Thursday, August 2, 2012

Borderline "Manipulation"

"People with Borderline Personality Disorder are manipulative." We’ve all heard this. It’s one of the most common things I’ve heard from people who describe BPD without having actually suffered with it.

Haven, if it’s one of the most common things you’ve heard? Why have you waited so long to discuss it?

Because it makes me angry. Shocker, I know. Whenever I’ve read a description of how manipulative we as Borderlines are supposed to be I feel deeply, deeply insulted, hurt, and invalidated. My heart hurts because to me, this feels like an attack when I know what I’m going through is pain. It took me a very long time to understand was meant by “manipulative behavior” in terms of Borderline Personality Disorder.

From the World English Dictionary and Oxford Dictionary: Manipulation is:

  1. The act of negotiating, controlling, or influencing someone or something in a clever, skillful, or devious way.  
  2. To falsify for one’s own advantage.
  3. To manage, control or influence in a subtle, devious, or underhand manner 
  4. Or to handle with mental or intellectual skill

These are descriptions of willful, constructed, and thought out deceit.

In regards to Borderline Personality Disorder people often describe feeling manipulated by the dramatic outbursts of emotion, the threats of suicide and self-harming behavior; such as cutting, use of guilt, neediness and rejection.

People close to someone with BPD often feel manipulated because the actions of the Borderline in their life “force” them to act in certain ways; usually ways that direct their attention to the person with BPD. They feel as though they’re being held hostage by the emotional volatility of the person with BPD.  I hate the use of the term “manipulation” though. It implies that a conscious decision has been made to gain a specific outcome through subtle, devious, skillful, and deceitful means.

Dr. Marsha Linehan has said, “I think it is safe to say that folks with borderline disorder are usually not skillful in their interpersonal communication styles. The problem is that they often can only express their emotional pain by screaming out how much they want to be dead, which is likely true. Self-harm, alas, regulates emotions for many.”

It’s a manipulative action in the sense that we know we need help or attention and act in a way that gains us that attention. In the same way wrapping your fingers around the shaft of a hammer to drive a nail is a manipulation of the wall. There is nothing subtle or deceitful in these acts. It’s justifiable to feel trapped and like you have no choice but to respond to these outbursts, because it is important in times like this that the person sufferering not be ignored. It’s equally important to understand that those actions aren’t a willful attempt to deceive you into making you do something you don’t want to do.

What it is, is an inability to communicate effectively, because we ourselves may not fully understand the pain we are experiencing at the time. When your heart is in your throat, gravity feels like it is physically crushing you into the ground, spinning you out of control so fast you can’t make out up or down through the tears pouring from your eyes… all we know is that we hurt, we’re in pain, something is wrong, and often we don’t have the emotional language to express that. What we do have is a tendency towards impulsive behavior and acting out on our volatile emotions.

To say that someone with Borderline Personality Disorder is manipulative implies a malicious intent (as may be true for a Narcissist or Sociopath). However for someone with Borderline Personality Disorder this manipulation is often the result of not having the skills to deal with their situation and emotions effectively. Usually the “manipulative” behavior is an impulsive action driven by fear of abandonment, loneliness, desperation, and hopelessness—not maliciousness. It is an ultimately maladaptive attempt to get others to care for the, which initially has that effect, but leaves caregivers feeling burned out in the long term.

I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve confided/threatened to kill myself or harm myself. What I needed was love and understanding. Often I did have a particular person in mind whom I wanted that attention from. At the time I believed I needed it from them, I didn’t understand that I had a greater issue [BPD/depression] to deal with. I was experiencing so much stress, so much all-consuming sadness, I couldn’t see any hope. All I knew was that I felt that way, had felt that way for an excruciatingly long time, and couldn’t see an end to that pain. I did honestly believe that I had nothing to live for and if that was all I had to look forward to, than suicide was a better option. Or when I was cutting, it wasn’t a hollow threat, and it was something that did make me feel better temporarily. The point is, the “threats” weren’t hollow cries for attention. I deeply and sincerely felt these were the only ways at the time I was feeling that way. I needed help, but had no idea how to ask for it or express it. Especially since I was so used to having my feelings invalidated by friends and family, the only way I knew to show how much pain I was in, was to show them, and the results were often dramatic.  I knew how I felt, I knew what I wanted, but I didn’t know what I needed or how to achieve it. So I acted out in the only way I knew how.
From the Birmingham Maple Clinic [1] I found this analogy:

To understand this with more clarity, I like to use the “mommy /baby analogy.”  All of our relationships, whether we want to admit it or not, are reflections of our own experiences with our own caregivers.  If you have had a baby,  you will also be able to use that experience to help you understand this analogy.   Let’s pretend that we have a crying baby.  Babies can’t talk, so whether they want to play, eat, cuddle, get out of the crib or change diapers, they cry.  If a baby cries and they get picked up and cared for, they (hopefully) will stop crying.  (I understand that this may depend on the baby in question.)  If they don’t get picked up, they will cry more.  Depending upon the caregiver, they may then get picked up, but if the caregiver does not respond, they may cry even louder and more forcefully.  Let’s presume that at times,  the crying may work, but that sometimes it may not.  If the baby learns that to get it’s needs met it needs to cry really, really loudly, then it may just jump immediately to that.  I mean, why waste your breath going through the other less effective levels of cry?  If this baby learns to cry super loud but still the caregiver responds inconsistently (sometimes they pick it up, sometimes not) the baby learns exactly that; “sometimes my very forceful cries get my needs met, but sometimes they don’t.   I don’t know when to cry super loud or when to cry softly or when not to cry at all.” This baby is now probably going to make a lot of mistakes such as crying loudly for something that’s not critical, or not cry for something really important.

If you are following me, you might be putting some of the pieces together by now about why manipulation occurs. My mommy/baby analogy is really too simple because lots of other factors contribute to the situation such as other ways that the caregiver might react (do they act angry or annoyed? Do they act pleasantly?    Are they distracted by something in the environment?)  But let me ask this: is the baby manipulating the caregiver?  No. Babies are only trying to get their needs met.  So, too, is the individual with the diagnosis of Borderline Personality Disorder.

It’s a maladaptive way of trying to get those needs met. If, like me, you’ve dealt with having to suppress your emotions because any time you’ve expressed distress you’ve been met with invalidating statements, told to go suck it up, to shut up and deal with it, how you feel is wrong, that it’s not a big deal… than you’ve probably “learned” that merely asking for help means you’ll be ignored because it’s quite clear that whoever is invalidating you doesn’t understand how big of a problem what you’re experiencing is.  All that’s left to you is the intense build up and eventual explosion that shows exactly what it is you’ve been feeling.

It’s not intentional. It’s not meant to hurt you. It’s a maladaptive way to get a basic need met. It’s using the only thing we know because we don’t have the emotional language or skills to express ourselves better.

Again from BMC: “If you are in a relationship with someone with a BPD diagnosis, it is important for you to learn how to communicate using a common language that helps both of you understand each other’s needs and how to meet them, as well as learn how to meet your own needs and take care of yourself.  It is possible to have balance without accusing the person with BPD of “manipulation.”  Using the term manipulation to describe someone with BPD is not fair, and in my experience, using it creates unhelpful barriers to treatment and self-acceptance.   The behaviors that feel like manipulation are this person’s attempts to feel relief, feel connected, avoid pain, get help, or assert his/her rights.  And whether we have the diagnostic label of BPD attached to us or not, we can all understand those needs.

I absolutely agree. I hate hearing the term “manipulation” used to describe this kind of behavior.  Instead of being defensive, we all need to be proactive and work towards finding a solution for future problems by learning from past ones.    


  1. This is a fantastic post, and such an important topic. Only problem ... I'm trying to compose something about manipulation as well, and now everyone's going to think I just copied the smart girl :)

  2. I think I ruined my life, my boyfriend had always been there for me he is the most beautiful person I have ever met , I know they say there are other fish in the sea, but I have never met this type...ever, we have been together for three yrs..but I keep pushing him I have somehow put my life in a bad spot, hoping he will rescue me, but he said he has had enough, he says he is tired of proving his love for me and now he doesnt talk to me, I think I malipuated myself out of a great guy..uuuggg

  3. I really appreciate these articles you write. I have very little understanding from anyone in my life right now and it's nice to read what I can't express. Thank you.

  4. Also, I'm just wondering if you have any on trust. I know with Bipolar II and BPD that I do experience paranoia. My alcoholic best friend of 15 years lied to me repeatedly about his drinking, writing it off as my paranoia. I'm also convinced that he's still deceiving me about other things; ie. having hooked up with a woman I like but lying to me about it because he knows I'd be angry or something else along those lines of betrayal.

    His attitude towards my illnesses and me has changed drastically. At first he seemed very willing to learn as I began to learn more about my illnesses etc. That isn't the case anymore.

    I'll leave it at that as I know I can very easily make this a run-away train of details. I just want to know, is telling him lying to me is one of the worst things he can do to trigger my BPD and paranoia correct? He tells me that he isn't lying about anything else but this has happened multiple times throughout our friendship. I told him he has to prove he's being honest about things rather than just expecting me to believe him for now. Earn that trust back. He tells me I'm making it into too big of a ordeal. That either I can believe him or not. I don't see that as fair coming from someone I've known for so long. I would think if he cared about the friendship and me that he would want to. Dang, "detail train" anyway. What are some suggestions on how to tell or (dis)trust what is coming from my paranoia and what isn't, is it a common thing for people with BPD to need the truth (I've described it as bringing a sense of peace since I already feel distorted and have my reality warped enough without outside influence), and what if one of my only two friends can't be what I need them to be for me...or perhaps how I need them to be towards me; what should one do in that situation? Sorry this was so long. You seem very knowledgeable and since I have few people to ask and even fewer willing to offer advice, I figured I'd make an attempt at asking you.

    1. Hm. I don't think I've written a post specifically about Trust but I'll definitely look into it and see what I come up with. I know I definitely have trust issues.

      It sounds like your friend is Gaslighting you a little. You have every right to your feelings and what you feel you need. He needs to accept that your trust has been broken and whether he thinks it's out of proportion or not, doesn't change the fact that you feel like your trust has been violated.

      I would say it's definitely common and maybe even more important for us to hear the truth. Our trust in relationships is so tenuous that I would rather hear honest criticism than pleasant lies.

      Distinguishing between what is justified mistrust and what is paranoia can be tricky. Do you have a therapist? I would definitely say write it out. Take a step back from it, and re-read it a little later when you've calmed down a little. If what you write makes a lot of assumptions about the other persons behavior, try rewriting only the actual scenario that you experienced, without any assumptions. That should help pick out the paranoia from the truth.

      "what if one of my only two friends can't be what I need them to be for me...or perhaps how I need them to be towards me; what should one do in that situation?"

      This is tricky because so so so often we need so much from people. We want people to be more, or different, or what we hope they can be. But it's important to understand that this is not for us to decide. People can only be what they can be. Just because we desperately want someone to be something doesn't mean they'll be able to. You need to accept his limits as a friend and potentially form stronger connections with new/other people who can provide for you what you need.

      Keep asking questions!

  5. It is manipulative. This whole article is just a lame excuse for your actions of attempted suicide. I would never justify threatening death to someone (including yourself) to get attention - completely uncalled for.

    I have known a borderline for about two years, and she has gotten alot better and manipulated alot less once she took responsibility for what she was doing. In fact, over time this BPD diagnosed person realized that she was just using her diagnosis as a crutch to excuse all her bad behavior.

    I think that anyone that really cares about you ought to be offended that you would threaten yourself in such a manner.

    1. I think you're mistaking empty threats, with actually feeling the need to commit suicide. While some people with BPD do make those empty kinds of threats, and I do agree that is uncalled for an blatant manipulation which does require responsibility on the part of the person with BPD... often times we actually are suicidal. When we do actually have thoughts of suicide, telling someone about this is is what is often seen as manipulation for attention, while it does bring about attention, these are actual feelings that are happening and it's not an intentional attempt to manipulate people for attention. What it is, is a need for help, because that person is in clear distress and can't escape that distress in a way that is more constructive.

    2. "I think that anyone that really cares about you ought to be offended that you would threaten yourself in such a manner."

      Offended? No. Concerned? Yes. No one has a right to be offended by how we feel. Our behaviors may at times be offensive, but how we feel is how we feel. To be offended by a very real experience we are having, is invalidation and in affect a dismissal of the important of what we are going through.

    3. Regarding your first reply - I think I understand what you are saying, but suicide is still wrong and FEELING the need to kill a person (even one's self) doesn't excuse them.

      Regarding your second reply - the offense is that you THREATEN to kill yourself.

    4. I would have said the same thing a couple of years ago, When i lost my brother to suicide, I was mad at him for years, but when there is something telling you your no good, you see your self as stupid. and the racing thoughs wont stop, they never stop, you live in hell on earth, so much so you have cluster headaches, a pain you cant stand look them up. watch them, your boxed in, and no one know what to do but hide you. then you can judge, we know its wrong, but are brians tells us its right and the only thing that stops us is our heart. because we are really good people, and understand other people pain, no matter if its a scratched arms or a broken heart. we know the pain. I am sorry if i came off mean, did not mean to, just want you to understand. sorry

  6. what does you therapist tell you about manipulation?

  7. so bpd's don't have pittyplay as default setting?

  8. I remember telling my loved one that he was manipulative for threatening suicide. Then he did take his own life.

    I can understand both sides of this coin.
    I would do things differently today and everyday of my life is hued by my memories of that final conversation.

    Haven, well handled responses to the above comments. I had to take a few minutes to respond without frustration.

  9. I can see both sides, too, but threats of suicide, however real or sincere, do make others angry. It is one of the most selfish acts a person can ever commit and it is permanent. I do believe it comes out of a place of deep pain and hopeless, and also, that sometimes it is a cry for help or for love and attention. I have also seen it used to try to get out of consequences for bad choices. It must be very difficult for the person who struggles with these feelings on a regular basis. It is also a roller coaster ride, in to hell and back, exhausting and exasperating for friends/family members of the BPD sufferer.

    1. Wanting someone to stay live when they are in agony because you don't want to feel loss is also selfish

    2. I have to say, I agree with Anon 1:47 here.

      Threats of suicide to intentionally manipulate, to get out of consequences, or to ONLY get attention are a big problem.

      But if someone is in pain, agony, or a state of endless misery.... if suicide has really become their only hope for relief, than it's a personal decision. Yes, it's selfish, but as human beings all our actions are in some way selfishly motivated. To NOT want someone to commit suicide and continue living in eternal pain, THAT is also selfish. And frankly, not anyone's call but the person who is making the choice for themselves.

  10. Awesome post here. Haven, I think you have a good handle on this situation or are at least pretty conscious of what you are going through. I fear I am in love and engaged to my girlfriend who is not diagnosed BPD but I think has the symptoms of. I often go through mental stress or anger because I feel like I always have to explain my actions or intentions to my partner and prove they were with pure intent and not deceitful. I often get accused of displaying actions that she herself is exhibiting. It does feel like a roller coaster and no matter how hard I try I cannot satisfy her need for attention, understanding and trust. She acknowledges that she has damage from her past that cause her to act out in specific ways, but in the midst of those feelings nothing else seems to matter. There is no reasoning with or an ability to acknowledge the possibility of overreacting to the situation. To make it worse, I am constantly left with the feeling that I am lacking in understanding her shortcomings and can/should be doing more to be that compassionate caregiver that she needs while I neglect my own needs and wants. If I do receive any consideration towards my own wants and needs then I have to be content with that small measure of understanding. The problem is that at points I do see that there is hope only to see a day or two later that I am going through big cycles. I am looking for strategies to help my partner better understand what she is going through, and to be able to cope with and negotiate better through the tough times when her defensive wall is way up. If not, then I am afraid that I will only reenforce her fear that I, like everyone else in her life will walk out on her and fulfill her prophecy. Help.....

  11. "What it is, is an inability to communicate effectively, because we ourselves may not fully understand the pain we are experiencing at the time. When your heart is in your throat, gravity feels like it is physically crushing you into the ground, spinning you out of control so fast you can't make out up or down through the tears pouring from your eyes... all we know is that we hurt, we're in pain, something is wrong, and often we don't have the emotional language to express that. What we do have is a tendency towards impulsive behavior and acting out on our volatile emotions."

    I think if some of the people who claim that suicide (whether threatened, attempted, or committed) is merely a selfish act out of malicious intent... that if they were to actually experience & feel the intense overwhelming pain & hopelessness that BPD sufferers sometimes do, they might change their view. Because when you feel like the only way to stop the excruciating pain inside is to just not be alive anymore, when you just want to be dead, to not exist, it's the worst feeling ever. Some people need to be a little more sympathetic.

    1. I agree. It's not an act, it's not just "to get attention", the pain there is very real. What is needed, is help.

  12. Yes I think that these actions come from a place of pain and needing to get your needs met and not from a malicious place. It's just you've only spoken about self harm and suicide threats etc..
    And as a non borderline I'd just like to understand... What about someone who's so good at 'acting' madly in love and it seems 100% genuine and they make people feel so special. And yet they cheat and they tell everyone I love you. And yet they still claim to love you and...
    Do you know what I'm talking about? Is this perhaps of a more histrionic nature?

    1. Hm, I've never personally acted madly in lover or told someone I've loved them and not meant it. I'm also not a cheater type so I may not be able to answer this fully. That being said I do know of people (Borderline and Non alike) that have meant it when they said they loved their partners genuinely but still felt the need to cheat because their needs weren't being met in some way or another. Even after communicating their needs.

      The telling everyone 'I love you' sounds histrionic to me. As someone with abandonment issues, those are 3 little words I do not utter to anyone lightly.

  13. Thank you so much for addressing this issue. I have also bristled at the use of "manipulative" as a self descriptor. I do not feel manipulative at all. I have no desire to "make" someone do what I want. I just know that I need whatever it is that I'm asking for, in an apparently ineffective way and "they" don't understand.

  14. Acting out once childhood issues as adult is manipulative no matter the reasons for it. I think that troubles of not getting better often are not da issues themselves but painful comparison with your luckier (non BP) partner the person you "turn it on" to. My BP ex-wife was "surprised" to learn that months after her diagnosis that only a few unlucky people out of hundred had as horrid childhood as herself. It simply does not seem fair to treat others way better then you were treated yourself. B.P childhood is like winning concentration camp lotto - relating to someone like that is like getting a second price, (third price is a set of disco C.Ds). Working trough the pain of truly knowing what I just wrote above must be awful -but is there an other way?

  15. I really want to thank you for this sight, I have been searching the internet for 8 and ahalf hours, trying to find why my counselor told me today i was a manipulator. I am a single mother and i really do love my baby, but those words cut me to the bone, I drove around in the snow and ice forever crying, I even called and left her a message of how wrong she was, I take all my meds, never miss any dr, appt. and try to do every thing thay ask. So i can have my life back. I did the same thing as you i came home and look up every on line definition and was shocked at what she was calling me, she already told me i was bipolor, manic, and have GAD's . with panic attacks. so it almost 1 am and evey one is a sleep so i keep looking hoping to find something, cause i knew what the out come would be, I would be dead by morning. because in my mind she told me i was a bad person, a lier, a cheat. which none of them i am, like i said I do love my baby, she made me think i was not good enough for her, I was not good enough for anyone. When she told me that, I do know i was not waring my glasses, i noticed i was setting on the edge of my chair telling her she was wrong, i give away every thing i have to people that need it. and i had my glasses on, she was pushed back in her chair trying to change the subject, but I could not let it go, I know i was talking loud to her all the way down the hall. which is something i dont do, and she was still trying to change the subject. I just dont understand why she would push me to that point. and make me feel so bad, So i just want to thank you for your sight, maybe thats what she was saying, maybe i am not as bad as she put it. I sure hope not

  16. The 'funny' thing is that you're trying to excuse your behavior as if the effects it has on other people was to dismiss. Yes you're not fully responsible for the way you are, or else it might not be manipulation (sorry but you haven't convinced me otherwise); But you it's a choice you have to make to distance yourself from others. As hurtful as it sounds, you're toxic! And you need help before you can consider investing in other people.

  17. I think my sister is BPD. And until I read this, I now think I am BPD also. I have been with people I hardly know, and after talking a short while, they start to tell me all kinds of personal things about themselves. That's when weird stuff starts to happen. I relate to their "stuff" and share some of my misgivings and present "life sucks" situations. The next thing I know they are wanting me to live with them, or they are willing to give me their car, etc., It totally freaks me out. I think I am some kind of manipulator. Yet that is nowhere close to what my mere conversation with these people was about. One guy, after only 2 dates, wanted to put my name on his bank account and give me a credit card. It freaked me out and I told him, he needed to seek some kind of psychiatric help because he barely knew me. That it was critically not normal. It took me a while to get the guy to leave me alone. My intentions are never to manipulate people into doing weird stuff like the above mentioned. My thoughts are that we are having a simple conversation sharing between us. So what do you think? My Dad has always said I was a manipulative baby because I would cry and cry and hold my breath when I was 2 and 3 months old. He still brags to this day some 50 years later how he whipped my little ass and kept me in the baby bed. My Dad is a major sicko and I have nothing to do with him. Either way, many times I have been told that I manipulate people and aparently I do.


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

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