BPD can be a tricky illness for friends and loved ones to understand, but there are lots of ways that you can be supportive without becoming overwhelmed by the condition’s symptoms

Borderline personality disorder (BPD), also known as emotionally unstable personality disorder, is a broad diagnosis characterised by difficulties with mood and interaction with others. It means that sufferers often think – and perceive the world – differently from the average person, and they may form very intense relationships that end up being short-lived.

Unfortunately, personality disorders like BPD still carry a great deal of stigma, due in part to outdated ideas about the condition, and labels such as ‘toxic’ that still get unfairly attached to people with BPD. Despite their difficulties forming and maintaining stable relationships, BPD sufferers can be the warmest, most empathetic and loving people, and offer truly rewarding connections.

Although the condition can be hard to manage – not just for the sufferer, but for those around them – there are practical things that you can do to make sure that your relationship with someone who has this mental health condition is positive and solid.

1. Do your research

two women sat on the beach with the sun shining between them

Ensuring that you know what BPD entails will make life easier for both yourself and your friend. A quick read of the NHS or Mind websites will offer plenty of insight into the illness, and will mean that you can approach difficult situations with more awareness and compassion.

2. Be sensitive without ‘walking on eggshells’

The hypersensitivity that comes with BPD means that those close to sufferers may feel as though they are ‘walking on eggshells’ at times. But, this doesn’t have to be the case. Open and clear communication is key, as is a basic sensitivity towards things going on in the other person’s life.

For example, if someone with BPD feels unhappy or unsupported at work, dismissing these concerns with words such as ‘You won’t find a better job elsewhere’ is definitely not the right approach. For a BPD sufferer, this sounds like ‘I don’t care about you’ and ‘You don’t deserve to work in an environment where you feel comfortable’. Being sensitive doesn’t mean treating the other person like they’re made of glass, but it does mean having an awareness of the impact of your words and actions.

3. Offer consistency

BPD is often accompanied by intense fears of abandonment, heightened by the transient nature of many relationships in the sufferer’s life. If you’ve had a string of broken or incredibly short friendships, you might be very wary of others, and terrified of being left or let down.

As the friend of someone with BPD, it’s helpful to be as consistent as possible with what you say and do. If you make plans, try to keep them, or offer a clear reason why you can’t. Make sure you’re not blowing hot and cold.

4. Encourage self-care

Offering to be there at the end of the phone or making positive plans for the next week can be so meaningful for someone with BPD

People with BPD often have a hard time caring for themselves. They might believe that they don’t deserve to be cared for or loved, and may engage in self-destructive behaviours such as self-harm, compulsive spending, binge- eating or starving themselves, and abuse of drugs and alcohol. As a friend, it’s incredibly important to promote caring behaviours without shaming the sufferer if they do slip into destructive patterns. Baths or showers, distracting books and films, scented candles, and time spent with pets, are positive ways to deal with emotional instability that you could suggest. Sometimes, just the offer of a coffee and a listening ear can be a game changer for someone struggling with the daily realities of BPD.

5. Offer positive affirmations

Having BPD can be like living with an evil gremlin inside your head, constantly putting you down and telling you that you’re unlovable, or not good enough. Try to counter this perspective by telling your friend what you like about them. They may be an excellent listener, really good at baking, or amazing when they make you laugh. Let them know this.

6. Be there during the hard times

As much as possible, try not to be a ‘fair-weather friend’, who’s around when things are going well, but absent when times are tough. Of course, it’s important to make sure that you care for yourself, too. It’s entirely possible to be supportive without putting your own wellbeing at risk. Just offering to be there at the end of the phone or making positive plans for the next week can be so meaningful for someone with BPD when they are struggling with self-destructive impulses or overwhelming emotions.