Your phone rings. Her name appears on your screen. You dread clicking over.
And then comes the guilt.
Your history with her rushes into your mind as you wait for one more ring — all the times that you’ve rushed to her side, comforted her, and told her you’d be there for her, somehow knowing your caring would never be enough to shore up her own fragile self-worth.
Or how you’ve watched as she’s made one impulsive choice after another while blaming others, including you, for the chaos of her life. You’ve had to set boundaries against which she constantly pushes, ultimately accusing you of not caring when she senses your fatigue. You’ve heard veiled comments again and again — that she doesn’t know how long she can continue like this. Somehow, you’re disappointing her once more, although you’ve bent over backwards to love her. Then, there are sudden, unexplainable times when you’ve felt that love reciprocated in an intense, almost intoxicating way. And just as quickly as it arrives, it disappears in a cloud of sudden anger or irrational disappointment.
Other people don’t know what’s behind the scenes. They don’t know how draining the relationship can be; she can often be quite popular and well-loved in other structured relationships, but not ones that require intimacy.
They don’t know she has borderline personality disorder.
No matter who she is, you can become exhausted. And your own guilt can be unrelenting.
What guilt sounds like inside your head…
Whether you’re her daughter, her parent, her husband or even her ex-husband, or her friend, you can feel unrelenting guilt. And she will allow you to do just that.
“She’s my mother — she raised me the best way she could. I owe her. And she’s getting older and isn’t able to care for herself.”
“She’s my daughter… I’ll never forget the day I saw her for the first time. So tiny, so trusting. She deserves the same kind of relationship I have with your the other kids.” But you know in your gut she’s different than your other children and that tears you up.
“She’s my wife and I vowed to be there for her. She was different back then. She’s the kids mom and in a way, I still love her.”
“Even thought she’s my ex, I don’t know how she’d treat the kids if she felt like I wasn’t there for her. She flipped out when we got divorced. I can’t totally abandon her, ever. It’s wreaking havoc between me and my now wife, who, of course, she detests.”
“She was my best friend when no one else would talk to me in eighth grade. She was there, always. So why do I shudder at the thought of simply talking with her now?”
Guilt. Guilt. And more guilt.
The emotional kaleidoscope of borderline personality disorder…
In I Hate You Don’t Leave Me, the classic book on borderline personality disorder, the authors state, “The borderline shifts her personality like a rotating kaleidoscope, rearranging the fragmented glass of her being into different formations… Like a chameleon, (she) transforms herself into any shape that she imagines will please the viewer.” Her emotions govern all her actions. She’s terrified of abandonment and highly sensitive to not feeling understood.
I suspect I have someone with borderline traits in front of me when, after only after one or two sessions, I hear, “I’ve never felt this understood by anyone before.” She puts me on a pedestal in order to bond with me, as she tries unconsciously to figure out my own vulnerabilities.
In fact, it can be uncanny how well someone with borderline traits can assess your own internal struggles — and use those very issues to manipulate you. For example, if you’re someone who takes responsibility for your actions very seriously, she may subtly or not so subtly insinuate you’re falling down on the job or question whether you know what you’re doing.
Not all people with borderline traits threaten suicide consistently or have intense rage reactions. There are several “types,” some who are quieter, less dramatic versions of the disorder, but all cause tremendous problems in intimate relationships..
Living with borderline personality disorder…
I want to make sure I stress this point. Living with an emotional hurricane inside of you day in and day out is no party. Having borderline personality disorder can be agonizing. There’s often a chaotic and abusive childhood history, but not always. Unrecognized and untreated, it can lead to a miserable existence, as one by one, she wears out the people who are trying to love or help her. There are therapeutic techniques that have been shown to work well, DBT or Dialectical Behavioral Therapy being chief among them.
But as someone who’s lived and tried to love someone with this struggle. you can only be responsible for that which you can control. You’ve tried multiple times to get your loved one help — and she stops taking her meds. Or she gets involved with another bad relationship. Or she won’t return your texts, after she’s threatened suicide one more time.
Nine steps to take to minimize guilt…
In order to let go of the guilt, I’m offering nine concrete steps you can take. They’re simple for me to write, but difficult to do.
- Face the fear of your own actual helplessness in this relationship by predicting the most feared outcome (most likely suicide or some kind of highly dramatic action) and decide how you would handle it.
- Assess whether or not her capability of physically hurting you is rational. If it is, seek advice from a lawyer or police officer.
- Objectively see the damage caused to you and to other family members. Journal about it and see how your writing and acknowledgment may influence your future actions. Basically, doing the same thing over and over is the definition of insanity.
- Give her back the responsibility for her own life, knowing she’ll never give you permission to change the relationship. For example, when she calls with another crisis, say, “I know you’ll find a way to cope with this.” And get off the phone.
- Provide empathy but not sympathy. Set up strict boundaries for communication and then be available if she follows those guidelines (Her reaction may initially be to escalate. But give her time.)Give her feedback about the positives in the relationship and what you appreciate about her.
- Grieve the relationship that could have been; acknowledge and feel the pain of that loss. Again, journaling can be very helpful here.
- Realize she may never have the capacity of understanding the impact she is having on you or your family. She’s not withholding something from you; she’s likely not capable of giving it. So if you stop expecting that understanding, perhaps you won’t get hurt.
- Get support from others who understand or have walked the same walk.
- And perhaps the most important, have compassion for yourself.
You can hear more about dealing with trauma and many other topics by listening to my podcast, SelfWork with Dr. Margaret Rutherford. Subscribe to my website and receive one weekly newsletter including my weekly blog post and podcast! If you’d like to join my FaceBook closed group, then click here and answer the membership questions! Welcome!
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Originally published July 7, 2018 and republished on September 5, 2019.