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BPD and the manipulation myth.

Abstract image of a structure with green rectangles.
Laura Pettenuzzo

May 17, 2024

A few years ago, I was searching for a new GP. I thought I’d found one: a woman at a clinic just down the street from me, where most staff wore masks and others were willing to mask if I asked.

As we sat in her office and got to know each other, I was hopeful. And then she frowned. She’d just looked up my file on her computer, and her warmth disappeared. “Do you have Borderline?”

“Um – yes.” I twirled my hair, dread building in my stomach.

The doctor sighed. “People with BPD are very difficult to work with.”

I can’t remember how I reacted. I imagine that I fumbled my way through an apology, my default response to any hint of criticism. I know that I went home feeling ashamed and burdensome and deflated, a feeling that has descended during every interaction with a health professional since.

That GP had never met me before. She made a swift and harmful judgement about me based on three letters and the stigma attached to them.

The stigma is driven in part by media representations of people with BPD as cruel and “crazy.” In university, I was excited to read a novel by an Australian author, wherein one of the protagonists had BPD. But I couldn’t finish it, because the (male) author had portrayed the character with BPD as nothing more than a dramatic, attention-seeking woman. There was no empathy for the pain that was likely underlying her behaviour, no attempt to identify with her humanity. She’d been reduced to a collection of stereotypes, just as the GP had done to me.

Misunderstandings of BPD manifest in interpersonal relationships too. I am the first to acknowledge that when I experience intense emotions, my behaviour can become unpredictable and irrational. At the start of this year, I was particularly emotional, and I tried to brace my loved ones by sending them information about BPD. For all my efforts, someone I care deeply about accused me of being “manipulative” and “playing mind games.”

A black and white photo of a hand turning a bunch of pages in a dictionary.

Those words hurt more than the incident that had initially upset me, because they were a fundamental misunderstanding of who I am. According to the Miriam-Webster dictionary, manipulate means to “control or play upon by artful, unfair or insidious means especially to one’s own advantage.” I wasn’t trying to be unfair or insidious, nor are others with BPD when we’re in the throes of intense emotion. We’re just doing the best we can, in any given moment, with the (limited) emotional tools we have.

I’ve been engaging in Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (the most effective BPD treatment) for over a decade. It’s undoubtedly changed my life and given me the skills to regulate my emotions and handle interpersonal interactions in a way that aligns with my goals.

It’s not a “fix,” because I don’t need one.

Sure, I’m sensitive and quick to anger. Yes, I feel things with an intensity that’s often overwhelming, and I’m still learning how to sit in uncomfortable situations. But that emotional intensity makes me who I am. I deserve the same fair and compassionate healthcare as anyone else, the same grace when I (inevitably) mess up. I know – and I want health professionals and loved ones to know – that my emotional complexity doesn’t have to be “too much.” The intensity of my emotions is a gift that I’m learning to appreciate, one that I invite the rest of the world to appreciate too.