Loneliness and 'Borderline Personality Disorder’
By Samantha Pogue (Trainee Clinical Psychologist)
Friday 16th July 2021
As part of my training to become a clinical psychologist, I have been researching what loneliness feels like for people who have been diagnosed with ‘borderline personality disorder’ (BPD), and how this has been impacted by the covid-19 pandemic.
Towards the end of last year, I spoke with 20 people with a diagnosis of BPD who were kind enough to share their experiences with me. Below is a summary of some of the findings that came out of my research. (It is important to note that some of their experiences might relate to other people with a BPD diagnosis, however not everyone, as everyone is an individual and has their own unique experiences):
What does loneliness feel like?
People shared with me that loneliness was something that they had experienced throughout their life and left them feeling alone even with they were with others, different and almost “alien”. Some talked about how they weren’t sure how to fix it and felt powerless to feel better or “find a cure”. For some people, loneliness impacted on their emotions, causing them to fluctuate or intensify. Others talked about how their loneliness was often the feeling behind their self-harm or suicidal thoughts. Some discussed how loneliness was somewhat related to their experience of emptiness, although it seemed to be an “emptiness of connections”.
How does it impact relationships?
When I asked people about their relationships many spoke about a fear of connecting with others. Some of the fears were about feeling they needed to protect themselves from other people, e.g., not feeling able to trust other people, feeling that others won’t understand them, feeling that other people don’t care or even that other people might hurt them. Along with fears about other people, some spoke of fears about themselves. These included worrying that they might be a burden to other people or that they did not have anything to offer to other people.
Despite these fears of connecting to others, there was a strong craving for intimacy and connection amongst the people I spoke to. They talked about a deep wish to have close relationships with other people and to feel accepted and understood.
How to balance the fear of connection & craving for intimacy
There were a few different ways that people balanced the fear and craving of connection with others. Some talked about how they would become a “social chameleon” in their relationships and adapt to other people in order to feel accepted by others. This helped a bit, but also meant they were left feeling that the other person didn’t truly know them. Similarly, some people talked about how they would let others in, but only so much, and keep much of themselves hidden, almost like they were only showing other people the “tip of the iceberg”. Again, people felt that this meant other people didn’t really understand them. Other people talked about “filling the void” of loneliness, by spending time with people who weren’t necessarily good for them and having “unhealthy relationships” so they could feel less alone. Unfortunately, they were often hurt by these relationships which caused them to be less trusting in future relationships.
What else impacted on loneliness?
There were also some things that impacted on the experience of loneliness, such as the stigma associated with BPD, intersectionality and past traumatic experiences. Many people I spoke with talked about how they felt there was a stigma and lack of understanding surrounding the BPD diagnosis and this meant they were not comfortable to open up to others about it. They talked about how they were more comfortable sharing other parts of their mental health, such as depression or anxiety, but due to the negative attitudes and lack of understanding about BPD, they did not always share this with people.
I also talked with people about how other minority experiences, such as gender, sexuality, ethnicity and physical disabilities intersected with their mental health difficulties and caused them to experience more loneliness, feel more different to others, less understood by others and more excluded from relationships or social settings.
Also, some people spoke about how they had experienced traumatic things in their life, which of course caused them to be more protective of themselves by keeping a distance from other people.
Covid-19 and loneliness
So how did covid-19 impact on all of this? The pandemic has changed our social worlds like never before, with our contact with others being vastly reduced and much of our interactions being moved to online or over the phone. Throughout the pandemic people spoke about how they were “thrown off balance” by all of the changes that they were facing, both to their social lives and also their work/education and mental health support.
Along with these changes, people talked about how their fears about themselves, or others become somewhat intensified, for example having a different view about how to behave during the pandemic to a friend reinforced the feeling that they were different, and others didn’t understand them. Some also felt their fears of being abandoned by other people were intensified and speaking online or over the phone didn’t quite feel the same as face-to-face contact.
Along with this, many of the usual ways of coping that people were used to, such as meeting up with a friend, going to the local swimming pool, or sitting in a café to be around others, were not available to people. This meant it was really difficult for people to cope with feeling lonely during covid-19.
With all of this in mind, what helped people to feel more connected to other people?
There were several ways that people found to feel less lonely and more connected and satisfied in their relationships.
Learning to understand myself
Some talked about how a deeper understanding of themselves, either through therapy such as Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT) or Mentalization-Based Therapy (MBT), or life experience, helped them to understand themselves and begin to accept themselves. This in turn helped them to feel more able to connect with others.
Beginning to be vulnerable with others
Some also talked about how slowly beginning to be vulnerable with other people and letting others in a bit more has helped them to feel more understood. This was both in friendships, such as choosing friends by “quality” rather than “quantity” and also by developing a trusting relationship with a therapist.
Making connections with other people who have difficulties associated with BPD was really helpful for many people I spoke to. Some said they felt instantly understood and were able to support each other through their difficulties. Some people commented that it was important to keep safe boundaries and for both people in the friendship to be working towards their own recovery for the friendship to be supportive.
Finding a common ground
It might seem obvious to some but finding something in common with others helped people to build connections. People talked about joining groups such as a choir or parenting group, watching sports with others or arts and crafts groups (Borderline Arts have some fantastic groups! Check them out on the upcoming events section)
I have something to offer
Finally, lots of people I spoke to found that when they were able to offer support to others, they in turn also felt more connected and less lonely. For some people this might have been in their career, such as working in a nursing or teaching role, and for others it might have been through volunteering, such as in a homelessness shelter. Some people also spoke of how having a pet had helped them to feel needed, which reminded them that they had something to offer.
There were many other interesting and important things that came out of speaking with people, but unfortunately I could not include them all here. I hope I have done justice to the conversations I had and that I have adequately represented the experience of those who participated. I would like to express my gratitude to all those who took part in my research and spoke with me about their personal experience of loneliness. I feel privileged to have heard your stories and I am in awe of your resilience.
I am sure there are many aspects of loneliness and connecting with other people relevant to people with difficulties associated with BPD that I have not covered in this article. I am interested to hear your thoughts on this and whether this is something that you feel relates to you, or if your experience is quite different. Please feel free to comment below and share your thoughts. If you would like to get in touch, please follow me on twitter @samantha_pogue
Thank you for reading!
If you have been affected by this article and need support, please go to the support services page on this website for sources of help. If you are in immediate risk, please go to your nearest A&E department or call 999.