You shower them with love. You consistently show your commitment to your relationship with them. You maintain an endless supply of affirmations yet still can’t seem to break even with their bottomless need for validation. Does this sound familiar? It is a common experience when you have a loved one suffering from Borderline Personality Disorder and their need for continuous reassurance may often be at odds with your personal boundaries and ability to perform self-care. As difficult as it is to live with BPD, it is also challenging to remain healthy while being supportive of someone who has it. My goal in this piece is to help you understand where that incessant need for validation comes from and to go over some strategies and techniques to help you cope with it. Having been diagnosed with BPD myself, I can tell you that the thing we want most is to love and be loved in happy, healthy, and fulfilling relationships. BPD can make relationships difficult, but not impossible.
The foundation of a person with BPD’s relentless requirement for validation lies in a principle in the field of developmental psychology known as object permanence. To understand object permanence, one need not look further than a baby laughing in surprise and wonder at a game of “Peek-A-Boo”. The reason this form of play is so amusing to infants is that, until a certain stage in their development, their brains have no capacity to understand that when the object of their attention (in this case, a face) disappears from their visual field it has not disappeared from the world altogether. When the face finally reappears from behind a set of hands, to an infant’s brain, it is as if the face has magically flashed back into existence. At around 6–8 months, however, the brain has developed enough to process that when mommy’s face disappears she is just hiding.
Above object permanence on the developmental scale is the concept of object constancy and this is where people with BPD run into issues. Object constancy allows a child to comprehend that things and people can maintain the same traits even when they are not actively being observed. Object constancy develops at around 2–3 years old and it is characterized by the ability of the caretaker to leave for a period of time without the child crying because they believe that they are being abandoned. As object constancy emerges, a child comes to understand that, in such instances, they are not being left forever and their caretaker will return. The proper execution of this stage of cognitive development is highly contingent on positive, consistent, and reassuring behaviors from a child’s early caretakers. If they demonstrate a lack of trustworthiness, reliability, and do not maintain a safe and nurturing environment then object constancy will fail to manifest properly. This highlights the importance of a child’s early environment in shaping their future psychology.
Though studies have shown that there are genetic factors contributing to BPD, much of the Borderline pathology traces back to negative environmental factors in early childhood. It is exceedingly common for those with BPD to report that they were raised in emotionally invalidating, neglectful, or abusive households. With poor initial blueprints for learning about human behavior and how to establish healthy expectations of others, as adults, individuals suffering from this illness find it difficult to form stable mental images of the people they care about. As a result, their perception of you as a loving, trustworthy, and reliable person will often precipitously degrade when you are no longer in their presence. You may find yourself fighting an uphill battle to constantly reaffirm your character to them. Unfortunately, this can be exhausting for even the most patient of people and, inevitably, the need to create separation and practice self-care will arise. This is usually perceived by the person with BPD as confirmation of misplaced trust and even emotional abandonment. Black and white thinking follows and whether they verbalize it or not, they may quickly regard you as tantamount to their first caretakers or abusers. What often follows is an emotional reaction that puts you in a position of having to either maintain personal boundaries to take care of yourself or neglect your own needs to attend to theirs for the sake of quelling their outburst.
One of the common behavioral patterns seen in Borderline Personality Disorder is the inability to regulate emotion. This, combined with the fact that those with the disorder are extremely sensitive, makes reasoning with them during emotionally charged events fairly difficult. To those of you trying to love and support someone with this disorder, it may often seem like you just “can’t win” regardless of what you do or say. Though you may have been previously unaware of the psychological origins of this aspect of BPD, simply understanding something doesn’t necessarily correlate with improved outcomes. The fact is that if you wish you continue your relationship with your loved one and remain supportive of their struggle with illness, you will be unable to do so if you unknowingly enable their maladaptive behavior and fail to take care of yourself. As someone who has recovered from BPD and has had relationships with other high conflict people, I’d like to leave you with some guidelines to help you navigate the situation the next time you need to do something for yourself but your loved one with BPD doubts your affection and commitment.
- Understand that no matter what you do or say, you cannot control nor are you responsible for their reactions.
This concept is incredibly important because it is likely that you have already tried everything that you could think of to cope with their chronic need for validation and reassurance. Always remain kind and calm but beyond that, detaching from their emotional reactions is key to continuing to support them on their road to healing. It is also crucial to taking care of yourself. BPD is characterized by an inability to effectively regulate emotion so, no matter how lightly you tread, you may still say or do something that will be perceived negatively and you need to be ok with that. You know what your intentions are even if they fail to see or understand them.
2. Do not engage them emotionally or get defensive.
As challenging as it may be to not get sucked in, one of the worst things that you could do when a person with BPD accuses you of not loving them is what seems natural: defend yourself. You already know that is an argument you cannot win. Understand that when they become emotionally triggered in an instance such as this, a much younger, underdeveloped, and emotionally and psychologically injured part of their psyche is taking over and it will be nearly impossible to reason with them.
3. Tell them that you love them.
Even though they may accuse you of not loving them enough or at all, you still want to tell them that you do. Calmly. You might even offer them a few reminders of that love, as they are likely stuck in a thought pattern of all or nothing, black and white thinking, however, do not engage them in an argument.
4. Explain what you have to do and why you have to do it.
Whether you need to run an errand or take care of a task that doesn’t involve them or you are becoming emotionally overwhelmed yourself and need to create some space, communicate that to them. Let them know what you need to do, why you need to do it, and most importantly, tell them that you are not abandoning them.
5. Create a commitment to reconnect.
While creating space so you can take care of yourself and your own life is necessary, now that you better understand the root of their need for reassurance it would be unfair to just leave them hanging so create a commitment to reconnect with them again. This could be as simple as saying that you will call, text, or see them again at a specific date and time. If you find that they are being emotionally abusive (Borderline rage is a real phenomenon) then don’t hesitate to make that contingent on them being respectful of the space and time that you need. Remember, your loved one with BPD has a natural fear of abandonment and likely had caretakers who did not hold themselves to their word so when you make a commitment to them, do your utmost to keep it.
Borderline Personality Disorder is a severe mental illness. It is difficult to live with; be supportive of, and it is challenging for mental health professionals to treat. Regardless of how or where it shows up in your life and the measures you take to improve it, keep in mind that immediate results are hard to come by. BPD is complex and has many dynamic parts so being consistent is paramount. I know that doing your best to remain supportive of someone who has this illness can be emotionally draining so much so that you probably begin to question not only the relationship but your own sanity as well. Having put many others through what you may be going through right now, you have my utmost sympathy and admiration. It is not easy, however, I am here to tell you that healing from BPD and living a healthy and functional life is possible. The most critical component for those wishing to recover is a willingness to take responsibility for their own lives and commit to necessary habits that promote healing. Second to that is the need to have people in their lives who understand the illness, are capable of showing compassion, and can be consistent in the right ways to help them grow beyond their maladaptive childhood programming. When the drive to get better is supported by a care team of people cheering them on, BPD can be beaten.