Communication is a key part of any relationship but communicating with a borderline person can be especially challenging. People in a close relationship with a borderline adult often liken talking with their loved one to arguing with a small child. People with BPD have trouble reading body language or understanding the nonverbal content of a conversation. They may say things that are cruel, unfair, or irrational. Their fear of abandonment can cause them to overreact to any perceived slight, no matter how small, and their aggression can result in impulsive fits of rage, verbal abuse, or even violence.
The problem for people with BPD is that the disorder distorts both the messages they hear and those they try to express. BPD expert and author, Randi Kreger, likens it to “having ‘aural dyslexia,’ in which they hear words and sentences backwards, inside out, sideways, and devoid of context.”
Listening to your loved one and acknowledging his or her feelings is one of the best ways to help someone with BPD calm down. When you appreciate how a borderline person hears you and adjust how you communicate with them, you can help diffuse the attacks and rages and build a stronger, closer relationship.
It’s important to recognize when it’s safe to start a conversation. If your loved one is raging, verbally abusive, or making physical threats, now is not the time to talk. Better to calmly postpone the conversation by saying something like, “Let’s talk later when we’re both calm. I want to give you my full attention but that’s too hard for me to do right now.”
When things are calmer:
Listen actively and be sympathetic. Don’t let yourself be distracted by the TV, computer, or cell phone. Avoid interrupting or trying to redirect the conversation to your concerns. Set aside your judgment, withhold blame and criticism, and show your interest in what’s being said by nodding occasionally or making small verbal comments like “yes” or “uh huh.” You don’t have to agree with what’s being said to make it clear that you’re listening and sympathetic.
Focus on the emotions, not the words. The feelings of the person with BPD communicate much more than what the words he or she is using. People with BPD need validation and acknowledgement of the pain they’re struggling with. Listen to the emotion your loved one is trying to communicate without getting bogged down in attempting to reconcile the words being used.
Do what you can to make the person with BPD feel heard. Don’t try to make them wrong, win the argument, or invalidate their feelings, even when what they’re saying is totally irrational.
Try to stay calm, even when the person with BPD is acting out. Avoid getting defensive in the face of accusations and criticisms, no matter how unfair they may be. Defending yourself will only make your loved one angrier. Walk away if you need to give yourself time and space to cool down.
Seek to distract your loved one when emotions rise. Anything that draws your loved one’s attention can work, but distraction is most effective when the activity is also soothing. Try exercising, sipping hot tea, listening to music, grooming a pet, painting, gardening, or completing household chores.
Talk about things other than the disorder. You and your loved one’s lives aren’t solely defined by the disorder, so make the time to explore and discuss other interests. Discussions about light subjects can help to diffuse the conflict between you and may encourage your loved one to discover new interests or resume old hobbies.