This is a Me problem, should I tell people?
September 16, 2022 10:07 PM   Subscribe

Due to personal mental health that makes it hard for me to hold boundaries, I can't be friends with people who suffer from Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD). I am in therapy, and I hope that will change at some point and I am very clear that this is an issue with the way MY brain works, not with how other people's brains work. How should I navigate this?

Due to a lot of factors, I am easy to manipulate especially by people who are having big emotions and aren't particularly trying to manipulate me. I also have really poor personal boundaries because I don't have a good sense for what I want in situations while they're happening, especially if they involve other people having very intense emotions that they're sure I can fix. This has resulted in a lot of situations over the years where I get very very very very unhealthly entangled with people who have BPD. Either that, or there's a huge big scary intimacy thing they project onto me that I inevitably fail to live up to and then feel pressured into providing even though I don't want that kind of relationship with them.

Because this is a me problem, I have felt like I should just keep trying instead of not being friends with people who have BPD. I have come to realize that I can no longer do this, and need to draw a boundary that I just can't have friends who have BPD. I am for sure not talking about me randomly diagnosing people, I am specifically talking about people who are open with the fact that they are borderline.

My question is this: I have been in enough of those weird projection situations with people who have BPD that I am worried that if I just step back and do a slow fade on the relationship or just never let one develop beyond a passing acquaintance that I will end up in that situation where they are projecting onto me intimacy that doesn't exist and there will be all kinds of drama and fall out. This has already happened twice.

Is there a kind way to tell people that we're not going to be friends? I don't want this situation to continue repeating. I feel bad about it and take full responsibility that I am just not a safe person for borderline people to be in a friendship with. I will end up hurting them (and me) because of accidentally leading them on into thinking that we're BFFs FOREVER OMG. I reflect back emotional states to people, and so people end up getting the wrong impression. Well, no, not people in general. Specifically, people with BPD, which is why I need to set this boundary. There's more than one person out there who thinks I ruined their life, when I barely even knew their name. And when I have been very good friends with people who have BPD I have ended up very taken advantage of and in really bad situations because I go along with things and don't know how to draw a line.

So basically I feel like it would be better for people if I just told people right away that we're not going to be friends. Or should I just soft block them everywhere and ignore them when we're at events or parties together?

I'm really nervous about asking this question because I know it could really hurt some feelings, and I have tried to be very clear that this isn't something I think people with BPD are doing to me on purpose. That it's just a byproduct of how they exist in the world interacting with how I exist in the world. I'm in therapy, but that takes time. And I can already see this situation developing yet again! and I don't want to be involved in it AT ALL. I am easy to manipulate and have already been pushed into one late night conversation I didn't want to have.

If you are someone with BPD, I would really especially like to hear how you would want someone in your life to navigate this. I want to cause as little harm as I possibly can, while finally really understanding that my deficit in being able to hold boundaries means I really do have to set a hard up front boundary, whether that's verbalized or not. I don't want to hurt anyone, and I want to be as good and kind about this as it's possible to be. I just don't know what that looks like given my own situation.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (16 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
It's fine to not be friends with people. Consider a reframe: I don't choose to spend time with folks who do the following categories of behaviors... this isn't really about the person's diagnosis. For me, I just move away from people who want a higher level of intensity than I do, or have a very high level of emotional intensity in general. That's totally ok.

If you find you're getting sucked into intimacy with someone in a way you realize you don't want to, it is 100% ok and actually a kindness to them to reduce contact. Depending on the situation that could mean reducing your interactions gently or may require a direct conversation. To my mind this conversation is not about the person's diagnosis. It's just brief and factual and is about your own boundaries. "Hey thanks for the invite but I'm pretty booked right now in life. Take care!" If someone keeps pushing after repeated messages that you are not available, that is on THEM. Again, this is not about their diagnosis. This is about you making limits about the nature of the relationships you want in your own life, which is 100% normal and good to do.
posted by latkes at 10:38 PM on September 16 [9 favorites]

Well, I for one had no idea that BPD was so widely diagnosed that one needed a special way of dealing with all the BPD people. I agree with latkes that this is an opportunity to practice with boundaries, and the specific disorder is maybe a bit of a distraction.
posted by rd45 at 11:15 PM on September 16 [41 favorites]

Maybe only talk about the weather? (Something here in the UK leads you to queue for hours overnight to walk past a box symbolic of restrained emotional states).

...Or get involved in changing society? The sort of change so that healthcare is available to heal people we label as disordered (maybe also we campaign to help everyone in society to grow emotion-handling skills so they can be honest and frank while also controlling exposure and intimacy).

That label "disordered" is powerful -- you may think another person sees you as ruining their life, but the word disorder here is used to say that they understood the situation wrong because of their illness (whatever your sense of their emotional integrity, that they really felt and behaved coherently). This story is one of guilt -- you had little control of their feelings and any responsibility for how you made them feel has passed with time -- and your guilt is probably something you have to live with for a bit. Like I said about changing society, they're deemed disordered so long as society isn't helping them practise boundaries and society only rarely shows healthy examples of emotional display.
posted by k3ninho at 11:48 PM on September 16

To add to the previous answers advice to focus on the exact behaviour or qualities you find problematic, rather than the diagnosis:

I'm not sure if you're aware that it's extremely common for neurodivergent people (especially female) to be mis diagnosed with borderline personality disorder.

So going purely by diagnosis is not necessarily going to be helpful.
posted by Zumbador at 11:49 PM on September 16 [7 favorites]

I hear you trying to be extra considerate of the feelings of people who feel things deeply. I think that level of consideration is kind, and is perhaps related to why you are finding yourself in this situation repeatedly. Because I think in general people are not that considerate and so for people who need an extra level of consideration and care you are likely really standing out! It’s probably contributing to that mismatch in intimacy level, because for you this is just how you treat people generally and for people who are somewhat stigmatized and ostracized this feels like a much bigger deal. If you are having a hard time setting boundaries because of this, I don’t think it would be helpful to say that you need to step back because of someone’s disorder. But it probably would be kind to be up front about the limited capacity you have for new friendships or something like that so you can manage expectations the first time you have an unwanted late night conversation. And since you mention being easy to manipulate, maybe set aside time to talk with your therapist about feeling guilt if that doesn’t go over well or asking another friend to be supportive of your boundary setting (in private!) so you have a plan for not reacting like someone else’s emotions are your emergency to manage.
posted by Bottlecap at 12:32 AM on September 17 [7 favorites]

How would you know someone was diagnosed with BPD unless they told you? By which point, you already know them and your boundaries have been broken.

nthing the replies above that suggest focusing on specific behaviours rather than a diagnosis, not least because some of the behaviours you've noted are in no way unique to BPD.

I also have really poor personal boundaries because I don't have a good sense for what I want in situations while they're happening

Personal boundaries are not about your good sense so much as they are about your levels of self-confidence and self-belief. Don't apologise for not wanting certain behaviours in your life; you have autonomy and preferences, and it is 100% fine to exercise those.

You do not owe anyone your time, energy, or emotions, and you're not "causing harm" by not giving those things to people you don't want to. Do not be an emotional sponge for everyone, no-one would reasonably expect that of you. Clearly you're desperate to be a good person and that's laudable, but there are limits to how much you can give.
posted by underclocked at 1:38 AM on September 17 [7 favorites]

How is it that you have formed all these friendships with people with diagnosed BPD? That's what I'd look at - what is your social circle like overall?

My feeling based on having moved around among very different social circles a lot is that it's easy to get into a sort of social eddy where everyone is not doing that great in very high intensity high drama ways and as a result everyone is constantly having interactions that make things worse and more stressful. Finding a few friendship/social options where the overall emotional temperature is lower can help balance out your days if this is the case for you - I'm not saying "you have a friend group with lots of people with mental health struggles, you should abandon them" so much as I'm saying "if your social world is one where everyone has high drama, high emotional needs stuff going on all the time, seek out some new people and places so that you have a counterweight".

Also, do you feel like you get too intimate with people too fast? It seems like figuring out how to slow down the new-friend process would help here - get to know people a little more in volunteer or large group or community settings before moving on to hanging out, lots of texting, etc. It seems like it's easier to politely avoid progressing to friendship than politely walk a friendship back.

Politely slow-fading friendships seems pretty normal if you're talking about friendships you already have - you're too busy to chat a lot, you don't know when you can next have coffee, you can chat a little bit at parties but then you move on etc.

Just in case: if you are a youngish person with a really high-intensity social circle that is constantly riven by conflict and drama some of which seems to stem directly from people who are struggling with mental health challenges but some of which is not...really, seriously reevaluate the overall quality of your social circle. For a while, a good friend of mine was also in a really internet-connected high drama queer/left social circle where a lot of people with serious mental health diagnoses seemed to congregate, and it was extremely bad on my then-fairly-fragile friend, whose overall mental health improved tremendously after leaving that group of people. Sometimes it is not the individual, it's the social milieu itself.
posted by Frowner at 6:07 AM on September 17 [40 favorites]

this is easier than you think.

it has nothing to do with their diagnosis. The question is, and you simply ask it of yourself during and after a first encounter with someone: how does this person make me feel? am I my best - or at least my baseline - self in their company, or is there something going on that isn't right?

and then you don't hang out with the ones that make you feel the ways you don't want to feel. "Overwhelmed and pushed around" is one way, but there are others you'll want to avoid. "Stressed", "defensive", "envious", "insecure", "angry", "defensive", -- all of those are feelings to be avoided. An excuse can be as easy as "nice seeing you, I gotta go" or "I'm not going to have the bandwidth for that anytime soon, good luck with [whatever]."

if you're asking how to spot these folks coming, that's a different question. usually there'll be a reputation to precede them, if they're in a social circle.
posted by fingersandtoes at 8:00 AM on September 17 [5 favorites]

I was thinking about my answer and I did want to add that my friend who left the messy social circle was diagnosed with BPD themselves and the particular dynamics of that social circle made everything much worse for them and after leaving that social circle they were able to get into a much, much better situation in all respects, find a way of life where they could use their many skills and be valued for them, etc.

I wanted to add this because I did not want to leave an answer that sounded like "no one can be friends with people with BPD because people with BPD can't be good friends". It was a social circle that evolved some negative feedback loops about inappropriate intimacy, what it really meant to be queer/radical/radically neurodivergent, etc and evolved some really bad interpersonal behavior, and this social circle was bad for its members - its members individually were not bad.
posted by Frowner at 8:11 AM on September 17 [11 favorites]

You have gotten good advice here already, but:

There's more than one person out there who thinks I ruined their life, when I barely even knew their name.

This is not your problem. And the solution is *not* to be mean to people:

So basically I feel like it would be better for people if I just told people right away that we're not going to be friends. Or should I just soft block them everywhere and ignore them when we're at events or parties together?

Telling someone you barely know "we're not going to be friends" would be pretty rude and somewhat presumptuous. Blocking someone in your social circle on social media is going to be noticed, and likely cause "drama." Going out of your way to ignore someone at a party, also rude (I mean, you don't have to start a conversation, but you should respond if someone tries to talk to you).

If you get the sense that someone's personality doesn't mesh with your own (and I agree with people that a BDP diagnosis is a bit of red herring - or at least, shouldn't be your only focus here), the thing to do is just provide the bare minimum needed to be kind. So if they are in your social circle but not someone you want to hang out with 1-on-1, limit your conversations with them at parties to small talk and avoid anything too personal, decline any invitations to hang out 1-on-1 with "Oh sorry, I'm just really busy these days." If they still manage to get it in their head that you are a close friend, that's on them, not you.
posted by coffeecat at 8:40 AM on September 17 [3 favorites]

Change your social circle to one in which people are not sharing their diagnoses straight off the bat.

This sounds mean but I'm serious--you say that it's a common thing in your social circle for people to ramp up intimacy straight away, then get upset when you don't immediately respond to their emotional needs. What do you think these people's reactions will be if you tell them that you cannot interact with them on any level due to their diagnosis? Are they going to smile and nod and back away, or are they going to... get mad because you're not meeting their emotional needs? I think you know what's going to happen.

I have no idea whether these behaviors are an inevitable result of BPD. I do know that I would be suspicious of someone who, upon the barest of acquaintance, revealed their personality disorder diagnosis. The vibes are bad, and you're allowed to trust the vibes and just walk away.
posted by kingdead at 9:18 AM on September 17 [6 favorites]

Borderline is a somewhat sketchy diagnosis and I urge you to avoid diagnosing others with anything. Even if you are a Ph.D. psychologist, it's difficult to have clarity in your own life. Instead, focus on behaviors. If a person is really emotionally intense, really close really fast and too enamored of you, etc., then apply a little distance. Read Stop Walking on Eggshells, a great book about dealing with someone who has Borderline Personality Disorder, also useful for dealing with anyone who has poor boundaries, is manipulative, highly dramatic, etc.

On re-reading your question, no, do not tell people you think they have a personality disorder unless they have disclosed a professional diagnosis. I find it much more successful to address specific behaviors. If someone is manipulative, try to define the actual manipulation, not an emotion. Behaviors can be described and addressed factually and calmly, though most people will have trouble hearing it, but that's not your job.

I think affirmations can be useful. Remind yourself that you deserve authentic love, respect, happiness, friendship. People with poor self-esteem, depression, who were not raised with respect and love, are more easily imposed on by others. As you lift and strengthen yourself, you have better defenses. I grew up with no respect and little genuine attention. I struggle with all of this, but when I'm successful, my ability to have good boundaries is much better. You (and I) deserve all the good stuff and I wish you the best.
posted by theora55 at 9:42 AM on September 17 [2 favorites]

Is there a kind way to tell people that we're not going to be friends?

No. There's a category between stranger and friend that is acquaintance. You just keep them at the acquaintance level. You do that by not sharing intimate details of your life, disengaging if they start sharing theirs, and not initiating things or accepting sort of one-on-one or small group invitations.

So basically I feel like it would be better for people if I just told people right away that we're not going to be friends. Or should I just soft block them everywhere and ignore them when we're at events or parties together?

Neither. You don't block them but you don't seek them out. At parties, you say "wow, nice weather we're having" and then you go to a washroom/get a glass of water, etc. You're friendly but not friends. If they are commenting all the time on your social media, sure, block them then but there's no need unless something happens.
posted by warriorqueen at 9:48 AM on September 17 [10 favorites]

From an anonymous member:
I was (mis)diagnosed with BPD, and I would like to see this diagnosis hurled into the sun. I now believe the reason I got this diagnosis was because I was cutting – even though I was very careful to cut only in places under my clothes and told no one but therapist. But they somehow still saw this as attention seeking. And the diagnosis probably also had something to do with my being a twenty-something female.

A friend of mine who worked at a mental health facility (in admin – not a therapist) once “explained” to a large group of people I was in what BPD is – how people with BPD are bothersome to everyone they know, how they cannot hope to hold jobs, how they just aren’t fit to live in the world and nothing is really effective for helping them. As I said, she was in admin, so she got all of this questionable knowledge from professionals working with patients who’d gotten this diagnosis. I wish I had been brave enough to out myself then. I was so shaken though that I really needed to talk to someone, and this marks the only time I told a friend I’d been diagnosed with it.

I then talked to my therapist about it. He told me about research showing that when patients entered treatment facilities, when therapists had been told the patients had BPD, they treated them differently and the patients ended up acting out. This did not happen if therapists weren’t told. This makes me, frankly, furious at the therapists who gave my friend all of her information on BPD.

As I said – it should be hurled into the sun.

The thing that gives me pause in your question is you are apparently running into people who are willing to tell a casual acquaintance they have BPD. I’m in my 60s, so if you’re younger, maybe younger people are more forthright about mental health diagnoses? I would be concerned about what seems to me like big oversharing early in a relationship. I think there are some people (not many, but they exist) who will use a mental health diagnosis to say they expect to be treated with kid gloves if their behavior is inappropriate. So telling someone very early in a relationship does seem like a potential red flag. On the other hand, it could also be someone who has experience being dropped for mental health reasons and wants to get it on the table right away - so it's hard to say.

You are of course allowed to draw lines however you want and end friendships whenever you want. And if your casual friend thinks they are your very best friend in the world and you want to end the relationship, that is not something you can really help. I think a general “no BPD” is not the best way to draw a line, but I’m wondering if there’s a way to draw it based on behavior instead of diagnosis.
posted by taz at 12:56 AM on September 18 [7 favorites]

How do you know these people have BPD? Are they disclosing it to you?

I'm asking because I have a BPD diagnosis, but I also have a CPTSD diagnosis, and there's enough overlap in symptoms and enough information in my childhood history that my therapist and psychiatrist are a little dubious about the BPD diagnosis.

And I don't disclose my diagnosis (except here, where I am anonymous enough that it feels safe) to ANYONE in real life, basically because I am afraid of people reacting exactly the way you are, honestly, like I'm some sort of scary manipulative person who is going to harm others. My closest friend since high school, who I knew for nearly 25 years and knows about my mental health history because she was a safe person for me, recently admitted that she started putting distance between us when I received the BPD diagnosis because she was afraid that I would treat her poorly and damage her mental health, put her job in jeopardy, and strain her marriage. I was gobsmacked. We don't talk anymore.

I can't speak for all people who have received this diagnosis, but I imagine that there are a lot of us who do not disclose openly because of exactly this. So I guess I'm having trouble understanding how you know all of these people who have confirmed BPD diagnoses.

If you are a person who is easily manipulated, work on that in therapy
This BPD thing is a red herring.

Since you asked, if someone somehow knew about my diagnosis and didn't want to be friends with me because of it, here is how I would have wanted it handled: just stop engaging with me, and don't ever, ever tell me that you can't be friends with me because of my specific mental health diagnosis.
posted by nayantara at 11:07 AM on September 18 [3 favorites]

My mother had BPD, so I 100% understand your hesitancy here. I loved her very, very much, but since she passed in 2018, my life is infinitely easier in many ways because I no longer have to deal with the daily drama that was caused by the combination of her BPD and the resulting trauma of her raising me.

I agree with all of the other great advice here. If people are not disclosing a BPD diagnosis to you, I would be careful about projecting that onto them. I totally get that impulse! It's very easy to be on extremely high alert after being "burnt" by someone with BPD. It may very well be that these people that you are concerned about do not in fact have BPD, but are "triggering" you in other ways based on your experiences with people with BPD in the past. For example, I had an ex who had a hair trigger temper that was especially bad when driving. It was mostly innocuous yelling at other drivers stuff, but it was EXTREMELY triggering for me as the completely switch from happy to violently angry in half a second reminded me so much of my mom and made me go into fight-or-flight mode.
posted by anotheraccount at 6:15 PM on September 18 [1 favorite]

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