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'I Would Never Have Guessed': When People Are Surprised I Have BPD

I am less guarded than I've ever been about revealing my diagnosis of borderline personality disorder. This is probably, in part, due to becoming mum and caring less about what others think about me. It is also because I refuse to be silenced by stigma like I used to be. I hope that speaking up might be a way of pushing back against hurtful stereotypes.


In the last few weeks alone, I've disclosed my BPD to several people at work on different occasions. I only shared this personal information because 1. the topic of conversation was relevant and it seemed like a natural link and 2. I felt comfortable. More or less comfortable I suppose. I still get a surge of fear when I disclose my BPD; fear of character assassination, having rights or responsibilities curtailed or general disdain and horror.


The responses were all fine though, as I thought they would be. I tend to only feel comfortable enough with a person to tell them I have BPD if they have indicated to me that they might be open-minded and non-judgmental. However, the responses tended to follow a theme that I've noticed over the years, especially in work settings: surprise. People are somewhat taken aback by my disclosure and it is unexpected to them (and I don't think it was the timing, I think it was the content).


Responses often go like this:

  • 'I would never have guessed'.

  • 'You really can't tell'.

  • 'You're so good at your job' or 'But you're so good at your job'.

  • 'You seem so calm when you're handling X, Y and Z'.

  • 'You're always so lovely / friendly / smiley / calm [insert positive attribute ]'.


The fact that people are surprised when they hear that I have a diagnosis of BPD, history of self-harm, suicidal experiences and more, says a lot about perceptions of mental illness and mental health difficulties, specifically those experiences that tend to be harder for many people to relate to (such as suicide, self-harm, hospitalisation, psychosis or medications with more of a stigma like antipsychotics). To be taken aback by my having BPD is to think that it doesn't affect people 'like me' (their perception of me).


In the public imagination, certain mental health difficulties tend to be thought of as something that other people experience, not those who speak, appear or act in ways that feel familiar and therefore safe. Not people they know or whose company they enjoy, have careers in teaching, healthcare, media or law, smile or say hello to their neighbours and raise lovely children.


As you are likely to know if you have, or love someone with, mental health problems there are tropes that circulate, and proliferate, in the public imagination of what a person with a certain mental health difficulties might look like: scary, dangerous, unkempt, aimless, uncontrolled, unsuccessful, rude etc. When it comes to BPD, these tend to be along the lines of 'manipulative', 'drama queen', 'attention-seeker'. I don't fit the stereotype (because the stereotype isn't true), and so people are surprised that such mental health problems are part of my life. Misunderstandings of mental health problems are dangerous for people with mental health problems; they can damage self-esteem, reduce hope and increase isolation (and much more). This negative stereotyping of people with mental health problems also intersects with (and maybe amplifies) stereotypes that are racist, ableist, homophobic, transphobic, misogynistic and so on.


Others' surprise about my BPD affects me in several ways. Part of me feels relief; surprise is not the same as being brazenly and deliberately insulted. Some people feel surprise indicates a compliment (it would be 'bad' to be seen as 'visibly' affected by a mental health condition). People who show surprise usually want to express that they still think highly of me, in the face of this new-found knowledge about me.


Another part of me feels pleased. Happy that I found the courage to speak up and as a result someone has learnt that BPD can 'somebody like me' (because it has no 'look' and can affect anyone). Finally, surprise feels jarring. I can't help but wonder if people are piecing together a new version of me in their mind now they know about my BPD, wondering or imagining what I have been through or go through. I know the universe doesn't revolve around me, but maybe some people are curious. I prefer it when people ask me follow-up questions because when I disclosure my BPD I feel anxious. I know it can never be revoked once it's said and others' thoughts about it are out of my control. When the internet is often hostile towards BPD, answering questions makes me feel like I have some control over how this person get their information.


Please know that I don't judge anyone harshly who shows surprise. I understand that surprise is not meant to harm and is often coming from a 'good place'. I have had surprised reactions from from people I like and respect very much. A surprised response from someone doesn't indicate that a person has less respect for, or empathy towards, mental health conditions. However, surprise makes me feel less comfortable to immediately open up with someone more fully or feel close with them quickly. I remember when I told my now husband about my BPD, he was very matter of fact and that made me feel very at ease. For this reason and many others, we became very close very fast (that's another story!!).



Often, but not always, those who are the least surprised have experiences or identities that are stereotyped and misunderstood. LGBTQ+ people, for example, are often no stranger to meeting people who think they know all about them and deeply personal aspects of their life. As a result of my own experiences, I don't think I've ever been surprised when someone tells me about their mental health problems. I understand they can happen to anyone, anytime, any place. I know how well I can mask my panic attacks or agonising emotions, even in high-pressure or very public settings, so am aware others could be masking their own too.


I would love to know your thoughts on this as it's something I am continuing to think about a lot...


-Rosie x










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