Representing many clients through the past 20+ years in relationships with people with borderline traits, it is helpful to see new artciles that discuss the experiences of people in these relationships. Here, a discussion about the triggering on anger in borderlines, many times without an apparent reason.
I’d say from the two people I know with it that things can be going really well and you can forget sometimes that they have the disorder, but then the littlest things can set it off, which just makes the episodes all the more jarring and violently abrupt.
There are several different subtypes of BPD, but my closest experiences have been with the ‘Petulant Borderline,’ sometimes called the ‘angry’ subtype.
I was weighing whether to go anonymous and share something personal, but I think I will just generalize. xD Triggers can be really small things. Things that seem incredibly strange and even silly to you. The point is that it reached into the person with BPD somewhere and struck a nerve. The nerve is the key: they are extremely vulnerable inside.
There is a great quote by Marsha M. Linehan: “People with BPD are like people with third degree burns over 90% of their bodies. Lacking emotional skin, they feel agony at the slightest touch or movement.”
So something that wouldn’t make you even blink can make them recoil and set them off. You could do something simple like mentioning the name of someone who had hurt them, someone that they have since ‘split’ into the ‘evil enemy’ category, and just hearing the name will trigger them to recall exactly how much they hate that person, and all the reasons why, and they will feel that same outrage and insult and anger that they felt when it first happened with no lessening of intensity. Their feelings do not fade over time; they can be reactivated.
I imagine each individual has specific things that would trigger them tied into such experiences, though it seems likely they could also be anything connected to the ‘fears of abandonment’ that plague people with BPD.
One of the people I know with BPD also has NPD, and anything that challenges their competency or threatens their self-image will set them onto the offensive immediately; they takes offense at the slightest thing and go on the attack and can’t be reasoned with. There are rare moods where you can get through to them, but I think if it strikes them by surprise and they feel attacked, then it elevates them into survival mode.
What is happening is that people with BPD aren’t able to regulate their emotions and are hyper-sensitive to stimuli: with their over-active amygdala — connected to the ‘fight-or-flight’ response — little things can escalate them into overdrive. They’re no longer feeling the typical range of emotions but have surpassed beyond that (‘anger’ or even ‘irritation’ becomes berserk rage), and they lose control of themselves.
It’s not like an eruption they just have to get out of their system, as if once they calm down they can keep it under wraps for awhile. It is entirely dependent on context. They can go weeks or maybe even months without an episode, or have several in one day. This is the largest thing that differentiates BPD from bipolar disorder (since there are a lot of misdiagnoses, especially before BPD was more commonly known): they are reactive to the environment.
This is why one of the books about BPD is called “Walking on Eggshells.” You don’t want to see them in a berserker rage, do you? Of course not! So you tiptoe around them and try not to set them off. You, as an element of their environment, have influence on escalating or de-escalating the situation. (Though far more influence on the former than the latter, certainly.)
How long their episode lasts depends again on that environment. If they are able to remove themselves from the offending trigger, then they can probably calm down within an hour or two. I’m not ever around them long enough to determine just how long it takes, but if I see them/talk to them later that day, they will appear fine and act as if nothing occurred.
If instead someone in their environment reacts to their outburst with anger of their own, then it will become that much more explosive. It is not something that can just run out of steam if it’s vented. The triggers need to be gone. Any combative or offending words or presences/reminders need to be gone.
And then it can all come back at once with one wrong sentence.