Reassuring someone with BPD can sometimes be quite difficult, but it is extremely necessary. Here are five clear and practical steps you can take to better the way you reassure someone with BPD.
Hello gang! We are taking a detour from the usual gay content to address a topic that is quite personal and important to me: BPD communication (regarding reassurance). A separate post focuses on BPD communication during conflicts, but I recommend reading this post first.
BPD (borderline personality disorder) is a cluster B personality disorder that makes it difficult to regulate emotions and comes with intense fear of abandonment. This fear seeps into most actions and means of communication for someone with BPD. Therefore, it is difficult, but vital, to develop particular and heathy communication habits.
Many people with BPD experience unstable relationships (with partners/family/friends) because they have difficulty interpreting the actions of their loved ones the way we intend it. Their fear of abandonment often puts them on edge, as if they are always looking for “proof” that the people in their life will be leaving them/doesn’t care about them. It is very important to try to understand this when communicating with someone with BPD.
“Splitting” is a coping mechanism and a very common trait of many people with BPD. This is an immediate reaction to an event in order to regain control over their emotions by deciding that their emotions/feelings do not matter in a particular moment. The blog regarding communication during conflicts will discuss splitting in further detail.
My partner was diagnosed with BPD in 2017, which you can read about here and here. The steps in this blog are based off of what works well for our communication, but some things may not be applicable for all relationships with someone with BPD (including those with friends/family members.)
For clarity, I will be referring to the person with BPD as “your person.”
Reassurance is what people ask me about the most. Many, many people are unsure of how to reassure those with BPD. Since this reassurance is needed quite regularly, people often find reassuring their person somewhat useless, in a sense. Enough never seems to be enough. In my experience, this remains true. But these steps can help you be more constructive with your reassurance and find ways to make your reassurance more meaningful to your person.
1. Assume your person’s default is “you don’t care about me” when reassurance is needed.
First, allow me to demonstrate a situation where reassurance is needed, even though it may not be obvious.
You: Are you okay?
Your person: Yeah, it’s nothing. I’ll be fine!
This exchange seems okay, but it doesn’t have any reassurance. Your person likely sees this as a way of them reaching out, even though there are no details to describe what is wrong, and it can easily be misinterpreted as unimportant to you. It may appear like they don’t want to talk about it, which very well might be the case, but it gives you a window to reassure them, which they likely need.
Okay, now enter: Assume your person’s default is, “You don’t care about me” in moments like this. You have to try to prove them wrong. If you neglect this window to reassure your person, it “proves” to them that you don’t care about them. In extreme cases, or if your person is already feeling low, it could trigger splitting, aggression, or isolation. It’s important to understand that while you may not be able to prove your person’s BPD wrong, you want to work at trying to make sure you aren’t proving the BPD mindset right.
2. Reassure your person even after they seem satisfied.
The quota for reassurance is never fully reached, but a good start could be tripling the amount you now give, no matter what that is. Even after your person seems somewhat satisfied with the reassurance, add a little more.
For example, if you pick up on the fact your person is feeling insecure or they tell you this directly, and you both navigate a conversation where you feel like you provided an adequate amount of reassurance, don’t stop there. Finish the conversation by saying something like, “Thank you for sharing this with me. Your thoughts/feelings aren’t silly, and you can talk about them with me.”
The reason for this is because when you aren’t attempting to reach the reassurance quota, you prove to your person that you don’t care about them, even though you know this is not true. Providing an extra dose of reassurance to your person can help them feel like discussing their feelings/issue was not as burdensome to you as they thought.
3. Avoid reassuring your person with “I don’t know why you feel like this” or “I don’t know how to reassure you.”
While you may not always know how to reassure your person, try to avoid saying so. This makes your person feel like their needs are burdensome or silly, and it will likely lead to them withdrawing.
Along the same lines, responses that show your confusion for their emotions can be equally as troublesome for you person. They might interpret this as their feelings being invalid, that you don’t believe them, or that you are giving up at trying to reassure them.
Try to accept that you are likely not going to understand why they feel like you don’t care about them. You don’t need to state that you don’t understand the why. They already know you don’t get it, and you telling them so works as “proof” that you can’t be bothered to understand why, and thus, don’t care about them, even though that isn’t the case.
4. Use validation-based reassurance.
A lot of times your person might need reassurance that simply validates their feelings. Your person might feel like you don’t care about them, and rather than discarding this feeling as not true, try to understand that this is a very real feeling for them. It can be extremely hard to not turn defensive at times when you know that you do care about them, and they just don’t believe it. It is vital to fight this feeling and not react defensively. You won’t always be successful, but it’s important to try.
A simple way to validate a negative feeling is to ask them to explain why they feel this way. This at least shows that you aren’t dismissing the feeling, and they may even be open to talking about it. The reason behind their feelings may not always be something your person can pinpoint, but I have found sometimes that my girlfriend’s “you don’t care about me” default is usually the reaction to something I have done or said without realizing.
It can be very easy for us to interpret this default as an overreaction, but if this happens to be the case, welcoming your person to explain what caused this feeling can be extremely helpful. If you both remain calm through the discussion (and working hard to not react defensively), you can better reassure your person by explaining how X action does not mean you don’t care about them.
By being open to understanding why your person feels the way they do and making it very clear that you want to understand, you can help your person’s emotions feel validated, even if you aren’t responding with traditional “reassurance” type responses.
5. Use evidence-based reassurance.
While reassurances like “I love you” and other such statements can be helpful at times, I’ve found that my girlfriend can often believe that I only say such things because I feel obligated to. This obviously is not the case to me, but it can be hard to make her see that it isn’t true. This is where evidence-based reassurance works best. To use it, I try to think of real evidence that could prove to her that I love her. You should try making a list of things to use as evidence-based reassurance when you need to. For example, some things on my list might be:
- We’ve been dating for four years and I’ve loved all four years of it because I love you.
- I make coffee/tea for you every morning we are together because I love you.
- I walk you to work when I’m with you because I love you and want to spend time with you.
- I call you at 3am every time you have a morning shift just so I know you get to work safely because I love you.
Try to be gentle about these “proofs” too. There is a line between reminding your person of the things you do that shows you love them and accidentally making them feel guilty for “making” you do things for them. For example, one of my reasons was not, “I spent over $1,000 and put my life on hold to come spend time with you.” Yes, this is true for me, and it is proof, but that carries a tone and weight that could trigger a sense of guilt, which is something you want to avoid.
This has been one of the most difficult things to understand for myself. It takes a lot of time and patience (with your person and yourself), and you aren’t always going to say the right thing. I still trip up with reassuring my girlfriend, and I expect that I will continue to do so years down the line.
It has taken me over two years to be able to pinpoint these helpful patterns and, even though I am now able to identify what works and what doesn’t, it doesn’t mean I am always able to put it into practice when it is needed. The most we can do is try to be conscious of how our persons might interpret our communication, especially when it comes to reassurance.