Forewarning, I am about to say some controversial shit!
The general consensus when working with or being in relationship with someone who has BPD (Borderline Personality Disorder) is to have strong boundaries. What this often translates into is rigid boundaries. And, let me tell you, if that isn’t the worst thing I’ve seen for people with deep attachment wounds. And, yet, here we are…
The below are screenshots from therapist FB pages. These are all generally well-meaning professionals; however, even among professionals a stigma exists about “borderlines.”
Seeing this stigma in therapist groups and knowing that I once exhibited borderline traits makes me feel awful! I usually don’t say much, though I do try to squash the stigma to some extent. It’s been a bigger battle than I’ve felt I could emotionally take on. But, one thing I do feel like I can do is shed some light on what has helped with my “borderline traits.” Spoilers: it is the exact opposite of what is being perpetuated as how to work with BPD diagnosed clients.
Communicate, communicate, communicate. And, be flexible!!! Yes, flexible. In my experiences as a client I’ve experienced the whole spectrum of boundaries.
On the too lax side, it wasn’t pretty. I became severely attached to my therapist. I pushed her boundaries. She cared and so she flexed when she didn’t really want to flex. I thought, she wouldn’t flex boundaries she didn’t want to flex. And, she reinforced this. However, that wasn’t the case. It burned her out. In the end, the pendulum swung the other way and without discussion she became a cold, robot with extremely rigid boundaries.
On the too rigid side, also not pretty. Let me tell you how my deeply attachment wounded inner child responded to really rigid boundaries. And, by that I mean, “this is how things are and there is no room for negotiation. Your needs and feelings matter less than this boundary.” My inner child freaked the fuck out. Panicked. Thought, “what did I do wrong?” And, “I must really be awful.” And, “I’ll never get better because I’m so awful.” And so on. So, naturally, I either shutdown, feeling unsafe. Or, became hypervigilent looking for signs that the therapist thought I was awful. Or, tried relentlessly to communicate a need only for it to be met with a brick wall of a boundary, thus leaving me feeling unheard and all the other awful things that my initial attachment wounds were rooted in.
The goldilocks zone of boundaries looked more like this for me:
Me: I feel like I need [x], can we talk about what that could look like?
Therapist: what if we agreed to [y]? [Explains her boundaries around the suggestion].
Me: I think that sounds good, if you ever feel like I’m pushing a boundary, will you promise to tell me?
Therapist: of course! We can always talk about what is happening between us and if any boundaries need to change.
That’s it. It is super simple. Make boundaries a conversation. Communicate constantly. My therapist and I *gasp* have contact between sessions. We created rules around the contact. We have a mutual respect. The rules work because of that respect. My therapist doesn’t see my need for contact between sessions as part of my pathology. She sees it as a part of the work to heal my attachment wounds; she sees it as a way to connect. And, it her approach has helped to create a really beautiful, affectionate (yet boundaried) relationship where I feel completely safe.
2. Be Trauma-informed
Okay, I feel like this one should be obvious. A lot of those traits that are deemed “borderline”… yeah, those are trauma responses. The push-pull dynamic that can happen? The splitting? The intensity (the suicidal thoughts, the self-harm, the recklessness)? Trauma! When I have done the push-pull in relationship, it has been in response to therapists (or others) acting in a way that triggered those attachment traumas, that reminded me of something that hurt me deeply. So, I’d push the person away to protect myself. But, as you might imagine, that felt pretty shitty because here was this person who was supposed to care, who was meant to help me and I wanted help! I wanted to be cared about. So then, I’d try to pull them closer. If you think it is crazy-making to be on the side of the person being pushed and pulled, imagine being the person with the trauma. Afraid to be close and afraid not to be close.
The best thing I’ve experienced was therapists who lovingly called me on these behaviors. They would let me know what they felt like on their side. They trusted that I am a compassionate, empathetic person and wouldn’t want to create a dynamic that felt so yuck for both of us. So, we talked about the behaviors. We talked about the triggers. And then we worked together to create new, reparative experiences. This worked because I wasn’t written off.
3. All that Rogerian Goodness
Let’s get back to the basics here: unconditional positive regard, empathy, active listening, validation, reflection. Isn’t it human nature to need and want that stuff and to just eat it up?!
Let me break this down: when my BPD traits are most triggered, it is when I feel unheard and unseen. Do you know what the antidote to that is… all of that Rogerian goodness I mentioned above. Just give a shit! Listen, like REALLY listen. Don’t judge. Don’t be thinking, “how does this fit into her diagnosis.” Validate feelings. And, I’m adding this one, when someone is vulnerable enough to say, “hey, I need [x]” actually look inside and see if there is a way for you to help meet their need. Even if you can’t, it will matter so much to them that you heard them and that you gave consideration.
4. Own your Shit
This is a big one! This doesn’t just apply in cases of individuals who have gotten the BPD label. Here is what I mean by this one, do your own work so that if you have a rupture with someone (with a client) you’re able to take a step back (get some distance from your feels) and really ask yourself, “what was my part in this rupture.” And then own it! Because you might be the first person in their life who did own their own shit, who showed that it is okay to be imperfect, who showed that you’re a partner in the relationship (and not just another person exerting power over them).
I cannot even begin to tell you how validating it has felt to be in a session with a therapist and for me to be able to say, “I felt [x emotion] last session because of [y thing that happened].” And for the therapist to respond, “thank you for sharing that with me. When I reflect back on last session this is what was happening for me. I can see now that it influenced [x words/behaviors/etc.” Why this is so validating probably tied back into that trauma thing. Many of us who have been labeled as having BPD or BPD traits grew up in environments that caused us to constantly second guess our instincts about people and events. I can’t speak for everyone else but for me I came out of my childhood with a default setting of, “what did I do wrong.” No one in my life had ever owned their own part until I entered therapy. At that point it then felt safe for me to start trusting my own perceptions. Know what happened after that? I was able to look more deeply at my own part in things, too.
I don’t know who will stumble upon this post but I hope that it helps someone. I’d love for it to help practitioners/therapists to reevaluate how they work with people who have been diagnosed with BPD. I feel like it would go a long way to start seeing BPD as, a lot of the time, being based in attachment trauma.