Wednesday, October 12, 2011

How to Disarm a Borderline: Last Part

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), Part II (October 29), Part III (November 24), Part IV (December 8), and Part V (January 12), Part VI (March 2), Part VII (April 30), Part VIII (June 5), and Part IX (August 2). The countermeasures described in this post do not work in isolation but must be part of a complex, consistent, and ongoing strategy.

This post, the last one in this series, will continue to describe specific countermeasures to the usual strategies in the BPD bag of tricks used by them to distance and/or invalidate you, as well as to induce you to feel anxiously helpless, anxiously guilty, or hostile.

Today's subjects are what to do when none of the previous interventions seem to decrease the angry responses of the family member with BPD, and what to do when you yourself blow your cool and react with a nasty comment that might kick off a variable intermittent reinforcement schedule than can undo all the fine work you have done until this point..

When all the suggestions in these posts fail

The next suggestion is useful in cases in which, no matter what you say, the family member with BPD continues to escalate with more and more outrageous accusations or oppositionalism. It only works when all others have failed, and not before.  It probably can be used only once or twice. The reason for this is, in order for you to be confident in the assumption you are about to make, the Other's negative patient behavior must have already persisted in the face of your consistent efforts to be conciliatory.

The Solution? Inquire, "Why are you picking a fight with me?"  Once again, you have to refuse to get sucked into a debate about whether or not the family member with BPD is indeed picking a fight.  It will have by this point become damn obvious, and therefore you do not have to prove it.

In response to this question, people with BPD will usually do one of two things.  First, they could conceivably stop the behavior, admit that they are picking a fight, and begin to explain why they feel it necessary to do so.  In the unlikely event that this happens, hear them out!  You will probably learn something important about your relationship.  Try not to be defensive but look for the kernal of truth in what they are saying, as described in Part IV of this series.

More usually, they may suddenly stop the provocative behavior and go on to talk about some other, completely different subject, and nicely proceed as if the fight had never even happened! In this scenario, the family member with BPD suddenly drops whatever he or she was complaining about right in the middle of a heated interaction. 

This maneuver is a lot trickier than you might think.  Because of the abrupt nature of the change in subject, you may feel drawn back into continuing the previous angry discussion yourself.  This happens because the interaction that preceded the switch feels unfinished.  You should remind yourself that the Other's goal may just have been to keep an argument going, not to settle any actual complaint or win an argument.  In other words, the actual content of the argument may be something that is somewhat unimportant.

The feeling that one gets after an argument is suddenly dropped is somewhat akin to the way one feels in the following situation: you have repeatedly tried to get a talkative friend off the telephone.  You know, those conversations when you've said several times that you'd love to talk longer but you have to go, and your friend says OK after each time, but then keeps on talking as if you had not said anything at all. Finally, you raise your voice and firmly say, "I really have to go!" In response, the friend angrily says, "OK, GOODBYE!" 

The natural response is "No, wait!" even though ending the conversation had been one's goal in the first place! 

I advise you to resist the temptation to re-ignite whatever fight had been taking place before you asked the question concerning why the family member was picking a fight, and move on to whatever new and friendlier topic the Other has chosen.  Just like your partner in conversation, act as if the earlier argument had never even taken place.

The fine art of apology

The last bit of advise on disarming someone with BPD concerns the situation in which the family member with BPD gets the best of you and you react with a statement or action that invalidates or insults the patient.  Despite being well versed in the kinds of interventions described in this series of posts, you may still find yourself responding poorly to a family member's provocations. 

The person with BPD, after all, has a lifetime of experience in creating these reactions.  Unfortunately, intermittent emotional overreactions from another tend to make such a person try even harder and longer to illicit said reactions. This is due to the variable intermittant reinforcement process desribed in Part I of this series of posts.

Solution:  After you and your targeted other have calmed down, own up to your mistake and apologize for it!  Be a person of integrity. Be someone who is responsible, has a sense of right and wrong, and is the sort of person other people can look up to.

Having said that, however, an effective apology in this situation should not have the slightest hint of self-denigration attached to it.  If you put yourself down in some way, the person with BPD may then go for your jugular in response.  Basically, there are two characteristics this kind of apology should always have:

First, be good-natured about your error.  After all, you are only human.  Be able to laugh at yourself.  Say, "Gee, I sure did get frustrated with you that time."

Second and most important, apologize only for what you actually said or did, but not for the feelings that led to it.  Example: "I am sorry for sounding so critical, but I just had the feeling that you were dismissing everything I said out of hand."

This sort of statement frames the former explosive interchange as a mutual problem that the two of you need to work on solving in a constructive manner.   And after all, solving interpersonal problems is what effective metacommunication is all about.


  1. I appreciate your comments about veterans on this website. I am an Afghanistan War veteran. I started a simliar blog called "The Veterans Guide."

    You can visit it here and perhaps guest post on it from time to time.

    Veteran's Guide to PTSD and Benefits

  2. Same Anonymous from part IX.

    Whenever I have used the "Why are you picking a fight?", neither of the two responses mentioned were done. Instead it was turned around and i was told I was picking the fight (projection?). They didn't even pause, but just continued pushing.

    Whenever I apologize (some are bad as you have said, but even when the apology is done right), the main focus is that I am constantly apologizing and thus I dont care/dont love them because *I* keep making the same mistake. Thus apologies are used against me as well.

    While I understand I have created a rod for my own back by rewarding her many times... this still does NOT explain how to change that cycle (which you said it would... you didn't even mention the reward schedule here, how to persist with it etc).

    It appears you are being very evasive. Twice now you have directed to another place, and twice now the answer was not there.... very disheartening.

    One thing that I would like advice on though, is whether I should bring up the topic of the person's BPD. I know that she is paranoid about it being used to blame her for everything (which I do not want to do), but I feel it needs to be mentioned in some way that I understand why she is provoking me and I am going to try and use these techniques so that I dont make it worse... but I can already see that conversation in my head going extremely bad, and I know it is because the way I word it will not be good.

    So any advice you can give on the manner in which to approach the topic of recognizing that a partner's behavior is coming from BPD and acknowledging that it has been my fault in not responding to it in the way that it needs to be would be appreciated.

    I feel as if I have to be deceptive and lie about the reasons why I am trying to modify my behavior. I cannot be honest and say I have realized her actions are not intentional but provocations caused by her BPD, and that now I understand that I am going to respond differently, the only option I am given is that it is my fault and that I have anger issues and that my constant failure to fix them is proof I don't care (which I now realize I couldn't fix them because I didn't understand what was happening).

    The alternative, is to be honest, do so genuinely and calmly, but even if I were to be 100% perfect in my delivery and tone of voice, as you have said before, everything said passes through a filter and the topic itself will cause hostility.

    What options do I have?

    1. Hi anonymous,

      I mentioned in part I of this series that most people who are already enmeshed with someone with BPD will find it nearly impossible to employ the suggested strategies successfully without the help of a therapist. Interventions have to tailored specifically to the individuals involved, and every pair is different.

      So unfortunately, without having evaluated you and your friend's family dynamics as well of the details of your past interactions, I can not really give you specific advice, only the general strategies described in the posts.

      In therapy, I use role playing to find out what people are up against and then try out various approaches that have at times worked with other people to see if they will work with the patient's target. Often they do not.

      Some other things, for example, that might or might not work when someone responds to "Why are you picking a fight?" with a version of, "No, it's you!" are:

      "You just did it again!" or (with a big smile, kindly and firmly) "That's bull and you know it" (and then refuse to discuss it further) or, "Well, if you insist on being angry with me no matter what I say, I can't stop you."

      Sorry I can't be of more help

    2. Oh, and mentioning the disorder as a reason for anything is usually, at least in most cases, a bad idea.

    3. Thank you for taking the time to try and provide some advice.

  3. YOU got to be kidding me? I'm sorry I'm not going to bend over backwards this article is nothing but coddling and enabling this behavior, so you want someone to go along to get along?? these people are awful shouldn't nobody have to endure this I mean NOBODY. We have to bend, cow and tow and they dont ?? again no responsibility give me a break this gets old fast

  4. This was an exceptional series of articles that have provided some concrete responses I can use when interacting with my husband.

    It was eyeopening when it was mentioned why anyone would put up with this behaviour rather than heading for the hills at the first sign of dysfunction before marrying into it. That is a question I repeatedly ask myself.

    Regardless of 'why', I just want out of the relationship and my goal is to move out, separate, then divorce, but until I'm brave enough to pull the plug on the marriage, I want to keep the peace and stop being so angry all the time about how I'm treated. In the early years I kept expecting empathy from him, now I expect nothing. The cycle has repeated for 20 years and it's taken me this long to realize it's not going to change into this wonderful relationship I had hoped for.

    We don't actually fight or argue as I'm a doormat. The conflict is something I have a hard time dealing with so since I can't control his behaviour, I can control how I respond to it. I would like to know if there are other posts or books that provide even more examples of how to respond when met with certain requests. I feel I need to learn a script to deal with this. I am more like his personal assistant than his wife as I am constantly giving in to him when he asks me to do something for him. I would like to be able to say no and stick with it, but the feeling of guilt and fear of conflict always get in the way and it's easier to just be mad at myself for giving in yet again rather than dealing with him being angry, or him giving me the silent treatment for weeks at a time.

    The huge, gigantic, monstrous issue that I am trying to do damage control on is his complete disregard on how he spends money and his ability to continually spend to the point we can't pay our bills. I have no idea how to deal with this and his massive credit card debt he has managed to wrack up in a couple months.

    When I do try to say we shouldn't buy something, here's an example of what happens. He texted and tells me he wants to buy this very expensive piece of exercise equipment we do not have the funds for and asks me if I'd like to come along to pick it up. I tried this tactic: it's great you want to workout however what do you think about saving up the money to make that purchase down the road. Well, I was the devil. His response was to stop controlling "his" life. It's something he wants and will use and he's going to get it and I can just keep my money if that's all that's important to me. So yeah, that went well.

    Before I read this article, I did discover on my own a couple of "tricks" that have disarmed him immediately. Last week he texted saying he didn't want to do something but if he didn't, the situation would just get a lot worse. I simply replied "I don't know what to tell you" which was the absolute truth because if I had given him a long rationalization of why he should do what he didn't feel like doing, he would have gotten upset and not done it. Instead when I came home, he had resolved the problem, and was actually pleasant to be around.

    The other phrase I've used was when he was calling himself an idiot along with other negative comments. I said "don't talk about my husband like that." Completely diffused his negative train of thought and he actually started laughing as I think it caught him off guard. I feel very proud about that one.

    1. Anonymous,

      Thanks for your kind words.

      Unfortunately, there is no single script that is guaranteed to work for any given family or couple - even the countermoves I suggest in this series of posts, while often effective, may fail because they can be countered in a variety of ways.

      Finding effective strategies for particular families takes a great deal of research, planning, and persistence, with the anticipation of many moves and countermoves in succession, before they stand a chance of being successful in making any permanent changes in a relationship. You would also have to look at your own relationships in your own family of origin over your entire lifetime in order to avoid automatic but ineffective types of responses.

      This is where a knowledgeable therapist can help you, although therapists who know how to do this are rather difficult to find.

      I don't know what's available wherever you are, but the therapy treatments I recommend are listed at the end of my post You can ask about a therapist’s theoretical orientation before making an appointment.

      Sorry I can't be of more help.

  5. I appreciate your prompt response to my comment. I will check out the link you provided on finding a therapist.

  6. Where can I find the whole series

    And thank you 😊

    1. They're all here on this blog as well, although I posted them quite a few years ago. They're also on my Psychology Today blog at (go through the list of posts until you're near the end).