Pop quiz for anyone with BPD: was your last boyfriend or girlfriend the “worst person you ever met” (if they dumped you) or the “most amazing person in the world” and “I still can’t get over him or her” (if you got dumped)?
If any of the previous reactions ring true, congratulations, you still have Borderline Personality Disorder. Polarized thinking, also known as “splitting” or “black and white thinking” is a cornerstone of the BPD diagnosis. Many times, people with BPD aren’t even aware they think in this manner: to them, some people are just beyond redemption, while others are godlike. Meanwhile, unbiased observers, like our shrinks, will look on with amusement wondering how we convince ourselves of such strong opinions. The funny part is sometimes when us BPDers change our mind about someone or something, we’ll think the exact opposite as we did before, making the worst boyfriend the best we ever knew, or the most angelic person scum of the earth.
As a guy with BPD, I’m no exception to this rule. I am constantly splitting my opinions and emotions about people, going back 10 years ago or as recent as last night. When my feelings are particularly strong about someone – good or bad – it can take a significant amount of time before I’m convinced otherwise, and when the pendulum swings in the other direction, suddenly I take an incorrigible stance diametrically opposed to where I may have been years earlier. Again, no matter where I stand, I’m usually immovable.
I’ll use a relationship example from my own life because this is where polarized thinking rears its ugly head the most.
The first day of college (more than 13 years ago) I met a girl I thought was amazing in every way. She was beautiful, smart, and a gifted athlete. Her dedication to the sport of running was inspiring and instrumental in getting me back on the track for two years competing at the college level. While I was definitely not a contender at these races, I still marveled being around this girl who could destroy the competition week in and week out, while at the same time acting irresistibly innocent and endearing. As you can imagine, I fell head over heals for her and it was probably the worst crush of my life. I put her on the highest pedestal possible, likening my time around her akin to meeting a celebrity that actually took time out of her day to get to know me. I was touched on so many different levels that I lived in complete bliss for a while…
That is…until…things went south. Unbeknownst to me, while I was attempting to court this girl, ask her out, and generally let her know that I wanted us to be a couple (if such a thing even exists in college) she was literally “running” around with other guys behind my back. Now, of course, she had the right to do this because we didn’t have any formal commitment. The problem was that she never really made it clear to me that she was NOT interested in pursuing a relationship together. Some of you more experienced in relationships are probably thinking, “Wow, I didn’t know people organized meetings where they profess their love for each other and sign a commitment contract”. You’re right, but I was so naive coming out of high school without ever having a girlfriend that I thought this was sort of how things worked. Ultimately, I ended up telling her how I felt, and she never could find the guts to tell me she wasn’t interested. Instead, she strung me along for months treating me somewhere between “I’m your girlfriend” and “I’m just a close friend”. That uncertainty killed me.
So, as yo can imagine, my feelings of bliss and undying admiration for her quickly rotted away to hate and anger. She became the last person I wanted to see walking around campus, especially if she was with another guy. I didn’t want to talk to her at all. I hated looking at her. I felt so emotionally betrayed and used that I fell into a horrific depression, almost incapable of holding daily life together without crying myself to sleep at night. It took me over a year to get rid of these emotions and allow myself to move on in terms of finding myself attracted to other women. Still, the damage was done: I spent the bulk of my freshman year trying to impress her, and when that didn’t work out, I was left nearly high and dry without any other social support to fall back on.
1. Don’t date the first semester of your freshman year at all. It is a recipe for disaster. Save dating for after you’ve got a couple good friends to spend time with. Further, before you even set foot in the “dating” arena, make sure your normal relationships are solid and that you have plenty to fallback on just in case the dating game doesn’t work out for you. Looking back, I realized why most relationships in college were intermittent and random: it’s just much easier to hookup with someone on the weekend here and there opposed to making a full blown emotional commitment to someone and forsaking everyone else. It’s too much “social risk” for 4 short years at school. If you fall into a good relationship, chances are it will happen junior or senior year once you’ve played the field and had time to really figure out who you are.
2. Just because a girl seems like she is a goddess, doesn’t mean she’s necessarily perfect in real life. Love is blind 100%, even for “normal” people without BPD. Throw BPD into the mix, and you’re not only blind, but blindfolded speeding up and down an emotional roller coaster that will never stop until you get your life in order. In hindsight, I can see all the little cues and missteps along the way that I willfully ignored because I was so head over heals in love. I can now look at the relationship with more life experience and realize that while the girl I liked was a good citizen (…LOL a great diplomatic term we BPDers can use to describe others we hate but who are mostly decent people…) and certainly attractive, at times she was downright WEIRD and extremely fickle. On top of that, she lacked social graces and was extremely narcissistic, which didn’t come across to me at the time because I attributed this to her extremely high achievement as an athlete on the national collegiate level.
As you can see, BPD polarized thinking can quickly ruin a substantial part of your life, or at minimum make life intolerable while you work through the emotions. It’s hard to think that the present won’t matter 10 years down the road when your heart is broken and you can see no further ahead of you than getting through the next week.
Has my polarized thinking decreased with the passage of time? Yes, but very slightly. When I feel my levels of disgust or high flying love start to take off, I try to talk to myself in a “reasonable” manner about why I’m feeling these emotions. More importantly, I ask myself to look at all sides of the equation (…not just mine…) and see if there are any other mitigating factors that are causing my emotions to run so perversely in one direction.
If I still can’t get myself back on the level about how I feel about someone, I think about public figures and celebrities and compare them to the standard I am holding someone else to in my mind. Tiger Woods: great golfer, generous philanthropist, and a pretty cool guy; except, he cheated on his beautiful wife serially with many different women, even flying porn stars into his mansion for various extra curricular activities. What does this prove? Well, while its possible to love him for golf and hate him for his lack of self control, it proves that even those among us who appear the most well off physically, emotionally, and financially still have their weaknesses and foibles.
More simply put: when polarized thinking starts to boil in your mind, remember NO ONE is 100% bad or 100% good. We are all somewhere in the middle, and it takes a great degree of patience, maturity, life experience, and emotional wherewithal to allow ourselves to see the gray where at first we can only see black or white.
Yes, it can still hurt to see people for who they really are, but in time, as cooler heads prevail, we will better understand why we react the way we do in such drastic terms compared to those without BPD.