Lately I seem to be seeing lots of mentions of borderline personality disorder and autistics via social media. One article I saw asks if we are being misdiagnosed with borderline instead of autism, other times people have mentioned how we are so often victims of ‘manipulators and abusers’, categories borderline people fall into. And, of course, there are genuinely some who are indeed both.
I do believe that autistics might be at higher risk of being borderline, because of the way we’ve so often been badly treated. But we’re at even greater risk of being the victims of borderliners, as I call them, including those who are both autistic and borderline.
Briefly, borderline personality disorder is now defined as “impairments in personality (self and interpersonal) functioning and the presence of pathological personality traits.” There are several criteria that must be met for a diagnosis. I must stress here that we’re not talking here about isolated incidents, but a consistent pattern of behaviour, over many years or possibly decades.
A couple of disclaimers here – firstly, before anyone points it out, I’m well aware that I’m not a psychologist or psychiatrist or anything like that. I have no professional knowledge in this area at all. But if something walks like a duck, looks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, excuse me, but I’ll call it a duck.
Secondly, this is NOT intended as some kind of attack on those with mental health issues. There seems to be some discussion as to whether personality disorders actually count as ‘mental illness’, though they are now generally defined as such. A crucial difference, however, between personality disorders and other mental illnesses is that you’re usually aware that you’re depressed, suicidal, etc. People with personality disorders, by comparison, often won’t acknowledge what they are. This is a big part of what makes them so damaging to others.
But what I am concerned with here is how often we are their target. (I’ve focused here on borderliners, but I don’t doubt that much of what I say applies to other personality disorders too.) When I researched them, my initial search only turned up websites that talked of borderline as a condition of ‘emotional instability’ and seemed to ooze with sympathy for the ‘sufferers’ of it. There was little or no mention of what it was like for those around them. It wasn’t till I typed in ‘I have been a victim of someone with borderline personality disorder’ that I discovered all their many, many other victims.
Because yes, I have suffered at the hands of borderliners, and I have seen family and friends suffer too. I didn’t have a name for their behaviour back then, but they’ve been in my life on and off for decades. The label is fairly recent, the type is not. Even the book that’s my ‘creativity bible’, The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, published in the 90s, talks of what she calls ‘crazy-makers’, and the characteristics are basically those of borderliners.
So, I’ve put together a list of common characteristics of borderliners so we can recognise them, preferably before they irreparably harm us.
1) Everything Is About Them. They have to be the centre of attention, at all costs. They will create (melo)dramas, sulk, throw tantrums, argue or rant for hours or even days, whatever it takes to make sure your focus is on them. They will also consistently invade your boundaries and your privacy. It didn’t matter what I was trying to do, my (now ex!) partner just had to talk to me, even when I was writing and made it very clear that I didn’t want to be interrupted. In fact, any time my attention strayed from her, she became almost frantic to get it back. This is often coupled with isolating you from family and former friends, so that you lose perspective on what’s happening.
Borderliners can also be very controlling. My ex once threw a huge hissy fit because, in the middle of a ‘discussion’ (ie lecture from her), I got up and went to the toilet without asking her ‘permission’. How dare I “just get up and walk away!” Around a borderliner, your life no longer feels like your own.
2) They Are Never To Blame. The only time they don’t want attention, is when it comes to accepting blame. Their standard tactics are to deny and minimise. After I fell out with one borderliner, for instance, she tried to tell a friend that I’d ‘just misunderstood one little incident’, when in fact there’d been months of increasingly objectionable behaviour on her part. They will also deny there is any repetition of their behaviour - “let’s just talk about this one thing”, my ex would always say, when I tried to point out any patterns.
Another tactic is ‘reframing’. If something negative did happen, it’s always someone else’s fault. On the rare occasion my ex would admit there was anything ‘wrong’ with her behaviour, she’d insist that it was an ‘only natural’ reaction to how *I* behaved, that I ‘drove’ her to it. For years, I tried very, very hard to be ‘better’, so she in turn would be nice to me. Only when I realised that my behaviour was not the trigger, was I able to break free.
3) They Have Almost No Self-Awareness. A borderliner, for instance, will say things like “I’m a very calm person”, when they’ve just spent hours screaming at you, or claim “I’m not _____ anymore”, when it’s obvious to everyone around them that they still very much are. They also have (or pretend to have?) almost zero awareness of the effect of their actions on others. This is part of the blaming others of course, but it’s more than that. I’ve had a borderliner tell me, with great concern, how it used to ‘really upset’ her when her ex used to self-harm, not realising that this same ex had told me how they only self-harmed after the borderliner had convinced them that they were worthless. It was as if they can’t comprehend any connection between how they behave, and how other people react to them.
4) They will use others against you. This is particularly so if you’ve put yourself out of their reach somehow. Remember that borderliners are experts at manipulation. There’s a phenomenon called ‘flying monkeys’ where borderliners recruit others to continue their abuse of you, having convinced them that YOU are the ‘baddie’. You may even have been one yourself, when you were with them. And while they rarely seem to commit physical violence themselves, I have seen one incite someone to commit it on a third party – after several attempts to destroy that party’s personal and professional reputation.
5) They see all this as normal. Whatever made them borderline happened so young, and so thoroughly, that they seem unable to understand just how screwed up they are. I suppose this makes them objects of pity, but the way I see it, it’s like seeing an unhappy-looking lion in its cage at the zoo. You may feel sorry for it, but it’s not a good idea to jump into the cage and pat it on the head - ‘there, there, poor kitty!’ Borderliners are like the lion – feel sorry for them perhaps, but at a safe distance, or they will rip you to shreds. They can be helped, yes, but not by just anyone. It takes truly major therapy - and first they must admit they need it. Wherein lies the Big Problem – they generally don’t and won’t.
If all this sounds horrendous, believe me, it is. Victims can take years to win free, and more years to heal, if we ever do. After more than twenty years, I’m not sure I’ve quite managed yet to ‘un-program’ myself from the messages my ex implanted in my psyche. And it still didn’t stop me from being the victim of other borderliners. Thankfully, I recognised the patterns quicker, and was able to get out faster and limit the damage.
You’ll notice I’ve said ‘she’ when talking about the borderliners I’ve known. This is because all the ones I’ve known have been female. Typically, about 70% of those diagnosed borderline are women, but this may simply reflect society’s expectation of how men and women ‘naturally’ behave, as more recent research finds the same rates of borderline among men and women in the general population, though the ways it manifests may differ somewhat.
Similarly, I am aware that borderliners are not all the same. Some seem more aggressive than others, some treat badly only those closest while seeming ‘lovely’ to everyone else, while others display the same behaviour to all. Some even seem to have moments of remorse and acknowledging their behaviour (my ex would sometimes do this), but the big problem with this is you can’t trust them to stay that way. What they say today, they will ‘forget’ and deny tomorrow. It’s how they’re built.
There is much more I could say about borderliners, but I think this post is long enough! My basic message is - be wary. Be very wary. And when you recognise one, run a mile. And then another, and another. For your own sake, and the sake of those closest to you. Stay safe, people.