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 a fully qualified in DBT making them qualified to talk about this chosen subject. So with that in mind…
While going through childhood development, it is essential that many experiences are had with caregivers, and during this time specific skills are learned. If we don’t get practised in childhood for what it means to function effectively in our bodies, to live with others, and to solve everyday problems, most people would probably agree this would result in some dysfunction. For those who develop Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) the main problem is the lack of becoming well-versed (or practised) in managing and tolerating emotions, and likewise developing reactions to emotions that make life harder rather than easier.
If we are to get “practised” or “skilful” in dealing with our emotions, then we need to learn all about them. For instance, we need to learn what they are called (developing an emotional vocabulary), what situations they appropriately fit into, how big or how small they can be, how they can be expressed as “too big” or “too small”, how to work through them, and how to use them to our advantage rather than being controlled or manipulated by them. This type of emotional practice and learning is essential for learning to live in a human body. However, for many children, it doesn’t happen nearly often enough to develop emotional intelligence. The emotional practice is potentially available as children have opportunities to experience life challenges, frustrations, and joys, etc., and then receive the helpful/loving guidance of caregivers.
Opportunities to practice dealing with emotions in childhood can be undermined in a variety of ways. That being said, one of the most common ways to lose out on opportunities to practice emotions in childhood is when caregivers invalidate feelings and therefore suggest to the child that IT IS NOT OK to have feelings and to take the time to process feeling. To invalidate feelings, in general, means to inform another human being (perhaps subtly or directly) that “he shouldn’t be feeling that way”, or “he doesn’t need to be feeling that way”, that “there isn’t any time to deal with feeling”, or that “feelings are bad and shouldn’t even be expressed”. This invalidating language often happens right in the context of conversations and life experiences between children and caregivers and therefore can be hard to notice and modify.
After experiencing emotional invalidation over and over again with caregivers (and perhaps with other family members as well), a child will eventually conclude that it is impossible to express and successfully work through feelings freely. Opportunities to practice emotions are after that given up, resulting in a lack of skills, but also a “build up” of unexpressed emotional content and potential development of emotional sensitivities that may cause problems for that person in the future. For instance, if unable to process feelings of guilt, rejection, or low worth, a person may go to great lengths to avoid interactions they believe will trigger this feeling as they live life, or otherwise react to these feeling states in ways that get them in trouble (over-reacting).
Imagine having a skin burn or skin infection that doesn’t heal, and that the area frequently gets poked or prodded in the midst of living life; this is similar to having emotional intolerances or sensitivities that aren’t guided or corrected in childhood and then remain challenging to deal with in adulthood.
Parents often take an “all-or-nothing” approach to emotions with their children, such that emotions are considered “bad” altogether because they appear to undermine problem-solving ability. Being unable to problem-solve may in actuality turn out to be true if emotions are not guided, and children do not learn how to live in their bodies. The big problem with ignoring feelings, however, is that they are hard-wired into the brain and our biology, and therefore cannot be left unaddressed for too long without consequences (meaning that disorder may happen if emotions get ignored/invalidated over and over again). It is especially dangerous to ignore and neglect feelings when a human being is a more emotionally sensitive type.
If you are dealing with a Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) diagnosis, or in a relationship with someone who is working through this, please recognize that a new skill set is being learned and takes some time to develop proficiency (to get good at it). The BPD behaviours and everything else BPD that may appear to be nothing but refusal to take proper responsibility in life is most likely a complete inability to work through and otherwise manage difficult emotions. The strong tendency for people who observe this disorder (especially in adults) is to more intensely invalidate the feelings and incorrectly assume that feelings can be managed when they cannot. The typical result of making the wrong assumptions about someone’s lack of emotional mastery is to induce again the conditions that contributed to developing the disorder in the first place – invalidating the feelings.
It is essential that adults who are lacking emotional mastery and who develop full-blown BPD find a therapy process to learn how to take this responsibility. Being in relationships and not yet having developed this emotional understanding and mastery can be torture, both for the person struggling with BPD and for his or her partner (or others close to the suffering person). Learning how to validate feelings in conversations can be one of the most loving actions taken by anyone associating with someone who has BPD because it prompts a struggling person to learn how to do this for him or herself. Validating will also work to help a person struggling with emotions to begin settling down.
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