dealing with difficult people :: the borderline

I’ve been supervised by some fantastic clinicians over the years. In fact, these are men and women who I’d trust with my own family. Yet, invariably the very best clinicians I have been around will say, “I’ll see almost anyone for therapy, but I refuse to see borderlines.”

Who is a borderline? The clinical diagnosis is pretty severe, but I can tell you what I often see. Borderlines have a vicious push-pull in their relationships. The old description is “Passive-Aggressive Personality Disorder.” At one moment, they love you. At the next, they hate you. They enter your church pledging to serve with loyalty. But, then you get the inevitable email.

Dear Pastor: I am concerned. I’m not sure if I can continue serving if you continue to   pay your musicians.  Think and pray about this.  I have shared my concerns with my community group, and you’ll likely hear from them too.  By the way, looking forward to seeing you at the Christmas party!!!

If you lead an organization, a borderline personality can be your greatest source of confusion. His confusing push-pull makes you think you’re crazy. You second guess your responses. You hyper-evaluate your conversations. Maybe I did do something wrong, you think. But then you you realize that you haven’t. In fact, you’ve given more than you should have to this person. Why does this feel so crazy?

My supervisors who refused to see borderlines often said that each borderline case was the equivalent of 3-5 normal clients. Their boundary in not seeing borderlines was a result of years of experience.  Most therapists are paid by the hour, but clients that take much more emotional and physical energy can be draining, both personally and professionally. One therapist I knew told me that her borderline clients would send emails and make phone calls often during the week and in between sessions, requiring time she simply was not able to give. And this resulted in an inevitable feeling of rejection by the client. It was a no-win situation.

You know you are dealing with a borderline when you begin expending more emotional energy than you’re used to expending for one person. You become caught up in email exchanges that seem to have no end. You get roped in to meetings that produce little resolution. And you feel like you are always the problem. You see, borderlines are men and women who have experienced extraordinary pain and rejection, but project that on to you.  You become the father who rejected them. You become the mother who wouldn’t listen.  And, if you are not aware of this psychological interplay, you are quickly sucked in to a vortex of frustration and futility.

I can tell you that from my own experience, pastoring, counseling, and leading borderlines is difficult work. As a therapist, I find that boundaries are often more clear than when I’m in a pastoral relationship. Yet, a borderlines will inevitably find the weak spot in the wall, exposing the faulty boundary and taking advantage. As a pastor, I find that my need to please will inevitably combust, as helping a borderline will inevitably lead me to doubt myself, and perhaps even lead me to want to quit the ministry. Many fellow pastors have expressed this over the years. If you are a pastor, a manager, or a leader dealing with this personality, you’ll be inclined to ask yourself, “Why did I choose this vocation in the first place?”

That said, I’ve noticed that most people react to a borderline personality. We get angry.  We become hostile. We power up. And this is a natural reaction. However, this only further convinces the borderline that he is a reject. In other words, when we get caught up in the back-and-forth game, it only serves to alienate the person we’re trying to care for. Loving a borderline requires a certain emotional tenacity. We need to be both compassionate towards that rejected and vulnerable part of the borderline, and be firm and direct with the part of the borderline’s personality that chooses to engage in battle. We express care, but we don’t give in. And this is the great art of caring for a borderline.

Jenny came to me for pastoral care after sending several amazing emails praising me for my great sermons, my sensitivity to people’s needs, and my gift for writing. Immediately, I was suspicious. She wanted to see me to talk about “men.” In one session, I learned that she hated her boss, her father, her male colleagues, her male community group members, and her senior pastor. For now, I was the good pastor. However, I was a male too. And I knew this would likely get ugly.

It did.

After several seemingly productive sessions, I (and her community group leader) received an email telling me that I had not responded to her emails promptly, and that I was far too passive in our sessions, not giving enough advice. Her later emails would go further. I wasn’t using the Bible in sessions. I didn’t pray at the end of the session. I ignored her phone call during an hour that she knew I was free. I ignored her suggestions for single’s ministry.

And then, she told me she’d be emailing my senior pastor to tell him that I was inept and should be fired.

This happened almost 10 years ago, and this is when I knew that my clinical supervisors were on to something. Refusing to see borderline clients, they were avoiding an inevitable exercise in exhaustion and frustration. One supervisor even dared to be honest with me saying, “Chuck, I think it will take you longer for you to see. You are fairly idealistic. But you’ll soon understand.”

Having worked with borderline men and women for many years now, I am exhausted. The passive-aggressiveness is crazy-making. But, my supervisor was right many years ago. I’m idealistic. I refuse to believe that these men and women are somehow beyond help. As a pastor, I’m compelled by Augustine’s idea that the church is both a bride and whore. She’s beautiful, and she’s a mess. And I’m called to love her.

On the best days, I remember this. On my worst, I want to quit. That’s the deal with leadership. I got in to ministry for the glory of it – my glory. But, I’ve learned that God teaches us hard lessons about our impatience, and more devastating – our inability to love. I have a very hard time loving borderlines. Maybe you can relate.

I wish I could end with a story of overcoming my own struggle with this. But I can’t. I am still learning what it means to love the borderline. I’ll let you know if I ever figure it out. But I doubt it. That’s what makes surrender and dependence on God all the more sweet. One day, perhaps I’ll come face to face with Jesus, and he’ll say, “Chuck, you were very hard to love. Always back-and-forth, loving-and-hating. One day you’d be loyal. The next, you’d betray me. It was hard to love you but I never quit.”

If you are in a helping profession, never forget that your own crap smells too.

Helping the borderline requires a kind of patience that I pray to have. He can wreak havoc on your church or organization, and you may need to make hard choices. Wisdom, at times, dictates that you protect the other sheep from the predator. But, I’m learning the art of compassion, albeit very slowly. After all, God has shown it to me.

9 comments

  1. Chuck, thanks for helping put into laymen’s terms (although that’s still kind of funny to use that term because I’m a pastor) what border-lines look like. Hadn’t ever had it explained and described so succinctly. And we can never be reminded enough that are own junk smells just as bad, even if its a different smell! Thanks man.

  2. You are so right, but you also must protect the other flock in your case or the other co-workers in the workplace. These people can be such destroyers and splitters of descent people with no regrets. I know this is a disease and I am sympathetic, but it’s difficult to see people really try to befriend a borderlines and literally in ruins before ending the relationship. I am a past psychiatric of 10 years and when I meet a borderline person my contact is extremely limited. to try to warn others is useless they all feel they are misunderstood

  3. just came across this and read it while surfing the net…was crying when i finished…i was diagnosed as

    borderline almost 2 years ago and recognize all the behaviors you described….it’s true…we are the pariahs of

    the mental health community…even knowing my diagnosis and being on meds and in therapy it is a struggle

    not to be the person you tallked about in your article….. i just want to say bless you for continuing to try to

    handle persons like myself while i struggle to handle interacting with others

  4. I stopped by hoping to find help for dealing with my 18 year old daughter who is diagnosed BPD. 
    Guess I’ll keep looking.

  5. Gosh this blessed me. My exhusband is borderline. He is taking a toll on my children. But we pray…Jesus has shown me many things and it has grown me in great ways.but yes its a struggle to not checkout from dealing w a borderline.

  6. What a great article.  I am a therapist in Oregon, and I feel that exact same way.  My faith and walk with God is challenged every day.  Thank you for the article.

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