Please Note: The ideas contained in this FAQ 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.
Learning all about emotions is the general interest while working through Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD). Developing an intimate understanding of the many ways emotions are experienced in various life situations is needed in order to function more effectively/wisely. A growing understanding of emotions then needs to be coupled with emotional skill development. Once realized how profound and deep the emotional experiences of humans actually are, the ongoing choice remains to develop more and more emotional understanding and mastery. The important clarification in this regard, however, is that to develop “emotional mastery” means to develop more and more willingness to feel and work with emotions, as opposed to getting more proficient at ignoring or suppressing emotions.
And just for the record and to reiterate once more, humans in Western culture are not properly oriented to their emotions from the outset (from childhood on-wards). The greatest emphasis and value in Western culture – whether spoken out loud or not – is placed on becoming materialistic and sustaining materialism AT ALL COSTS, including, of course, at the cost of mental health. Emotions in a materialistic cultural framework are, in best-case scenarios, irrelevant, and, in worst-case scenarios, despised. Were these statements somehow untrue, there would not be so much ongoing need for mental health services and never-ending occurrences of BPD. Therefore, to be in great need of getting an emotional education makes perfect sense for many (if not most) people in Western culture, particularly for those who genetically inherited more emotional sensitivity than others.
This article aims to describe a process for becoming “emotionally flexible,” meaning to become more adept at working with emotions in their many varieties (and sizes) as life happens. You may want to think of this as developing an ability to use different parts of your body in different ways, depending on what you are doing in life and what is needed in the moment. For instance, in some life situations, you need to use your arms or legs with great force to get something accomplished, whereas in other situations only a small amount of energy/movement (or pressure/force) is required. Likewise, in some life situations, different parts of the body go through different stages of tension and relaxation in order to reach the goal or to finish a process or task.
When a person has Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD), it is very common to get caught in “all or nothing thinking” or “splitting” (quickly switching between “love” and “hate” for others). This means that the person suffering from BPD has not yet developed a sufficient range of emotion and expression of emotion. In other words, he experiences his life as either “all good” or “all bad,” and likewise, interprets the behaviour and character of others as either “all good” or “all bad.” One of the most important skills for breaking free from the BPD pattern, therefore, is to cultivate an ability to find the “middle path” or “middle ground” – somewhere in the middle of “all good” or “all bad.”
Since emotions in BPD are often naturally experienced as “extreme” or “intense,” there is a very good chance that they will be “too big” for the situations in which they arise. Because of this, people with BPD are, in many cases, accustomed to hearing others say things like “calm down” or “chill out” after their emotions get expressed. These suggestions to “calm down” don’t usually happen because of a sadistic wish to aggravate a suffering person further, but because the emotions are, in reality, “too big” for the situations in which they arise. That being said, being told to “calm down” does, in fact, usually result in increased aggravation and distress in individuals who have BPD because it is received as INVALIDATING.
To invalidate a person suffering from BPD is comparable to throwing gas on a person who is already on fire; it only adds to the pain and difficulty – obviously. And even though BPD perceptions and expressions are frequently irrational and overly extreme, they nonetheless happen and the suffering person needs help taking a skilful approach to get unstuck from his or her irrationality. Short of taking an approach that works to settle emotions, the result will most likely include remaining stuck on irrational thoughts, remaining overly emotional, becoming unwisely behavioural, and experiencing more and more relational dysfunction and drama. The long-term result often includes relationship loss and progressively worse forms of harm and self-harm. For this reason, I have written two articles that explain the importance of emotional validation and how to practice emotional validation to help settle the intense emotions that happen in BPD.
Using validation isn’t about agreeing with the suffering person, but rather to develop an ability to work with the emotions as they are initially experienced (no matter how exaggerated), settle them/regulate them, and then reconsider if the emotion fits the situation, or not. Again, it will most often be eventually realized by the suffering person that the emotion initially experienced and expressed was a few sizes “too big” for the situation. This realization of what is “too big” is an extremely important learning and will be carried forward to future situations so that the next time there is a similar experience it might more independently and effectively be adjusted.
When working through and resizing emotions, I have often asked myself this question: How much of the emotion that I am experiencing right now makes sense to be feeling at this time and in this situation? I will use a scale of 1 – 10 and then ponder… does this situation call for 9 out of 10, 8 out of 10, or 7 out of 10, etc… sadness, or guilt, or shame, or fear? Or does it not make sense to feel any of these emotions in this situation? Does another emotion make more sense, and would another emotional word be less extreme than the one I was using before? What would it feel like to use a different emotional word? This is what it looks like to cultivate emotional flexibility, and it can help tremendously in the ways that life events are experienced, meaning that life events are not infected as much with the BPD pattern.
When emotional vocabulary is not yet developed, it may be necessary to consult an emotion word (vocabulary) list for locating the feeling word that makes the most sense. These emotion word/vocabulary lists can be found easily online by doing a Google search. Of course, it isn’t usually possible to consult an emotion word list in the heat of the moment, and much of this work, therefore, takes place after moments of difficulty have already passed. But no matter, if the time is taken to do the pondering and reflecting, this information will then be carried forward to future situations so that the next time there is a similar experience it might more independently and effectively be adjusted.
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