Why Punishing Someone with Borderline Personality Disorder is an Epic Mental Health Fail

***The ideas contained in this post are the opinions of the writer and communicated without reference to supporting documentation. The writer also recognizes that BPD is a disorder that affects both males and females, and uses of “she” or “he” in the communication of ideas are not intended to covey sexual bias. Breakaway MHE Disclaimer

An unfortunate but widespread thing for humans to do is to quickly become unkind and rejecting towards circumstances they don’t understand, including humans who are having problems with their emotional and behavioural functioning. One of the most common mental health conditions that can ignite these types of circumstances is Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) – a condition that regularly troubles the afflicted person with perceptions of threat, painful emotions, and life-damaging/relationship damaging reactivity. It is a hard condition to comprehend and have compassion for, and this is one reason that many people remain unwilling to take more time to learn about it.

Many life situations can “become toxic” in a patterned sort of way when a person is living with BPD. For instance, it is common for a struggling person to take things the wrong way in conversation and become unnecessarily aggressive, passive-aggressive, offended or withdrawn. The immediate assumptions from others could be that “she is selfish” or “she wants to draw attention to herself” or “she wants to ruin a good time” or “she enjoys trying to hurt others.” Without any understanding of mental health, a person with BPD could appear to fit neatly into these categories of assumption. However, the problem with making these assumptions is that it then becomes easy for people to rationalize being cruel (e.g., name-calling, dismissing, invalidating, ignoring) in the name of being “helpful” or “entitled to lash out or judge.”

The most profound need of a person with BPD is to receive assistance in regulating emotions that quickly grow past her ability to manage alone. Help with regulating emotions is also a need that mostly goes unmet because of the ways people misunderstand what they see happening when BPD is active (the words, the actions, the expressions). Not to suggest that people suffering from BPD don’t need to learn how to take individual responsibility for their emotions (they do!), although being completely unhelpful (or even punishing) towards a suffering person is a humanistic failure. If a person suddenly fell over right in front of you, would you offer them your hand to get back up, leave them there, or kick them while they are down?

If you are in a relationship with someone, then this typically means a moral agreement has been reached to offer support as needed when problems or suffering arise, no matter what those problems or sufferings may be. However, when it comes to mental health support, the terms of this agreement seem to waver, meaning that the agreement isn’t honoured completely. The common belief seems to remain that “mental health isn’t worth the time to support” (mainly for challenging conditions like BPD), even though such beliefs aren’t often verbalized outright. The proof that mental health isn’t fully supported lies mostly in the reactions of others, who instead of demonstrating understanding and capacity to help, resort to ignorance, rejection, and invalidation over and over again.

Whether people realize it or not, mental health issues such as Borderline Personality Disorder develop in the context of relationships and likewise have great potential to improve (or deteriorate) in the context of relationships. One of the hardest and saddest realities for a mental health therapist to witness is partners or family members who are not willing to learn together and work together to alleviate BPD symptoms. Even when mental health concepts and skills are shared with people who are struggling together, it is as though the old conditioning (or programming) continues to dominate their patterns – even when it continues to make matters worse. Staying “stuck in old programming” is one reason people often give up on mental health strategies, and also on their relationships.

Indeed, breaking old habits/patterns isn’t easy and requires interest, willingness, and consistent consideration of how to be together differently. As far as this article is concerned, it is the incomparable stubbornness of humans to remain mental health ignorant that needs some highlighting. Knowledge and skill in mental health do not happen automatically or by accident, or by birthright. Please keep in mind that where there is a lack of learning, there is also a strong tendency to turn to misguided assumptions about mental health conditions (such as BPD) and consequently apply different forms of hurt and punishment. If anything could be considered the exact opposite of progress and healing in mental health, that would be attempting to punish the suffering out of a suffering human.

To speak to this notion of “punishment” and mental health in full, it is important also to note that a person suffering from BPD cannot punish herself out of the disorder. It is very common for a struggling person to viciously judge herself after having a difficult time with emotions and interactions with others. For example, she might say “I am such a horrible person for losing it like that” or “I’ve blown it this time, and my loved ones are done with me” or “everything is my fault.” It is entirely understandable that a person with BPD could fall into this thinking/feeling (shame) trap after a challenging moment, but it also does nothing to work towards better emotion regulation and better functioning.

To make real progress requires learning to “see” what’s happening when it’s happening, and to apply skills that work to accomplish what’s needed lovingly. These new skills will most likely seem very different and very contrary to what has been observed and learned in your life so far. If it is necessary to be “a wise rebel” about mental health to make improvements, then I encourage you to embrace it and go for it. Merely following how others commonly think and act in response to severe mental health issues (such as BPD) can leave a trail of disappointment and destruction that spans generations.







photo credit: kenteegardin Go To Jail via photopin (license)

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Why Punishing Someone with Borderline Personality Disorder is an Epic Mental Health Fail
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