I remember suggesting to my mom a few times that we were a lucky family, compared to the least fortunate. We weren’t starving, we had savings. Wrong thing to say. I’d get a reproachful look and a comment about my lack of understanding. I know now that what my mom wanted was some affirmation of her feelings. She wanted some acknowledgment of her sadness.
My tendency, though, was to resist, to contradict. I feared that if I gave her an inch, her misery would grab hold of me and suck me in. I had to dig in my heels and resist: “No, no no! Everything’s not that bad!” We talked past each other.
Here’s a piece of advice I wish I’d had before she died — S.E.T., which stands for “support, empathy, truth.” This acronym now helps me respond more compassionately, by offering supportive and empathetic words before sharing my own truth. I should add that I often have to force myself to do this. It doesn’t come naturally, hence the need for the acronym.
So, the person with BPD might say, “Nobody loves me. Even you are not really there for me. I wait for your phone calls, and they never come. Nobody calls or cares.”
You resist (and it’s hard) the temptation to react defensively and to recount all the phone calls you’ve made, all the efforts to reach out, all the patience you’ve tried to show, all the calls and efforts and patience of others in her life. You don’t say those things.
Instead, you say, “I do care about you, and I’m trying to be there for you, like lots of your other friends and family. We’re sure to fail sometimes, but we’re trying, and we’re not going anywhere.” That’s support.
Then you might say, “It must be so hard to have these bad feelings. It’s really not fair that you have to suffer so much. I’m so sorry things are so bad for you.” That’s empathy.
Then, after some give and take, finally, you might say, “Sometimes it hurts when you don’t recognize the efforts I’ve made. I called and emailed you last week, and so did a couple of other friends.”
Your supportive statements may (may, I emphasize) make it easier for her to hear your “truth.” You’ve already soothed and softened the way. You’ve resisted the temptation to contradict, which only strengthens the borderline person’s inclination to hear that they’re wrong, always wrong.