“But have you read the symptoms of borderline?” my partner gently asked. “Fear of abandonment, mood swings—”
“I’m bipolar,” I insisted, raising my voice. “Now please, can we just drop this?”
Denying that I had borderline personality disorder, for a long time, made me feel safe. The evidence was overwhelming, but acknowledging my disorder meant confronting the parts of myself that I hated the most – and so I evaded the truth.
Derailing conversations, switching psychiatrists, hostile glances and “what are you saying?” to any therapist or friend that spoke about me and borderline in the same sentence.
For six years, I denied the diagnosis – despite the many times others tried to intervene and encourage me to seek out support.
The truth is, I was fearful of seeing myself in a light I wasn’t ready for. I didn’t want to look at myself and see a “bad person.” I didn’t want to look at myself and see the harm that I’d done. And in the face of an overpowering stigma, I believed that admitting I was borderline meant admitting that I was someone who didn’t deserve to be loved.
Borderline represented everything I was most afraid of: being the kind of person that hurt other people, the kind of person that drove everyone away, the kind of person destined to be alone.
I was ashamed of my diagnosis; I was afraid of my diagnosis. And so I spent years rejecting it – boxing it up and hiding it away – believing that if I pretended it wasn’t there, it would just disappear.
And while it wasn’t easy to own my diagnosis and choose to do things differently, facing my fears has helped me to lift a burden of six years off of my shoulders, allowing me to address the harm that I’ve done to myself and those that I love.
If you’re tired of the denial, shame, and chaos of BPD, I want you to know that it’s never too late to begin your journey towards healing. And sometimes, the beginning of that journey is deceptively simple: It can start with just acknowledging your struggles.
In that spirit, I want to share four things that happened when I began to not only accept my diagnosis, but liberate myself from the shame that I felt, helping me to confront BPD head on.
1. I Started Being Honest with Myself
Denying that I had borderline required that I lie – to mental health professionals, to my partners, to my friends, to myself.
It meant leaving out symptoms and struggles when I saw a psychiatrist, not wanting to be judged or be told something I didn’t want to hear; it meant keeping people that I cared about in the dark because I couldn’t let them find out.
Sometimes it meant doing really astonishing mental gymnastics to justify harmful behavior, or suppressing my real motivations or intentions because I knew deep down they were unfair to other people.
At some point, I had to cut the bullshit so I could begin to heal. I needed to stop lying, evading, and suppressing. I had to stop pretending that my behavior wasn’t out of the ordinary. And instead of pushing away the thoughts and feelings that I didn’t like, I had to tune in and accept them for what they were.
I had to be willing to admit, “What I’m doing right now is understandable, but it’s not acceptable, especially because it could be hurtful to someone else.”
I had to be willing to say, “It’s okay that I’m having these thoughts, but I really shouldn’t act on them.”
I had to be willing to confess, “I’m afraid of being abandoned – and while that fear is very real for me, it doesn’t justify what I’m doing right now.”
And over and over, I had to tell myself, “I’m scared right now and knowing this, I should ask for what I need directly.”
Being honest with myself meant that I had to stop running away from my fears – even if that meant confronting the reality that I wasn’t behaving in a way that I was happy with, or treating others in a way that I was proud of.
2. I Stopped Fearing the Label
When I started to sit with my thoughts and feelings instead of pushing them away, my instinct was to label myself a “bad person.” I believed that if other people truly knew me, they would leave – because I was broken, because I was terrible, because I was unlovable… because I was borderline.
But it’s important to remember that good people can have bad or troublesome thoughts. Good people can even act on those thoughts from time to time, because good people can make mistakes. Good people can be flawed, troubled, and scared.
Good people – truly, the best of the best – have their own baggage that they’re trying to deal with.
The stigma around borderline personality disorder, though, taught me that people like me could not be good people. They were abusers, they were destroyers, they were lost causes. They were totally irredeemable. They should be avoided at all costs.
When I finally understood that a person with borderline personality disorder could still be good – that this diagnosis, the symptoms, and the struggles say nothing about who we are and who we can become – I was able to focus on making better choices rather than being caught in a spiral of shame and self-deprecation.
When I accepted my diagnosis for what it was, I was no longer fixated on being “good” or being “bad” – it was just about doing the best that I could with my given circumstances, and doing right by myself and others.
My diagnosis became a guide to better understanding my trauma and making better choices, rather than a statement on my worth as a human being.
“Borderline personality disorder” was no longer a mark of shame that held me back, but instead, a context to help me better understand what I was going through and how to be adaptable in the face of my struggles.
Society may have its hangups about borderline, but I’m still determined to push back and ensure that how I treat myself isn’t decided for me by a society that doesn’t understand the disorder to begin with.
Like any kind of diagnosis, I’ve since reclaimed the BPD diagnosis as something for me – a tool for my mental health journey, a way to articulate my experiences – rather than something that just happened to me.
3. I Began Reacting Sooner Rather Than Later
When my depression begins to surface (because I couldn’t have just one disorder, I had to have many!), it inevitably causes me to regress back into a lot of chaotic, borderline behaviors.
For the longest time, borderline felt like a tornado that swept through my life in times of crisis, and then disappeared suddenly and abruptly. It seemed out of control and unpredictable. It felt more like my borderline came and went – but only because I wasn’t paying attention.
I’ve found, since accepting my diagnosis and becoming more aware, that my severe borderline symptoms often come after I’ve ignored some initial red flags.
Tornados don’t just appear without a storm – and my major borderline “episodes” don’t usually drop out of the sky. Chronic loneliness and emptiness, moodiness and irritability, an inclination towards self-harm, and a sudden drop in self-esteem can all tell me that I need to be more attentive to my mental health.
When I start to feel any of these things, I know that it’s time to act, rather than waiting for everything to come undone. I needed to accept that borderline isn’t episodic at all – and I shouldn’t wait for a breakdown to signal that something is wrong.
Like a tornado, if I can find shelter before borderline touches down – with self-care and support from clinicians and loved ones – I can almost certainly mitigate the damage.
One way of building up our coping skills is Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, which has been proven extraordinarily helpful for folks with borderline. I have this workbook which has helped me immensely.
When we accept this diagnosis and become more aware, it can help us catch the warning signs that we need to better understand how our own variety of BPD impacts our lives.
4. I Practiced Radical Accountability
If you couldn’t already tell at this point in the article, I’ve hurt people – and admitting that has been the hardest part of accepting BPD.
“But Sam, you write about mental health for a living! How could you possibly do harm if you’re so informed?”
You’re not the first person to say this to me. But it’s important to realize that all of us, no matter how self-aware we are and how good our intentions might be, can make mistakes and hurt other people.
Now it’s true that there probably isn’t a single person on the face of the planet that hasn’t done harm at some point in their life.
But for many people with borderline, our fear of abandonment and how we relate to others (especially those of us who have survived abuse) can make navigating relationships especially hard and we can find ourselves doing harm even when we really don’t intend to.
This may not be the case for everyone with borderline, but it was most definitely the case with me.
That’s why, when I accepted my diagnosis, I also had to accept the reality that I have hurt people that I love – and that means I should be doing my best not only to prevent this from happening in the future, but to also address it responsibly when it happens.
I knew that I had the power to find more productive, compassionate, and ethical ways to confront these situations when they came up – instead of letting my fear of being abandoned fuel behaviors that will only do more harm.
Cue radical accountability.
Radical accountability, to me, is taking responsibility for the harm you’ve done, but doing this in a way that removes your ego.
Sometimes when we enter into conversations with someone we’ve harmed, we do it with the intention of getting our point across, getting our apology accepted, making ourselves feel better, or explaining why we acted the way that we did – in other words, it’s self-serving.
This makes sense! Because when we’re feeling remorseful, the last thing we want to do is sit with our guilt and sadness. So our approach when we apologize can often be to relieve us of that guilt first and foremost – but that often means we haven’t actually taken responsibility for what we did.
With radical accountability, the conversation simply becomes, “How can I facilitate this other person’s healing?”
In other words, radical accountability isn’t about you. It’s about centering the needs, feelings, and experiences of the person who experienced that harm.
It’s about listening without getting defensive. It’s about accepting what the person says without trying to deny or minimize their experiences. It’s about committing to doing better and apologizing in a way that doesn’t offer excuses (this video on apologizing actually changed my life).
It’s recognizing that your intention does not excuse or explain away your impact.
It’s about inquiring with curiosity about what you can do differently. It’s holding space for that person to be honest about the harm you’ve done and to share how it affected them.
And this one is maybe the most difficult of all: It’s about giving the power over to that person – letting them decide if they can be a part of your life now, and letting them guide the terms that will be on. It’s fully accepting, even when it’s hard to, that you may lose them and that it’s their prerogative to walk away.
Ultimately, it’s about making the person on the other side of the table feel safe, respected, heard, and affirmed.
And most importantly, it’s being able to do this work while still being compassionate and respectful towards yourself. If you come from a place of self-loathing, your apology becomes an attempt at harming or punishing yourself, rather than a sincere effort at reconciliation.
It’s also crucial to remember that radical accountability, when practiced in this way, does not work if you are being subjected to abuse; so proceed with caution if the person you are working with is already a toxic force in your life.
Sound like a lot? It sure is – and it’s a practice, one that I know I’ll never be done working on.
I realize that I will not always be perfect. But that doesn’t mean that I can’t come back to the table and try to make things right. Knowing how to cooperate with others to address harm is an invaluable skill – and for some people with borderline, this can be especially important.
When I finally came out as having borderline personality disorder, no one in my life was surprised. Some people even laughed (and I laughed with them, to be honest). I think everyone was just waiting for me to figure out, on my own time, a healthy and compassionate way to accept this part of myself.
I would be lying if I said this happened overnight. This has been years and years of processing, eventually culminating in a hospitalization that I wasn’t ready for – but one that was the catalyst for finally coming to terms with BPD.
I had to hit rock bottom before I could finally acknowledge how real and how relentless borderline was for me.
And I’m glad that I finally came around. It was only then that I could start to address the ways that borderline personality disorder has affected me. When I came to terms with my BPD – unpacking all of those boxes that I’d stored away up on the shelf – I found a way to begin healing. I was able to be more honest, less afraid of myself and my diagnosis, take better care of myself, and work on reducing the harm that I’d caused.
Everyone’s experience of BPD will be different – and everyone’s healing will look different, too. But if my journey is any indication, acceptance can be the first and most important step.
Sam Dylan Finch is a Staff Writer and Editorial Coordinator for Everyday Feminism. He is a transgender writer, activist, and educator based in the San Francisco Bay Area, exploring the intersections of mental illness and queerness. In addition to his work at Everyday Feminism, he is also the founder of Let’s Queer Things Up!, his beautifully queer blog. You can learn more about him here and read his articles here. Follow him on Twitter @samdylanfinch.