I recently received a message through my website’s contact form. Ordinarily, these messages are inquiries about services or the person is filling out the form to book an intro call. This time I was a bit taken aback by the content. Someone was asking me to retract an article I wrote.
I wrote an article for the National Alliance for Mental Illness recently. It discussed the representation of borderline personality disorder in the media, mainly TV and film. I made a case for finding empathy in creating these depictions, and focusing more on the experience of the person with the disorder rather than the more dramatized or “shocking” behaviours that are usually associated with BPD. The problem with focusing on these behaviours is that it does not explore the reasons these behaviours come up in the first place.
I was simply advocating for empathy and compassion and a more nuanced, well-rounded approach to depicting BPD in TV shows and films.
The person who contacted me was asking me to retract the article as they found it harmful. Their perspective was that empathy for people living with BPD excuses and empowers abusers and is extremely dangerous, especially for partners of people with BPD. I empathized with this person’s experience as it seems that they may be in an abusive situation with a partner who has BPD. I expressed that this isn’t fair or acceptable. I did, however, explain that my article was not making allowances for abuse.
Not every abuser has borderline personality disorder and not everyone with borderline personality disorder is an abuser.
Empathy does not preclude accountability.
And this is what I really want to discuss here. It is possible to empathize with someone’s struggles, challenges and mental health concerns while still holding them accountable for the way they impact other people.
I always say:
Mental illness is not our fault. It is, however, our responsibility.
Part of recovery and the journey of managing our symptoms better, no matter the diagnosis, is becoming aware and responsible for the reactions, behaviours and patterns that impact the people around us negatively. In fact, this is also true for people who do not have a diagnosis. Everyone has room for growth and we need to be willing to put in the work to communicate more healthily, to manage our own emotions better, to keep ourselves stable and content, etc.
When someone in our life experiences mental health concerns that affect us negatively, hurt us or impact our mental health, finding empathy for them may feel like making allowances for their unhealthy behaviour. The fact of the matter is, it will be easier to help them in becoming accountable if your approach is accompanied by empathy and compassion.
It saddens me to think that the person who reached out to me experiences such a challenging and painful dynamic that they view empathy as an attempt to excuse abuse. Nothing about what I wrote expressed that empathy means someone should be given a free pass. For those living with borderline personality disorder who do abuse the people in their lives, empathy means trying to understand what they are feeling and how difficult it is to be in their mind. It also means holding them accountable for their actions since without accountability, they cannot change their harmful behaviours and learn to manage their disorder better.
Empathy and accountability go hand in hand. Empathy should be at the base of everything we do when it comes to supporting others’ mental health. Accountability is the piece where we support them in growing and moving forward in their recovery.
We are not to blame for our mental illness AND it is not an excuse to cause harm to others. It may part of the reason, but it is not an excuse. Understanding the mental illness helps elucidate those abusive behaviours, but they still need to change.
I will always be mindful of what I write and how it may impact people. In this case, I believe my argument was sound and I was happy to explain it to this person further. I never received a response but since my article struck such a cord, I’m sure they are experiencing a lot. I hope they are well, safe and have the support they need.