

    It reminds me of being in what you call the double bind.

    It comes up especially when the discussion is a matter of intention or original meaning - if they misinterpret what I meant to say, and I correct them on my true meaning, an illogical and never ending argument will ensue. If I validate them and tell them I understand their point of view or their frustration, they'll get even more upset, saying something like "you don't have to give in!" or "I'm not frustrated!"

    So how can I validate them when they're asking to be invalidated, and also respond to them as if they are rational and reasonable? Seems like no matter what I say, it's wrong.

    1. Hi Erin,

      I discuss the answers to your questions in Part IV of this series at