Saying no to someone is hard enough. We don’t like to disappoint people because we can’t help. But saying no to someone with borderline personality disorder (BPD) is fraught with additional difficulties.
People who suffer from BPD can experience intense and wildly fluctuating emotions. Typically, sufferers are insecure within relationships and about their sense of identity. They are also ultra-sensitive to feelings of abandonment.
So, how do you say no to someone without upsetting them or making them feel bad about themselves?
First, let’s recap the symptoms of borderline personality disorder.
What Is Borderline Personality Disorder?
Borderline personality disorder symptoms (BPD) present in several ways.
- Emotional instability: experiencing a wide range of emotions, from intense happiness and confidence to extreme anger, loneliness, panic, despair, shame, and fury.
- Distorted thinking: de-personalization, feelings of paranoia or psychosis, dissociative thinking, de-realization, emotional numbness.
- Unstable relationships: intense feelings including idealization or devaluation, preoccupation with worries of abandonment, clingy behavior, needing constant reassurance, black-and-white thinking (a person is good or bad).
- A fragile sense of identity: insecurity about who you are, changing your identity to fit in with others.
- Impulsive behavior: substance abuse, spending sprees, promiscuous behavior, binge drinking or eating, reckless driving.
- Self-Harm/Suicidal thoughts: cutting or burning the skin, threats or attempts at suicide.
What can happen when you say no to someone with BPD?
The descriptions show how this person interacts with the world. When you say no to someone with BPD, what happens? Saying no to a person with BPD results in a slew of over-the-top reactions. You are likely to get inappropriate and over-the-top responses to your turndown.
6 strategies for saying no to someone with borderline personality disorder
Present the facts
The worst thing you can do is get caught up in the mania of someone screaming at you. Tell or show the person with BPD why you have to say no. Get a calendar out with your appointment or engagement noted on it. Show how you won’t be around when they need you.
If they ask you to cancel, tell them you cannot let the other person down. They may ask why they are not important enough for you to cancel. In which case, ask them how they would feel if you cancelled on them.
It’s important to be factual when you say no to someone with BPD. But remember, people with BPD can overreact when you say no.
People with BPD take things personally. It affects their self-esteem and their sense of self and lowers their self-worth.
Tell the person with BPD that it is nothing personal. You are busy and cannot help at this time. If it is another reason, perhaps they want to borrow money, tell them you just cannot afford to. Or that your bills this month are exceptionally high.
The answer is to make them feel reassured whilst you say no. How do you do that? By acknowledging their feelings about your refusal to help.
“I can see that you are upset because you wanted to go to the cinema this weekend. I’m sorry, I would love to go. But I’m working and I must finish this project for my boss. Otherwise, we won’t get the contract and that means no money to pay the bills.”
Do something nice for them
People with BPD can suffer from black-and-white thinking throughout a range of issues. For instance, people are good or bad, relationships are perfect or terrible, and decisions are right or wrong. It is difficult for them to see nuance or grey areas. However, you can use their way of thinking to mitigate their feelings about you saying no.
Why not buy them a small gift to compensate? Or send them a card or flowers to offer your apologies? Doing something nice for them immediately turns you from a bad person to a nice person again.
However, there is one caveat. It doesn’t work for those borderline personality disorder sufferers who use manipulation to control the situation. And don’t feel as if you have to compensate someone with BPD every time you can’t say yes.
Don’t be gaslighted
Talking of manipulation, some people with BPD can be manipulative in the simplest of situations. For example, asking your boyfriend if he has walked the dog. It is a simple question with no agenda.
However, a BPD sufferer can turn it into an argument about you being angry with them for not taking the dog to the park. Reiterating that you were the one who wanted the dog. However, that’s not what you meant. You are asking a simple question with no hidden meaning.
In another example, your girlfriend has a headache and has asked to be left alone in bed. She then texts you constantly to complain that you don’t care about her. But she asked to be left alone. Ask her if she wants to be left alone or wants you to sit with her.
In the above cases, it’s not a question of you saying no to someone with BPD. And it is not about thinking for yourself or showing how much you care. Use their black-and-white thinking if you must confront them.
Yes, this person has a personality disorder that affects their behavior. However, no one has to put up with gaslighting or manipulation. So, in these cases, saying no to someone with borderline personality disorder is probably the best way forward.
Walk away from unreasonable behavior
Likewise, behavior such as lashing out, screaming, throwing things, and physical aggression is not acceptable.
I had a friend, decades ago, that I now suspect suffered from BPD. We lived together for a few months, and I had to leave because her behavior was so extreme. When I told her I was moving out, she threw a kitchen knife at my head, screaming, “Everyone leaves me!”
My father was ill, so I went home to look after him, but that didn’t matter to her. In her eyes, I was rejecting her, and her reaction was extreme and unwarranted.
Offer a different solution
People with BPD suffer from wild extremes of mood. From delirious joy to unmitigated despair. Saying no can cause someone with borderline personality disorder to plummet into depression. They might even self-harm or threaten suicide if they feel undervalued and unloved.
If you must say no, offer a compromise instead. For instance, you are working this weekend, so you cannot go to the cinema. How about going next weekend and making it a special date with drinks and a meal?
I’m not saying it’s necessary to bribe or offer something way over the top. It’s about letting that person know it’s not personal. It has nothing to do with how you feel about them, and letting you make it up to them.
Saying no to someone with borderline personality disorder is difficult. Their extreme response to everyday situations means you must tread carefully, yet still be aware of the manipulation. Hopefully, the tips above will help you manage any fallout from your refusal.
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