From Spectrum Personality Disorder Service, Victoria


In times of stress, people with BPD may become easily overwhelmed. They want “something” from us …but they may not actually know what that “need” is and the only way they know to communicate it is through anger or other behaviours.

Often it is a need to feel heard …. to feel understood …… to make some sense of their intense emotions and to feel that someone really cares. At these times they are not able to think or act logically no matter how obvious a solution may seem to us.


What can we do to help?

1. Stay calm and compassionate.
People with BPD, when distressed, often try to push something of their overwhelming emotions onto others, usually those they feel they are closest to or will not abandon them. If we respond by allowing ourselves to become distressed the person with BPD can easily become even more distressed and an already difficult situation may become worse.

2. Try to avoid becoming defensive about what you believe is not true or valid.
If the person is accusing or blaming you, admit to what is true, or acknowledge that they are speaking the truth as they see it at that moment. Arguing and justifying your position will only make things worse.

3. Acknowledge their distress.
You do not need to agree with or feel that their behaviour is appropriate. Actively listen to what they are saying i.e. the meaning behind the words. A good way to see if you are hearing and understanding correctly is to ask e.g.…….”I am not sure if I understood you properly and I need some help here. Do you mean………?” or “I notice that…………Is that how it feels for you?”

4. It’s OK to take time out
You may need time to consider what has been said before responding. Shifting the focus is sometimes helpful e.g. moving outside, or asking if he person would like a cup of tea. The focus needs to stay on the other person and their needs, not on the “doing”.
It may not be useful to continue the conversation at this time, when both of you are so upset. Tell the person you will leave the room / go for a walk / a drive around the block and be back or ring in 5-10 minutes. Encourage the person with BPD to use some strategies to calm themselves down whilst you are gone. Make sure that you are back or ring within the time frame you state otherwise you may inadvertently reinforce the concept of abandonment.

5. Have a support person you can ring
You are also likely to be feeling quite distressed at this time and uncertain about what may happen in your absence. (It is possible that the person may self-harm as a way of managing their distress.) It may be helpful for you to have a support person that you are able to ring, to help you to debrief, and to support you……maybe even with a place to stay if it becomes necessary.

6. Develop a plan
For you: Learn strategies to calm yourself in times of stress. Deep breathing, count backwards, visualisation…whatever works then return to talk to the person as you promised.
For the person with BPD: The plan needs to be worked on when things are calm and peaceful, and preferably involve the person themselves, a mental health professional/s, and their main support network, in addition to their extended support network where necessary. It should include discussion about appropriate and inappropriate behaviours, and the consequences of these. The plan also needs to be clear about what is expected of all family members.
Sitting down and discussing the triggers for distress will help support others to understand what is happening for the person with BPD, and possibly ways to minimise or avoid these triggers.

Be consistent
If you have previously agreed to some boundaries, be consistent. However, remember that when in crisis it is not a good time to make a new boundary. Remember, too, boundaries are around your own behaviours. They are not a punishment for the other.

Like in the pre-flight video we see before take-off, we need to care for ourselves to be able to care for others. Making sure we have enough sleep, exercise, nutrition, and engaging in activities we enjoy, helps us to remain as calm and as focused as possible in times of stress and able to manage difficult situations more effectively.
Sometimes, no matter how hard we try, we may inadvertently get emotionally involved in the crisis and make an inappropriate response before we know it. If this happens don’t blame yourself. You are doing the best you can at this particular time. And there is always the possibility to come back and say you are sorry, admit you could have managed it differently, and let’s start again.

Keeping safe is an essential right for everyone.
When faced with verbal and/or physical abuse, reinforce that you can see they are distressed/angry/upset, but that it is not OK to yell/rage at me or threaten me/throw things around/slam doors when you are angry. Be prepared to (calmly) stand your ground and maintain your respect if you feel unfairly attacked.
If you become concerned for your own or another person’s – especially children’s – safely leave the scene and ring 000.
Have crisis phone numbers readily available – on your phone, on a piece of paper in the car, with a friend – so that you always have access to this information.
If the person admits (or says, or you believe) they have taken an overdose, or engaged in other potentially lethal self-harm, call 000. A situation by situation decision will need to be made concerning non-lethal self-harm.


Photo by Antranias on Pixabay


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