"People with Borderline Personality Disorder are manipulative." We’ve all heard this. It’s one of the most common things I’ve heard from people who describe BPD without having actually suffered with it.
Haven, if it’s one of the most common things you’ve heard? Why have you waited so long to discuss it?
Because it makes me angry. Shocker, I know. Whenever I’ve read a description of how manipulative we as Borderlines are supposed to be I feel deeply, deeply insulted, hurt, and invalidated. My heart hurts because to me, this feels like an attack when I know what I’m going through is pain. It took me a very long time to understand was meant by “manipulative behavior” in terms of Borderline Personality Disorder.
From the World English Dictionary and Oxford Dictionary: Manipulation is:
- The act of negotiating, controlling, or influencing someone or something in a clever, skillful, or devious way.
- To falsify for one’s own advantage.
- To manage, control or influence in a subtle, devious, or underhand manner
- Or to handle with mental or intellectual skill
These are descriptions of willful, constructed, and thought out deceit.
In regards to Borderline Personality Disorder people often describe feeling manipulated by the dramatic outbursts of emotion, the threats of suicide and self-harming behavior; such as cutting, use of guilt, neediness and rejection.
People close to someone with BPD often feel manipulated because the actions of the Borderline in their life “force” them to act in certain ways; usually ways that direct their attention to the person with BPD. They feel as though they’re being held hostage by the emotional volatility of the person with BPD. I hate the use of the term “manipulation” though. It implies that a conscious decision has been made to gain a specific outcome through subtle, devious, skillful, and deceitful means.
Dr. Marsha Linehan has said, “I think it is safe to say that folks with borderline disorder are usually not skillful in their interpersonal communication styles. The problem is that they often can only express their emotional pain by screaming out how much they want to be dead, which is likely true. Self-harm, alas, regulates emotions for many.”
It’s a manipulative action in the sense that we know we need help or attention and act in a way that gains us that attention. In the same way wrapping your fingers around the shaft of a hammer to drive a nail is a manipulation of the wall. There is nothing subtle or deceitful in these acts. It’s justifiable to feel trapped and like you have no choice but to respond to these outbursts, because it is important in times like this that the person sufferering not be ignored. It’s equally important to understand that those actions aren’t a willful attempt to deceive you into making you do something you don’t want to do.
What it is, is an inability to communicate effectively, because we ourselves may not fully understand the pain we are experiencing at the time. When your heart is in your throat, gravity feels like it is physically crushing you into the ground, spinning you out of control so fast you can’t make out up or down through the tears pouring from your eyes… all we know is that we hurt, we’re in pain, something is wrong, and often we don’t have the emotional language to express that. What we do have is a tendency towards impulsive behavior and acting out on our volatile emotions.
To say that someone with Borderline Personality Disorder is manipulative implies a malicious intent (as may be true for a Narcissist or Sociopath). However for someone with Borderline Personality Disorder this manipulation is often the result of not having the skills to deal with their situation and emotions effectively. Usually the “manipulative” behavior is an impulsive action driven by fear of abandonment, loneliness, desperation, and hopelessness—not maliciousness. It is an ultimately maladaptive attempt to get others to care for the, which initially has that effect, but leaves caregivers feeling burned out in the long term.
I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve confided/threatened to kill myself or harm myself. What I needed was love and understanding. Often I did have a particular person in mind whom I wanted that attention from. At the time I believed I needed it from them, I didn’t understand that I had a greater issue [BPD/depression] to deal with. I was experiencing so much stress, so much all-consuming sadness, I couldn’t see any hope. All I knew was that I felt that way, had felt that way for an excruciatingly long time, and couldn’t see an end to that pain. I did honestly believe that I had nothing to live for and if that was all I had to look forward to, than suicide was a better option. Or when I was cutting, it wasn’t a hollow threat, and it was something that did make me feel better temporarily. The point is, the “threats” weren’t hollow cries for attention. I deeply and sincerely felt these were the only ways at the time I was feeling that way. I needed help, but had no idea how to ask for it or express it. Especially since I was so used to having my feelings invalidated by friends and family, the only way I knew to show how much pain I was in, was to show them, and the results were often dramatic. I knew how I felt, I knew what I wanted, but I didn’t know what I needed or how to achieve it. So I acted out in the only way I knew how.
From the Birmingham Maple Clinic  I found this analogy:
“To understand this with more clarity, I like to use the “mommy /baby analogy.” All of our relationships, whether we want to admit it or not, are reflections of our own experiences with our own caregivers. If you have had a baby, you will also be able to use that experience to help you understand this analogy. Let’s pretend that we have a crying baby. Babies can’t talk, so whether they want to play, eat, cuddle, get out of the crib or change diapers, they cry. If a baby cries and they get picked up and cared for, they (hopefully) will stop crying. (I understand that this may depend on the baby in question.) If they don’t get picked up, they will cry more. Depending upon the caregiver, they may then get picked up, but if the caregiver does not respond, they may cry even louder and more forcefully. Let’s presume that at times, the crying may work, but that sometimes it may not. If the baby learns that to get it’s needs met it needs to cry really, really loudly, then it may just jump immediately to that. I mean, why waste your breath going through the other less effective levels of cry? If this baby learns to cry super loud but still the caregiver responds inconsistently (sometimes they pick it up, sometimes not) the baby learns exactly that; “sometimes my very forceful cries get my needs met, but sometimes they don’t. I don’t know when to cry super loud or when to cry softly or when not to cry at all.” This baby is now probably going to make a lot of mistakes such as crying loudly for something that’s not critical, or not cry for something really important.
If you are following me, you might be putting some of the pieces together by now about why manipulation occurs. My mommy/baby analogy is really too simple because lots of other factors contribute to the situation such as other ways that the caregiver might react (do they act angry or annoyed? Do they act pleasantly? Are they distracted by something in the environment?) But let me ask this: is the baby manipulating the caregiver? No. Babies are only trying to get their needs met. So, too, is the individual with the diagnosis of Borderline Personality Disorder.”
It’s a maladaptive way of trying to get those needs met. If, like me, you’ve dealt with having to suppress your emotions because any time you’ve expressed distress you’ve been met with invalidating statements, told to go suck it up, to shut up and deal with it, how you feel is wrong, that it’s not a big deal… than you’ve probably “learned” that merely asking for help means you’ll be ignored because it’s quite clear that whoever is invalidating you doesn’t understand how big of a problem what you’re experiencing is. All that’s left to you is the intense build up and eventual explosion that shows exactly what it is you’ve been feeling.
It’s not intentional. It’s not meant to hurt you. It’s a maladaptive way to get a basic need met. It’s using the only thing we know because we don’t have the emotional language or skills to express ourselves better.
Again from BMC: “If you are in a relationship with someone with a BPD diagnosis, it is important for you to learn how to communicate using a common language that helps both of you understand each other’s needs and how to meet them, as well as learn how to meet your own needs and take care of yourself. It is possible to have balance without accusing the person with BPD of “manipulation.” Using the term manipulation to describe someone with BPD is not fair, and in my experience, using it creates unhelpful barriers to treatment and self-acceptance. The behaviors that feel like manipulation are this person’s attempts to feel relief, feel connected, avoid pain, get help, or assert his/her rights. And whether we have the diagnostic label of BPD attached to us or not, we can all understand those needs.”
I absolutely agree. I hate hearing the term “manipulation” used to describe this kind of behavior. Instead of being defensive, we all need to be proactive and work towards finding a solution for future problems by learning from past ones.