Stop caring what others think, and other things not to say to someone with BPD

Trigger Warning: Mention of self-harm and suicide

BPD is difficult to understand from the outside. In my first post, I wrote about the way it affects me in everyday life. I’m lucky to have a good support network made up of my partner and close friends. But even though I’m surrounded by people who care, there are times when I receive unsolicited advice from (mostly well-meaning) friends, acquaintances, or even doctors who clearly don’t understand what I’m going through. Or, without knowing, they might act in ways that trigger my symptoms. 

If you know or care for someone with BPD, there are comments that can come off as hurtful, invalidating, or ignorant. So let me enlighten you.

Stop caring what others think
Perceived rejection or abandonment can be, and I’m not exaggerating, devastating. I struggle with chronic suicidality, and it’s usually brought on by me feeling rejected or abandoned. Every single time I share these feelings and the cause with others, I am told not to care what others think and that my self-worth is not dependent on others’ approval. You might think you’re being helpful, but in fact you are telling a person in a wheelchair to walk. I would give anything not to care what others think, but it’s beyond my control. It is an automatic response, something that happens without me even realizing. I am working on this in therapy, but in the meantime, please refrain from telling me something I know intellectually but can only dream of emotionally.

You’re overreacting / oversensitive / being silly
From the outside, it might seem that someone with BPD is overreacting, oversensitive, or being argumentative for no reason. I know that my responses and feelings are way more intense than those of neurotypical people, and sometimes seem out of proportion to the situation. But that doesn’t make my feelings less real. When you call me oversensitive, you are invalidating my feelings, which only makes me more distraught. I wish I could be different, but the reality of the situation is that I will sometimes feel anger or sadness more intensely. Instead of telling me my feelings are wrong, focus instead on acknowledging that I am upset and in distress. 

Everyone feels like that sometimes
Well-meaning people often tell me that it’s ‘normal’ to fear rejection, feel down when you feel rejected, judged, or abandoned, be emotional, or self-soothe by overspending, drinking, or binge eating. I agree that most people will feel or do these things in their lifetime. But these symptoms are way more intense in people with BPD, impairing their functioning and negatively affecting their relationships. Everyone doesn’t feel self-hatred when someone looks at them the wrong way, neither do they go to great lengths to avoid abandonment, such as threaten self-harm or suicide. BPD is a serious illness that affects most of your life. Don’t trivialize the illness that might be leaving the other person in a constant state of distress.

You’re too pleasant to have BPD
I was told this by a psychiatrist who had seen me for a single appointment. With this incredibly stigmatizing statement they are implying that all people diagnosed with BPD have explosive anger or are confrontational. Even though I easily experience intense anger, it is internalized as I fear conflict and the abandonment that might follow it. BPD is an illness that exists on a continuum, and there are many ways it can present. With this ignorant statement, they are invalidating my experience by suggesting that I cannot possibly struggle with an illness like BPD. 

Most people with people just want to be heard or acknowledged. At least, that’s true for me. When I share my feelings, don’t say nothing. When I reach out to you, don’t ignore me. There is nothing more disconcerting than wondering what the other person must be thinking about you, because you always expect the worst.

So, what should you say to a person with BPD? Listen, and acknowledge and validate their feelings, and try to see it from our point of view. That doesn’t mean you have to accept any bad behavior. Setting boundaries and being assertive are important if you’re in a relationship with someone with BPD.

If you have BPD or another illness, are there any comments you’d add to this list? If you’re in a friendship or relationship with someone with a mental illness, what has been helpful?

2 thoughts on “Stop caring what others think, and other things not to say to someone with BPD”

  1. Really good, thought-provoking article Ann. As you know, my sister was recently diagnosed with BPD and it was such a relief for her to now have a diagnosis that explained her extreme mood swings and suicidality. As a mental health nurse and ward manager and someone who’s experienced mental illness, I had to go with her to see her GP to explain how bad my sister felt and was – she needed support! Finally, she was accepted on a course of DBT for one year where she met with others and was more able to understand what had been happening for her.

    Yes, she too has had the well-meaning comments from family and friends — but she’s now better able to handle them, rather than panic or start screaming at someone about “you don’t know how I feel, you don’t know how I want to kill myself every day…….”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! DBT helped me tremendously – I hope it does for your sister too. I’m glad that she is now better able to respond to comments like these, even though they can be distressing. I always try to remember that people close to me usually mean well. It can be difficult and confusing to support anyone suffering from mental illness.

      Liked by 1 person

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