Verified by Psychology Today

Responding to “Borderline” Provocations: Part VI

People with BPD may say irrational things as if they really believe them.

This is Part VI 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 I, Part II, and Part III.

Some readers have gotten the misimpression from reading the previous posts in this series that I think that patients with BPD provoke others to feel helpless, guilty or hostile because I think that they are some sort of sick, twisted freaks. Actually, quite the opposite.

To understand how I view this behavior as being covertly altruistic, please see my posts on the family dynamics of BPD and Part I and II of my posts about the parents of patients with BPD. The ultimate losers resulting from those with BPD doing these things are they themselves.

These posts are advice to those dealing with someone with the disorder on how to treat them more respectfully and empathically, not less.

I apologize if the series on countering borderline provocations comes across to some readers as hostile to the BPD, but on the other hand, I do not believe in sugarcoating the damage they can do, no matter how noble their motives. To read about the kind of damage they can and do cause to others because of the bind that they are in, I recommend checking out the debate that raged in the comment section of a New York Times article about BPD.

In this post, I will continue 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.

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. This 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 the exception that the goal, in this case, 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.

In the last post in the series, Part V, I discussed BPD provocation #2: Escalating demands on you to do more and more to make them feel better, when absolutely nothing you do or offer seems to help. In this post I discuss how to counter BPD provocation #3, their use of seemingly illogical statements and absurd arguments.

People with BPD will sometimes say the most inane-sounding things as if they truly believe them with all their hearts. Things like, "I need cocaine. I don't feel normal without it." Or, "I should be able to walk down dark alleys at 3 a.m. in seedy parts of town with $100 bills hanging out of my pockets." Upon hearing this, anyone with a lick of sense will feel like talking some of it into the person with BPD.

This presumes, of course, that the person with BPD has no common sense. In fact, it presumes that he or she is a complete moron. If there is one thing I have learned over the years, it is that, despite appearance to the contrary, people with BPD have just as much common sense as anyone else. Usually, they are of above-average intelligence. So why would they say such ignorant sounding things?

The first thing to notice is that the statements above are actually true. If you are addicted to cocaine, indeed you do not feel normal without it. One should have the right to walk anywhere unmolested, shouldn't one?

The problem is of course that the cocaine is making these folks feel worse in the long run, and that taking such walks is a foolish thing to do, rights or no rights.

So the natural response to such statements is to want to argue with what the person with BPD says. Of course, this is actually invalidating to the person with BPD, because, in fact, they are intelligent enough to already know what the other person is arguing for. In response to arguing, the person with BPD will then dig in and take the position, "My mind is made up; don't confuse me with the facts." They will then start making arguments that actually are increasingly stupid, under the theory that the other person expects them to be stupid.

Individuals with BPD are extremely generous that way: they will give you what they think you expect of them.

If you want to make an obvious point as a springboard for a discussion, you have to use a disclaimer. You have to acknowledge that the person with BPD already is well aware of the point you are making. You might say, "But as you already know, cocaine is destructive in the long run." Or, "Of course you should have the right to do that, but as I am sure you are aware, actually doing it is dangerous. I do not understand why you want to take such a risk."

An important caveat is that you want to keep your statements as brief as possible, and not go on to explain what you just said or give additional information that justifies your opinion. The individual with BPD already knows why you think what you think, so there's no point in it. Going further again presumes that the other person is stupid.

In response, the individual with BPD may then explain why they want to take the risk, or he or she may not. Generally, they will just drop the argument altogether. This may not calm your concerns about the risky behavior of persons with BPD, but as I discussed in Part V, you are really helpless to stop them if they are absolutely intent on doing whatever it is they say they’re planning.

What if the person with BPD does not drop the subject, does not accept the change in the conversation that you are suggesting (that is, talk about why the person wants to do something dangerous rather that argue stupidly about whether or not the something is dangerous), and/or continues to say things that are inherently stupid? My advice: refuse to argue. You might say something like, "I'm not going to insult your intelligence by arguing with you about that."

If you do not like that one, you can also just say nicely, "I disagree with you." Disagreement is not invalidation. It does not inherently make one person right and the other wrong. It is just a difference of opinion and nothing more. Many people with BPD have never experienced a respectful disagreement in their entire lives.

No matter what else the person with BPD throws at you after that, do not address it other than to state that you will not argue about it any further. Repeat as necessary.

In the next post in this series, Part VII, I will discuss responding to the most dangerous and difficult problem of all: suicide threats and parasuicidal behavior.

More from David M. Allen M.D.
More from Psychology Today
Most Popular