Borderline Personality Disorder: ‘Manipulation’ Vs. Impulsivity

Shelly’s family had grown accustomed to what they considered her extreme reactions and attention-seeking behaviors, but friends, partly because they came and went so quickly, were often caught off guard. Even at 28, Shelly hadn’t yet figured out some friendship basics.

For example, feelings are important — we all have them, and it’s good to share them — but expressing your feelings dramatically without being able to understand or easily empathize with others’ feelings can be a recipe for troubled relations.

Social media sites, platforms that help a great many people find and meet and foster new friendships, were a growing part of the problem for her. Whenever Shel was feeling happy about a new dress or a new friend, she’d turn to Facebook to gush. But if she didn’t receive the number of “likes” or comments to her status updates she believed was necessary to prove people cared about her, her mood quickly turned dark, and she trotted those emotions out in the public domain as well.

One Friday when she should have been working, she took to social media to discuss her hurt feelings over a “break up” with a friend, whom she tagged in the message.

“Christina says I’m ‘too sensitive’ and ‘too much work’ and that she can’t be friends with me right now! Why doesn’t anyone care about me? I don’t get it!”

Shelly was then confused by the “likes” this comment received. Were people saying they liked that her friend ended their relationship, or were they being supportive? She could only accept that it was the former, and again, she took to the screen to blast her emotions. Soon, she’d worked herself into such a state that she felt an incredible anguish descend. She felt trapped and exhausted and restless all at once, and sadly, her next comment was a threat of self-harm. This message received the most attention of all. Messages began to poor in from people she hadn’t spoken to in a long time; everyone was concerned. Her parent’s even called after someone reached out to them and her sister showed up at her office to see if she was OK.

When Shelly settled down a bit, she posted to her Facebook that she was fine, and that no one needed to worry about her. When she then received a comment from an acquaintance asking why she would “be so manipulative,” threatening to harm herself “just to get attention,” Shelly was back where she’d started, feeling instantly and incredibly distressed, as though she didn’t want to live.

Are BPDs Manipulative?

People like Shelly who have borderline personality disorder (BPD) are often accused of being highly manipulative. For family members, friends, romantic partners and coworkers, the intense emotional responses, threats of self-injury or suicide and other behaviors may appear to be carefully designed to control others in order to steer situations to their advantage, to get what they want. However, manipulation implies careful, considered moves and counter-moves in order to obtain something a person really wants, something he expects will make him happy. But people with BPD are highly impulsive. Their moods and emotions are rapidly changeable, and very little seems to make them happy for long; they are tortured by their own changeability and its effects.

In Shelly’s example, she became hurt and enraged by a mistaken fear that “likes” to a comment meant people were being cruel to her. This triggered one impulsive reaction after another; nothing she did was careful or considered. It may be that she recognizes that threatening to harm herself will gain the attention of others, but she didn’t dramatize the event simply for that purpose. She wasn’t being manipulative; she was in the throes of her disease and unable to rein in her emotional storm.

Dismissal Strengthens the Disease

We all have the capacity to be manipulative at times, even people who experience BPD, of course, but it is harmful to assume that people with BPD are only being manipulative when they threaten self-harm or express other extreme reactions. Dismissing their experiences and invalidating their emotions fuels the chaos. People with BPD fear dismissal and abandonment more than perhaps anything else, and sometimes, unfortunately, tend to see it where it does not exist.

It’s important to take our BPD loved ones seriously. Dismissing the disease by assuming it is “just manipulation” is a powerful misunderstanding of borderline personality — a mental health challenge that, for some people, can and does lead to death. Always take threats of harm seriously; it may be the most “careful, considered counter-move” you ever have to make.