Responding to "Borderline" Provocations: Last Part

What do you do when all else fails or when you react badly?

Posted Oct 27, 2014

This is the last (Part X) 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.

I will continue to run down specific countermeasures for use on those occasions when they are trying to distance and/or invalidate you, or to make you feel anxiously helpless, anxiously guilty, or hostile.

Also, the behaviors under discussion usually draw negativity back to the patient with BPD, so ultimately they are self-destructive.

In the last post in the series, Part IX, I discussed how to handle statements made by individuals who sound hostile or critical but which may or may not actually be as critical or hostile as they sound. 

Today's subjects are what to do when none of the previous interventions seem to decrease the negative or angry responses of the family member with BPD, and what to do when you yourself blow your cool and react with a nasty comment that might kick off a variable intermittent reinforcement schedule than can undo all the fine work you have done until that point. Of course, nothing you say is guaranteed to have any desired effect.

When all the suggestions in these posts fail

The next suggestion is useful in cases in which, no matter what you say, the family member with BPD continues to escalate with more and more outrageous accusations against you or oppositionalism. It only works when all the others have failed, and not before. It probably can be used only once or twice. The reason for this is, in order for you to be confident in the assumption you are about to make, the Other's negative patient behavior must have already persisted in the face of your consistent efforts to be conciliatory.

The Solution? Inquire, "Why are you picking a fight with me?" Once again, in asking this question you have to refuse to get sucked into a debate about whether or not the family member with BPD is indeed picking a fight. It will have by this point become beyond obvious, and therefore you do not have to prove it.

In response to this question, people with BPD will usually do one of two things. First, they could conceivably stop the behavior, admit that they are picking a fight, and begin to explain why they feel it necessary to do so. In the unlikely event that this happens, hear them out. You will probably learn something important about your relationship. Try not to be defensive but instead look for the kernel of truth in what they are saying, as described in Part IV of this series.

More usually, they may suddenly stop the provocative behavior and go on to talk about some other, completely different subject, and nicely proceed as if the fight had never even happened. In this scenario, the family member with BPD suddenly drops whatever he or she was complaining about right in the middle of a heated interaction. 

This maneuver is a lot trickier than you might think. Because of the abrupt nature of the change in subject, you may feel drawn back into continuing the previous angry discussion yourself. This happens because the interaction that preceded the switch feels unfinished. You should remind yourself that the Other's goal may just have been to keep an argument going, not to settle any actual complaint or win the argument. In other words, the actual content of the argument may be something that is somewhat unimportant or not the real issue.

The feeling that one gets when an argument is suddenly dropped is somewhat akin to the way one feels in the following situation: you have repeatedly tried to get a talkative friend off the telephone. You've probably had those conversations in which you've said several times that you'd love to talk longer but you have to go, and your friend says OK each time, but then keeps on talking as if you had not said anything at all. Finally, you raise your voice and firmly say, "I really have to go!" In response, the friend angrily snaps back, "Ok, goodbye!"

The natural response is "No, wait!" — even though ending the conversation had been one's goal in the first place.

I advise you to resist the temptation to re-ignite whatever fight had been taking place before you asked the question concerning why the family member was picking a fight and move on to whatever new and friendlier topic the Other has chosen. Just like your partner in conversation, act as if the earlier argument had never even taken place.

The fine art of apology

The last bit of advice on disarming someone with BPD concerns the situation in which the family member with BPD gets the best of you and you react with a statement or action that invalidates or insults the patient. Despite being well versed in the kinds of interventions described in this series of posts, you may still find yourself responding poorly to a family member's provocations. 

The person with BPD, after all, has a lifetime of experience in creating these reactions, so sooner or later they'll get to you no matter how hard to try to avoid that. Unfortunately, intermittent emotional overreactions from another tend to make such a person try even harder and longer to illicit said reactions. This is due to the variable intermittent reinforcement process described in Part I of this series of posts.

So how do you prevent the variable intermittent reinforcement pattern from doing its dirty deed?

Solution: After both you and your targeted Other have calmed down, own up to your mistake and apologize for it. Be a person of integrity. Be someone who is responsible, has a sense of right and wrong, and who is the sort of person other people can look up to.

Having said that, however, an effective apology in this situation should not have the slightest hint of self-denigration attached to it. If you put yourself down in some way, the person with BPD may then go for your jugular in response. For this to work, there are two characteristics this kind of apology should always have:

First, be good-natured about your error. After all, you are only human. Be able to laugh at yourself. Say, "Gee, I sure did get frustrated with you that time."

Second and most important, apologize only for what you actually said or did, but not for the feelings that led to it. Examples: "I am sorry for sounding so critical, but I just had the feeling that you were dismissing everything I said out of hand." "I'm sorry I called you a bitch. That was really out of line — but you sure were pissing me off."

This sort of statement frames the former explosive interchange as a mutual problem that the two of you need to work on solving in a constructive manner. And after all, solving interpersonal problems is what effective metacommunication is all about.