Why BPD Causes Lashing Out at Family and Friends

An examination of aggressive behavior in BPD.

Posted Oct 12, 2020

Individuals with symptoms of Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) suffer from emotional dysregulation that often causes them to lash out towards individuals who are close to them. When they are frustrated or when they do not get what they want when they want it, they often experience flashes of rage targeted most often at those closest to them. This often results in hurtful outbursts. When the lashing out is physical, it is usually targeted at objects rather than people, sometimes resulting in broken or defaced property, such as punching walls or damaging someone's car. In this post we will explore why the BPD causes them to behave this way.

Pexels Public Domain-picture 41178
What did I do wrong?
Source: Pexels Public Domain-picture 41178

Although the lashing out can be physical, it most often takes the form of hurtful or abusive verbal bantering. The following is an example of a woman with BPD having a conversation with her adult son:

Mom:  Jackie, can you take me to the market to get some olive oil?

Jack:    I am in the middle of a call for work.

Mom:  When will you be done?

Jack:    I can’t talk right now.

Mom:  What is so important that you can’t take your mother to the store quickly?

Jack:    No response

Mom:  I am talking to you.

Jack:    Mom this is an important call.

Mom:  Everything is more important to you than me. Forget it. And forget that you have a mother. I will get it myself.

In the above exchange Jack’s mother is frustrated by Jack’s not stopping his call and taking her to the store the moment that she asked. When he did not respond the way she wanted she lashed out at him.

What causes Jack’s mother to lash out at him?

Jack’s mother takes his not meeting her needs personally. She interprets it as a marginalization of her value and disrespectful. Her interpretation of this makes her feel insecure about herself and her relationship with her son.

The lashing out causes those around them to feel attacked. Many individuals with BPD lash out at others frequently and those around them come to expect the aggression and are guarded and eventually become guarded and defensive towards the BPD sufferers. For example, Bob and Marsha have been married for many years. The following sample of their dialogue happens almost every time Marsha goes away for more than a few hours.

Bob:       Did you just get back from visiting your mother?

Marsha:  A few minutes ago.

Bob:        When were you going to tell me that you are home?

Marsha:  I was about to come in.

Bob:        I hardly heard from you while you were away so I thought you didn’t want to be around me.

Marsha:  Bob, don’t start that again. Every time I visit my mother, I get this you don’t love me routine.

In this discussion Bob, who has symptoms of BPD, expresses his fear of being unloved and hence abandoned, a common symptom of BPD. Marsha has heard this many times before and so she becomes uncharacteristically impatient and defensive. This adds more conflict to the already tense situation.

It is clear from the interaction above that Bob is insecure about his desirability and attractiveness to his wife. He does not have confidence that his wife is in love with him and committed to him. He does not feel good enough so he seeks reassurance from his wife in the form of demands and possessiveness.

Marsha experiences this as him being accusatory and controlling. She expresses annoyance rather than reassurance, thus frustrating Bob. He reacts with more accusations, which cause her to pull away from him. His fear of abandonment causes behaviors that cause Marsha to abandon him. A self-fulfilling prophesy causes dysfunction in the marriage.

The Role of Emotional Dysregulation

BPD is associated with emotional dysregulation. Both Jack’s mom and Bob experience this because their nervous systems respond very strongly to perceived threats of abandonment. The intensity of the emotional response overwhelms their ability to cope and they experience significant anxiety

Lashing out in this manner does in fact usually reduce the anxiety, but it does so by driving others away. This unfortunately reinforces their fear of abandonment and causes instability in their relationships by injuring those closest to them.

Learning to cope with intense emotions will diminish the tendency to lash out at others. Psychotherapy, including Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) will facilitate this process. More effective emotional regulation will help Jack’s mother and Bob increase their confidence and independence, thus making the prospect of being abandoned less threatening and less painful.

Understanding what individuals with symptoms of BPD experience will help those around them to communicate more effectively while protecting themselves from abusive lashing out. For example, statements such as I understand that you are in pain but I cannot help while you are hurting me (or pushing me away) function to set a boundary around not allowing abuse and not offering help or support while being mistreated. It also gives the BPD sufferer a clear path to obtaining support if they are willing to take control of and responsibility for their behavior.

Over time and with effort by all parties these techniques will lead to a better quality of relationship with, and for,  those suffering from symptoms of BPD.