The ‘R’ word

Rejection and borderline personality disorder

Rejection, or the fear of abandonment, is arguably one of the biggest issue that impacts on someone with BPD and their loved ones. But what does that even mean? Isn’t everyone afraid to some degree of being rejected by those who are important to them? I’m certain that nobody likes to be rejected, but for those who don’t live with BPD rejection is probably only an issue if and when it happens. I doubt most people go about their day waiting for and even expecting to be rejected, worrying all the while about what can be done do to avoid rejection and why they are so un-lovable in the first place.

When you suffer with borderline personality disorder the threat of rejection or abandonment is constant and all-pervasive. You look for it round every corner, in every conversation and. We’re afraid of losing a friend, or someone walking away from a relationship with us – we’re afraid even when we have no real grounds for concern. Ah… but in our minds we really do have grounds for concern! If someone doesn’t text us back we fear the worst. If they do text us back, but they fail to send the usual ‘x’ at the end of the text, if they are late meeting up with us, if they are more friendly towards others than to us, if they come home later than usual, if they don’t answer their phone – I could go on… Sheesh, I used to feel rejected by my hamster when it slept all day and didn’t come to see me when I offered it treats.

Those are the everyday, common place (for us) fears that we face in many if not most of our encounters. Throw into this melting pot an argument, for example, or a disagreement and I would categorically know you don’t love me anymore. If you’re frustrated with me for any reason I assume you hate the whole of me. If I’m having a bad day I will assume you dislike me, intensely, as I dislike myself. My flaws are on display for all to see, and I will watch you and scrutinise your body language and your facial expressions both looking for and dreading finding proof that you are getting sick of me and will soon leave me. Sounds exhausting, right? I can assure you it is. And it is terrifying.

So why does it matter so much? Or rather, why do you matter so much?

People with BPD generally have a very poor sense of self. We don’t really know who we are, or where we fit in to the world around us. Our sense of validation comes from others: how you interact with us will either give us a sense of worth, or prove that we are, after all, un-lovable and forgettable. If we have a sense of worth in your company that we wouldn’t otherwise have, naturally we want to do all we can to maintain that validation, that ‘place’ we have found where we might fit and belong. And that is when the problems really begin to show.

Fight or Flight

Living in a constant state of vigilance is enough to put anyone on edge. With BPD, the danger that comes with abandonment (be that real or imagined) causes a permanent tension within, and the moment we detect that you are fed up with our constant need for reassurance, or frustrated with our suspicions, our mistrust or our fears, we believe that rejection is imminent. Ironically, the moment that we detect your frustration is the very moment that we need yet more reassurance, and if that is not forthcoming  we begin the rapid descent into full-blown panic. We have two choices: Fight or Flight.

The fight-or-flight response (also called hyperarousal, or the acute stress response) is a physiological reaction that occurs in response to a perceived harmful event, attack, or threat to survival.[1] (wikipedia) 

This is the reality for us. We may get angry, because we feel powerless, misunderstood or let down, to the point where we hate you (flight). We may get hysterical and plead with you not to hate us or leave us (fight). However our terror manifests, you may (understandably) need to step back from the intensity of our panic, rage, or distress and there we have it: you have abandoned us, like we always knew you would.

What can you do?

I admit, so far the scenario is pretty grim, and you may feel damned if you do and damned if you don’t. However, there are certain things that you can do that may help, either to prevent our fears escalating or to calm us if they do.

  • Learn as much as you can about borderline personality disorder. Understanding is key to learning to manage BPD.
  • Communicate! Talk to us when we are calm;  find out what might trigger us, and work out with us in advance what we might need in order to stay safe, and calm in the face of feelings of abandonment.
  • Don’t collude with us. This is as important for us as it is for you. There is a subtle difference between enabling/colluding and understanding/being compassionate. Validate our feelings, because to us they are real, but never validate our unacceptable behaviour.
  • Don’t make promises if you aren’t 100% certain you will be able to keep them.
  • Don’t walk on egg shells around us. We will sense your fear/wariness and be even more sensitive and suspicious. For example, if you have plans for two weeks from now, don’t wait til the day before to tell us. Tell us now so we have time to process our feelings, and give us both the chance to talk through what is happening and also to put plans in place for us coping and staying safe.
  • Don’t change your plans for us – you have your life to live – but be patient with us when we ask for reassurance that our relationship is secure.
  • Don’t apologise for things that are not your fault.
  • Stay as calm as you can, even – or especially – when we are anything but calm. This is a tall order, I know, but try to keep in mind that it is our BPD that is driving our behaviour at that moment, and added tension or heated emotions will make it much harder for us to manage our own emotions.
  • Acknowledge our fears. When we ask, for the umpteenth time whether you still love us, try not to say things like ‘I’ve answered that already, I’m not going to keep telling you’, or ‘you’re so sensitive/dramatic’, ‘you’re being silly/overreacting’,  or even ‘what do you think?’ And absolutely try not to tell us how we should or shouldn’t feel: Anything that is dismissive of our fears is interpreted as dismissive of our selves, so try to validate the emotions that are very real to us even if you can’t understand them.
  • Remember that we love you, you are important to us – hence the fears. Remember this, in spite of what we may say, because this is the reality and our BPD can lie to you as well as to us. Bear in mind the fight-flight-response; we feel under threat and we feel desperate. (This does not excuse our behaviours by any means, but it does explain them and understanding is key to managing BPD).
  • Don’t tell us that we need to calm down. Of course we do need to calm down, but hearing this not only suggests that you don’t understand why we are not calm, it also feeds our panic because we cannot just simply ‘calm down’. Instead, try asking us what would help us, what we need, right now.
  • Don’t laugh at us, or patronise us.
  • If we get aggressive or abusive walk away – don’t put up with that shit, seriously! But before you walk away, tell us why you’re going. If our behaviour is unacceptable tell us that, but with the added assurance that it is only this aspect of our behaviour that is unacceptable, and not the whole of us. Tell us you will be ready to talk calmly with us when we have got our behaviours under control.
  • Likewise, if we become manipulative – stay calm, but put in boundaries (we sure do need them) and walk away (as above) if you need to. I will warn you that this may well add further fuel to our meltdown, but that is not your responsibility. We need to take responsibility for ourselves, and there is no guilt to be laid at your door despite what we might say to the contrary in the heat of the moment.
  • If we argue, absolutely definitely don’t storm out on us. If you need space take all the space you need, but again see above.
  • Talk to us when we are calm about your feelings and emotions particularly with regard to our fear of rejection and constant need for reassurance. Your feelings are just as valid and important as ours, and we may need reminded of this from time to time.
  • Consider finding a support group, or forum where people who live with someone with BPD can support and understand each other.

What can we do?

To be brutally honest, in the very early days of learning to manage our BPD there might not be all that much we can do with any great accomplishment. With most things on our list we will not do very well initially, but we will begin to spot our warning signs sooner and sooner each time, and we will gradually gain a deeper understanding of how our borderline emotions and fears impact on us. Over time and with practice and hard work there are things that we can do to minimise the distress of the looming abandonment and rejection.

  • Learn as much as you can about borderline personality disorder. Understanding is key to learning to manage BPD.
  • Get help! Find a therapist, or a therapy group, talk to our GP (sorry to say you may need to help them understand a little). Find someone (preferably a professional) who can help you learn to manage your emotions, your triggers and your behaviours. The sooner you do this, the sooner we will be able to effectively implement the following:
  • Communicate. The more I feel understood the less I panic, and the more I am able to keep the lines of communication open when I need to.
  • Work out if you have early warning signs: Are you being more vigilant with a certain relationship than normal? Are you feeling particularly insecure with someone? Are you feeling paranoid about a friendship? When you are aware of your warning signs you will be in a much better position to head off the fear of rejection before it really sets in.
  • Tell somebody you trust what your warning signs are. Often others can spot the signs long before we can, and they may be able to talk to you about what is happening, and why. This understanding and validation may be exactly what you need at that moment.
  • When you are calm, think of some contingency plans: how can you keep yourself safe if you feel rejected? How can you minimise your impulsivity when you are overcome by rage or panic? What do you need from others when you are in, or approaching, meltdown?
  • Learn to recognise as soon as possible what is happening for you, and verbalise this as calmly as we can.  If you feel unable to communicate, try putting how you feel onto paper – write how you feel, rant your anger, draw your fears. Express yourself in a safe way, and try to understand what is happening as you do so.
  • Acknowledge how you feel, but be open to the possibility that your perspective might just possibly not be entirely right.
  • Try to remain as rational as possible – your BPD might be telling you that you are being rejected, and that might feel real, but question yourself (kindly) and challenge yourself to step back emotionally and try to see the situation from outside your borderline.
  • Listen! If somebody tells them they still love you, try with all your might to listen and believe and trust. It is hard in the wake of believing we are rejected to believe that someone is not just telling us what we want to hear. I have ripped up cards and thrown away presents because I did not believe ‘they’ still loved me in that precise moment. I was utterly convinced I was being lied to. Try not to do this – you’ll regret it!
  • Try, with all your might, not to be impulsive; more often than not self-harm or other destructive behaviours lead to feelings of shame or guilt or more self-hatred, which in turn will confirm  your belief that you are un-lovable which, in turn, will fuel your suspicions and fear of rejection from others. When you feel your impulses might overwhelm you, try something like the CalmHarm app which will help you to pause and breathe while the wave passes over (or through) you.
  • Take responsibility for yourself, your actions and your behaviours. Begin to take back control – the good type of control – and don’t blame others for your mistakes. Contrary to what your borderline brain will undoubtedly be screaming in your face – if you make a mistake it is not the end of the world.
  • Stick with your therapy for as long as it takes.

Don’t give up

Not everything in these lists will work for everyone, and certainly not everything will work immediately. It will most likely take time, a lot of patience and an awful lot of work before anyone begins to see significant results, but it is possible to learn to challenge our perception of abandonment, and to question what may still be to us indisputable evidence that we are being rejected.

It is really hard work, but it really is worth it.

If you have more ideas or things that have worked for you, please feel free to write these in the comments section below. The more we talk and share, the more we will understand and be better equipped to manage the fear of rejection and abandonment in a way that is safe, healthy and positive for all involved.

Next Week…

Next week I will be looking at Favourite People (FP) – what they are and how we interact with them, and how we can work towards a healthier, more realistic, balanced and boundaried relationship with those who mean, quite literally, the world to us.


4 thoughts on “The ‘R’ word

  1. Dawn Barker says:

    Hey Tracy, this is an excellent article. It is informative, constructive, insightful and helpful to the lay-person on how to help. I see that it is helpful too for the one suffering from BPD. Your insights and wisdom have doubtless been honed through personal experience. As I think I said once before, Wounded Healer. That’s you. Don’t give up. There is always hope. Fantastic and so useful.

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