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Nine Steps Toward Letting Go of Guilt

Having borderline traits is tough; loving someone with BPD can be exhausting.

Key points

  • Loving someone with borderline traits can be exhausting as they can have little empathy for their impact on others.
  • Guilt is a common reaction when trying to establish better emotional boundaries with someone struggling with borderline traits.
  • Steps to establish those boundaries are suggested, including being available to her when she respects those boundaries.
Joshua Fuller/Unsplash
The chaos of struggling with borderline traits
Source: Joshua Fuller/Unsplash

Your phone rings and her name appears on your screen. You dread answering and then comes the guilt.

Your history with her rushes into your mind as you wait for one more ring. You’re reminded of all the times that you’ve rushed to her side, comforted her, and told her you’d be there for her, while realizing over time that your caring would never be enough to shore up her fragile hold on emotional stability.

Or you think of how you’ve watched her make one impulsive choice after another while blaming others, including you, for the chaos in her life. You’ve had to set boundaries against which she constantly pushes, ultimately accusing you of not caring when she senses your fatigue. Perhaps you’ve heard thinly veiled hints of self-harm, followed by admonitions that she doesn’t know how long she can continue like this. Maybe there are sudden, unexplainable times when you’ve felt that your love for her was reciprocated in an intense, almost intoxicating way. Yet almost as quickly as it arrives, that warm glow disappears in a cloud of sudden anger, intense blame, or irrational disappointment.

No matter who she is, whether she’s your mom, your sister, your partner, your friend, you can become exhausted. And yet you have to fight off a strange sense of guilt. And she has little to no empathy for the impact she's having on you.

What guilt sounds like inside your head

“She’s my mother, she raised me the best way she could. I owe her."

“She’s my daughter. I’ll never forget the day I saw her for the first time. So tiny, so trusting. She deserves the same kind of relationship I have with the other kids.”

“She’s my wife and I vowed to be there for her. She was different back then; this side of her was hidden. Plus she’s the kids’ mom and in a way, I still love her.”

“Even though she’s my ex, I don’t know how she’d treat the kids if she felt like I wasn’t available to her. I can’t totally abandon her, ever. It’s wreaking havoc between me and my now wife, who, of course, she detests.”

“She was my best friend when no one else would talk to me in eighth grade. She was there, always.”

Guilt. Guilt. And more guilt.

In I Hate You Don’t Leave Me, the classic book on borderline personality disorder, the authors state, “The borderline shifts her personality like a rotating kaleidoscope, rearranging the fragmented glass of her being into different formations." "Like a chameleon, (she) transforms herself into any shape that she imagines will please the viewer.” Her emotions govern all her actions. She’s terrified of abandonment and highly sensitive to not feeling understood.

What's it like to have borderline traits?

Let's make one thing very clear. Living with an emotional hurricane inside of you day in and day out is no party. Having borderline personality disorder can be an agonizing existence. There’s often a chaotic and abusive childhood history, but not always. Unrecognized and untreated, it can lead to a miserable life, as one by one, she wears out the people who are trying to love or help her. It is difficult to treat, but there are therapeutic techniques that have been shown to work well, DBT or Dialectical Behavioral Therapy being chief among them.

Here are nine steps you can take to minimize that guilt

These are simple to write but can be difficult to do.

  • Face the fear of your own helplessness in this relationship by predicting the most feared outcome (most likely suicide or some kind of highly dramatic action) and decide how you would handle it.
  • Assess whether what she may threaten is likely to happen. If it is, seek advice from a lawyer, a mental health professional, or in an emergency, the mental health emergency services in your area.
  • Objectively assess the impact of being in a relationship with her. What has happened to you and your family due to her tendency to manipulate or not seek help herself? Journal about it and see how your writing and acknowledgment may influence your future actions.
  • Set boundaries. Give her back the responsibility for her own life, knowing she may resist giving you permission to change the relationship. For example, when she calls with another crisis, say, “I know you’ll find a way to cope with this.” And get off the phone.
  • Provide empathy but not sympathy. Set up strict boundaries for communication and then be available if she follows those guidelines. (Her reaction may initially be to escalate. But give her time.) Give her feedback about the positives in the relationship and what you appreciate about her.
  • Grieve the relationship that could have been; acknowledge and feel the pain of that loss. Again, journaling can be very helpful here.
  • Realize she may never have the capacity of understanding the impact she’s having on you or your family. She’s not withholding something from you; she’s likely incapable of giving it. If you stop expecting that understanding, perhaps you won’t get hurt.
  • Get support from others who understand or have walked the same walk.
  • And perhaps the most important, have compassion for yourself.

(Note: The pronoun "she" is used in this post, women tend to meet criteria for borderline personality disorder more often than men. But the dynamics described can exist in any relationship that' involves someone struggling with borderline traits.)