Setting Boundaries with a Borderline

It’s about to get real ugly in here. Setting boundaries is not a topic that bodes well for discussion for those of us with BPD. The fact is, that unskilled Borderline sufferers are a lot to handle and thus some behaviors necessitate separation. Our emotional intensity is not a choice. For someone without BPD it can be impossible to understand this. Unless you have experienced uncontrollable emotions yourself, during a traumatic incident for example, it is hard to understand how and why people with BPD react the way they do. Our emotions come upon us like a tidal wave when we have BPD. At times we get sucked under the waves and feel as if we can’t breathe. These waves may persist for the borderline for hours or days on the same topic. Your emotions as a non-BPD for the same exact incident may be a ripple. Ripple vs. tidal wave. There is where BPD persons have the problem when it comes to setting boundaries. When we act on these tidal wave emotions, we have to learn to live with the negative consequences that can ensue as an aftereffect to the non-BPD. Our loved ones may give us second chances when we hurt them with our uncontrollable words and actions, but some will cut us from their lives completely. I have experienced both outcomes.

When looking at the variations of circumstances that can occur in day-to-day living, it is practically impossible (and impractical) to set a specific strict rule about how and when to set a boundary with a BPD person. Every relationship and person is different. The rule is, that you as the non-BPD get to decide what you can and cannot handle with your BPD friend or loved one. If the particular behavior the BPD is displaying is “too much” for you, then you get to set the boundary on that behavior. If the BPD becomes physically abusive, you NEED to sever ties immediately until the BPD person seeks help. It is hard, but try to resist making blanket assumptions towards all persons with BPD when it comes to this topic. We are a very diverse group of people with varying degrees of knowledge on how to deal with our symptoms. Making a blanket judgement that all Borderlines are “crazy”, “out of control” or “dangerous” only leads to additional stigma that we already face on a daily basis.

If you are the one with BPD and people or loved ones have distanced themselves from you, please don’t allow shame, guilt and embarrassment to swallow you up. I lived with those judgments against myself for many years. When those feelings are turned inward on us it can lead to harmful behavior on behalf of the Borderline, such as self-harming, substance abuse or worse, suicidal thoughts and behavior. We need to learn to accept these feelings as people around us set boundaries and not let ourselves fall victim to self-hatred. When you do overstep a boundary and it results in backlash from the non-BPD, you may say to yourself “I am not happy with the way I responded to that person or situation emotionally, but these are my symptoms of trauma and BPD. I will try to work on this and do better next time”.

If you have a good friend, or loved one, who has Borderline, you probably already witnessed disturbing behavior and uncomfortable situations with them. Perhaps even on a daily basis. The emotional swings that we endure with BPD make it very difficult for us to regulate ourselves emotionally and at times, we leave our friends and loved ones feeling they have been manipulated, lied to, judged unfairly or worse. The emotions of a Borderline can at times become very destructive and toxic. During a time when we are experiencing a “black” period in our brain, it can all vomit out of us and leave the recipient bewildered and hurt, with no understanding of how on earth to respond to us. Then, when we turn back to “white”, we are fine, almost as if nothing had transpired at all. The non-Borderline is completely confused at this point and it can seem impossible at times to try to navigate a relationship with a BPD.

People with BPD can be and are intelligent, charismatic, dynamic and very spontaneous. We can be loving and passionate and fun to be around, but we often have very poor boundaries and it shows. When we become emotionally dysregulated and need to let it out, the emotional downloading we do to our friends and family can wear thin. People with Borderline are extremely sensitive, so setting boundaries with us can initially be a minefield full of emotional bombs waiting to go off. If the boundary is set in a firm and loving way and explained to the person with BPD prior to setting it, you will find that the Borderline person will adjust accordingly over time.

Saying something to the effect of “I love you and want you in my life, but it is very stressful to me when you unload on me all the time and respond in highly emotional ways that I do not know how to respond to.” “I will always love and support you, but I need to limit interaction where you “dump” on me to once a week from now on”. In spite of the fact that at first, you may get very negative reactions from the person with BPD, you need to remain patient and firm in the process and not allow the Borderline to guilt you into feeling bad for doing something that is necessary for your self-preservation. If feelings come over you, such as “I’m the only person she has”, “no one else understands her”, “she needs me” need to hold your ground and realize that we Borderlines can be great manipulators and bring about some of those feelings in you by our response. You are not responsible for the Borderlines actions or emotional outbursts. Do not let guilt overcome you and your ability to protect yourself from being taken advantage of emotionally in the relationship with a BPD.

When boundaries are set, they should act as a guideline or a limit that a person creates for themselves that are reasonable and safe ways for people with BPD to behave around them. There needs to be an explanation for behavior as to how they will respond should the Borderline step outside the boundary line. Boundaries should not be made in an attempt to control or make someone comply with outrageous demands. Boundaries go both ways and should act as a healthy “fence” for each of the parties involved. Neither party should end up feeling taken advantage of, used or violated by a boundary.

When a relationship with a Borderline has led to enmeshment in a mental or emotional way, the non-BPD can lose sight of which experiences belong to them and which ones are being projected on them by the person with BPD. This can happen especially in the case of a parent being the BPD and the child the non-BPD. With weak boundaries, the child allows the BPD parent to define their world. This can lead to a deterioration of the child’s sense of self-esteem and inner self. It can become a very dysfunctional relationship and lend itself to much chaos and confusion as the child grows and matures. This happened between my daughter and I and it took many years of therapy and repair work - on both our sides - for us to come back together in a healthy, constructive, loving relationship. This is why it is so important that this topic is addressed as early as possible in any relationship the Borderline person has. If I had only known then, what I know now; my daughter and I could have saved years of turmoil in our relationship. Ah, yes, hindsight is always 20/20.

We all need to take responsibility for what we will and will not accept in any relationship. Setting boundaries does that for us. Some people refuse to set boundaries because they see the boundaries as selfish, and then some people use them to be selfish. I have found that in boundary setting, we need to look at different types of boundaries. The areas in which to set boundaries could be for example: physical boundaries, sexual boundaries, material boundaries, mental and emotional boundaries, spiritual boundaries. I believe that, Borderline or not, all people would benefit greatly from setting boundaries in these specific areas.

Whether or not you end up staying in a relationship with a Borderline, learning how to set healthy boundaries is extremely helpful so that you don’t end up in a dysfunctional dance with anyone in your circle of life. I am going to end by suggesting an excellent book on this topic, which has helped our whole family greatly in learning how to take on the sensitive matter of setting boundaries, called “Boundaries” by Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend. In my opinion, a must read for this topic! Good luck!

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