BPD symptoms tend to be self-fulfilling. People with BPD act in ways that others can't understand, it causes others to have intense reactions, which make the person with BPD feel even worse about themselves and potentially act out again.
When we can understand the cycle from a non-judgmental perspective, we can interrupt it and make positive change.
Let's take a look at each step in the cycle, and identify ways to break the cycle at each point.
Imagine an intensity scale of 1-10. People with BPD experience pretty much every emotion at an 7 or more.
When combined with an inability to self-regulate - usually because these skills were not learned during early development - these intense emotions frequently become overwhelming, leading to a feeling of crisis.
To break the cycle here: lean new emotion regulation skills so that emotions don't become overwhelming in the first place.
To end the crisis, the person with BPD takes action to soothe the nervous system. This may be risk-taking behavior, conflict creation, reassurance seeking, or any other ineffective behavior.
Someone who is feeling lonely might attempt to find connection by calling several times in a row. Someone who is feeling unsafe might try to find safety by yelling or frightening someone else, so they can feel in control.
We call actions “ineffective” if they are harmful in the long-term. It is important to note that even ineffective behaviors almost always work in the short term.
To break the cycle here: learn self-soothing and distress tolerance skills, so that even if emotions become overwhelming, they don't lead to ineffective behavior.
Others may be impacted directly or indirectly by the ineffective behavior. Direct harm may be physical or emotional injury. Indirect harm often takes the form of worrying about a loved one with BPD.
A relationship partner might be emotionally harmed if the person with BPD has an episode of rage and insults them. A friend might be indirectly harmed when they stay up all night worrying about the person with BPD after receiving a text message that talks about self-harm.
The person with BPD almost never intends to cause harm - either direct or indirect. They are usually so overwhelmed by their own emotion that in the moment, they truly do not understand the impact the behavior has on others.
At the same time, people with BPD are still responsible for the consequences of their actions, and their actions can be harmful to others.
To break the cycle here: the person with BPD can use their interpersonal effectiveness skills to communicate in a way that does not cause harm. The non-BPD person in the relationship can choose to set clearer boundaries, or walk away from potentially harmful situations.
Sometimes people who are impacted choose to express disagreement or criticism. They usually intend this feedback to be helpful, however, it usually is not perceived this way by the person with BPD.
When the behavior was not abusive, but was just unpleasant, people tend to want to express their frustration, hurt, or anger. It is valid for them to do so.
It is absolutely acceptable for someone to take space or end a relationship if they have been harmed by the other person. It is no one's responsibility to stay in an abusive relationship while they wait for the other person to heal.
To break the cycle here: practice setting boundaries before the crisis. Sit down together and discuss what you will and will not accept, and what you will do if your boundaries are crossed. Recognize that it takes two to be in a relationship, and the non-BPD person is often getting something out of these emotional ups and downs too.
People with BPD have an unstable and externalized sense of self, which means they view themselves from the perspective of the most recent feedback they get. When things are going well, they may think well of themselves - but when they are criticized or receive negative feedback, they may spiral.
When someone with BPD receives negative feedback, they have a very hard time separating the behavior from the person. They will instinctively believe that their core self is the one who is bad, and not the specific actions they took.
This is actually a protective strategy. Most people with BPD have a history of trauma in childhood, or parents who are not emotionally responsive. A child in that situation will grow up to believe that they are the problem - which will actually keep them safe in an abusive household. A child who believes they do not deserve love will not seek love - which means they won't be disappointed when they don't get it.
But as adults, this behavior is ineffective (see here) and can lead someone to feel intense emotional crises in response to legitimate feedback.
To break the cycle here: the best strategy for the person with BPD is to build up a lot of self-confidence and self-esteem in advance. DBT skills like ABC PLEASE and Check the Facts will help someone stay resilient. The person who doesn't have BPD can support by carefully phrasing the feedback. Offering lots of reassurance, separating the person from the behavior, and validating the emotions are great places to start.
After internalizing and personalizing the negative feedback, the person with BPD experiences another episode of intense emotional distress: they believe they are experiencing rejection or abandonment.
This will serve as "confirmation" of their negative self-image, and lead to a desire to escape from the overwhelming emotions again.
Now that we've seen how BPD symptoms are self-fulfilling, we also know how to break the cycle.
The person with BPD is responsible for their own healing, and the consequences of their own actions. A best defense is a good offense - so the person with BPD will benefit from learning a lot of skills in advance to manage their emotions.
The non-BPD person in the relationship can offer support, and ease the sting of feedback, by changing their communication style when delivering feedback.
People with BPD can and do get better. These cycles are not permanent, and they are not inevitable. It takes work to break them - but it is worth it.