Before reading this post, particularly if you are going to try this at home with a real adult family member with borderline personality disorder (BPD) (which is not recommended without the help of a therapist), please read my previous posts Part I (October 6), Part II (October 29), Part III (November 24), Part IV (December 8), and Part V (January 12), Part VI (March 2), Part VII (April 30), Part VIII (June 5), and Part IX (August 2). The countermeasures described in this post do not work in isolation but must be part of a complex, consistent, and ongoing strategy.
This post, the last one in this series, will continue to describe specific countermeasures to the usual strategies in the BPD bag of tricks used by them to distance and/or invalidate you, as well as to induce you to feel anxiously helpless, anxiously guilty, or hostile.
Today's subjects are what to do when none of the previous interventions seem to decrease the angry responses of the family member with BPD, and what to do when you yourself blow your cool and react with a nasty comment that might kick off a variable intermittent reinforcement schedule than can undo all the fine work you have done until this point..
When all the suggestions in these posts fail
The next suggestion is useful in cases in which, no matter what you say, the family member with BPD continues to escalate with more and more outrageous accusations or oppositionalism.It only works when all others have failed, and not before. It probably can be used only once or twice. The reason for this is, in order for you to be confident in the assumption you are about to make, the Other's negative patient behavior must have already persisted in the face of your consistent efforts to be conciliatory.
The Solution? Inquire, "Why are you picking a fight with me?" Once again, you have to refuse to get sucked into a debate about whether or not the family member with BPD is indeed picking a fight. It will have by this point become damn obvious, and therefore you do not have to prove it.
In response to this question, people with BPD will usually do one of two things. First, they could conceivably stop the behavior, admit that they are picking a fight, and begin to explain why they feel it necessary to do so. In the unlikely event that this happens, hear them out! You will probably learn something important about your relationship. Try not to be defensive but look for the kernal of truth in what they are saying, as described in Part IV of this series.
More usually, they may suddenly stop the provocative behavior and go on to talk about some other, completely different subject, and nicely proceed as if the fight had never even happened! In this scenario, the family member with BPD suddenly drops whatever he or she was complaining about right in the middle of a heated interaction.
This maneuver is a lot trickier than you might think. Because of the abrupt nature of the change in subject, you may feel drawn back into continuing the previous angry discussion yourself. This happens because the interaction that preceded the switch feels unfinished. You should remind yourself that the Other's goal may just have been to keep an argument going, not to settle any actual complaint or win an argument. In other words, the actual content of the argument may be something that is somewhat unimportant.
The feeling that one gets after an argument is suddenly dropped is somewhat akin to the way one feels in the following situation: you have repeatedly tried to get a talkative friend off the telephone. You know, those conversations when you've said several times that you'd love to talk longer but you have to go, and your friend says OK after each time, but then keeps on talking as if you had not said anything at all. Finally, you raise your voice and firmly say, "I really have to go!" In response, the friend angrily says, "OK, GOODBYE!"
The natural response is "No, wait!" even though ending the conversation had been one's goal in the first place!
I advise you to resist the temptation to re-ignite whatever fight had been taking place before you asked the question concerning why the family member was picking a fight, and move on to whatever new and friendlier topic the Other has chosen. Just like your partner in conversation, act as if the earlier argument had never even taken place.
The fine art of apology
The last bit of advise on disarming someone with BPD concerns the situation in which the family member with BPD gets the best of you and you react with a statement or action that invalidates or insults the patient. Despite being well versed in the kinds of interventions described in this series of posts, you may still find yourself responding poorly to a family member's provocations.
The person with BPD, after all, has a lifetime of experience in creating these reactions. Unfortunately, intermittent emotional overreactions from another tend to make such a person try even harder and longer to illicit said reactions. This is due to the variable intermittant reinforcement process desribed in Part I of this series of posts.
Solution: After you and your targeted other have calmed down, own up to your mistake and apologize for it! Be a person of integrity. Be someone who is responsible, has a sense of right and wrong, and is the sort of person other people can look up to.
Having said that, however, an effective apology in this situation should not have the slightest hint of self-denigration attached to it. If you put yourself down in some way, the person with BPD may then go for your jugular in response. Basically, there are two characteristics this kind of apology should always have:
First, be good-natured about your error. After all, you are only human. Be able to laugh at yourself. Say, "Gee, I sure did get frustrated with you that time."
Second and most important, apologize only for what you actually said or did, but not for the feelings that led to it. Example: "I am sorry for sounding so critical, but I just had the feeling that you were dismissing everything I said out of hand."
This sort of statement frames the former explosive interchange as a mutual problem that the two of you need to work on solving in a constructive manner. And after all, solving interpersonal problems is what effective metacommunication is all about.