Are BPD "Drama Queens" Manipulative, Sadistic, and Worse?
The hurt and anger caused by—and also suffered by—folks with BPD can be potent.
Posted May 2, 2014 | Reviewed by Jessica Schrader
Women and men with borderline personality disorder seem not to know how to stop arguing. Often described as "drama queens" or "abusive," they too frequently create chaos in situations where others would smoothly deal with the normal differences and disappointments that arise from time to time for all of us.
Marsha Linehan, creator of DBT (Dialectical Behavior Therapy) which is the treatment method that is most often recommended for people with borderline issues, bases her understandings of this disorder on the belief that people with BPD "feel the mental squalls of rage, emptiness, and anxiety far more intensely than most people do." This intensity of emotional pain was the theme of the first post in a series of articles I have begun posting on the inner experience of people with borderline disorders.
This article is the second in that series. Like the first post, this article records my dialogue with H.O., a very insightful physician who herself has been diagnosed with borderline personality disorder. Like many BPD sufferers, she has been determined to find routes to recovery.
I have written earlier PT articles on borderline personality disorder from the point of view of people who suffer from having to deal with an individual with difficult-to-deal-with BPD behaviors such as adult children of mothers with BPD. This current series of posts, by contrast, clarifies the painful inner experience of someone who struggles with a borderline personality disorder him/herself.
Warmest thanks to H.O. for sharing her insights with us.
To Dr. Heitler,
I wrote to you after reading three of your posts published in the Psychology Today website: "Evil Genes? An Unconventional Perspective On BPD," "From Cute Little Girl To Boderline Personality" and "You Can End Your Borderline Personality Style."
I have to say I disagree with a fundamental tenet especially of the first article which refers to "manipulative" or even "sadistic" behaviours of BPD sufferers. The choice of the term "manipulative" suggests some kind of Machiavellian scheming and cunning to reach objectives which are not immediately obvious.
I think Dr. Linehan was the closest to the truth in interpreting the so-called "manipulative" behaviours of BPD patients when she declared they were blunt, clumsy and ineffective efforts to have the BPD's needs met.
To all concerned the objective of these behaviours is also blatantly obvious thus removing any element of manipulation.
I would strongly recommend avoiding the use of term "manipulative" in reference to any clumsy efforts of BPD patients to achieve anything, because these efforts are anything but. At best these behaviours (eg threatening suicide in the case of abandonment by a loved one) are somewhat pathetic efforts, when a BPD patient actually begs and humiliates herself in inevitably unsuccessful attempt to avoid abandonment.
The use of the term "sadistic" in my humble opinion is a misinterpretation of motives behind BPD's "bad" behaviours, achieving nothing but greater stigmatization.
In my work with very poorly functioning patients with BPD what I commonly saw was that these girls were victims of sadistic, inhuman abuse as kids. They themselves however never intentionally upset or harmed anyone for the pure evil joy of it. The arguments and even physical acts of violence never involved any gratification from inflicting pain, ever. They were solely vents for frustration and anger at having BPD's needs and demands not met yet again.
The source of these common misconceptions about the intentions and motives of BPD patients lies in fundamental misunderstanding. Please believe me, BPD makes it impossible to function in the world as it is, where most people are indifferent and don't care at all and others are trying hard, but rarely succeeding in getting the needs of BPDs met. This is because these needs are so immense!
A person with BPD could function, when symptomatic, only in the world where everybody loves her like her own mother, unconditionally and patiently. Of course such world will never exist and thus BPDs with their enormous, unfulfilled needs of love and affection will forever remain frustrated and angry, and resort to behaviours which are misunderstood as "manipulation."
A normal person derives strength in daily functioning in the indifferent or occasionally hostile world from their own healthy ego. A BPD has no healthy ego to base their survival on. A BPD can only survive on constant stream of love and affection, and if it dries out the BPD's world collapses. This is where the frantic efforts to avoid abandonment come from--because BPDs know painfully well that they are unable to function without it.
The fact that terms such as "bad", "sadistic," and "manipulative" are used to describe how the "normal" world perceives and judges BPD's desperate attempts to have their needs met is a sad testimony to the fact that the world is, in fact, more often than not hostile to these patients.
The only way to understand these patients is to assume their needs in terms of affection, support, understanding and human warmth are infinitely larger than the needs that can reasonably be met in the world as it is. This is why these needs will inevitably remain unmet and result in a BPD person feeling frustration, anger and hostility.
As "bad" as these patients are it is much worse to be in their shoes. I would argue that in terms of quality of life BPD is in the same league as terminal cancer. The irony is, of course, that while everybody is compassionate to patients with cancer, few, if any have genuine compassion for patients with BPD because these patients through their utter lack of social skills and use of behaviours which are considered inappropriate at best, and "sadistic" at worst are absolute masters in antagonizing everyone around them.
This is the vicious circle of BPD—while these patients' need for human compassion is infinitely greater than that of functioning individuals, their clumsiness in getting this need met results in even less, if any compassion at all.
I really appreciate your lending an ear to the perspective of a BPD sufferer.
As a result of what I have been learning from our correspondence, and consonant with Marsha Linehan's observations, I find myself increasingly limiting my use of the term BPD to referring only to pervasive patterns of emotional hyper-reactivity.
There may well be some individuals with BPD who are genuinely manipulative or sadistic.
These habits now would suggest to me co-morbid diagnoses, that is, a combination of borderline personality emotional hyper-reactivity with narcissistic (ignoring others' feelings and concerns) and/or psychopathic (conning) patterns.
In the Journal of Personality Disorders a 2006 an excellent article by Nancy Nyquist Potter, PhD entitled "What is Manipulative Behavior Anyway?" looked to define the term manipulative. "In the Hare Psychopathy Checklist (cited in Bowers, 2002) ... manipulation is defined as deception used for personal gain, without concern for victims."
Interestingly, the point of Dr. Potter's article, like the point of your writing, H.O., in this post, is that many clinicians, and laypeople also, too readily utilize the term manipulative with clients who have a BPD diagnosis. BPD sufferers get further stigmatized this way. These terms show no sympathy for the suffering that their hyper-intense emotions cause them to endure.
At the same time, it is unclear what might be a more sympathetic terminology for labeling the aggressive attempts by individuals with BPD patterns to get others to give them what they feel that they desperately need.
For now, therefore, the pejorative term manipulative (especially referring to females), and the term controlling (more often used in reference to men) may be the only terms we have.
Perhaps the best we can do is to be sure that we are using the terms only to describe specific behaviors, not the whole person. Yet saying that false accusations, for instance, are manipulative behaviors still is going to lead others to say, "Yes, the person who has been falsely accusing me of x and y is manipulative."
Maybe readers of this post can offer better options?
Again, thanks so much to you H.O. for sharing your insights.
With warmest appreciation,
Learn more about positive communication skills on Susan Heitler’s website.