Since I’ve had a half dozen different people, maybe more, run into this same problem with me in recent history, I think it might be time for me to clarify something about BPD and what it does to perceptions of friendship. I posted a while back about what I call the “Jar Jar Effect,” a mental trap that does its best to prevent people with BPD from experiencing requited love.
But suppose you, sufferer of BPD, somehow evade the Jar Jar Effect and manage to find a person you want to be friends with. A person who also seems to like you. Miraculously, you manage to mentally reconcile this seemingly impossible occurrence, and now a new problem kicks in: pacing.
For someone with BPD, friendship is a short story, not a novel.
If you struggle with BPD, this is how your experience of friendship works. You meet someone, feel an affinity while it’s shiny and new, and it feels great. Like a new car. Then, it slowly wears down. More and more of your flaws slip through. Your “weird” statements and actions make little nicks and dents in the relationship, one at a time. With the perfect veneer of the paint gone, oxygen can get in, leading to the cancer of rust. Eventually either the person quietly trades you in for a new model or the car just falls apart spectacularly while you’re both still in it.
One of the clearest ways to spot someone with BPD is the lack of long-term relationships (and jobs, but that’s another post). The cycle feeds on itself because the more people drift away because of your “weird” emotions and behavior, the “weirder” your emotions and behavior become in the presence of people you like and are afraid to lose. By the time someone with BPD reaches adulthood, the pattern is pretty well set. Can you imagine living a life where you knew all of your friendships had maybe a year, at best, to live? This is one reason why people with BPD also have a high likelihood of being charismatic, funny, charming. It’s a social adaptation that allows you to replace friendships as smoothly and regularly as you do your technology, so you don’t end up completely alone.
People with this particular BPD-related problem front-load every relationship. You say everything, hold back nothing, just as you would if you knew your friend had a terminal disease. You love with your whole heart in that first shining moment when everything is working, because you know that’s the only chance you’re going to get.
Meanwhile, your friend without BPD says, “What the hell?” Your friend thought they were picking up a novel, and suddenly there’s this insane dramatic climax on page four. “This is a very badly paced novel,” your friend says, not realizing you’re writing a short story. It might be enough to put them off, to cause them to put the book down entirely. Thus fulfilling your prediction and affirming the cycle yet again. Next time you vow to do even more in even less time! Gather ye rosebuds while ye may!
Consider the corollary to this. When you, the person with BPD, hear, “We don’t know each other that well,” or “I don’t think I’m ready to share that with you,” or, “Is there someone closer to you that you could talk to about this?” it translates to you as, “I don’t care about you and never will.” Why? Because that’s how it works. Life has proven to you that the best anyone is ever going to feel about you is before they know you well. If someone tells you that knowing you better is a prerequisite to certain social privileges, she is telling you that you are not allowed those privileges, ever. No one has ever wanted to be friends with you after knowing you better. I mean, come on.
All too often, people with BPD see relationships as depreciating assets. Imagine if your car or computer told you, “Well… I can’t seem to fulfill that function, why don’t you try again in a few years?” That would sound like insanity, coming from your shiny new unblemished marvel of machinery. If it doesn’t work now, it’s never gonna.
So now that you (hopefully) understand better what’s going on, what do you do about it?
If you’re the one with BPD… get back to me after another year of therapy? I’m still figuring that one out. The closest thing I’ve found to a functional strategy when dealing with neurotypical people is to hide my sense of urgency. “Just be yourself” is not always great advice for a person with a personality disorder. The word “disorder” means that your instincts are not always fabulous. Accept that, don’t self-flagellate about it, and just move on. Act as if ye had patience, and patience will (eventually) be given unto you.
With some extremely intelligent people, you may be able to open up about your sense of urgency and where it comes from, but err on the side of caution, if it’s someone you truly want in your life. The vast majority of truly decent people simply do not want to deal with your baggage. That doesn’t mean they’re awful people, it just means that they have enough baggage of their own to carry, and they look for friendship as something to help ease life’s load, not add to it. This is 100% reasonable and you need to respect this. You need to understand that even if you do end up alone, loneliness in and of itself will not kill you. You can choose not to harm yourself. You can sit in that feeling and think you’re going to die, but if you do not actually take arms against yourself, surprise, the sun will still rise the next day and cool things might still happen despite how sure you were that life was over.
If you’re the one with the strangely clingy and forward friend, it’s actually a bit easier to handle. If these words are true, you should say them: “I think you and I could be really great friends one day. I like you more and more, the more I know you, the more I see how well you’re handling the things you struggle with. I like your [actual quality] and your [actual quality]. I look forward to getting to know each other more. But understand that it takes me a little while to open up. It will happen; it just happens at a different pace for me. I hope you think it’s worth waiting for, because I’d hate to lose you.”
If these words are not true, do not reassure the person. If you are not drawn enough to this person that you’re willing to navigate an occasionally-bumpy road with him, let him down right away. Don’t argue back at him with all the objective evidence that your way of doing things is normal and he’s the one being weird. Just have the courage to say, up front, “I don’t know that we really ‘click;” I think our personalities and wavelengths are too different. I respect you [if true] and care about you [if true], and I think there’s a lot to admire about you [say this even if you don’t feel it, because it is true, of everyone], but I don’t feel a personal motivation to deepen this relationship; I’m sorry.” Or something to that effect, in your own words.
The main idea in this latter scenario: do not feign love, affinity, and personal concern for someone who has challenges in perceiving reality and desperately needs to know the truth in order to ground herself, make decisions, and function. Even if it hurts more in the short term, brutal honesty is best for those with BPD. Diplomacy can backfire, because diplomacy is ambiguity, and ambiguity is a breeding ground for some of the absolute worst of BPD’s symptoms.
If you have any questions about this, feel free to hit up my comments section or send me a Tweet. For at least the next week or so I have some time on my hands before I start my next project, so I’m happy to use that to educate/reassure/support those whose lives have been affected by this frustrating and difficult disorder.
Thanks for being willing to learn more, and feel free to share this if you know anyone it might help.