Circular Conversations With A BPD

Until you have had a “discussion” with someone with Borderline, you will not understand this terminology. A Circular Conversation happens when both people have opposing positions on an issue, dig in, and stress the stance on their position over and over and over… There is no such thing as resolution when this type of communication is utilized. It can only end in a bad way for both the Borderline and the person they are trying to communicate with. 

For someone (like myself) with Borderline, we do not even realize that this is what we are doing. It is just how our brain goes. We keep hoping that at some point the other person will change their mind and see our viewpoint and admit that they were wrong all along. Most regular people will give up after a round or two of the circle, but BPDs want to keep the circle going until their point is understood.  We go over and over, just knowing that the other person will acquiesce and get our point eventually.

 This concept has plagued me throughout my life. It has also got me into trouble in the workforce and many times with the people I love. It usually turns into a Circular Conversation when the issue being discussed is a bottom line issue for me (I will usually use those exact words too), or, in my mind it is the end of the earth if the other person does not see my way. Add to this concept that, the longer it continues, the person with BPD then starts to feel disrespected, hurt, bullied or threatened. because the other person is not understanding us.

We, as Borderlines, are often trying to communicate our feelings. I am often accused by my husband (especially) that what I am feeling is not logical, normal, nor does it make sense. I then feel that he is completely invalidating my position (or feelings). I feel vulnerable in the expression of my feelings and I will not be happy until he believes and acknowledges the underlying feeling I am trying to express to him. We have the perfect recipe for a never-ending circular discussion. The fact of the matter is, a person with BPD is not able to see the same reality that a person without BPD sees. The way we feel dictates facts to us. When our feelings do not line up with the person we are trying to get a point across to, it’s going to be a long discussion!

Trust me, I have personally been known to drag on a circular conversation for days, if I am so heated up about the other person not getting my feelings or my side of the argument. I have cried, thrown rage fits, gone into depression over these conversations. They have broken up work relationships, friendships and put my loved ones over the edge. It is not funny at all, when you live it, and I truly wish there were a way to make my brain think logically instead of usurping logic with feelings all the time. I can only walk away and make it my responsibility to stop the conversation when I know that it is getting beyond the point of no return.

The problem with those of us that have BPD, is that while it is our reality and totally valid to us, what we are feeling is not always factual. It can often be impossible to reach a resolution because you can’t accept or endorse our feelings. Entering into and leaving one of these conversations with a person without BPD, for them, can be physically, morally, logically and emotionally taxing.

When I was younger, undiagnosed and not in therapy or taking my meds, it would go something like this in my head: “I am talking to this person and they are not understanding me. I am beginning to not think logically. All I am thinking now is that they purposely want to hurt me and misunderstand me. See, nobody loves me. I am not understandable as a person. I’m a waste of space as a person and I wish I would just die….leading to suicidal thoughts and ideation.”  Can you begin to understand what harm this does to both parties?

Seeing as this is and has always been above my paygrade, I had to find some way to help the loved ones of someone with BPD or work with us to understand how to deal with this concept. Below you will see some ideas from BPD Central a website devoted to dealing with people with BPD. I hope that this will help to give those of you that try to have conversations with us some good ideas on how to stop the never ending Circular Conversation. I have also added on “Tips for communicating with someone with Borderline Personality Disorder” from the same Website. I have to admit and express that I am still entangled with how to get my point across without displaying this conduct. It is still a work in progress, but it is getting better every day! I wish you much luck with this topic.

Coping With Circular Conversations:

What NOT to Do as a BPD:

  • Don't repeat anything you have already said.

  • Don't explain or respond to a question that you have already answered.

  • Don't engage in aggressive acts such as slamming doors or storming out.

  • Don't try to get the last word.

  • Don't wait for your feelings to be validated.

  • Don't try to change the other person's mind. Their thoughts and beliefs and feelings are their own.

  • Don't try to manipulate the other person's feelings. Don't try to make them feel guilt, remorse or sympathy.

  • Don't spend air time describing the other person's behavior, feelings or actions - focus on describing your own needs and feelings.

  • Don’t wait for agreement or consensus to end the conversation. It’s normal and healthy for two people to arrive at disagreement, different conclusions and different interpretations of the same events.

What TO Do as a BPD:

  • Recognize the pattern. Acknowledge that you are in a conversation that is just going around and around.

  • Accept that feelings aren’t inherently good or bad - they just are. Feelings are a byproduct of circumstances, emotions, brain chemistry and a host of other things. You can’t control the way you feel, neither can the person with the personality disorder - the way you feel is just a natural reaction to your experience.

  • Switch from stating facts to stating feelings. Describe your own feelings not the other person's. Don't say "I feel like you are lying". That is not a feeling. That is an opinion. Say "I feel scared" or "I feel hurt". You don't have to say why, just say it. The wonderful thing about stating your feelings is that nobody can contradict you, although people might try. Nobody knows or owns your feelings except you.

  • End the conversation, calmly and with your dignity intact. If you like, you can say, "I need a break" or "Let's discuss this later" and end it there.

Tips for Communicating with Someone With Borderline Disorder

Be realistic. You will not eliminate another person's borderline behavior, no matter how well you communicate. Only that person can do that. Your goal is simply to communicate in a way that respects you and the personal with borderline personality disorder (BP).

  1. Leave if necessary. You do not have to tolerate physical threats or emotional or verbal abuse.

  2. Simplify. When speaking with a BP, especially about sensitive issues, remember emotion is likely to be so strong that neither of you can do high-level thinking. Make each sentence short, simple, and direct. Leave no room for misinterpretation.

  3. Separate the person from the behavior. Make it clear to the BP that when you dislike behavior, you do not dislike the person. You may have to reinforce this often.

  4. Address feelings before facts. In ordinary conversation, we put facts before feelings. We assess facts and react with our feelings to them. But people with BPD often reverse this process. They have certain feelings—such as the fear that a partner will abandon them—and so they change the facts to match their feelings.

For example, their partner isn't going to the grocery store; he is walking out on the relationship. A non-BP confronted with that accusation may want to try to point out the facts (he's taking a grocery list, there is no food in the refrigerator, or so on), but in the BP's emotional state, that will be irrelevant. Instead, the non-BP may get farther by acknowledging and empathizing the BP's feelings (not facts) rather than discounting them. Then the non-BP can insert her reality.

For example, "You sound really upset. I would be upset too if I thought you were walking away forever. However (however is better than "but") I'm just going to the store and I'll be back in an hour."

  1. Keep focusing on your message. Ignore the BP's attacks or threats or attempts to change the subject. Stay calm and reiterate your point. If you're feeling attacked, calmly say that things are getting too hot and you'll be back in an hour. Then leave.

  2. Ask questions. Turn the problem over to the other person. Ask for alternative solutions, by saying, for example, "Where do you think we should go from here?" Or "I'm not able to say yes, and you seem to really want me to. How can we solve this problem?"

  3. Remember the importance of timing. There are good times and bad times to bring up certain subjects. An incident that may make the BP feel particularly vulnerable—the loss of a job, for example—could lead him or her to feel rejected, abandoned or invalidated. Your conversation is likely to be a lot more difficult. Postpone it if you can, or at least take into account the BP's greater vulnerability at this time.

  4. In the midst of an intense conversation that is escalating and unproductive, practice Delay, Distract, Depersonalize, and Detach.

Delay. Tell the other person, "Why don't we think about things and talk about this later?" or "Give me some time to think about what you're saying." Speak calmly and in a way that affirms the other person as well as yourself, without necessarily confirming their claims: "I'm feeling upset right now. Your feelings are important to me and I need some time to understand them."

Distract. Suggest, for instance, that the two of you run an errand together.

Depersonalize. Throughout, you will do better if you remind yourself frequently that the BP's harsh criticism of you is not real, but still feels very real to that person. Don't take the other person's comments personally, however cutting or cruel they may feel to you. This is the nature of the disorder.

Detach. Remove yourself emotionally from getting caught up in the emotional whirlwind. Resolve to yourself, "I'm not going to get so involved in this."

This is especially true not just in moments of high negativity, but in moments of high positive emotions. Impulsivity is a key trait of people with BPD, and while it can show up in negative actions—like throwing something through a window or telling you you're a monster and he never wants to see you again—it can also show up in positive actions: Telling you she adores you and wants to get married, right now or tomorrow. A BP's positive impulsivity can be very seductive. Detaching yourself can help you guard against it.

The emotional cycle that a person with BPD goes through can be compared to a row of dominos. One trigger, one push of the first domino, and the entire row falls in rapid succession. Your job is to try to remove your own "domino" from the row. You can also learn what makes the dominos fall. Pay attention to your experiences and anticipate ways to keep things calm. If you can calm yourself, the adrenaline doesn't flow through your system, and you can begin to try to steer the volatile relationship into less stormy seas.

It may help if you remind yourself, "I can't help that person's splitting. I can't help that person's shame. I can't help that person's fear. I can't control those things. What I can control is how I respond. And if I respond calmly, not impulsively, perhaps I can lower the temperature and help us find new ways to respond to each other and manage the BPD."

This doesn't mean caving in, however. Simply adopting a "whatever you say, dear" is not good for your own mental health, and it's not good for the person with BPD, either.

These are just tips, not a complete guide. For a complete explanation, see my book The Essential Family Guide to Borderline Personality Disorder.

10 thoughts on “Circular Conversations With A BPD

  1. Anonymous

    I spent a lot of time to find something similar to this

  2. Adolph

    Thanks for the excellent post

  3. Evelyn

    Thanks to the great guide

  4. Jodie

    This is truly helpful, thanks.

  5. Anonymous

    Keep on writing, great job!

  6. Terrra

    I’m just coming across this article and when I read the following line:
    “I am talking to this person and they are not understanding me. I am beginning to not think logically. All I am thinking now is that they purposely want to hurt me and misunderstand me. See, nobody loves me. I am not understandable as a person. I’m a waste of space as a person and I wish I would just die….leading to suicidal thoughts and ideation.”
    I literally started crying because I have experienced that exact downward spiral almost every time I get into any kind of confrontation or argument with someone. I’ve been reading a lot on BPD and I’m thinking maybe I’ve been diagnosed all these years. Thank you for sharing your experience. It’s help shed a lot of light for me.

    • Anonymous

      Terra, I am so sorry to just NOW be reading this post! My Website was down and I am just now getting back to posting. I do feel that, if the article resonated with you that much, you should get a professional diagnosis from a psychiatrist or therapist that is trained to work with Borderline Personality Disorderorder. It is so important to know if that is what you are up against. We can’t do anything until we know our diagnosis! Please keep in touch and let me know how you are doing. With you on the journey, Alice

  7. Rachel

    I have bpd and I have just read this as my partner found it and said this is what I have done over something I feel is so important. So important that it makes me want to finish the relationship because he has never appoligised or said sorry. Basically my ex partner whom I was with for ten years dies suddenly in both our company. I frantically tried to revive him but it was of no use and the pare medics tried to. I begged him not to leave me but he did to take his dog home and I had to explain to the police what had happened on my own after losing someone so important. The police arrested both of us that night because he left and they thought drugs were involved and there was something to hide. It is the worse night of my life and he does not get that he should not have left me and I fear that when I need him most he would leave again. Am I being irrational in being hurt and angry because when he read this and said I do this in regards to that night all the pain flooded me again. I really feel that being left on your own when a loved one dies is something anyone would be upset about, let alone what happened as a consequence of his actions.

  8. Anonymous

    This is one of the best posts I’ve seen about BPD, especially in regards to circular thinking. Thank you! I think the experience with a BPD-ex taught me how to avoid wasting time in unproductive arguments. The experiences with circular arguments also taught me how to avoid becoming emotionally invested in defending myself when I thought I was being misunderstood.

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