Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Emotional Language and Communication with Borderline Personality Disorder

Today I want to discuss something important that a lot of people with Borderline Personality Disorder lack: Communication skills. Mine happen to be pretty darn good (Well, now), but I think I’m something of an anomaly because I also happen to be an academic genius which puts me in a unique position to be able to put my thoughts into words. Even then, I didn’t always used to be able to communicate so well, and it’s still not always easy for me. For us.  

 It can be difficult to talk to us. It can be even more difficult getting us to talk about what it is we need and what is bothering us. Sometimes it seems like no matter how clearly a person with BPD explains their feelings those around us don’t understand what we mean. Similarly, things others say to us often seem to be wildly misinterpreted by the person with BPD, distorted into something you never intended and everyone ends up defending themselves against something they never realized they were saying. And that’s best case scenario if we are able to accurately describe what we’re saying. Unfortunately this isn’t always the case so it seems like there’s always a perpetual miscommunication with someone with BPD.

What you hear is not always what we mean. What you say is not always what we hear. 

The reason for this is simple, and frustrating. 1. We’re so used to being dismissed as overemotional that it’s instinctive to expect that we’ll be invalidated. 2. We don’t always know what we need.  We don’t always know what is bothering us. We can’t always identify what it is we’re feeling. All we know is that something feels bad, but it’s not always possible to identify the source of that feeling. It’s not always clear what is causing it. All we know is that it FEELS like there’s a problem, anxiety, something gripping our hearts and shoving it up into our throat. How do you express something that you can’t accurately process? Let alone put it into words.

It’s extremely frustrating to know you feel bad but not know how to express it properly or how to fix it. We learn to adapt in different ways because of this. For me, I learned to control my environment. This lead to an extraordinary amount of anxiety if anything deviated from the structure I needed to “stabilize” my environment. People with BPD can become demanding, control, lash out in meanness from their own frustration, or get so frustrated that they give up altogether and move on to someone or something else. Sometimes we just stop asking at all and accept that we will always feel perpetually misunderstood and different, outsiders set aside from everyone else. Or we learn to adapt in other ways to get our needs met through projection, mirroring, sex, impulsive behaviors, things that pull others close to us in relationships.

What’s more. Often people with Borderline Personality Disorder lack the emotional language to express what it is they are feeling. [1] Even if we know what it is we’re experiencing someone with BPD may lack the eloquence to accurately portray that to someone else. As cliché as it may seem, I think this is why a lot of depressed people write poetry and create art. It’s often easier to convey how it is we feel through pictures and music than to describe a concept in a way that will allow others to understand. Keeping in mind that often people with BPD don’t understand what it is their feeling. If you’ve ever experienced depersonalization or derealization, it’s a really heady feeling. I had no idea what it was that was going on with me to make me feel like I was floating outside of my own head. It sounds crazy! It took a lot of internet searching and finding a therapist who specialized in this sort of thing before it was confirmed for me that I had a dissociative disorder. Now try explaining this experience to someone who has never experienced it themselves and also has no clue that this state of being exists.

It’s often very difficult to communicate because people with BPD perceive and feel in a way that is different than most people do. How we feel doesn’t necessarily make sense to people without BPD. I remember getting extremely frustrated, extremely tired, and ultimately extremely angry when I would try to explain what I was going through only to have the other person try to rationalize it in their own way or blow off what I was saying as me getting worked up over nothing. It’s not nothing. You may not understand it, but our feelings are valid because we are experiencing them, and telling us that it’s in our head or that things aren’t as bad as they seem and walking away, just leaves us feeling frustrated, misunderstood, and alone. If this happens often enough, we shut down. At least I do. I quit going to people for help. I quit trying. And after a while the idea of asking for help stopped occurring to me at all. It feels like no one will understand because no one listens. Or they won’t understand because their normalized experience is so different than ours that they simply can’t feel what we feel. It’s difficult.

When we’re lead by our emotions, the things we think we need may not actually be the best thing for us either. We’re often so sensitive and highly emotional that our communication can be misleading. Not intentionally but when our emotions are SO extreme and SO changeable what we need can be as extreme and changeable as the emotions that accompany them. What we think we need in the moment may not be what will really ease our anxiety.  What we actually need is often left unexpressed. If you have a partner or loved one with BPD it’s important to pay attention to what triggers them, and what brings about periods of calm in their life. Look for the things left unexpressed.

If we go back a long ways to when I started talking about Schema Therapy there are 5 core emotional needs for all human beings. Early Maladaptive Schemas and coping mechanisms result from unmet core emotional needs in childhood or early adolescence and continue on into adulthood. They’re basic and general but a good place to begin.

            1.      Secure attachments to others (includes safety, stability, nurturance and acceptance)
2.      Autonomy, competence, and sense of identity
3.      Freedom to express valid needs and emotions
4.      Spontaneity and play
5.      Realistic limits and self-control

So keep your eyes open and try to figure out what it is that is at the core of the problem, regardless of what is being said. Above all, be patient. Validate the other person’s feelings. And don’t give up. It’s important to develop a relationship of trust. It can also be very helpful to develop a common vocabulary to help one another communicate effectively and develop the skill necessary for effective communication.  [2] It takes time to develop emotional language when you haven’t previously had it. But it is possible. 


  1. I like this post. It resonates a lot with me, as I also have BPD, am an "academic genius" as you say, and typically get relief from anxiety through painting/creating art.

    You put a lot of thought and knowledge into your posts. It's helpful to others looking for some way to figure out "why am I so messed up" as we try to figure everything out.

    I don't know about you, but I feel like I don't always get straight answers from my therapist. Or perhaps, like you say in your post above, she is answering me straight, but I am just not perceiving the answer the way I need to.

    1. I find a lot of the time my therapist doesn't give me straight answers because ultimately she wants me to come to healthy conclusions on my own.

      I have certainly caught myself in a loop of not "hearing" an answer because it isn't the answer I'm looking for though. Sometimes when I expect a certain thing, unless that's what I hear, I resist that there can be another way. I don't know if this is true for you, but it certainly can be for me.

  2. How do you recommend handling someone with BPD taking what you said and running away with it in a completely ridiculous direction?

    I always handled it by just saying "That's not how I meant it. I was just saying x." And if they kept going on I'd just stand firm on that and try to move forward.

    1. Ultimately I think the way you handle it is what you need to do. You may have to wait a little while until the person with BPD is in a less emotionally volatile state and reapproach the subject. It's important to validate how they feel and recognize that you understand how they could interpret your words how they did, but then proceed to explain that was not how you meant it... etc.

  3. I think my 16 year old daughter may be borderline. There has been 'something' different about her for a long time. I finally took her to the dr. a few months ago. he started her on depression med.(prozac) which bothered me because I knew it would elevate her mood too much. (I was thinking either bi polar disorder or borderline) . Sure enough, she shot up with her moods. The dr. placed her on lamotrigine to bring her back to center. I still think she is not stabilized. i get very frustrated with the lack of ability to communicate clearly with her... have felt like giving up many times. She gets just as frstrated that I don't understand her. I don't know how to make the dr. understand all the 'little' things that are off a little with her. I hope this makes sense! What do you think?

    1. Well if she's BPD but being medicated as bipolar this may not do anything for her. There aren't any real medications that are known to work specifically for BPD. Some that can help certainly, but with BPD you need both therapy to learn cognitive coping skills coupled with the addition of medication.

      You should also remember that she's a teenager. Even without mental health issues, communicating with hormonal teenagers is often extremely difficult.

      I do understand your frustration, but if she does have BPD (or bipolar) there is not going to be a quick fix. It will take a lot of time and patience.

      It might benefit you both to find a psychiatrist/psychologist that deals with BPD so that you can work together to understand what she is going through and the best way to deal with the issues that come up. She will need your support in an enormous way, and it's likely you will need some support as well.

    2. Thanks for your reply. We saw the dr. today and he changed the meds a bit. She ended up in the outpatient hospital a couple of weeks ago and is going to continue for another month 3 times per week. She is learning some great coping skills and communicating skills. I am reading and reading and learning a lot from you, and applying it with her and it is making so much sense!!!! She feels like I am finally understanding her a little!! oh my goodness....i think I see a ray of hope. lol. thank you!! keep blogging

    3. By the way, she is a triplet and the other two are also showing the same signs, along with her older sister who was diagnosed with a 'mood disorder' when she was younger. Their dad is bi=polar and I have depression and anxiety, so a lot of it is genetic.... poor things.... that and teenage hormones!!!

  4. Yours is a wonderful blog and I should say that you write very well.

  5. Great post - you're definitely not just 'talking' to yourself :)!

  6. Jason. Hi Haven, I am very impressed by your writing skills and yes, your clear explanations on how to deal with BPD loved ones and with the disorder. I love a woman who has BPD and unfortunately it took me bit too long to understand what it was. She would show up randomly without being announced, would disappear or not answer messages but still expressing love and jealousy. She gave me a "deadline" to commit to her (I guess, marriage) or she would leave me. I found that childish since our relationship was only 4 months old. At times, she could be verbally abusive and would forget what she said. After a nice weekend together out of town, she would not answer my messages. Note that we had a nice weekend. Suddenly, she sent me a message "not to ever contact her again or she would get a restraining order". I found that so harsh and shocking. Of course, I found my calm and one week later, I sent her an email where I expressed my understanding to her pain and that I would be there for her, anytime. I told her that I loved the place where she took me for brunch. Days later, she sent me photos from that place with no text from an anonymous email address (not hers) (iwillseeyouinheaven@.....com). I was very worried. What could that mean? I have not heard from her in a month now.

  7. Hi Heather,
    Are you still there?
    This is Jason.


Leave me a comment! It makes me feel good and less paranoid about talking to myself =)

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