‘Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’ Offers an Honest Look at Borderline Personality Disorder

My favorite television show is airing its final episode in a few weeks.

“Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” follows the life of Rebecca Bunch, a wealthy New York lawyer who has a mental breakdown and, when she runs into her high school boyfriend on the street, decides to follow him to West Covina, California. The show does a lot of things well including dismissing the sexist “crazy ex-girlfriend” stereotype and showing the nuances of how people deal with mental health problems like depression and alcoholism — all while being a musical!

Some of the best songs include a parody of the “La La Land” tune “Another Day of Sun” called “Anti-Depressants Are So Not a Big Deal,” a romantic Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers-inspired number called “Settle for Me,” and “This Session Is Going to Be Different,” in which a therapist sings about her frustrating patient in a song that sounds very much like Liza Minnelli’s “Maybe This Time” from the movie “Cabaret.”

One of the best parts of this show is how is deals with Rebecca’s eventual diagnosis, borderline personality disorder. I never knew much about BPD, and “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” has taught me a lot about it. I learned about the many misconceptions about people with personality disorders. Also, I got to see how a person with BPD manages their symptoms and goes through the ups and downs of recovery and treatment.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, it’s estimated that 1.6 percent of adults in the U.S. has BPD, but that number could be as high as 5.9 percent. Experts believe it’s underdiagnosed in men.

As employers increasingly address mental health in the workplace, it’s worth learning about BPD and how it could potentially impact an employee.

BPD is “a mental health disorder that impacts the way you think and feel about yourself and others, causing problems functioning in everyday life. It includes a pattern of unstable intense relationships, distorted self-image, extreme emotions and impulsiveness,” according to the Mayo Clinic.

Online resource Verywell Mind goes through some of the symptoms of BPD at work. One major one is unstable interpersonal relationships. A person with BPD tends to see the world in a very absolute, black-and-white way. A job or a coworker is either completely good or completely bad, with not much room for nuance. They may enter a new job loving and idealizing everything and everyone. The idealization phase eventually disappears, leaving basically the opposite scenario, with the employee seeing nothing positive about anyone, “instead experiencing them as hostile backstabbers.”

BPD also causes people to have intense reactions to rejection or perceived rejection, potentially leaving a person prone to abandonment issues.

The Women’s Centre for Health Matters suggests ways in which managers or coworkers can help an employee struggling with BPD. Stable environments are important for people with BPD, so providing the employee as much consistency is their job as possible is helpful. This excerpt explains more strategies:

It can be a challenge interacting with individuals with BPD so it is essential to set limits clearly and stress proper workplace conduct, remind about completing assigned tasks and take consideration of coworker’s feelings. An explanation of the appropriate time and place for different interactions such as meetings, problems and complaints may be necessary. Also be prepared for protests and the possibility that the employee will be mad with you for unknown reasons. Demonstrate validation of emotions and stay civil. You don’t necessarily want to validate an employee’s perspective, instead validate the feelings attached to this perspective – “I hear you” or “I understand the way you feel.” Do not cross boundaries and try to document everything.

The Women’s Centre also lists 20 potential accommodations for employees with BPD, including:

  • Encourage attending counseling or psychotherapeutic appointments and allow flexible work scheduling to fit the appointments.
  • Provide confidential weekly/monthly meetings with the employee to discuss workplace issues and performance.
  • Allow telephone calls or phone breaks during work hours to therapists and others for needed support.
  • Offer appropriate praise and reinforcement for positive work interactions.
  • Consider a program that allows employees to work from home on some days.

I want to stress that I’m not a medical expert, but I did get this information through trustworthy research. Also, there are realistically resources out there for safety-concerned employers who don’t want disruptive employees to cross any lines — for example, this 2010 guide from the Australian Human Rights Commission.

What I can say from my own point of view, based on years of reporting on health and benefits issues, is that you may very well come across an employee with a physical or mental health issue. Just because it takes some accommodations to ensure they can get along in your workplace, that doesn’t mean you should dismiss them as viable candidates.

As one article stated, “While BPD symptoms can make things more complicated, many people with BPD go on to have very successful careers.”

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