When used as an adjective, the term ‘borderline’ means ‘only just acceptable in quality or as belonging to a category.’ This is why a lot of people make the assumption that borderline personality disorder is not quite a personality disorder, not quite a mental illness. It’s a term that creates confusion. Your personality is often used to describe who you are as a person, so being told you have a personality disorder makes it feel like there is something wrong with who you are. That’s tough to hear. The alternative is not great either – Emotionally Unstable Personality Disorder. This immediately packs a punch; the assumption comes that the person with this label is likely to be unpredictable. It’s not going to be easy for someone to tell their employer that their diagnosis describes them as emotionally unstable, those are not the words that suggest a person is going to be reliable.
So what else do people think about those of us diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder? Well, I’ve heard and read a lot of things. I am expected to be manipulative, selfish and difficult to be around. Those are not nice descriptions to hear. It pains me that people might hear my diagnosis and put these attributes onto me. All of these beliefs that people hold about this illness are damaging in their own way.
Living with mental illness is difficult. It is made even more difficult when so many people seem to struggle to have any empathy with you. They can understand sadness and anxiety and by extension, feel empathetic towards those with depression and anxiety disorders. However, it is a lot more difficult to understand a condition like BPD because of its complexity. Does that mean the assumptions and shame attached to it are fair? I don’t think so. Maybe it takes more work to understand some illnesses, but not putting the work in is harmful to the people that experience them.
It’s important to note that this does not just apply to the general public, sometimes mental health professionals hold stigmatising views. The very people who are supposed to help us do not want to help us. Some think that anyone diagnosed with BPD is being manipulative and trying to pit staff against one another. They avoid supporting people with this particular diagnosis because it is difficult to treat. Thankfully, there are mental health professionals willing to work with those of us with BPD. They understand our manipulation is often not intentional and the only way we know how to get our needs met. They understand that our emotional extremes can be positive as well as negative. They can see that we are suffering and in need of help.
Knowing that people might think you are selfish and manipulative if they know you have BPD can make you avoid opening up and talking about it. Sometimes talking about what is going on is the only thing that can help, stigma puts barriers in the way of this. We get stuck in this vicious cycle – stigma causes shame which stops people seeking support so they get more unwell and stigma is often worse around those of us who are most unwell.
Until society chooses to work to understand personality disorders, the stigma and discrimination will continue and people will carry on being scared to speak out. World Mental Health Day is coming up: why not take some time to read about real life experiences of those with personality disorders. Read some personal stories and learn about our reality instead of making assumptions. Try to understand our perspectives and avoid being one of many people who are making it harder for us to talk.