Borderline personality disorder (BPD) and favourite people (FPs)
An extended discussion
George, Steph, and I couldn’t be more different. Steph is a straight, single, artist in her early 40s. George is in a relationship with his male partner, studies clinical psychology, and is in his mid-twenties. I’m a 30-year-old bisexual writer in a long-term relationship with a heterosexual man. We do share one rather important commonality though: we’re all people with borderline personality disorder (BPD).
According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition, (DSM-IV), BPD is a, “pervasive pattern of instability in interpersonal relationships, self-image, and emotion, as well as marked impulsivity beginning by early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts.”
BPD is signalled by five (or more) of the following symptoms:
Chronic feelings of emptiness.
Frantic efforts to avoid abandonment (real or perceived).
Identity disturbance with persistently unstable self-image or sense of self.
Impulsive and harmful behaviours such as problematic use of substances, overeating, gambling, or high-risk sexual behaviour.
Intense but short-lived bouts of anger, depression, or anxiety.
A pattern of unstable and intense interpersonal relationships characterized by extremes between idealization and devaluation.
Recurrent suicidal behaviour, gestures, or threats, or self-harming behaviour.
Transient, stress-related paranoid ideation, or severe dissociative symptoms.
Steph, George, and I met through sheer coincidence: it seems we separately experienced mental health crises that brought us together at the same time. After seeking emergency care at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto, we were all bumped up the waitlist for a dialectical behavourial therapy (DBT) skills group and met in October, 2018. Though the group only lasted three months, George, Steph, and I (as well as other people who don’t appear in this particular edition of the newsletter) kept in touch to help support each other in navigating the highs and lows of living with BPD.
One of the most tumultuous aspects of living with BPD is navigating interpersonal relationships. People with BPD often experience intense attachments to a single person who determines their mood, identity, and self-worth. Within the borderline community, this person is known as a favourite person (FP).
Unfortunately, much of the literature surrounding BPD and FPs is woefully inaccurate and written by people without BPD, who portray people with BPD as soul-sucking monsters. George, Steph, and I wanted to challenge some of the negative stereotypes of BPD as well as demystify the FP concept for anyone who has BPD or is in a partnership with someone who has BPD. Below, you can find our edited discussion, guided by questions we agreed upon ahead of time.
What does BPD feel like?
George: Any kind of emotional experience is four or five times more intense. It’s like you’re a baby and you’re experiencing something for the first time.
Miranda: I agree with that. There’s this great Marsha Linehan quote—
G: The fire?
M: “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.”
G: I love that one.
M: I feel my BPD in a big fear of abandonment, trouble regulating my emotions, and issues with impulse control.
How do people with BPD see themselves?
G: I see myself as some kind of prism. I’m see-through but I see all the colours through myself.
M: I’ve always thought of myself as a mirror. I am whatever people want to see in me.
Steph: That’s how I think of myself. I become whoever is around me. If people love me, it’s because I’m showing them a part of themselves that they love.
What is a favourite person (FP)?
G: Your FP is the caregiver you never had and always wanted, even if they don’t behave that way. Whatever emotions you’re feeling (which is four times greater with BPD), it’s eight times greater with your FP. This is the person that stimulates your symptoms and your emotions (positive or negative) twice as much as your baseline.
M: I would just add that FPs have this ability to electrify you. It seems like you’re walking around in a black and white world and an FP comes along and suddenly everything’s in colour.
G: Essentially, what an FP is, is a 200% version of a crush. People think what we experience is crazy and unrelatable stuff but people without BPD experience all of this, just five times less.
How common are FP relationships?
M: Not every person a person with BPD meets will become their FP. I think some people without BPD might get the impression that every crush a person with BPD has is an FP but I don’t think that’s true at all. I’ve had lots of crushes that aren’t FPs. It’s super rare for me.
G: The FP feeling is something you can’t develop over time. It has to hit you right away or it’s not going to hit you. I’ve had FPs who are friends and at the same time been in a romantic relationship with someone who isn’t my FP. I think the most sustainable and rewarding relationship is an FP relationship where both sides are equally engaged.
Tell me what it feels like for you when you first meet an FP? How long does it take for you to figure out you’ve met an FP?
G: Anywhere from five to thirty minutes. I talk to somebody—the way they carry themselves, the tone of their voice, what they’re talking about, how they’re interacting with me—and my brain just clicks.
Another way I see it is that I’m always going down one path. It’s an awful path and it’s hard. When an FP comes, it’s like I’m standing in the middle of a circle and all paths open up around me. I can go any which way I want and every way has an okay option at the end. I feel like even if it doesn’t work out, it’ll be okay.
M: For me, there’s some sort of connection right away. It’s almost physical. Before my mind registers this might be an FP, something in my body starts to happen. Probably from a chemical aspect, my dopamine starts—
G: Or a very low amount of adrenaline.
M: Yes. To try to explain the physical sensations—you know when you’re driving really fast down a hill and your stomach comes up into your mouth? It’s almost like that but like twenty times more intense. My ribs feel like they’re vibrating, and my heart feels like it’s going to explode out of my chest.
G: It’s a completely unorthodox reaction to just talking to somebody new.
M: And such a physical one—and I’m not talking sexual. Just literally a body’s reaction to meeting an FP for the first time.
G: When I look at relationships between people who don’t have mental health issues, I see it as two pillars and they meet 50/50. I think with BPD and FPs, it’s also 50/50 but they meet more like a yin and yang. They tie into each other. There’s equal give and take but it’s so much more complex.
It took me a while to see that. For a long time, I saw it as just the FP who gave in the relationship because he gave me so much joy. But, after a couple of FPs, I realize FPs really love that emotion I give them and the understanding.
What are the best parts of an FP relationship?
G: The whole world opens up. It brightens up. You feel better about yourself because you idealize this person so much and they’re paying attention to you.
To me, getting a new FP is like going to the store, trying on a new personality, and looking in the mirror. I’m like, “I could totally be in this life for you. I could fit in this life for you. It would be perfect.”
Through my FPs, I’ve learned to play instruments, I’ve learned to fix cars, I’ve learned different languages, just because this is what they’re passionate about. I mean, I have these life skills forever now. Essentially when I meet an FP, I’m like, “Oh, I can be like you.”
M: For me, it’s admiring the person, being inspired by the person, loving them, wanting to be them, all at the same time. Plus, I have this great new sense of myself. I finally feel like I’m seen for the first time. If I have a good FP, it can be really nice. People with BPD are so good at hiding their true feelings and emotions to suit whatever circumstances we’re in—
G: Because we learned our emotions are dangerous.
M: Exactly. If you can get an FP that sees you, pays attention to you—
G: It’s amazing. Like you’re always on M, nonstop. This person is just saying all the right things, everything they do is making me happier, everything I do in return is making them happier. I’m in this spiral, I’m going backwards, I’m flying up into the air. It’s amazing.
M: I think it is like an ecstasy when things are going super well with an FP. All of our lives we’re told it’s about the pursuit of happiness, and we don’t really believe it because we’ve had such fucked up or traumatized lives. Then we meet an FP, and it’s like, it is out there: comfort, safety, solace. When an FP relationship is going well, both partners bring out sides of each other that are incredible. An FP can help a person with BPD overcome a lot.
G: For sure. When everything with an FP is going well, everything in my life seems manageable and easy. Actual life catastrophes just blow by.
M: It’s also like being awake. Like I was sleepwalking and when I met them, I finally woke up.
G: That’s the perfect explanation. And you didn’t feel like you were sleepwalking until you met them.
M: I never want to lose that feeling and I never want to go back to sleepwalking through life. They’re the only person that can make the world alive for me.
What are the negative aspects of an FP relationship?
G: If things are going badly with my FP, everything seems much worse. Problems seem much harder to deal with. I either spiral day and night and can’t actually function or I dissociate to the degree that I’m looking through people and walls.
M: I tend to experience more destructive behaviours during bad FP times. That can be anything from panic attacks to self-harm. I feel badly that I have these strong emotions and another person has to live with them. I can imagine how hard it must be for a person to love someone who has a personality disorder that carries one of the highest rates of suicide. At other times, when things are going bad, I can just shut myself down when I need to. My body will do the things it needs to do, it will walk around, but I’m not really there.
G: You’re on autopilot.
M: What I think is so dangerous about FP relationships is because people with BPD love so intensely and so strongly, it’s really easy for an FP, if they’re kind of a shitty person, to take advantage of that love.
G: Absolutely. People with BPD need to be with somebody with secure attachment. That’s a must.
What’s the concept of BPD premonition and how does it relate to FPs?
M: I think in a lot of relationships initially, two people hit it off, daydream about their future, but BPD is something different—
G: 20 years ahead.
M: I meet the person and within that 5-to-30-minute window can see our entire lives laid out perfectly. And what’s frustrating about that is the other person can’t see it. I have to spend the rest of my time convincing them we could be happy together if they would just trust me.
G: And then the other person looks at you like you're insane. Like, “Excuse me, sir, I met you yesterday at Bazonga’s Gentleman Lounge. What are you talking about?”
I don’t see specifics of a life together, just this feeling of this amazing potential out of nowhere.
This is the thing where you get a potential FP and you lose them after two weeks or a month, and people always ask, “Why are you so unbelievably sad, you just met this person?”But you’re not really grieving for the person. You’re grieving for the next 20 years of your life that you felt could be amazing. Not that they wouldn’t be amazing with someone else, but the same type of amazing-ness never goes from one person to another. Everyone has a specific kind of feeling. You may even be happier with someone else, but that specific type that you think was so right for you is just gone from your life.
What does an FP relationship feel like when it’s underway?
G: The FP is like an anchor in some way—because it has so much weight, it can pull you whichever way it wants.
This goes back to that caretaker role I mentioned—that role of somebody who is responsible for a person with BPD so they can finally let out all their breath and relax. They know someone is standing on top of them taking the bomb.
M: For me, when I find an FP I can feel safe with, it’s almost like I’ve been running my whole life and finally someone opens their door and says, “Why don’t you come inside? Have a glass of water? Sit down and take a load off? Take a nap, I’ll watch your stuff. You don’t have to worry.”
That safe haven is so important for a person with BPD. On the flip side, I get why people who are in the position of an FP can feel super overwhelmed in a BPD relationship.
Are people with BPD addicted to instability and chaos?
G: You know when things are going well for a long time and you’re like I want to stir some shit up? Like everything’s going well in your relationship and someone texts you and you feel the inclination to cheat?
M: I think it’s because we all come from such chaotic environments that it’s really hard to feel comfortable in security sometimes. If things are going well for a really long time, we start thinking, “When’s the other shoe going to drop?”
G: And so, we drop it.
S: There’s a subconscious addiction to change but I don’t think it’s that we’re addicted to chaos and drama. It’s that we’re not used to staying in one place for a long period of time.
G: We feel comfortable in instability because for a lot of our early years that’s how we grew up. We grew up in households like that.
S: We crave new information. For us, new information is new emotional information that comes from experience and relationships.
What does the end of an FP relationship feel like?
M: Even thinking about it right now makes me feel sick.
G: The only thing I can say about an FP leaving is I feel like I died. It doesn’t need an explanation. When they leave, it’s like someone took my whole life, put it in their pocket, and walked out of the door. It’s unbearable.
M: It is almost like when an FP leaves, they take all this light with them and I’m left in darkness. I have all these issues because I’ve built up my identity into their identity. For me, when an FP leaves—not every time, obviously—but that tends to be when I go into crisis.
G: I think it also depends on how they leave. The worst thing is when they leave and I had no say. Sometimes, when both partners agree it’s an awful dynamic that’s hurting both of them, a person with BPD will also feel dead but it’s not like somebody stabbed them. It’s like they slowly passed away.
M: I think if I did have a message for people that are leaving a partner with BPD it would be, and it’s totally circumstantial, if you can do a nice goodbye it will be so much better than if you cut them off suddenly. People with BPD have such high abandonment issues.
Steph: 100% agree by the way!
What’s the concept of the pedestal and splitting in BPD?
G: An FP can essentially do no wrong: this is the concept of the pedestal. I think that people who are loved by people with BPD don’t get that level of adoration from a non-FP relationship. I think there’s a very intense sense of loyalty that develops right away to an FP. Even if the FP doesn’t exactly do things that merit trust or merit loyalty—
M: Maybe that’s the other side of the pedestal we can talk about—what happens when an FP falls off the pedestal? It usually takes me another FP to be able to push the old one off the pedestal—
G: Oh, yeah. Even if I’ve lost contact with them and they’re not there, they’re always up on the pedestal a little bit until I meet someone new. I think when they go down off the pedestal it’s that concept of switching in BPD—when something shifts immediately from black to white.
M: It must suck to be the person who falls off the pedestal. I do find with BPD once you’re off the pedestal…
G: Yeah, there’s no going back. Here’s the thing: it takes a lot to kick an FP off that pedestal. If someone hits that switch in me that flips me from white to black, there’s no going back… The next day, I don’t even feel bad.
M: The amazing part is I can spend however long in this FP dynamic not seeing any of my FP’s flaws, any other shortcomings, and then a switch flips in my brain and all the sparkly adoration I shone on them falls away and I can really see them for who they are. I start really focusing on the negative aspects of that person and start amplifying them in my mind. That’s one of the things I don’t like about the FP dynamic.
G: I don’t mind splitting from black to white. I’d just like to control when I split.
I was always curious as to why the splitting happens, especially with FPs. To some degree, as emotionally unstable as we are, because we are so in tune with our emotional environment, I think splitting is there as a defense mechanism. I’ve been trying to see the positive aspects of BPD symptoms, recently. If the symptoms are there, they are there to give you information…I’m getting curious as to why they are there in the first place. Is our body, in its own defective way, trying to protect us? I’m sure it is.
M: I think splitting serves us, because for a lot of people with BPD, they grew up in environments where they didn’t have consistent love. To be able to live in that environment as a child, a person has to be able to flip that switch back-and-forth so when they’re not getting love, they don’t feel like they’re drowning.
G: As much as we split from former FPs, I think FPs never lose their magic completely. They always have a little bit. My biggest support when I met my new FP, was my old FP. We became really good friends. We stopped talking for a year-and-a-half, and then we reconnected. Now, when I talk to him, he has a little of that FP magic—like 20 per cent of that help stored for me.
What are some tips for people with BPD coping with FP relationships?
S: Learn the language. Really just learn the language around boundaries and understanding the dynamics that occur within FP relationships and the pitfalls that can happen from them. It’s being educated. Know your shit.
G: So many people when they get an FP and have BPD, do everything they can to learn everything about their FP to impress them. Please do the exact opposite. Learn everything you can about yourself and your reactions. If you change those, you change the whole picture. Self-awareness is the biggest portion.
M: I would like to echo that. My biggest advice for a person with BPD entering an FP relationship is to set boundaries. Remember you’re a person in your own right. If you can maintain some sense of yourself within the FP relationship, it’s going to be so much easier to navigate than if you’re always at this person’s whims. Even if it’s just small steps, setting your own boundaries is huge when you have BPD.
S: That’s also a protective measure against narcissistic abuse. When you set those boundaries early in an FP relationship, you’re making sure that that person isn’t somebody who is a narcissist, who may have narcissistic tendencies, who may be somebody that is there to take advantage of you. Having those boundaries is so important.
G: That’s so hard when you’re starting off.
S: I know but it’s so important. If you don’t have the filter to see that right away, it’s really important to have some other structure in place to make sure that you’re safeguarding yourself against that.
M: People with BPD have to be really on the lookout for people who are going to take advantage of them because of our nature. If you get into a relationship where you are with somebody who is trying to cut off your support network, that’s a huge red flag. You need to try to reinforce the fact that you need a support network.
G: An important boundary is whatever you were doing before your FP, make sure a lot of that stuff you still do. If you stay in on Tuesday nights and have a bath and watch shows that you enjoy, don’t put that off to go see your FP. Keep parts of your personality to yourself because you need them. It’s one thing to be two people in a relationship. It’s another thing to be one person and one shell.
S: Even if that bath isn’t enjoyable and you look like Pingu doing crafts when he’s angry, you still have to take a bath and try to enjoy it.
M: It’s so hard too—don’t get me wrong. It’s so hard, even years into this, you’re not going to do it right all the time. But, if you can, take a little bit of time to yourself to be a human being in your own right.
S: The important thing to remember too is make sure you keep in contact with all the people who are friends who aren’t your FPs. That’s what saved me overall—that I have this immense, loving, supportive network of friends that may not be FPs but they’ve been the ones that helped me through all of this.
How do you cope with FP endings?
G: My initial reaction is to revert to those extremely unhealthy coping mechanisms—everything impulsive.
G: I didn’t know how to cope with an FP ending until I met you guys in the DBT skills group. The skills are super helpful and the aspect of community—as I said, people with BPD have such unstable relationships—when you’re able to define yourself through a group, especially when that group is focused on the biggest thing that defines you, it’s such a plus.
The only way I coped with an FP leaving beforehand was keeping myself distracted enough from wallowing in my misery. I think being alone with my thoughts was the biggest problem, so I drowned myself in people. Even when I didn’t want to be around people, I was always with friends. When I was alone and walking somewhere, I’d call someone and stay with them on the phone to get to other people. If it was really rough and I felt like I might do something impulsive that night, I asked someone to stay with me.
M: When the end comes, the only other skill I can recommend, and I learned this from our support group is radical acceptance. Go through, write a list of all the reasons this can’t work out, and read it over and over again until it’s inside your brain. It is the hardest and the worst skill to have to practice.
G: You have to cognitively convince yourself that whatever happened, happened, and that’s it. It cannot be changed. It’s over.
S: I found a workaround for that, by the way.
M: Oh, tell me!
S: Instead of doing that, I resolve myself that ten years from now, I’m going to be so awesome and together that the person will want me back. But, by the time you even hit three years, I’m past it.
G: You don’t want them back.
S: I set this resolve where I start working on myself really hard and do a bunch of things to improve my life and along the way I end up finding a better life.
What’s the relationship between BPD and identity?
G: Because people with BPD have such issues with identity and stability, I think we don’t necessarily feel our lives as a coherent whole. We float through ghosting on autopilot. When an FP comes, it’s like they have this whole life package and it’s missing this one puzzle piece where I can fit, and I’ll have this coherent, connected life. It’s not bits here and there from my scattered BPD life. It’s one nice long linear progression of a life that I can just place myself into and no one’s going to ask questions. It’s like this person can allow me to complete myself by putting me in their surroundings. That’s really nice. Extremely unhealthy, but really nice.
M: People with BPD also have such a poor self-image and shaky sense of self that it can become really easy to lose themselves into another person, or lose whatever identity they have crafted for themselves. One of the things I’ve noticed, after an FP relationship has ended, and I’m able to look back on the experience with some perspective, is just how much I’ve changed myself for the FP in that time. And, in some cases, went against my instincts to fit into their lives.
G: I had one experience where I was so intertwined with my FP that everything in my life was based around them. When he left, I was like, “What did I normally do in life? Who did I hang out with? What interested me?” I sat down feeling like an empty fucking page.
S: Not really having that sense of identity, or it shifts, or is dependent on FPs and the people in our lives is hard. To be single and not really know a lot of people in this city, and not spend a lot of time with people, I really feel that lack of identity. A lot of the things about me that I love are things that came from other people. I’ve had to learn how to adopt what I can about those things into myself. Some of it isn’t sustainable. I couldn’t keep them up because it wasn’t something that was innate to me.
M: How about we talk about how people with BPD kind of steal qualities from their FP? We actually take some of their positive traits and leave them with some of our negative ones.
S: It’s so true.
M: “I’m just going to take some of your work ethic and artistic abilities and give you some of my poor self-esteem and my impulse control.”
G: “You speak French? I’ll take that. I cut myself? There you go.”
Because we struggle so much with having a consistent identity, I think sitting down and writing out your identity, and who you are, and sticking to it with palpable things is very important. Over time, you feel like it is you. When you see someone else, they have a mold, they have a shape, they have a colour—
M: And you’re just a floof.
G: You’re just mist.
S: Little bits of snippets of everything.
M: You’re just mist with northern lights moving through it.
G: You have to make this mold for yourself and you have to make a point to step into it and not go anywhere else. If you like these things, if you’re this kind of person, if these are the things you believe in, stay in that lane, and after a while, you actually start feeling like this is you.
We don’t adopt personality traits from FPs because we like those personality traits. We adopt them because we know that this is something that will impress our FP, which will make them happy with us, which will give us more of their attention.
What people with BPD wish FPs knew about living with this disorder?
M: I wish they knew how fragile we are, how easily manipulated or taken advantage of we are, and I wish they would be cautious of that.
G: I wish they knew we’re never ill-intended. We’re never doing what we’re doing to hurt them or make drama. We are reacting to stress the only way we know how to.
S: I agree with both of those things. There’s a level of responsibility that usually FPs are not aware of. The best way I’ve been able to explain it to FPs is, “I know I may be three years older than you but, when it comes to the emotions I’m dealing with, treat me like a child. What would you do if a child was screaming and crying or having a tantrum?”
M: It’s funny you say that. I told my partner to basically treat me like a rescue dog from a kill shelter when we started dating. I’m going to piss in all the wrong places—
S: But we don’t know. We don’t know the things we’re supposed to be doing. We’re unaware. Don’t get angry and think we should know. We come from trauma and we aren’t always capable of regulating that.
Thank you for reading. Because this edition of Life as a Lunatic is rather lengthy, I’m forgoing the Mad History and Recommended Reading section, but they’ll be back in the next edition!