“Why am I doing this…again? I just promised I’d try harder. I know how sh**y I feel during and after I behave this way. I’m tired of creating the consequences I have to face when I lose control – especially in my relationships.”
Sound familiar? If it does, you are *not* alone, and this article is not about shaming you. It’s about looking at what’s happening in these moments through a lens of compassion, curiosity, and awareness.
Often with BPD traits or emotional sensitivity, we may observe – sometimes in the moment and sometimes retrospectively – that the emotions we are feeling are disproportionately more intense than the triggering situation really justifies.
For example, you may forget to bring home a needed item from the grocery store, and instead of this being a relatively minor annoyance and upset, you find yourself collapsed on the floor, sobbing inconsolably and feeling like the world is crashing in on you (true story for me years ago when I forgot coleslaw – you can read about that situation and what skills I eventually used, HERE.)
So what’s happening in these moments? Probably several things. With layers.
As I mentioned in my recent article, “BPD, Trauma, and Why the f*#k did I just say that?”, one contributing factor could be neglecting self-care.
If we’re already highly stressed out and haven’t been taking care of yourself, your capacity to handle minor things is diminished, and little things can feel super intense or even unbearable.
Another contributing factor may be that past trauma is impacting you in the present, hence the title of this piece you’re reading now, “BPD, Trauma, Outbursts, and Reality Checks: How much of this is actually real?”
Sometimes when we’re freaking out in the moment, feeling intense emotions, having upsetting thoughts, and feeling all kinds of uncomfortable physical sensations, we’re experiencing the effects of trauma that’s been long stored in our bodies. It continues to come up to be acknowledged and healed.
Sometimes, when a partner, sibling, child, boss, or any other person in our lives triggers us – perhaps the look they give us sets our mind off racing with insecure thoughts…they say something in a way that has us *sure* they’re checking out of the relationship and our worst abandonment fears will come true again…
Sometimes we’re reading cues from others with accuracy; after all, as humans, we’re hardwired to make subconscious assumptions about a person is feeling based on their facial expressions.
But for those who are emotionally sensitive, we can often honestly look back and remember examples of times of misreading and misinterpreting others’ intentions. If we then acted from believing thoughts that turned out to be distorted and not what was really happening in the present moment, we also likely remember all of the consequences that came with that.
If we have past trauma, an innocent facial expression from a spouse or a child may be filtered as a smirk – a sign of disrespect or disinterest. If we don’t check the facts and get clarity on what the look intended and then run with this (and we’re wrong), it can be very confusing for the other person who suddenly feels like they’re under attack for no reason.
Imagine this scenario for a moment for the sake of illustration. You get home from work or appointments and it’s been a rough day. Your body is tense, and you feel like you have zero bandwidth for taking care of others or dealing with anything stressful.
You walk in the house and your partner is staring at their laptop, scrolling. They look up to say, “Hi, glad you’re home.” Relieved and feeling grateful for the reception, you respond, “Me, too, babe.” Then, your partner looks down at their computer, smirks, makes a sound, and shakes their head.
You have the thought, “Are you SERIOUS? What – were you being sarcastic when you said it’s good for me to be home? I’ve had a rough day and now I need to come to this treatment?” <<< This was all going on internally, not out loud, and then you throw your bag to the follow and scream, “F*ck you then, a**hole!” and storm off.
You believed that your thoughts about your partner’s intentions were real but didn’t check to be sure that was the case. Later after they’ve already become upset and there was disharmony in your home for a better part of the evening, they tell you that they happened to glance and see a disturbing political post and that their reaction in that moment had *nothing* to do with you.
In this moment, you may have shame and regret come up. You may wish you had thought it through, but your emotional resiliency was already down when you got home, and your nervous system jumped the gun to protect you from that look.
Perhaps a parent looked at you very similarly when you were seeking support, protection, love, or approval, and you felt dismissed and invalidated. All of those memories may have come flashing back in the moment you saw your partner make that face, either consciously or subconsciously, even though, in present time, their facial expression had nothing to do with you.
In these moments when we realize we are triggered, in addition to checking the facts to see if our thoughts are accurate, if we know or suspect they are not, we can ask ourselves, “What is the threat?”
If there truly is no threat in the moment, I’ve found reassuring myself through encouraging speech, such as, “There is no threat. I am safe,” over and over and over again can help bring down the emotional intensity, put me more at ease, and help me get through a triggering moment without taking it out on a person in present time.
Keep this in mind the next time you get triggered in a relationship. Perhaps ask yourself, “What is the story I’m believing in this moment?” and “What is the threat?”
Then fact-check what you notice you’re thinking and feeling, and take some time to soothe your nervous system with reassuring, encouraging speech, and lots of gentleness and compassion.
I hope this helped you in some way.
Debbie DeMarco Bennett, BSc., CLC
DBT-trained Certified Life Coach teaching DBT skills classes online
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