I talk about the dance of the borderline and the dilemma of the non-borderline. (person who does not have BPD but has a loved one with BPD) The borderline dance is one of survival for the borderline and the non-borderline’s dilemma is one of survival for the non-borderline.

The Dance of the Borderline can be defined as the projective-identification/transference of their identity to the extent that they do not know it on to someone else. What does this mean? It means that when the borderline in your life is sad, or hurt or afraid, rather than feel those feelings, as the non-borderline would, the borderline will turn on you in an effort to have you hold, act out and be the very feelings that they cannot hold, handle or cope with. It is a sub-conscious way to have mirrored back to self all that one feels but refuses to feel. It is essentially, the borderline trying to put distance between him or herself and his/her own unresolved and abandoned pain. Little do most borderlines realize that in effect what they are really doing when they act out and push people away and erect walls to ‘protect’ them is wall themselves in with the pain. There is no relief from pain to be found in casting it out to those or to the world around you. The walls that a borderline builds will wall that borderline in and threaten to drown him/her in his/her own pain. The non-borderline who does not have any boundaries is at risk of being sealed into that borderline wall of agony.

It is through this dance that the borderline often sets him/herself up to continually re-experience what feels familiar. Because most borderlines have a tremendous fear of abandonment the behavior that they engage in often is the reason why people have to distance and/or disengage or turn away, sooner or later, to maintain their own sanity. Yet when it is reasonable to leave or to take space (to a non-borderline) the borderline (usually not taking any personal responsibility) will blame you and will experience your taking space or your leaving as abandonment.

The borderline is in a very painful world of his or her own. Emotionally, it is a world that exists in parallel to the world of the “averagely healthy”. Despite a usually above average intelligence and an often charming initial presentation most borderlines are emotionally vastly different from how they are intellectually. The discrepancy between a borderline’s general ability to think and his/her emotional capacity is often an internal schism between self-known and self-unknown that is wider than the grand canyon. It is world that is run by terror and fear and often by the triggered-dissociations from the past of the borderline.

The Dance of the Borderline is experienced by the non-borderline when all of sudden, yet again, they have become the focus of the borderline’s pain, rage, anger, unmet needs, wants, demands, helplessness and so on. Question I’ve been asked a lot of late in email is, “How do I not go there? How can I set a boundary? What do I do when he/she starts it all over again? Why is this happening?

So there is the borderline prone to repeatedly engaging in a deceptive dance of demanding devastation and the non-borderline who cannot get into the head (understand the motivation) of the borderline. Herein lies the dilemma of the non-borderline.

The Non-Borderline’s Dilemma is realized when he/she comes to the inevitable conclusion that he/she has to effect some change for themselves. There comes the realization that a choice has to be made. The choice is one that most often feels like, and is, a choice between equally unfavourable and disagreeable alternatives. This is the projected out predicament in which the borderline (to a degree) has lived within all of his/her life without knowing if fully. It is this similar dilemma/dynamic or predicament that is the fuel of the borderline dance in the first place. So you see the borderline and the non-borderline, in some ways, are not so far apart. The experience of each is very painful – often riddled with conflicting emotions. The experience of each is real. What each non-borderline must realize within this dilemma however, is that they have the tools necessary to take care of themselves. The non-borderline has the ability (not limited emotionally by a personality disorder) to responsibly address what is not working for them or to what is hurting them.

Borderlines, due to the very nature of the personality disorder are not that emotionally/psychologically free to choose (until they’ve had quite a bit of successful therapy and worked through much of these issues.)

So, you are in a relationship with a borderline and you have reached this stage of dilemma. You want the relationship to survive. You have all sorts of mixed feelings toward this borderline in your life, what are you to do? The first thing you must do is decide what it is that you cannot live with anymore. Once you’ve identified that, you will then have the rather difficult task of communicating that to the borderline in your life. Before you communicate what your limits and boundaries are make sure that you are prepared to back them up. If you are not, or you do not you will experience the dance times one hundred and the borderline in your life will generate more chaos than before.

So, you’ve identified the problem, you have decided what your limits and boundaries are, you have a plan of action ready to implement and consistently stick to. At this point it’s time to talk to the borderline in your life. As you do this — remember, you must speak only to your experience and not to his/her behavior. This will be the beginning of a difficult and painful process whether things work out or not. As with any dilemma know that your pain is real and that pain is a natural part of change. Your pain does not have to cause you to doubt that you are doing what you need to do for yourself.

The non-borderline must communicate honestly, fairly, and consistently with the borderline knowing full well that you cannot have any control, effect, or say on how the borderline in your life will choose to react or behave.

The only way to not be engaged in the dance of the borderline is to identify, communicate, and follow through with your boundaries. Your message in words and in action must be clear and consistent. If for example, the borderline in your life is demanding something from you that you cannot give, it is reasonable that you answer the demand calmly with a statement about how you feel and why you cannot do what you are being asked or manipulated to do. Then make a clear statement that you are not going to continue to engage in the conflict or issue. If the borderline continues to press or escalates his/her behavior then you have to disengage in whatever way you have set out as the way that you will do this. For example, if you made it clear you will leave the house for an hour or that you will take a half hour alone somewhere in the house then you must do this.

If you are finding that you have set boundaries and limits and that you have communicated them and acted upon them only to meet with more and more conflict, abuse, and/or hostility then it is time to consider space. In order for you to take care of yourself and have your needs met, your boundaries and limits need to be respected. This is often next to impossible for many borderlines (not yet in therapy or refusing to get help). If the borderline in your life is not getting help, won’t go get help, is in total denial, and will not respect your personhood then the choice you have to make in order to maintain your own sanity is one of space and distance, for a time, or altogether.

As someone who has gone through this from the side of having borderline personality disorder I can honestly say that it took my losing people from my life before I could incorporate certain changes. If you are staying in a relationship or continually caving or surrendering to “have peace” only to find that is not “right”, or “good enough” for the borderline in your life either – you are doing no one a favour by staying in that situation. You have to decide whether you are willing to remain a hostage anymore or not. Do you want your freedom enough? What will this freedom that you seek from pain and emotional turmoil mean? Does it mean you can stay? Does it mean you have to go? Yes, in the pursuit of your disengaging the dance and your attaining your emotional freedom you will hurt. The borderline will hurt. If life and recovery have taught me anything it’s that you cannot grow and change without feeling and working through pain. Let your pain motivate you to learn the lessons, whether you are a borderline or a non-borderline.

Often we, borderline or non-borderline, have to lose in order to gain. We have to grieve in order to grow. We have to say good-bye in order to say hello to ourselves and to subsequent others in our lives. No one of us can change for another. No one of us can control another. Relationships are complicated and hard enough. For the borderline they are not truly possible until the borderline finds his or her lost self and then connects to that self and learns to relate to that self. Until the borderline learns to relate to “self” he/she will always be relating over and over again to “self” through “other”. This reality pushes the “other” away. It also is why the borderline tries to take hostages. If the borderline (in throes of BPD) only knows “self” through “other” and “other” goes away the experience is one as real and painful as “death of self” — annihilation. The end of a relationship to a borderline can be like a death of “self” as was known in “other”. The end of a relationship for a non-borderline or averagely “healthy” person is a very sad, painful loss, but, it is not the loss of self. In fact, when a non-borderline leaves a borderline they often experience a very healthy and welcoming “re-birth” of “self” – a coming home to a self that to one degree or other there was some separation from.

If you have BPD it is up to you to take responsibility for yourself and to learn to respect the limits and boundaries of others. If you are borderline you need to find yourself and to live through that “self” and not project that lost “self” onto others. If you are a non-borderline you need to be realistic with yourself and not accept anything less than basic human courtesy and respect.

The Dance of the Borderline, the tune of which can only be heard by a borderline is music that a non-borderline cannot truly hear or appreciate. You live in one world, separated from itself, worlds over-lapping, yet not touching, worlds in parallel. Borderlines need to stop the dance and the non-borderlines need to end their dilemmas. Whether this can be done in tandem or whether you have to let go and do it alone, only each one of you can decide. Each one of us in this world has a responsibility to ourselves. We cannot extend any real love to another until we learn to love “self”, borderline or not.

© Ms. A.J. Mahari, September 26, 1999