One minute everything seems fine, even happy, and then in an instant things turn. The joyful mood is quickly replaced by hurt, dramatic expression, and anger over what appears to be a small matter. After that, things escalate rapidly as accusations fly, feelings intensify, threats heighten, and absolutes accelerate.
For those experiencing this for the first time, it can be shocking. For others, this pattern regularly manifests when in a relationship with a person diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD). While not every person spirals to the extreme mentioned above, some do. The cycle described below is an attempt to help clear up some of the misconceptions and misunderstandings.
This is a warning: If you are a person with this disorder, I’m not trying to explain you to you or to say that you even do this in the first place. Rather, this is an attempt to help the people around you understand how their reactions can contribute to the escalation. The intended audience here is your partner, spouse, friends, family, and co-workers and thus will be referred to as “others” going forward. To avoid confusion and make the article as simple as possible, people with BPD will be referred to as “borderlines.”
- Painful event causes emotional response. One of the best traits of a borderline is their ability to immediately know when they are hurting. So many other people lack this skill and have to be taught how to be “present and in the moment.” Borderlines do not. In an instant, they know when something is painful and are naturally accustomed to communicating their feelings. However, sometimes in an effort to release the emotions or to engage intimately (non-sexually), there is little thought given to the appropriate time or place.
- Others resist. Others might sense the inappropriateness of the emotional reaction and in an effort to quiet things they make dismissive remarks. Common statements like: “It’s not that bad,” “You are making it too big of a deal,” or “You are overreacting” are typical responses. They believe they are helping the situation but in reality they are fueling a more intense response. If instead they acknowledge the emotion and agree with how it must have hurt the borderline, things would calm down instantly and the cycle would halt. But it doesn’t happen in this case.
- Fears are ignited. Unacknowledged hurt results in fears of abandonment and rejection for the borderline. The conclusion they reaches is that the other person must not want to have a relationship with them or they would make a greater effort to share in their hurt. This feeling is even more intense if there is evidence of abandonment or rejection from previous relationships. With their fight response fully engaged, it is not unusual for a borderline to make threatening statements of self-harm, be verbally cutting towards the other person, or become physically aggressive. This is still an effort to adequately express how they are feeling.
- Others become confused. Shocked by the escalating response, others look like a deer caught in the headlights. There are three ways they normally respond. One is to come out fighting and attempt to one-up the assaults usually ends in disaster. The other is to logically explain why the borderline is overreacting which does nothing to calm the emotion and only creates more distance. The last is to withdraw physically or emotionally which further which reinforces the borderline’s fears. Once again, things can stop at this stage by speaking directly to the fears or hurt and ignoring the rest of the insulting remarks. This would end the cycle, but it doesn’t happen in this case.
- Self-harm and dissociation. Fully believing that the relationship has ended, the borderline feels rejected or abandoned yet again. They are flooded with other feelings of self-hate, intense anxiety, immediate depression, and anger towards anyone and everyone. This often leads to self-harming behaviors such as cutting, overdosing on medication, getting drunk, spending huge amounts of money, seeking out sexual relations, binge eating, or risk-taking behavior. Engaging in these behaviors gives only a momentary sense of relief. But when the reality of the actions sinks in, a borderline will dissociate in an effort to self-regulate their extreme emotional response. This is a self-protection devise which allows the borderline to detach emotionally from themselves and others. Frequently they will say things didn’t happen that did and be extremely believable because they truly don’t remember. This is not an intentional deception like other personality disorders rather they literally don’t recall.
- Repeat cycle with another painful event. The response of others to the dissociation can lead straight into another painful event and thus reignites the cycle for yet another downward spiral. Or the whole episode can stop here if no further mention of it is made.
It is ironic that those who don’t actively work at stopping the cycle in the manner described above are actually enabling the pattern to continue. As a professional who works with personality disorders, I have yet to meet a borderline who likes or gets pleasure out of acting this way. To the contrary, they are very ashamed and want badly never to do it again. But when the others in their life respond negatively, the borderline feels forced into the cycle in an effort to effectively communicate their emotions.