A Matter of Personality

From borderline to narcissism

Responding to “Borderline” Provocations – Part III

Being in a relationship, through blood or romance, with someone with traits of borderline personality disorder is incredibly challenging. While they may seem irrational, there is in fact a method to their madness. In Part III of this series, I discuss the overall philosophy behind the countermoves to specific provocations that I will be describing in future posts. Read More


Why should I cater to someone else's insanity? I was a good, loyal, caring friend to someone for almost a decade. They attacked me one day with the craziest bullshit - that I didn't respect them, that I thought they were stupid, that I never listened to them, etc. etc. etc. I counteracted each insane accusation with FACTS and told them, point blank they were 100% mistaken in their perception of reality.

I was totally pissed off! But after a few days I decided to tell them that friendship is supposed to lift you up and bring you joy and obviously our relationship was not doing that, so I was going to step back and allow them the space they needed to find others with whom they could do that. So what happens? They turn around and tell me not to step TOO far away, for TOO long, because our friendship means so much to them! WTF?

I'm sorry, but constantly trying to be humble and accommodating to someone with BPD is not good advice. Why should my health and well being be sacrificed to manage their mental illness? No thanks.


Hi anonymous,

Thanks for your comment.

Why indeed? And yet many people keep trying, usually unsuccessfully, and never seem to give up. And some people are kind of stuck with others who happen to be close family members.

Humble and accomodating can mean a lot of different things, BTW. Some ways to do those things are effective, and some are definitely not helpful at all. It depends on what one is humble about and in what way they are being accomodating. Sitting and listening to a screed of invectives is definitely counterproductive.


It seems that some of these behaviors may be rational (or arguably situation beneficial) for the BPD. But, unless the BPD person is a child or a parent (for whom I get extreme efforts and extended sacrifice), what can be adequate upside to take on the difficulty and anxiety of trying to be non-reactive and validating for the long term in the face of continual efforts to provoke the other response?

That is what is difficult for me. Before you find out you are married or in a long term relationship with a BPD, you typically are half-way or more to PTSD yourself. S,o now, the suggestion is to be validating and non-reactive? From what I understand BPD is not subject to short term fixes. I wish BPD was subject to quick cure/change -- but it is not from what I understand.

I think this is the real problem with implementing non-reaction/validation 24/7 or even 6/10 with a BPD -- therapists have long breaks to totally withdraw from BPD interaction while relationship partners have to leave their own homes or "hide". A therapist has "by the hour" or "a few times a week" dealings with a BPD. People in relationships with them typically can't "say good-bye, see you next week" and go off to regroup for extended periods in a stable and safe place with less volatile and challenging relationship partners.

maybe not an attack?

"They attacked me one day with the craziest bullshit - that I didn't respect them, that I thought they were stupid, that I never listened to them, etc. etc. etc."<----This is very interesting to me. In the borderline mind, these may not have been "attacks" at all but genuine expressions of deep and authentic feelings of insecurity and rejection. Borderlines often feel seemingly mysteriously unloved or (in paranoid moments) even plotted against by the closest friends and family members. It might be a mistake to take these things personally. Within the borderline brain these might have just been expressions of legitimate feelings. If you don't want to be friends with someone with BPD, that's an understandable decision. The tragedy of the illness is that most borderlines desperately want friendships but find themselves sabotaging their relationships merely by doing what everyone else does--expressing their true feelings (unfortunately those true feelings are extremely abnormal, which the borderline may not realize until it's too late). Hope things work out for you.

Thank you so much!

Thank you for this incredibly insightful and sensitive article. I could not agree more with you. It takes quite a formidable character to remain emotionally close to someone who has severe BPD, but that doesn't mean it's impossible. Thanks for giving hope to borderlines and their allies. There are strategies that work. In fact, dealing with a borderline can teach you a lot about yourself :)


I read this article and agreed with most all of it as effective strategy/ cause/effect except 2 things stuck out to me as questionable.
I'll start with the part where you said: "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)."

I completely agree with this statement until you say "although not with anyone else". I disagree with that "anyone else" fact. I think if anyone shows respectful treatment (much of which you have gone on to describe in detail how to do like the Caribbean hotel clerk example and tone of voice,) a BPD will respond in a less chaotically manner. I believe the reason why it is so apparent that a therapist can induce less chaos as opposed to someone else- is that most therapists are well trained and good at in behaving respectfully and as you have stated most people close to the borderline are not respectful to the BPD. instead they are as you said a contributing part of the problem.

Just read all of the invalidating and overtly hostile to the BPD comments posted above as illustrations to my point. People with those mindsets and attitudes will get nowhere fast with a BPD or with anyone for that matter.

The second minute detail is that you said BPD's really want to act better deep down. While that may be an effect, I think the motivating factor for a BPD is that they really want to FEEL better. When they FEEL better they tend to ACT better. It is an important distinction I have found. They act chaotic and lash out cry etc because they are suffering. They aren't consciously thinking about how they are acting they just know they are in emotional pain.

What I do like about your work Dr Allen, even if some of your suggestions are similar to Linehan /validation, Support Empathy Truth Statements etc., Is that you are the first to hold others and family members responsible for being part of the problem. I do agree with that. Although For the BPD to feel better, they independently, ultimately have to develop "wise mind skills" and control of their emotions/ emotional mind, self protection and boundaries for themselves. Boundaries from the chaos of others, like you described, that caused and will lead them into this BPD state.


Hi Nazia,

Thanks for your comments. I did not mean to suggest that other people who act more respectfully can't get people with BPD to act better just like a good therapist - only that the therapist who acts that way does not stop the patient with BPD from acting in ways that INVITE the opposite treatment from everyone else, just with himself or herself.

The problem with Marsha Linehan is that she says next to nothing about the exact nature of the invalidation that is going on in the invalidating environment, or about the reasons that it happens. Just saying the parents are invalidating does not explain THEIR behavior.

The patient with BPD would in fact not only like to feel better but to act better. However, they believe - with a lot of good evidence - that their family of origin desperately NEEDS them to behave in a certain way - that it, in the spoiler role. The role is unpleasant and represents a sacrifice of the self to the family.

For explanations see my posts, http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/matter-personality/201109/the-family... http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/matter-personality/201205/borderline... and http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/matter-personality/201206/borderline...


Read your very insightful description of The Spoiler role in family systems. It begs the question though: what if there actually was abuse in the family of origin? I don't mean any silly little fights or the BPD patient's hypersensitivity making abuse charges out of thin air--I mean real stuff, CPS stuff. "The parents’ motives are consistently misinterpreted and they are constantly accused of being selfish, overly-demanding, stupid, or downright evil. They are treated with utter contempt." I mean, what if you have a BPD patient who appears to be the spoiler and in therapy it comes out that the parent whose gifts this patient is "pissing on" has actually abused the patient? What if the parent's motives are not being misinterpreted at all? For example, say you have a female patient whose apparently loving stepfather just bought her a new car. The patient immediately goes out with friends, gets wasted and wrecks the car. Typical BPD behavior. UNLESS. Unless the stepfather sexually abused the patient throughout her childhood and adolescence, and the patient has wrecked the car as a form of releasing the anger intended for a deserving target (the abuser). Does that make sense? Does your interpretation of BPD patients behavior change in light of something very obviously abusive in their background? And if lying is a symptoms of BPD, how could the patient ever get validation for the abuse? You see what I mean?


Although many people with BPD were not physically or sexually abused by family members as children (and most people who are abused do not develop BPD), those types of abuse are EXTREMELY common in their backgrounds - according to every single study ever done on the subject. And there is always invalidation or other forms of psychological abuse or neglect in the family of origin. Every time I think I've heard of everything that parents can do their own children, man am I in for a surprise.

The abuse, in order to create a child with BPD, is done with certain accompanying messages. (Context is everything). It is part of the parents' "I need you/I hate you" and/or "I'm a monster" conflict (which stems from their experiences in their own family of origin), which leads to a pattern of traumatic overinvolvement which oscillates with traumatic under-involvement (neglect). Neglect or abuse may predominate, but if you wait long enough, you'll see evidence of the other.

Part of the spoiler role is to protect the abusive parent - the "child" makes it look like she's (or he's) the one with the problem, not them. Patients in therapy are far more likeley to hide the abuse than to exaggerate it, but even when they flat out lie about it, they do it in a way to cover up what really happened, by making themselves look bad. Roseanne Barr does not really remember being molested at 6 months, since no one can remember stuff that happened at that age, but something in her family made her the way she is.

The "bad seed" theory is utter bull, and unfortunately the mental health field has put its collective head in its you-know-what.


"The 'bad seed' theory is utter bull, and unfortunately the mental health field has put its collective head in its you-know-what."

That made me laugh out loud. So true. Thank you.

BPD /OCD therapy

This is an interesting article and seems like good advice for communications involved with BPD.

I have BPD and I recently have tried a new therapist who actually thinks that BPD lies on the OCD spectrum, with the brain frontal lobe and cingulate system (or something like that) being activated by an invalidating environment and then adapting with an overstimulated response loop system.

In working to overcome BPD she has suggested we try ERP … repeated exposure to invalidation and abandonment triggers so that I can learn new ways to stay calm and react to invalidation. To overcome that automatic BPD panic response. It seems to be working.

It does go hand and hand with what you are saying in a way. What do you think of this premise a sort of ERP / to overcome and implement new ways of communication in an invalidating environment. ButI can see if the family is creating the invalidating environment they would need to learn how not to an communicate better too as you have laid out.


Hi Gianna g,

Thanks for your questions.

I'm not really a fan of calling things "spectrum disorders" just because their symptoms may look superficially alike. Our knowledge of neuroarchitecture is still in its infancy (a trillion constantly changing synaptic connections) so that to me is pure speculation.

The idea of desensitizing you to your triggers, however, may be a very useful strategy over the short run. I think it's more important in the long run, as you alluded to, to get family members to stop triggering you in the first place.

For someone to truly self-actualize (be free to express their true self), I believe it is essential for important family members to stop invalidating that behavior

To what end?

I've read each of the provocations entries and I am both happy and saddened. There's a lot of great information here and sometimes the truth is a big, fat, sour pill to swallow.

I've done pretty much all of your don'ts listed in the second entry, I believe. You never did really say why we shouldn't other than I assume it's rewarding bad behaviour?

From what I am now understanding, basically living with someone with BPD means handling them constantly with the disorder in mind, correct? Can I seriously no longer hope or expect improvements on things, sore spots or points of conflict with them, EVER? I feel like I've watched my tone, actions and words for months at a time and seen some promise in changes but then eventually they slip up, go back to a old provocation and I just want to hit my head on a wall due to the frustration of feeling like we're back at square one.

Why do they secretly hope we don't take the bait and react poorly to them? What does it mean to them when we do?

Is peacefully coexisting with someone with BPD, or having a "normal" social relationship with them possible? I can be good, really good but to what end?

To what end

Hi Sigh,

Thanks for your question.

In general (may or may not apply to your situation):

What doing the "don'ts" reinforces in one's significant other is a role a person with a personality disorder needs (but hates) to play in his or her family of origin. (See http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/matter-personality/201109/the-family...).

Likewise, the person in a romantic relationship with them "needs" (but also hates) the problematic behavior of the spouse in order to maintain a role that the person plays in his/her OWN family of origin. I call that "mutual role function support," but you could call it "mutual enabling." (See http://www.davidmallenmd.blogspot.com/2013/09/the-obvious-secret-of-inte...).

The reason a couple remains stuck in this pattern is usually due to the continuing influences on their relationship of their respective parents and siblings. Often the only way to get into a more "normal relationship" - and YES, it is absolutley possible to get there - is for one or both members of the couple to get into therapy with a therapist who is familiar with these family dynamics and can address them.

I'm with Sigh

If one can't really know if someone has BPD but suspects based on reading and connecting the dots, is it better to treat them as if they are "sick" or treat them as if they're merely an asshole?

I feel Sigh's pain. I'm exhausted both by my partner who exhibits explosive and touchy behavior followed by hounding me down through our home creating convoluted arguments that I can't extract myself from. And a sister who I have always believed has BPD. I'm so sapped because of all the strife, not to mention sheer worry, that I haven't been able to work as much as I need to. So paying for therapy just isn't possible right now. Leaving feels exhausting. Staying feels exhausting.

One thing I'd like to understand better is how someone with BPD can have relatively normal relationships with some people and not others. I have always been my sister's target. Why is that? This is why in an earlier post of yours I connected with the comment that they can turn it off and on to an extent.

The better question

That you should be asking is what are you getting out of surrounding yourself with Dysfunctional people who you have assigned a mental disorder to in your life? How is someone so normal stuck having to deal with so many "asses" in their life? I think you need to look at your role here... And what you get by playing the martyer? An excuse for why you don't want to work? Ps BPDs don't just target one person and then be normal to everyone else ... As much as you would like to believe that so you can play the victim again...

I'm with sigh


Thanks for your questions. I will answer in generalities, some or all of which may or may not apply in your specific case, so please keep an open mind.

I don't view those with BPD as sick, nor do I view them as assholes. I see them as being pushed by their families to act in certain ways with some pretty dire consequences within the whole family if they do not.

They then enlist other people to help and enable them to continue to act in those ways. As alluded to in another reply to your comment, certain people are much more prone to accept this deal because they are playing a certain role within their own family of origin that requires them to stay in a relationship like this.

As to the question of why a sibling singles another sibling out, the answer is similar to the answer to the question of why some siblings in a given family will develop BPD while others seem to turn out fine. See the post http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/matter-personality/201208/why-do-som...

Agreed, but help!

I have been married for 5 years to a woman who told me that she had been "casually" diagnosed with BPD. To be honest I doubted this diagnosis as I could see none of the symptoms that are associated with it and while I knew of the traumas she had been through, my assessment was that ultimately she was dealing with them.

I am not a saver or a rescuer, but I do recognise my own experiences of adoption mean that I will not give up on people because I deeply do not wish anyone to give up on me.

A few years ago the classic symptoms of BPD started showing up, and while I didn't recognise them at first, I now come to realize this is what is happening. It has been a rocky road and I know I have made the situation worse with my behaviour and reactions. My biggest issue is that I have a trigger when I perceive a breach in fairness (no the irony of that in dealing with a person who has BPD is not lost on me), and after reading about these provocations I now realize that is what she has been doing.

I have always been very clear to her that I see her for the person she is who has this condition and not that she IS the condition, but I am guessing from her perspective my actions are not backing that up.

I agree completely with your assessment of how to respond to these provocations and I have spent many sessions with a psychologist discussing these issues, but I can only maintain this for a certain length of time before I trip up and make a mistake. I believe that I have rewarded her just enough for this to continue and realize the difficulty ahead. The thing that gets me the most (here comes that fairness), is that I can do 1000 things right and only 1 thing wrong and not only does it cancel it out, it puts it in deficit. It is at times like those I lose my composure and start defending myself which of course makes it worse. To her I am a failure because if I really loved her I wouldn't keep making the same mistakes (very black and white).

So I can intellectually understand everything being said, and I can cognitively agree with it.... But I just can't seem to put it into practice in an effective manner for long enough. At times all I really want is just a safe way to withdraw from a given conflict so that I don't cause her any further damage, but I am placed in that double bind in doing so and any attempt is seen as me not caring.

I guess the point I am most keenly interested in understanding is how you draw that line in not sacrificing too much and damaging your own well being. I think the reaction of the first commenter shows the internal pain of someone who has endured this struggle for a while, and it is the obvious reaction when someone is constantly bombarded, but I want to find a way that I feel comfortable in drawing that line, but doing so with love and respect. When I try to draw the line, she pulls me in with further provocations (as I now realize are to be expected) and I feel that I am being uncaring if I do not counter her claims of being unloved or me not caring (rinse and repeat).

Ultimately it is my choice to stay and deal with this, I am cognisant of my core remaining in tact, but as it is one of my core values to not give up on people as I would hope they would not give up on me, then I remain true to my character in exercising that in hard times. I honestly do love her and I want to be here for her, I just need to find that internal understanding of how to deal with this that allows me to show that calm from within, because I know I have been thrown off by her provocations and have lost my centre which is not helping her in the slightest.


Hi Enigmatic,

Unfortunately, I can not give out any specific psychiatric advice in this forum. Your question is something you would have to discuss further with your own psychologist.

In general, what to do when someone make occasional mistakes in using the countermoves, as people always do (creating the variable intermittent reinforcement schedule described in part I of the series) is discussed in the last post of the whole series, part X, which is coming up in a few weeks.

If you want a preview, however, you can check out my other blog at: http://davidmallenmd.blogspot.com/2011/10/how-to-disarm-borderline-last-...

Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <em> <strong> <cite> <code> <ul> <ol> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
  • You may quote other posts using [quote] tags.

More information about formatting options

David M. Allen, M.D., is a Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Tennessee and author of the book How Dysfunctional Families Spur Mental Disorders.


Subscribe to A Matter of Personality

Current Issue

Love & Lust

Who says marriage is where desire goes to die?