Understanding BPD Emotional Manipulation Techniques and How Treatment Can Help
The behavior of people with borderline personality disorder is often interpreted as emotional manipulation. Indeed, when you love someone with borderline personality disorder (BPD), it can feel as if you are walking on eggshells, never knowing what might trigger them. But by reframing emotional manipulation in BPD, you can come to understand what truly drives your loved one’s behavior and how to help them heal.
In this time of increased mental health awareness, we have become used to comparisons between physical and psychological conditions. We are told there is no more shame in having a mental illness than in having cancer, that we would not expect someone with a broken leg to just power through it and get on with things, that medicating disorders of the mind is no different than medicating ailments of the body. In many ways, this is true; physical and mental illnesses are indeed equally real and deserve to be treated with the same vigilance. No one should be shamed for experiencing either.
But if your loved one struggles with borderline personality disorder (BPD), the comparisons can often fall flat. After all, cancer doesn’t manifest in social bonds. Broken legs don’t threaten to kill themselves. Asthma doesn’t oscillate between loving you and hating you based on some nebulous criteria that seem to escape you. But BPD does all of those things and can leave you feeling as if you’re always standing on the edge of an emotional cliff, never knowing what will come next.
For many, one of the most painful parts of loving someone with BPD is the sense of emotional manipulation. Indeed, the idea that people with BPD are maliciously emotionally manipulative is common, causing even some clinicians to avoid working with them. The way your loved one behaves toward you can profoundly fracture your relationship and leave you with deep shame, anger, resentment, and hopelessness. However, what is perceived as emotional manipulation is, in fact, a far more complex phenomenon that comes not from a place of malice, but one of overwhelming distress filtered through profoundly disordered coping skills. By understanding why people with borderline personality disorder act the way they do, you can gain a better perspective on the nature of their illness and understand why intensive treatment is vital for healing.
Walking on Eggshells
BPD is inherently about instability. While this instability originates within the person living with BPD, it seeps outward, weaving itself into and coming to define social relationships. It is within those relationships that the most highly visible symptomatology tends to manifest; unlike mood disorders that may harm relationships in an indirect way, borderline personality disorder targets relationships specifically, making them the prime location of distress. As Darlene Lancer, a marriage and family therapist, writes:
You’re a prince or a jerk, a princess or a witch. You’re seen as either for or against them and must take their side. Don’t dare to defend their enemy or try to justify or explain any slight they claim to have experienced. They may try to bait you into anger, then falsely accuse you of rejecting them, make you doubt reality and your sanity. It’s not unusual for them to cut off friends and relatives who they feel have betrayed them.
The cycles of clinginess and rejection, adulation and vilification can be profoundly disorienting and it can feel as if you are walking on eggshells, terrified of making the wrong move. And in their darkest moments, it is not a cutting remark or even a severed relationship you fear, it is the suicide threat turned into action.
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Reframing Emotional Manipulation in BPD
The actions of people who have BPD can indeed feel manipulative. However, the word ‘manipulative’, with its pejorative suggestions of malicious scheming, does not capture the true nature of BPD-spurred behavior. As one therapist writes for Psychology Today:
A person with BPD could function, when symptomatic, only in the world where everybody loves her like her own mother, unconditionally and patiently. Of course such a world will never exist and thus BPDs with their enormous, unfulfilled needs of love and affection will forever remain frustrated and angry, and resort to behaviors which are misunderstood as ‘manipulation.’
In other words, what is perceived as manipulation is, in fact, a desperate attempt to cope with the overwhelming fears of abandonment and rejection that sit at the heart of borderline personality disorder. Rather than manipulation, Dr. Susan Heitler suggests understanding these behaviors as “pervasive patterns of emotional hyper-reactivity,” allowing us to move away from stigmatizing conceptualizations of BPD symptoms.
Indeed, people with BPD have been described as living with “third degree burns over 90% of their bodies. Lacking emotional skin, they feel agony at the slightest touch or movement.” Patrick Marlborough, who suffers from the illness himself, says:
I’ve heard it brilliantly summed up as ‘chronic irrationality’. The tragedy of BPD is that it runs on such solipsism that it inverts me as a person. I become toxically narcissistic—self-hating to the point where I irrationally project my emotional insecurities onto those around me.
By recognizing that borderline personality disorder strips people of the ability to behave rationally because they inherently lack the resources to do so, it becomes clear that malice does not enter into the equation. Unable to regulate their own emotions and prone to profound pain, people with BPD are doing what they can to communicate their agony and try to protect themselves from it, even when it ultimately only serves to alienate those they are trying to keep close.
Helping Your Loved One Heal
While understanding what your loved one is going through and what is driving their actions is essential to making sense of your experiences, understanding alone will not resolve borderline personality disorder. Although it can be tempting to believe that they will get better if only their need for love and acceptance is met, the truth is that the disorder itself makes that need bottomless; no amount of affection will be enough to relieve them of their suffering as long as their illness remains untreated.
Borderline personality disorder used to be considered a virtually untreatable illness. Today, however, advanced treatment modalities exist that can help most people with BPD achieve long-term remission of symptoms and create lasting recovery. A residential treatment program can be an ideal space in which to begin this healing journey. By engaging in a personalized mix of individual, group-based, and holistic therapies, your loved one can gain the insight and skills necessary to develop a more stable sense of self, enhance their emotional regulation skills, and learn how to tolerate distress in healthy ways. Throughout this process, it is essential that they are met with validation and acceptance by clinicians and peers in order to nurture their spirit and recognize the reality of their pain.
However, healing also needs to happen within your relationship. As such, it is essential to choose a treatment program that offers family and couples therapy as a safe space in which you can explore the impact of BPD and reorient your relationship along a more positive axis. There you can gain a deeper understanding of each other and create a new vision for how to support each other and yourselves by developing stronger communication skills, breaking through damaging dynamics, implementing healthy boundaries, and learning how to implement validation techniques. By working together, you can open up the door to restored stability, greater compassion, and a stronger bond.
Bridges to Recovery offers comprehensive residential treatment for people struggling with mental health disorders as well as co-occurring substance abuse and eating disorders. Contact us to learn more about our renowned Los Angeles and San Diego-based programs and how we can help you or your loved one start on the path to lasting wellness.