Are you selfish for being skillful?

There is a set of skills widely known to help those of us with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD), those of us who have BPD traits, and those of us who identify as being emotionally sensitive.  In particular today, I'll be highlighting  "crisis survival" aka "Distress Tolerance" skills.

These skills can be used to help us better cope with distress, because if you could actually solve the problem (or multiple problems) you are facing, you would likely be turning to problem solving skills. If there is no immediate solution and you're finding yourself becoming emotionally dysregulated, these skills may help. They do in my case and for many others I know who try them.

We can turn to these skills when we are experiencing emotional distress over things that we have no control over in the moment. In just a bit, I'll give you a very real example of my own, as I am calling upon these skills in my own life right now.

What sometimes stands in the way...

1.) The thing about Distress Tolerance skills is that many of them may, on the surface, appear to be simplistic too work. Because of this, we may readily dismiss the skills instead of using them. If you have this thought, the encouragement is to just notice it, and give the skills a chance anyway.

2.) Another thought that sometimes stands in the way of practicing is that we are doing something "wrong/selfish," or "non-productive."  I'll address each of these concerns now.

Thinking you are wrong/selfish about using distress tolerance skills to soothe and distract you during a crisis:

I'm dealing with a number of very stressful issues over which I have no to little control. Where I do have little control, I'm exercising it.  In the other areas, I am choosing to be skillful, even though to the outside world I may look wrong or selfish. 

For example, I just found out yesterday that my Grandmother, my only loving grandparent who lives 3.000 miles away, is in critical condition in a nursing home*. She likely only has a short time. I, of course, became so sad and cried. I then called her. I tried to speak with her, but she can no longer speak. This was really hard to bear (very emotionally distressing.)

The nurse held the phone to my grandmother's ear as I told her I loved her as other important things. My wonderful, stubborn grandmother never really wanted to learn much English, and my Italian is extremely limited, but I said what I could, and I know she can hear me.

Now, my emotional mind can be unreasonable. It suggests that I need to dwell upon, ruminate, and get very anxious over what's happening. 

I understand and have compassion for that part of my mind, but is any of that REALLY going to help anyone, or does it have the potential to make matters worse? (That's my Wise/Rational/Reasonable Mind talking back.)

It's hard not to think of Grandma and get sad. That's NORMAL, of course. After that I have a choice. I'm 3,000 miles away and unable to travel back to her at this time.  She's in her 90s, and I have no control over whether this is her time.  Getting myself sick by not taking proper care of my own health or acting out due to the distress won't help my Grandmother, it won't help me, and it won't help anyone else.  I have to make the CHOICE to keep it together and get/stay skillful.

In conjunction with practicing a skill called Radical Acceptance (a mindfulness practice), I'm finding ways to distance myself from the intensity of the emotions I'm feeling (consciously and without suppressing or denying that I have real and valid sadness), and I'm soothing myself, including by watching an intriguing show on Netflix (at the moment, it's Breaking Amish.)

So, am I wrong or selfish for taking a time out and getting engrossed in a television show while my grandmother's health is failing and I cannot be by her side?  Of course not. She would not want me in constant despair.  It's easy for us to see others as not being selfish but we often accuse ourselves of being so. Consider this the next time you judge yourself in this way.

Thinking you are being non-productive by disconnecting from the distress and doing something to distract and soothe yourself

This couldn't be further from the truth.  Engaging in activities that help take down our emotional intensity for a while when we are in great distress is actually PRODUCTIVE.  Think of your resting and restoring as a way of recharging your batteries so that you can cope from a place of strength and wise mind for the long haul.  Of course if you take a friend's offer up to go for a mani-pedi while something terrible is going on, you are not doing anything to solve the terrible problem. Chances are, that's exactly why you're getting the mani-pedi -- to take a respite, a much needed break from the intense emotional dysregulation that can come with feeling distressed.  Getting your nails painted won't solve your problems, but it can provide a needed break to recharge and at least feel "ok" while difficult things are going on in our lives.

The bottom line is: It's OKAY and ENCOURAGED to take breaks and practice distress tolerance skills in order to support our mental health and get through difficult times.

It may seem selfish or unproductive to others, but that's THEIR story.  It doesn't need to be part of yours.

Thanks for reading.

More soon.

In kindness,

*Since I began drafting this post, my Grandma has passed away. I continue to cope skillfully and effectively.


  1. Hi Debbie, I am so very sorry to hear about your Grandma, and I'm sending big virtual hugs. Thank you for a lovely post - I always feel unproductive when I am self soothing but you have put my mind at rest :) Love Sophia ♡xoxo

  2. (Hugs) So sorry about your Grandma. I have trouble with this very subject. I haven't had to deal with too much that's extremely painful for a while now, but it's important to know that, if I did have to, I wouldn't have to feel guilty for taking care of myself. Thanks for this post. Definitely sharing this!

  3. Thank you for this post, Debbie. Grandmothers are irreplaceable, and I'm so sorry for your loss. Your ability to sit down and rationalize your way through it and type it all out to share with us really gives me a lot of hope. Looking back, I can see how when I lost my Grandma, I made a lot of choices that only worsened my situation and hurt those around me.

    "Getting myself sick by not taking proper care of my own health or acting out due to the distress won't help my Grandmother, it won't help me, and it won't help anyone else. I have to make the CHOICE to keep it together and get/stay skillful."

    It's especially helpful for me to get real-life, real-hard, examples of DBT skills in use. I am glad they are helping you get through it more effectively. And thank you for reminding me that I have to make the CHOICE to be skillful in distress. I want to write it down and make it a mantra to get unstuck from anxious ruminations!

    1. Dear Billy,

      Thank you for your beautiful response. It took me a LONG time to get to the point of being able to think clearly enough in an emotional crisis or during emotional distress to tap into my Wise Mind. When my first grandmother passed away years ago, I did not have this level of consciousness and did lots of troubling things. I was younger and had no real skills to cope effectively and wisely.

      I am so glad you found this helpful and that you have a new mantra. :) Thanks again for reading and commenting .♥

  4. Debbie, firstly my sincere condolences on the passing of your grandmother. I hope that you are able to cope effectively and skilfully through this. I read your blog as my daughter in Australia has BPD and I forward your posts to her. I only hope she reads me, as I find them very informative and have helped me in trying to understand what she experiences. Take care.

  5. I wish, I really wish I had read this when my grandmother died seven years ago. She raised me and I LOST IT. I'm amazed, looking back (hindsight 20/20) that I was not institutionalized at that time. I an so deeply sorry for your loss and so happy you have the skills to help yourself thru this trying time. Also, for helping other borderlines with skills to cope. So happy this blog is here!



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