In 2019, after a lifelong struggle with suicidality and intense fears of abandonment, my husband was finally diagnosed with borderline personality disorder (BPD). Although we’ve since rejected the BPD label (mainly due to the stigmatization and misconceptions it can carry), having some terminology to help us make sense of his inner landscape was tremendously valuable.
Borderline personality disorder is one of the most stigmatized and misunderstood mental health conditions, both in society and the field of psychotherapy. But for the 1.6% of the population struggling with this disorder and their loved ones, the consequences of living with BPD are far too real.
To better serve the people struggling with these painful symptoms, it’s critical first to understand what BPD is and what it isn’t. Contrary to popular belief, it’s not a life sentence, and with the right treatment, people with this disorder can (and often do) get better.
Borderline personality disorder is a mental health condition characterized by unstable moods, volatile relationships, and self-destructive behavior. People with BPD often struggle with self-harm, suicidal thoughts and behavior, difficulty maintaining stable relationships, chronic feelings of emptiness, impulsivity, and extreme mood fluctuations.
Although experts have yet to agree on a singular root cause of BPD, experts such as Marsha Linehan believe there’s a link between chronic parental invalidation, childhood trauma, and the development of this disorder. As someone with an MA in Counseling Psychology, I’ve come to view BPD as an insecure, disorganized attachment style typically exacerbated by early childhood trauma.
Like most people, individuals with BPD want to love and be loved, though their outward behavior may suggest otherwise. It can help to keep this in mind as you struggle to set boundaries with a loved one who may be experiencing extreme mood fluctuations and volatility.
Setting boundaries with anyone requires clarity and self-care. Regulating your own body and emotions is crucial to being able to recognize when a boundary needs to be set. Self-regulation is even more critical for communicating boundaries to loved ones. Here are four steps you can take to set boundaries with a loved one who has BPD:
Step 1: Regulate your own body.
The nervous system plays a crucial role in our ability to be present in our lives without reacting out of fear, stress, or anger. By regulating ourselves before setting a boundary, we reduce the risk of becoming overwhelmed.
Deep breathing exercises, meditation, yoga, and physical exercise are effective techniques for calming the nervous system. Taking time to participate in activities that bring joy and relaxation, such as spending time in nature, reading, or listening to music, can also help regulate the nervous system and promote overall well-being.
Step 2: Get clear about what boundaries need to be set.
Do you know what boundary needs setting and why? Have you asked yourself why this boundary is important to you?
Remember, boundaries are about preserving our own safety and values; they should never be about controlling the other person. For example, when my husband first entered recovery for sex addiction, I would attempt to set boundaries using ultimatums that tried to control his behavior. Not only did they not work, but we both became frustrated and resentful in the process!
Boundaries should be used as a guideline to communicate to others how you are and are not willing to be treated, not as a manipulation tool.
Step 3: Deliver the boundaries with validation, empathy, and consistency.
Boundaries typically aren’t fun to set and are often not welcomed by the person receiving them. Recognize that this is normal and that it’s still okay to set a boundary with the person you love.
Empathy and validation are crucial when setting a boundary because it helps us understand and respect the feelings and needs of others while also prioritizing our own. By considering how the other person might feel or react and communicating respectfully and compassionately, we can create a safe and supportive environment for both parties. Empathy also allows us to recognize and validate the other person’s emotions, even if we do not agree with their behavior or actions. Ultimately, it can help build trust and foster healthier relationships by promoting open and honest communication and mutual understanding.
Some people may respond poorly to boundary setting despite our best efforts to be empathic and validating. When this happens, it’s crucial to be consistent. Inconsistent boundaries send mixed messages and can create confusion and uncertainty in relationships. Maintaining consistent boundaries builds trust and respect in our relationships and promotes a sense of safety and security for ourselves and those around us.
Step 4: Live your life!
Admittedly, this is the area I have struggled with the most in setting boundaries with my husband, who has BPD. After setting a boundary with him, I would wait to see if he respected it, and when he didn’t, I would try to force him into it! It created a stressful dynamic for both of us, and I was missing out on my own life.
Once you set a boundary and stick to it, get back to the business of living your life! Understandably, it can be easy to fall into a caregiver or martyr role when your loved one is struggling with BPD or another mental health disorder, but tending to your own life is imperative for your own health and well-being.
Ultimately, you cannot be responsible for someone else’s emotional well-being and happiness. By prioritizing your own needs and interests, maintaining your own sense of identity and independence, and seeking out support and resources for yourself, you can improve your quality of life and restore a sense of balance to your relationship.
If you or someone you know experiences mental health issues, it is important to seek help from a qualified professional. Our Resource Specialist can help you find expert mental health resources to recover in your community. Contact us now for more information on this free service to our users.
About the Author: Blair Nicole is a CEO, freelance writer, and enthusiastic mental health advocate. She holds an MA in Counseling Psychology and has spent hundreds of hours in therapy, both as a clinician and client. She is also a supportive partner to her husband who is in recovery from borderline personality disorder (BPD) and sex addiction.
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