Borderline personality disorder (BPD) may be one of the mental disorders about which the psychology community disagrees and deliberates the most. It can be difficult to diagnose, as it doesn’t always have such clearly disruptive symptoms as better-understood disorders like obsessive compulsive disorder or schizophrenia.
Borderline personality disorder can be hereditary. In fact, the gene for it can be rather strong. There can also be environmental factors that contribute to it. Research has found that as many as 70 percent of those with BPD suffered some sort of maltreatment in their childhood such as physical or sexual abuse, or neglect. It’s also common to find in the history of someone with BPD that their parents had substance abuse problems or there were inappropriate boundaries within the family.
If you love someone or have someone close to you who has borderline personality disorder, you do learn some of the ways the disorder can cause dysfunction in the affected individual’s life, and those around them. Having a sibling who suffers from the disorder can be particularly trying since siblings often take on such a sense of responsibility for one another’s wellbeing. We spoke to Meghan Watson, a registered psychotherapist and founder of Bloom psychology, about how to manage a relationship with a sibling with BPD.
Validate their trauma
“BPD is really common with people who have experienced traumatic life events,” states Watson. “It’s not always the case. Not everyone who has had trauma will have BPD” nor does everyone with BPD have trauma, she added. But Watson says that if that is a part of your family history or you know that a sibling has experienced a traumatic life event, a key part of the relationship is paying attention to validating that experience.
Recognize when symptoms arise
“The symptoms of BPD you see the most are frantic attempts to avoid perceived and real abandonment,” says Watson. “Aggressiveness and [being] quick to respond with some instability of emotions” are other symptoms Watson notes. “It’s important to connect these to the experiences that they may be looking for validation on. A lot of the times these types of symptoms can come up if they feel they are unheard. And so validation is a really key part of that.”
Set up compassionate boundaries
If you have a sibling with BPD, you may feel fear around setting up boundaries, worrying that the very act of doing so will cause your sibling to react negatively. One thing Watson often works on with clients who are close to someone with BPD is setting up what she calls “compassionate boundaries. “Demonstrating limits with curiosity, with kindness can really clear up a lot of the worry that some individuals with BPD have when boundaries are set.”
Give the reason behind the boundaries
Watson adds it’s important to state what the intention is behind the boundaries. “Say you tell a friend you can’t hang out, that friend understands you’re busy. But those with BPD have a more affected response to that. They think you don’t love them. You aren’t telling them something. Setting boundaries, but also being kind about it, goes a long way in mitigating some of the conflict that can occur when that happens.”
The disappointment will be difficult
Even if you explain your reasoning behind setting up boundaries, you may still sense deep disappointment on the part of your sibling. Your sibling may even still make you feel guilty – not necessarily intentionally, but the guilt can still be there. But that’s not the time to take down your boundaries, to appease your sibling. “Take space when you need it,” says Watson, adding “Accept that the emotions that you might experience related to the relationship with the sibling are really difficult.”
Acceptance isn’t resignation
Watson talks a lot about accepting the emotions that can come with this relationship, but she clarifies that it isn’t about giving up on the dynamic. “It’s not about resignation and despair, but where acceptance can be helpful, is you may be disappointed and hurt by them. You may struggle to be clear in a way that makes them feel heard and you feel good. Understand the feelings associated with the relationship are really difficult.”
Don’t do the work for them
When you care about someone, it’s natural to want to try to help them – and possibly even fix them. In response to difficult moments, there may be the instinct to coach your sibling through her symptoms. “You can’t do the work for your sibling. They have to do their own therapeutic work,” states Watson.
Keeping things in to keep conflict out
It’s common to hear siblings of those with BPD say there are pieces of information they withhold from their siblings or even feelings they don’t express, so as to avoid conflict. “You don’t need to manage your sibling’s emotions,” says Watson, saying she often hears “I won’t tell this to my sister or brother because I know how they’ll react.
You have to protect you, too
When you don’t set that boundary, share that piece of information, or express that need to a sibling with BPD, rather than helping them, Watson says, “What’s really happening is you aren’t allowing yourself the opportunity to set a boundary that’s good for you. It isn’t modeling good behavior.”
Dealing with perceived punishment
If you have set a boundary with a sibling with BPD, you’ve likely experienced some backlash that felt like punishment. Your sibling may have said things that were insulting or painful to you while reacting to that boundary. In those moments, you might want to take it back – the boundary – just to avoid the emotional punishment. But when you do that, Watson says, “You’re training yourself to listen to their emotional punishment, versus managing the disappointment they feel when things don’t go their way.”
Remember your intention
“Sometimes we get that convincing argument from a sibling, and it feels we need to blame ourselves. We walk back and say ‘What did I do wrong? What did I mess up?’” says Watson. “It may not be that you did anything wrong. You went into it with kindness.”
Disappointment can happen. It’s okay.
Watson encourages one to resist the impulse to try to solve the disappointment that has come up. You can both survive it. “This interaction may just need time to sit for you and your sibling. You need to sit with the discomfort of disappointing them. And they need to sit with the disappointment of not having the thing they were expecting going how they want…Acknowledge each party is disappointed, and that’s that. You’re okay with that. It diffuses the conflict. [Say] ‘I’m okay with this. I can come back and talk about this another time.’”
Address the symptom; not the fight
There is one way you can be at your sibling’s side when they are dealing with tough emotions associated with not getting what they want, from you. “Just ask ‘Is there something you need I can support you with? A self-soothing or grounding technique that I can walk you through?’” advises Watson, adding “Focusing on the process versus the content of what they’re saying is really important.”
Set boundaries, but don’t isolate
“Sometimes people treat those with BPD like pariahs. They’re frustrated because the sibling has threatened suicide a lot. Or they struggle with irritability and anger. It can really destroy relationships. But, knowing that a personality disorder doesn’t mean that person behind the disorder is intending to hurt you…It’s really transformative to know that. You know they’re struggling…managing their feelings is hard for them today.”
Not reacting makes you a safe space
After conflict with your sibling, Watson recommends remembering that, “The disconnection is stronger and lasts longer for those with BPD. You both know it’s happening. Wait for the repair to naturally happen. Take some space. Reflect individually without getting to blows on the specific item.” Watson adds that, when your sibling sees you don’t react strongly to their emotions and throw fuel on the fire, they can see “This person is safe. I can trust them to handle my emotions.”