It is not uncommon for us to field calls from people looking to get help for someone other than themselves. One common category of such callers is the family member of someone with borderline personality disorder. If you have a relative with this diagnosis, this probably comes as no surprise to you.
Borderline personality disorder is characterized by a pattern of unstable and highly emotional relationships, as well as impulsivity and emotional volatility. If someone in your family has this disorder, you know something is wrong, even if you haven’t heard of the diagnosis. It is not the kind of thing that hides under the radar, like depression or dyslexia. It is explosive, damaging, and very difficult to deal with.
Often people who have a family member with borderline personality disorder call in for guidance on how to help this person – those afflicted with it themselves rarely call in for help on their own, since they frequently blame their problems on everyone around them – and also how to manage the situation for themselves. Here we will focus on helping the borderline’s family members rather than borderlines themselves: the proper intervention for borderline personality disorder is a very specialized treatment called Dialectical Behavior Therapy (which we do not provide), and is, again, rarely sought out by borderlines on their own until major consequences are at hand.
If you have a family member with borderline personality disorder, the first thing you have to come to terms with is that you cannot help them get better. While you might be able to get them to the right place for help, this is not something that you can fix by saying or doing the right things, by confronting them or avoiding conflict. Until your relative undergoes intensive therapy, it is likely that his/her emotional and cognitive limitations will continue to cause conflict in many areas of his/her personal life.
What can you do then? In order to help him/her, you first have to take care of yourself. This individual has no doubt been a major source of stress for you for a long time. Whether it’s a child, a sibling, a parent, or anyone in your close family unit, the volatility, the demands, and the neediness have taken a toll on you. They may lash out at you for not caring enough for them, then stand you up when you invite them out for dinner. They may demand financial help or loans, only to squander the money and need more. They may refuse to speak to you for months, then accuse you of being cold and heartless. These are just some examples of the trying behaviors you might see from someone with borderline personality disorder; I’m sure those of you in this situation can add many more.
If you don’t take care of yourself as you deal with this extended challenge, you will find yourself worn out, emotionally exhausted, and constantly angry with the person in question. That does not make for a very good helper to them either. Thus, you can’t live your life around the needs of this person. This is an extremely difficult adjustment to make for those who are parents to a borderline. As parents, we want so much to help and care for our children to whatever extent needed. Unfortunately, a borderline person can truly be a bottomless pit, sucking in all your efforts and energies and yet not making the slightest improvements.
This means that you may have to stop giving them money if they do nothing but demand it and spend it. You may have to learn to refuse to talk to them when they yell at you or verbally attack you. You may have to be okay with not having them at a Thanksgiving dinner. I’m not suggesting this is easy; but I am suggesting that it may be necessary in order to cope and to live a life that is not consistently painful and draining.
If this sounds like your situation, give us a call and see how we can help. It is very difficult to be a loving relative to someone with borderline personality disorder. But you don’t have to go it alone.