Walking on egg shells? Dealing with a (very) difficult person? Eureka! They might be borderline

Based on this title, I must begin with the fact that I’m not encouraging you to jump to psychological conclusions about the people in your personal life – I have a feeling that will piss a lot people off.  However, when you are dealing with someone who is an extreme type of difficult - someone you might unfailingly describe as unforgiving, unpleasable, punishing, reactionary, blaming, and accusatory - you are not helping your relationship by staying in the dark.  It is also unhelpful to narrow-mindedly allude to the fact that said person is “crazy” or “nuts.”  You will find much relief and understanding in considering the fact that this person may have internal struggles of another kind that involve their personality characteristics.  Personality traits constitute something called a Personality Disorder when they cause impairment, distress, and are inflexible and obstructive.  I want to paint a picture of what it might look like to interact with individuals who may have a very prevalent personality disorder, namely Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD).  Note that I will not be diving into the full description of this condition.  Instead, my goal is to increase understanding, awareness, and open-mindedness in the general population to help navigate through relationships with “difficult” individuals that may have a personality condition.  As I said earlier, you cannot diagnose and jump to conclusions about people, but it is my strong belief that giving the general population an idea of what Borderline behaviorally looks like can significantly provide relief and comprehension that will reduce strain and distress in relationships.  For full description of BPD, please see the work of professionals like Marsha Linehan and A.J. Mahari.

Have you ever felt like you drastically needed to walk on eggshells around someone?  …and not just because this person had a bad temper and angered easily but, instead, because their anger was endless and founded on what you might consider to be “strange” or “disproportionate” or “extreme” interpretation of what actually happened.  Was this pattern habitual for said person?  Was the pattern found in other aspect of this person’s life?  If the answer is “yes” to all of these, you might consider informing yourself about BPD followed by seeking the help of a professional health care practitioner to help you with your relationship with this person.  Here are a few puzzle pieces I have put together in my private practice about the tendencies of individuals with BPD:


Despite your effort to comfort or resolve the conflict with an individual with BPD, you might experience their unforgiving nature.  You might acknowledge their anger, sadness, or disappointment and attempt to make things right.  Unfortunately, the individual with BPD may not be capable of accepting apology or understanding your perspective.  You might reach the conclusion that the only way to “make things right” is for that conflict to have simply never happened.  You may exhaustedly realize that the only way to solve the problem is to have a time machine and erase it from history.  


When triggered, individuals with BPD will undoubtedly react.  There is a tendency to react disproportionately to what was merited by the situation.  For example, you might casually respond, “that’s great news” to an individual with BPD who informs you of their new boyfriend.  Suddenly, you receive a backlash of angry comments indicating how “selfish” or “insensitive” you are by not commenting further or issuing more compassion and support.  You might be flabbergasted by the comments and initially believe that you had perhaps done something wrong.  You replay it all in your mind later to realize that you really did nothing wrong and are, simply, very confused by what transpired. 


Once you have officially angered an individual with BPD, you might experience their tendency to “punish” you for your “offenses.” Forms of “punishment” vary from the silent treatment to flat-out screaming.  The tendency to punish definitely contributes to the reason why you may have decided to walk on eggshells and selectively and carefully choose what you say to this person.   


You may have been blamed, labeled, or accused negatively by an individual with BPD.  They may have (often unfairly) called you “bad,” or “selfish,” or “uncaring,” among many other things.  What I have come to realize with my BPD clients is that their tendency towards something called Splitting can explain this tendency.  Put simply, Splitting refers to the inclination to evaluate people (and things) as all good or all bad.  Anything in between or anything in the “grey zone” is too confusing and/or overwhelming for them to process or accept.  They absolutely need to know if their people are “good” or if they are “bad.”    They need to unwaveringly know whether their friends or family members are “with them” or “against them.”  They need to be certain that their people will not abandon them, which brings me to my last point below.   

Fear of Abandonment

Researchers maintain that a fear of abandonment is a major (if not, the major) element in the development of BPD.  Some conclude that the cause of BPD might be directly related to actual abandonment in childhood.  As a psychologist, abandonment is something I discuss in session with my clients.  However, how does this fear of abandonment affect the BPD client outside of session when they are in interaction with you?  Well, you might realize after a while, that they are triggered when you, simply, leave.  Leaving the house, leaving on vacation, or leaving the conversation can all trigger a sudden, unexpected, or disproportionate reaction from an individual with BPD.  The thought that you might leave your relationship with them will undoubtedly cause the biggest reaction of all.

In brief, the purpose of this blog entry is to familiarize the general population with occurrences that merit further investigation.  Having had experiences like the ones listed above with a loved one, is grounds for seeking more education and guidance from a health care professional on how to proceed.  To the relief of many, your experience might be related to “an actual thing” that health care professionals can help you deal with. 

Anna-Maria Tosco, or our Sassy Psychologist, has two masters degrees in the field of psychology and has studied and worked coast to coast. She has worked in both psychiatric and community settings in some of Montreal's most respected healthcare organizations and institutions, and has also given a variety of talks and workshops on neuroplasticity, meditation, and uncovering barriers to love.