Time to bust those stigmas!

June 7, 2020

Welcome back to another post as part of my BPD Awareness Series running throughout May and June. Unfortunately, BPD is one of most stigmatised mental illnesses, especially given that a lot of people have never heard of the disorder (click here to read my post explaining what it actually is). I've recently written about a few symptoms I struggle with, but today I want to tackle some of the misinformed stigmas surrounding the disorder.

One of the most common misconceptions about people with BPD is that they are dramatic, aggressive, attention-seeking and untreatable. If this isn't bad enough, after a quick Google I was also shocked to read the most popular searches:

Sounds pretty awful, right? And this isn't even a comprehensive list. It hurts to read so many stigmas out there that hatefully stereotype individuals with BPD and cram us all into a box. These stigmas are fuelled by a very rigid kind of 'black or white' thinking, which often creates a very negative and largely misleading view of people who've been diagnosed with BPD. 

This needs to change!

I am living proof that literally none of these stigmas are accurate in their generalised assumptions of what individuals with BPD are actually like. Stigmas keep those with mental illnesses stuck, and are often very hurtful and upsetting, either slowing or completely stopping their recovery. If we were to live in a world without stigma, a lot of suffering would ease among us, which is why I'm here today. 

So, the first stigma is...

BPD is a life sentence

In the past, many doctors believed that BPD was untreatable, and with a lot of inaccurate information on the internet I can see how people think this is true. However, with the right treatment approach, BPD is an absolutely treatable illness and recovery is possible. There has been a lot of research that suggest remission and recovery rates are higher than originally thought. One of the longest studies on BPD, by Dr. Mary Zanarini and her colleagues, found that after 10 years since hospitalisation, 86% of people stopped meeting the diagnostic criteria for at least 4 years, and 50% of people recovered completely. And not all of these people even received treatment. There is a range of clinically-proven ‘talking’ therapies available - Dialectic Behavioural Therapy (DBT),  Mentalization-based Therapy (MBT), Schema-focused Therapy and Transference-focused. The bottom line is, BPD is clearly an intense struggle that can last a long time, but it is not a hopeless diagnosis.

People with BPD are dramatic and attention-seeking

This is one of the most saddening stigmas for me personally, because it just shows how massively misunderstood the disorder is. Let me put this simply. If you were to experience the inner turmoil those with BPD face day after day, you'd realise how deeply we feel our pain and how much it sometimes hurts by simply being alive. Marsha Linehand, PhD and creator of Dialectic Behavioural Therapy, expresses this well:

"Borderline individuals are the psychological equivalent of third-degree burn patients. They simply have, so to speak, no emotional skin. Even the slightest touch or movement can create immense suffering."

I guarantee that any behaviour we do is an attempt for comfort, reassurance or relief from our pain, not solely for dramatic purpose or attention. We're trying to survive in any way we know how, even if that may not be in the most healthiest of ways.

Borderlines cannot have long-term relationships

It just isn't true that borderlines are incapable of long-term relationships, although I can see why some people might make that assumption. I am living proof that it is possible, having been with my current partner for almost three years now, who I imagine I'll marry one day :) I've also had two past relationships of 4 and a half years and 1 and a half years. Now, I'm not saying relationships with us is an easy ride. We do have difficult behaviours caused by our fear of abandonment, anger and unpredictable mood swings that cause our loved ones a lot of stress (click here to read my post on fear of abandonment). Relationships with borderlines can be a real roller-coaster. I count myself very lucky that my partner is loving, understanding, patient and tolerant, but that's not to say he finds the disorder really hard to deal with at times. It requires a lot of commitment, understanding and energy from both partners, but if you both want to make it work, of course you can. Hidden beneath our pain and fears that cause us to act out, is a deep longing to be loved and accepted for who we are, which is why the misconceptions about BPD and relationships are so backwards. Induced by our chaotic childhood, BPD is sometimes coined 'the mental health disorder of relationships', as we've often experienced neglect, abuse and/or abandonment, when all we want is to love and be loved.

People with BPD cannot hold down a job

Some people assume that anyone who has BPD is unable to hold down a steady job. Although it may not be possible for everyone, a lot of people can still maintain a work life. I have what's called 'high-functioning' BPD, meaning I'm more socially adept and able to perform well at work, concealing my struggles from the outside world. On the other end of the spectrum, 'low-functioning' BPDs cannot hide the severity of their symptoms and often end up being hospitalised or getting treatment faster as their life is more significantly affected. I've been working as a successful freelance classical pianist and piano teacher for the last six years, teaching around 20 students every week. My mental health barely affects my work or capabilities to interact with others. At most, I have occasionally cancelled piano lessons at the last minute because I'm struggling a lot that day, or an upcoming performance due to stress, but my overall capacity to work is unaffected.

Borderlines are crazy and aggressive

OK, so let's unravel this sticky stigma. Firstly, I want to define what I believe people mean when they label borderlines as 'crazy', before I set this harsh and hurtful stigma straight. The Oxford Dictionary defines crazy as 'Mad, especially as manifested in wild or aggressive behaviour.' I understand why some people are quick to label some BPD behaviours as 'crazy', our frantic efforts to avoid abandonment, hard-to-contain anger and highly changeable moods can be extreme. But - and this is the big BUT - what many people don't understand is the way we behave is not because we want to intentionally hurt or be aggressive to others. It's because we're extremely sensitive to rejection and abandonment, so we will try anything to avoid our fears without sufficient coping skills. We are actually most in danger to ourselves, as we tend to engage in self-harming behaviours to relieve this pain or punish ourselves, rather than hurt others. We struggle intensely and get triggered to desperate places, but we are not crazy and aggressive by malicious intent.

People with BPD are manipulative and controlling

Wow, this one was hard to stomach. The word 'manipulative' has pejorative connotations of malicious scheming, so the idea that people with BPD are maliciously emotionally manipulative and/or controlling is common, but sadly deeply misunderstood. As I shared in my last post, borderlines' intense fears of abandonment and rejection make us behave in very difficult or distressing ways, which is hard for our friends and family. Indeed, our actions can feel manipulative. However, the perceived emotional manipulation does not come from a place of malice, but one of overwhelming distress due to not having developed efficient coping skills. What feels and looks like emotional manipulation is, in fact, a desperate attempt to cope with the distressing emotions we are feeling in that moment, not an attempt to hurt those we love around us on purpose. To read more on the Bridges To Recovery website, click here.

Someone with BPD cannot feel empathy

It was such a shame to read this stigma. I personally feel it's very misinformed to use as a blanket statement for all borderlines. The reason it's such a particularly misled stigma is that those with BPD actually find themselves challenged by the opposite problem. Far from being incapable of feeling empathy, a lot of people with BPD are 'empaths' or hyper-empathic, meaning we are very acutely attuned to other peoples' thoughts, moods and feelings. From my own personal experience, I struggle to form a solid loving emotional boundary around myself, as I am still developing my sense of self. I often find myself taking on others' emotions as my own which can lead to burn-out or overwhelm. So, in summary, not all people with BPD are going to find it easy to empathise, but it's actually an innate gift in a lot of people with BPD, even if it does need a little honing. 

Psychotherapist Imi Lo, at Eggshell Therapy, has written a fantastic in-depth article exploring the topic of empathy and Borderline Personality Disorder, which I highly recommend reading (click here to read).

Borderlines lie to intentionally hurt others

Again, as I've already explained, those with BPD are exquisitely sensitive to rejection and abandonment and unfortunately, this can make us lie. There is no excuse for lying; we all know that it can have a detrimental impact on relationships and trust. What I can reassure you of however, from my own personal experience, is that I have never lied to be intentionally malicious or mean in any way. It's actually the very last thing I want to do to my loved ones. There are a number of reasons why borderlines might lie. One reason is that we feel such incredibly intense emotions they can often cloud our judgement; it's important to understand that we truly believe our viewpoint is correct, even when it's blatantly not. Another reason is as we tend to be impulsive, we find it difficult to maintain self-control in highly-charged emotional moments when our emotional safety is threatened, which can cause us to lie out of fear. We are also extremely sensitive to feeling shame, often carrying around a hollowness inside that leaves us feeling very vulnerable. To read more of an in-depth explanation, visit this article on Very Well Mind.

In my own experience, borderlines are some of the most kind, loyal, interesting, and compassionate people on earth. We're literally just people, with flaws, hurts and insecurities, like everybody else. Unfortunately, the stigmas about BPD we face are tough, but hopefully I have planted seeds here today to grow a better understanding of BPD, so that we can break down those stigmas and for us to feel more accepted into the world. Because deep down, that's what we long for above anything else. To feel accepted in the world and loved for who we are.

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