Are You a Target of Blame for a Borderline Personality?
5 Tips for dealing with their misplaced anger.
Posted Mar 27, 2018
Approximately 6 percent of the adult population in the United States meets the criteria for a borderline personality disorder, according to the largest study on personality disorders to date.1 This study indicates that almost half are men (47 percent) and slightly more are women (53 percent).
One of the primary characteristics of borderline personality disorder (BPD) is emotion dysregulation. People with this disorder experience wide mood swings with sudden and intense anger, which they often direct toward those closest to them. In some cases, they have a “high-conflict” personality, meaning that they have a repeated pattern of focusing their anger on one or more specific Targets of Blame, which prolongs or escalates conflicts. If you are such a Target (boyfriend, girlfriend, spouse, parent, child, co-worker, close neighbor, a helping professional), you know what I’m talking about. This a major mental health problem affecting the relationships of tens of millions of people every day.
This post is written to give you some tips on how Targets of Blame can deal with a person with borderline personality disorder. These tips may also help those with BPD who are trying to overcome this pattern. It’s important to note that there are many people with BPD who do not have high-conflict personalities (HCPs) and therefore aren’t preoccupied with specific Targets of Blame. So I am just talking here about borderline HCPs.
1. It’s Not about You
Borderline HCPs make a fundamental mistake about the cause of their problems. They think it’s the fault of a specific other person. They truly do not see their part in contributing to or primarily causing their own problems in life. This is an unconscious barrier, so you shouldn’t try to “make them see” their part in the problem. That just increases their defensiveness and makes things worse. Just follow my suggestions below instead.
Instead of trying to change their own behavior, they frequently say: IT’S ALL YOUR FAULT! But it’s not. Here’s where it helps to tell yourself: It’s not about me! It’s about their difficulty understanding and solving their own problems. It’s about their difficulty managing their own emotions. I don’t have to defend myself and try to justify or explain what I have done. That would just lead to more conflicts.
Of course, if their anger is physically threatening, you do need to protect yourself, such as by getting away from them to someplace safe. But if physical danger is not a concern, then you can focus on not reacting to their statements and responding with one or more of the following suggestions.
2. Try a Calming Statement
If you can, try to stay calm and give the person a statement which shows empathy, attention and/or respect (an “EAR Statement℠”): I can see how frustrating this situation is for you. Tell me more—I want to understand what’s happening. I know this is an important time or issue for you. I’ll work with you on this. This creates a sense of not being me-against-you, but rather us working together on solving a problem.
Keep in mind that emotions are contagious, and high-conflict emotions are highly contagious. So you will feel like getting just as upset as the borderline HCP. However, if you can override that urge, you can instead say a calming statement. There is a good chance that your calm will be contagious and that the person will become less angry, as you didn’t engage with anger or defensiveness.
Now, I understand that this may be the last thing you want to do when you’re being blamed for a problem. But it does help most of the time, as you defuse the conflict and focus on what you can really do about the situation. This can be done very briefly, especially if you then focus on their choices.
3. Analyzing Choices
HCPs tend to get stuck in the past, defending their actions and blaming others. Don’t go there. Keep the focus on the future and what can be done now. If appropriate, think in terms of their choices now and suggest they look at what they might be able to do to deal with a frustrating situation. You could suggest options, such as: It seems to me you have a choice here: You could try to deal with this problem yourself or I could try to help you or you could find someone who’s really experienced at solving this type of problem.
Or you could look at your own choices. I can just walk away now, or I could find out more about what’s really going on and make some suggestions. Just knowing that you have choices when you’re dealing with an HCP can often make it easier on you.
4. Responding to Misinformation
Borderline HCPs frequently distort information, giving it an all-or-nothing spin, or jumping to conclusions, or personalizing things which really aren’t personal. Rather than criticizing what they have just said, you can give them accurate information. For example, if he/she says angrily: You didn’t even call me yesterday when you knew I was in terrible pain! you can say: I was in a meeting all day, so I couldn’t call. Or: I wasn’t aware of the situation you were in until today. (Of course, only say something that is true.) This way, you just state the accurate information, rather than getting defensive and arguing about their angry statements. And you avoid criticizing the person back for being so impatient or not understanding—which just makes things worse.
5. Setting Limits
Borderline HCPs frequently push boundaries. They want a lot of contact. They may call or text a lot, or even show up at your office uninvited. They’re very insecure about their relationships, but this doesn’t mean that their constant contact is okay. You have a right to set limits and it will help the other person know when they are at risk of pushing you away. (They truly don’t know.)
They also may try to involve other people, such as your family members, your boss at work, or your friends. They are constantly trying to recruit others to be their Negative Advocates, to support their negative behavior and to join in blaming you. With all of these situations, there is a need to set limits, to let the person know where your boundaries are.
When setting limits, do it with a calming statement that shows some empathy, attention and/or respect. Also, don’t make it personal, if possible. Don’t say: You’re too intense. I don’t want to spend this much time with you. That is too rejecting. Instead, say something like: I’m going to be super busy the next few weeks, so I’m not going to be able to see you very much. Let’s set a time to get together. That could be a couple weeks later or more. Then, decide what level of involvement you want and keep your plans within that range. Because of their intensity, it’s often easier having less frequent contact, so you don’t burn out or blow up at them and make things worse. Try not to be too rejecting in your tone of voice.
If you feel the need to set big limits, like ending the relationship, it can help to phase down your level of contact, rather than abruptly abandoning the person. Abandonment is their biggest underlying issue and can trigger rage, or stalking you, or worse.
Whether you are in a relationship with someone with BPD or have BPD yourself, these tips may help you manage those relationships. A lot of this is the opposite of what you may feel like doing. But managing the relationship this way will help you avoid or calm a lot of conflicts.
1. Grant, B. F., S. P. Chou, R. B. Goldstein, B. Huang, F. S. Stinson, T. D. Saha, S. M. Smith, D. A. Dawson, A. J. Pulay, R. P. Pickering, and W. J. Ruan. 2008. Prevalence, correlates, disability, and comorbidity of DSM-IV borderline personality disorder: Results from the Wave 2 National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions. Journal of Clinical Psychiatry 69 (4):533–45.