If you suffer from borderline personality disorder, BPD traits, or emotional sensitivity, you likely relate to having incredibly intense emotions. What people who do not have these issues have difficulty understanding is how we can go from sadness to despair (and even having suicidal thoughts) or from anger to rage (and even lashing out and getting in trouble with the law) so quickly.
I'm now in recovery from BPD (I no longer meet the criteria for the diagnosis, which is actually possible with this disorder! You can learn more about my story by clicking here after you finish this article.) But, you know what? I remember those times. I remember when something made me sad, and that sadness, untamed, would become unbearable because I didn't yet know DBT skills, which would ultimately save me and move me into recovery.
Sure, in those moments I could remember times when I didn't feel sad in the past, but I couldn't really tap into and feel anything else. To make matters worse, it was difficult to imagine that I would feel any better ever again. Yes, those of us with BPD often go through this, and it is a very real experience, even if it doesn't makes sense to us, our family, friends, co-workers, bosses, and even some of the professionals who treat us. We don't choose it, and we wish it weren't so.
The problem with having the fearful thought that a feeling, such as deep sadness or despair, may not end, is that it is very difficult to then access our inner wisdom in order to make skillful, healthy choices to get through those difficult episodes. Instead, we often seek quick fixes, usually in the form of unhealthy, impulsive behaviors that give us temporary relief but ultimately cause us more pain, suffering, and consequences in the long run.
And, we don't do this because we're stupid or because we don't care. We've learned to behave this way. Somehow, over the years, these maladaptive coping strategies have helped us to get by and survive. But we do want more than that for ourselves. We really do.
So, when someone with BPD traits is experiencing a painful emotion such as sadness, the natural tendency is to want to push away and reject that emotion. It's uncomfortable, makes us feel badly, and doesn't seem to serve a purpose. Another component, which is one that I struggled with for a long time and still notice arise in my thoughts when I'm feeling sadness, is this fear that sadness won't just stay sadness. That it will spiral into despair and worse, as it did many years ago.
So, on my own personal journey and in my role as a DBT skills peer educator, I've realized:
- In DBT, we learn about a concept called Radical Acceptance. This means radically and fully embracing reality as it is, without trying to change it. This doesn't mean we lie down and give up. It means that the paradox is, if I want to change something, I have to first accept (acknowledge) the truth of what is present in this moment with that situation or issue. In this case, "I am sad."
- We also learn in DBT that there is "cause" for everything, meaning that this moment is the result of every moment that came before it. Every thought, decision, choice...by us, those around us, humanity, etc. Even when we can't pinpoint why something is happening in a particular moment, i.e. "I don't even know why I feel this sad right now!" , this theory of cause says that there is a reason. (The great news is that we don't have to pinpoint it in order to move forward with taking care of ourselves and making skillful healthy choices.)
- It's important to validate our feelings and experiences. If we have some awareness about the cause, we might say, "Well, of course I feel sad. Most people would be upset under these circumstances." If we don't know the cause, we might say, "I am not sure why I am feeling so sad right now, but the fact is that I am. There's some cause, and I am going to love myself through this with kindness and compassion. Here's what I'm going to do to take extra good care of myself today. This too shall pass."
- I like to then remind myself of two things: One, that I am not the same person I was back in the days when sadness would go untamed and unchecked with skills, and two, that no two situations are exactly alike. There are new variables at play. The past is the past. Just because sadness led to deep despair in the past, doesn't mean it will or needs to this time.
I've plugged in other emotions, such as anger, as well, and found this line of thinking to be helpful.
So, we've got our work cut out for us explaining to others why we're afraid to feel certain emotions and how quickly our emotions become more intense than they do for the average person, but there's hope. We can learn skills, work hard with our therapists, and take good care of ourselves in order to get better at accepting emotions, feeling them, and letting them pass. We don't have to spiral or fear the spiral. We can reach out to our clinical support when we have concerns about this, and then get right back on track with skills.
I hope this was helpful to you in some way.