A Matter of Personality

From borderline to narcissism

Responding to “Borderline” Provocations Part IV

There is always a kernal of truth in the most exaggerated borderline statements.

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This is Part IV of an ongoing series of posts. Before reading this one, 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 Part IPart II, and Part III. In this post, 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, as well as to make you feel anxiously helpless, anxiously guilty, or hostile. The ultimate loser resulting from their doing these things is them, by the way, not you. That's the point.

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When people with BPD try to distance you (again refer to my Distancing: Early Warning post), you can use the momentum generated by their attempt to push you away to actually move closer to them in the emotional sense. The idea is a bit like the philosophy of Judo, in which the momentum of an attack on you is converted into something used against the other person—with one exciting exception (apologies to C&R Clothiers, boomer fans in LA). In responding to those with BPD, the goal is for both sides to win.

A reminder from part III: Tone of voice is crucial. You can use the same, and exactly the right words and sound as if you are indeed feeling helpless, guilty or hostile - or you can sound like you are at peace with yourself and with your own limitations.

BPD provocation #1:  Exaggerated over-genereralizations and wild accusations.

A high proportion of people with BPD often make overly dramatic, hyperbolic statements or accuse you of having ulterior motives for whatever you are doing or saying.  When they do this, what they are in fact doing is literally inviting you to invalidate them.

What is going on here is that, since people with BPD have usually been invalidated on a recurring basis by their family of origin, they respond by making it easy for those people to continue to invalidate them. They sacrifice themselves to their kin group. And they will often enlist outsiders to practice this - especially lovers and mental health professionals, but even innocent bystanders when those bystanders try to be helpful. So I’m talking to you, folks interested in this subject for other than professional purposes.

I know it is hard to believe that they have an altruistic motive for behaving the way they do. They will not usually admit to it, and if they do it will be in a disguised and very subtle manner so you will likely misunderstand what they are saying. I have explained the biological reasons why we are all willing to sacrifice ourselves to our kin group in an earlier post, and go into greater details in two books, How Dysfunctional Families Spur Mental Disorders (written for the lay public), and A Family Systems Approach to Individual Psychotherapy (written for therapists). Full disclosure: most people in the mental health field do not agree with this idea.

In countering this ploy, the idea is to resist the invitation to invalidate them without agreeing to all the exaggerated histrionics or without agreeing that you are some kind of schmuck. Remember, disagreement and invalidation are not the same thing. 

The key: No matter how awful or crazy-sounding what they say is, there is always a kernal of truth in it. Always. No matter how small.

The countermeasure, taught to me by the best professor in my psychiatry residency training program, Rodney Burgoyne, is therefore to validate the kernal of truth in the statement and simply ignore all the exaggeration as well as any negative implications.

Let's start with hyperbole or exaggeration. My favorite statement of this sort of all time is "Life is a s**t sandwich, and you have to either eat it or die!" (No, I did not make this up; a patient actually said that to me).

Eeewwww! The temptation here is to reassure the person who says this that things can not possibly be that bad. Wrong move. Things certainly can be that bad, and especially for someone with BPD, they often are that bad. Trust me, anyone with BPD is frequently quite miserable for a variety of very valid reasons. The empathic, kernal-of-truth containing counterstatement should therefore be something like, "It sure sounds like you've been having a pretty bad time of it." Just ignore the implication that life is always terrible.

Or how about, "Why should I go to a therapist? They're only in it for the money!" I used to hear that as an accusation as in, "You don't care about me, you're only in it for the money!" I could get all defensive sounding and say, "Well you know this is how I make my living!" or I can say very matter-of-factly, "Well, as you already know, this is how I make my living." 

Personally, I always thought it was better for a patient to have a highly paid professional therapist rather than an amateur. The amateur would be too busy out making a living to have much time to devote to the patient's therapy and learning how to be a good therapist. As if a patient with BPD were not already aware of this fact. You get the idea, though. If you want the person to get help, you say much the same thing I said in the preceding paragraph using the the third person – without the elaboration/explanation I just provided in this paragraph.

Which brings me to another tip. You get to be a little like Mary Poppins here, and almost never need to explain yourself when anyone with half a brain can figure the explanation out all by themselves. As we shall see in a later post on lecturing, if you treat someone with BPD like an idiot who lacks this capacity, they will continue to act like an idiot. Why? Because calling someone an idiot is an insult, and insults indicate hostility. Overt hostility is one of the three reactions borderline provocations draw for.

Another frequently heard, highly exaggerated accusation by people with BPD is one that is very hard to find some way to validate: "You don't really care about me." After all, how can you ever really prove that you care about someone? You could argue until the cows come home and you will still leave grave doubts. In truth, there is literally no way to prove it. 

So why bother to argue the point? Besides, at those times during which they are giving you a really hard time, in actuality you may not care – or wish you did not. I usually reply, "I wish there was something I could say that would convince you that I do care."

Another type of accusation is far more indirect and has sneaky but ingenious trap hidden within it. Someone in Los Angeles, for example, might say, "Anyone who is willing to put up with this horrible smog and traffic is a moron." Assuming that you happen to live there as well, this statement in effect classifies you as a moron. If you agree with it, you are saying that you are one. Of course, if the person with BPD also lives in LA, he or she is also admitting to being an moron, so if you agree, you are insulting him or her as well. So what's the kernel of truth? 

Are smog and traffic bad things? If you answer no to this question, I would have to question either your sanity or your sincerity. The counterstatement: "Yeah, aren't those things a bitch?!"

Another example: (I work in Memphis) “Anyone who lives in Memphis is a racist!” Well, my friends, do you think there might-could be any racists in a city in the relatively deep South? (“Might-could:” my favorite Southernism I never heard until I moved here). One or two, maybe? Ya think? Answer: “Well, racism certainly is an issue here.”

Coming up in the next post in this series: BPD provocation #2, countering escalating demands on you to do more and more to make them feel better.

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.

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