Please Note: The ideas contained in this post are the opinions of the writer and are communicated without reference to supporting documentation in most cases. Other inspiration and influence for the writing came through consultation with other mental health professionals but the writer “Peter Quintano” is also fully qualified in DBT making him qualified to talk about the things discussed in this article.
One of the primary objectives (usually unconscious) for a person struggling with BPD is to avoid any emotions that aren’t yet manageable/tolerable. These emotions may include rejection, worthlessness, shame, guilt, fear of abandonment, etc. The emotional avoidance behaviour in relationships and interactions can often take the form of becoming overly passive, giving in too much, and therefore losing a great deal of power in decision-making.
In many cases, a person with BPD may avoid speaking up for him or herself because the process of debating ideas or disagreeing may result in a spike in emotional experience – perhaps feeling stupid or worthless as ideas get challenged. This spike in emotional experience for the person with BPD may look a lot like becoming “too angry” or “overly dramatic” for the particular situation being discussed, therefore resulting in others (who don’t struggle with emotions) invalidating those who do… maybe saying things like “just calm down already”, or “what’s wrong with you?”, or “you shouldn’t be so upset!”. Unfortunately, these invalidating remarks make can an even bigger reaction and moment of irrationality for the BPD person – quite likely resulting in feelings of extreme shame… “I can’t believe I acted so ridiculously”, or fears of abandonment…. “my partner is sick of me and is going to give up on me/leave me”.
Indeed, emotionally unskilled attempts at assertiveness can be like an emotional torture, because they always backfire! But then again, so can actively avoiding assertiveness in relationships! See how difficult Borderline Personality Disorder can be!?!
When attempts to participate as an equal partner in a relationship have fallen apart due to emotional struggle too many times, the person with BPD may simply decide to act passively and agreeable to avoid potential emotional struggle and emotional fallout. Again, the purpose of this passive behaviour is to avoid emotions that are not yet manageable/tolerable. A person with BPD doesn’t yet know he or she can manage/tolerate emotions, largely due to a lack of guided practice working through emotions in childhood and throughout life.
The problem with becoming overly passive in relationships is that you are left with little to no input in decisions, resulting in feeling unsatisfied and powerless, and quite possibly also, feeling resentful. Since feeling these sorts of emotions can also be difficult and hurtful, the person with BPD still needs to find a way to deal with feelings that aren’t yet manageable/tolerable, perhaps through dissociating or “checking out” from interactions, perhaps remaining “on edge”/irritable, perhaps turning to unhealthy coping behaviours in private (e.g., substance abuse or binge eating), or perhaps something else or all of the above.
Another eventual outcome, if not happening shortly after too much passivity has created an emotional build-up, then at some other point soon enough, the person with BPD may unload many of the avoided emotions in one moment of expression… an out of the blue “emotional explosion”. Big reactions of this sort often leave observers confused and baffled, again due to the BPD reactions seeming like “too much” for situation at hand. But what is a person with BPD to do if he or she has not yet practised noticing and working through all these difficult emotions? And likewise, what is a person to do if everyone he or she interacts with remains clueless about mental health/emotional issues?
Sometimes in the long-run, patterns of emotional neglect and lack of emotional development can change in their appearance… morphing from regular oversized anger reactions into chronic depression and/or anxiousness. A person may also start to wonder about his or her identity when there is little-to-no contribution to decision-making and sacrificing personal interests. Inevitably, when a sensitive person remains unaware (and therefore powerless) to make improvements to the inner experience, the body starts to react and produce various symptoms, sometimes even eventually turning into physical illness issues.
So to make a long story conveniently short, there isn’t much way around the dysfunction of BPD unless (and until) there are ways to begin noticing and successfully working through challenging emotional experiences. Therapy can work well for making these kinds of strides in emotional intelligence/maturity, although is it much like making strides in physical well-being… you have to really want the improved ability (and make time to work towards it) in order to achieve it. Giving up too soon on therapy is unfortunately a common occurrence. Another common reason for avoiding therapy work is believing you can rely on others in your family or friend circle to understand and effectively assist in your emotional growth, and this is unfortunately highly unrealistic.