BPD at Work: Symptoms That Can Block 'Fitting In'

Borderline personality disorder (BPD) and job performance at work

Woman sitting alone separate from group
How can borderline personality disorder (BPD) affect your job?. suedhang/Cultura/Getty Images

Symptoms of borderline personality disorder (BPD) at work can vary, including the differing ways that these symtpoms can affect your job performance and ability to "fit in" with your coworkers.

If you have BPD, you may have had work experiences that upset you, the people who worked with you, or both. If so, do you know why those upsetting events happened—how your BPD symptoms may have played a role?

We could talk at length about the different ways which specific aspects of BPD may affect your job performance, but an example can illustrate these much more effectively. Perhaps this example of one person's experience with BPD at work may help you understand your own work disappointments better—and help keep you from repeating them.

As you read through this example, we will put some notes in italics for you to stop and contemplate whether you have experienced something similar. Don't worry if none of this fits with your experience, however, there is plenty to learn from this example for anyone—with or without BPD.

How BPD Can Affect Your Job: A Revolving-Door Work History

In our case study example, a man named Bruce who lives with BPD has a history of job changes. Over and over, he's happy at first, then less and less happy, then angry, then gone to the next job. Each time this happens, he's at a loss to understand why.

Here's a look at how this happens. As you read through his story, think about how you may have faced similar experiences both at work and at play. Thinking of your own experiences and any similarities may help you both find an underlying concern, as well as begin to visualize how you could have reacted differently.

You may even want to grab a piece of paper and a pen and write down anything that sounds like your own experience. With these points noted you can then picture alone, or work with your therapist, on how to make the changes necessary to make your own ending a happy ending.

The New Job—From a Happy Start to an Angry End

Bruce is always very excited when he begins a new job. He tells everyone he sees how fulfilling the work is, and for the first few weeks, he cannot say enough about how much he likes his boss and coworkers. He talks up the company and shares his dreams about moving into more and more responsible roles.

(Take a quick moment to picture whether you have ever felt this way when starting a new job, or even a new relationship. Have you idealized other people in the beginning?)

However, after only a short time, Bruce begins to feel that his boss is "out to get him." He perceives every work request or direction as an unfair criticism. He also becomes increasingly frustrated about working with his coworkers. He complains about what he sees as their lackluster efforts that no one else seems to notice or care about.

(Again, take a moment to think about whether this same thing has happened to you. Have you started out with high expectations only to be disenchanted with those you had at first been impressed with?)

By this time, it's clear to Bruce that his supervisors and coworkers don't like him and are picking on him.

Eventually, Bruce comes to believe that the people at the office are trying to find reasons to fire him, and he reacts in a rage. He yells and swears at his boss while complaining about how unfair the situation is and "always has been." His angry outburst and disrespect toward his boss can only end one way: Bruce is let go to search for another new job.

(Yet, again, have you experienced something like this? Have you slowly become more and more angry with a boss or coworker until you simply erupt in anger?)

Symptoms of BPD in the Workplace

In this example, Bruce demonstrates the following symptoms of BPD at work:

  • Intense/Unstable Interpersonal Relationships
    Bruce’s initial feelings towards his coworkers and boss are intense and idealized. He sees them as doing no wrong and as strong allies who like and support him. However, these feelings soon give way to negative, critical thoughts. Now Bruce sees nothing positive about the people he works with, instead experiencing them as hostile backstabbers. The idealization phase eventually leads to devaluation. This devaluation may occur slowly over time, or more often, rapidly in response due to an overpowering sense of rejection (abandonment sensitivity.)
  • Splitting
    When Bruce’s perception changes from appreciation to devaluation, the shift from good to bad thoughts is total. Consumed by his anger, he is unable to recall that he ever felt differently. Splitting is a defense mechanism common in people with BPD. Instead of seeing another person as primarily good with a few bad traits, the shift to "bad person" is complete in an effort to avoid the possibility of rejection. Since the majority (likely all) of people have some bad traits mixed with the good, this shift often occurs in time no matter who the boss, coworkers, or friend, happens to be. If you're wondering if you ever experience splitting, think of these terms in regard to relationships which often signify that splitting has occurred: always, never, perfect, impossible, ruined, terrible, and awful.
  • Sensitivity to Rejection
    Bruce’s excessive sensitivity to what he experiences as rejection triggers thoughts that his boss and coworkers don't like him and are trying to get him fired. His attitude toward his work and colleagues spirals downward until, as before, he's let go.

Was Bruce justified in the way he felt? What his boss and coworkers actually thought about him as he grew increasingly upset and angry can't be known. It's likely, however, that their actions toward Bruce had little to do with the negative way he perceived them.

Living with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD)

If you saw yourself in this example, you may be wondering how things could be different. In truth, there is a lot that you can do which can help you cope with the symptoms of BPD. Part of the process lies in beginning to recognize the patterns in your behavior. Recognizing these patterns won't necessarily change what you feel inside. You may still want to essentially run away and declare a boss "awful" if an action at work triggers your fear of abandonment. Yet you can learn new ways to react which can result in different endings.

The first step is to find a therapist who you feel comfortable with. Just as with other relationships, finding a therapist can be challenging. Many people with BPD go through the same type of cycle mentioned above with a therapist, first idealizing the therapist and then, if something triggers their sense of abandonment, begin to strongly dislike the therapist. It's important to consider this if you begin to have any negative feelings during your therapy. This is very worthwhile. Both short term and long term therapy have been found to improve the work ability for people living with BPD. Here are some things to look for in a great BPD therapist.

You may also wish to begin learning about how to avoid BPD triggers, and how to manage triggers when they occur.

In addition to work in therapy, self care for BPD is critical in coping with the disorder. Check out these coping skills for BPD which can help you whether at work or in your relationships.

Sources:

Elliott, B., and R. Konet. The Connections Place: A Job Preparedness Program for Individuals with Borderline Personality Disorder. Community and Mental Health Journal. 2014. 50(1):41-5.

Knekt, P., Lindfors, O., Keinanen, M., Heinonen, E., Virtala, E., and T. Harkanen. The Prediction of the Level of Personality Organization on Reduction of Psychiatric Symptoms and Improvement of Work Ability in Short- Versus Long-Term Psychotherapies during a 5-Year Follow-Up. Psychology and Psychotherapy. 2016 Dec 30. (Epub ahead of print).

Sansone, R., and M. Wiederman. Losing a Job on Purpose: Relationships with Borderline Personality Symptomatology. Early Interventions in Psychiatry. 2013. 7(2):210-2.

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