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.
In my own struggle to heal from the effects of Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD), including emotional deregulations, conflict-laden relationships, identity disturbance, and impulsive behaviours, I have realized it is a journey of moving from the external to the internal. When I say moving from the external to the internal, I mean learning to rely less on things external to feel and be ok (such as other people, things, substances, responses and circumstances) and more on things internal (such as healthy thoughts and beliefs, skills and understanding). Transitioning from the external to the internal could likewise be described as moving away from dependence on temporary or fleeting forms of self-control and adopting more sustainable and enduring forms of self-control. When on the road to overcoming BPD, it is very important to know why this kind of transition is a good thing as it provides the much-needed motivation to keep moving forwards despite the difficulty, and therefore, accept the healing challenge.
I remember a time when I was highly sensitive and reactive to everything going on around me. I was especially sensitive to the things I would hear significant others say, both to me and to others. For almost everything I heard, I made hasty judgments/assumptions that would stir up emotions I couldn’t tolerate (meaning that I couldn’t help but react), usually with some sort of indirect but judgmental statement (passive aggressiveness). I judged others as purposefully devaluing me if they said something contrary to my opinion. I judged others as being inconsiderate and uncaring if they didn’t sense my worried thoughts and ask if I was ok. I judged myself as being inadequate and worthless if I wasn’t made a priority or if it seemed I wasn’t measuring up financially. I judged I judged, I judged…
There were so many emotional triggers in my surroundings that I had no capacity to identify or manage them. Consequently, there were many things I would do and say (ineffective reacting) that would contribute to conflict and drama. If people didn’t talk the way I wanted them to… if things weren’t worded in such a way that I wouldn’t get offended… then the reactions would come and I would be faced with whatever response I got in return. If my reactions didn’t come out right away, then I might save them for later. Sometimes I would just keep it all stuffed inside me like a powder keg. I was very often upset with people and they were very often upset with me. I was dependent on the way people spoke in order to be ok, and I was very anxious about having so little control over this.
Another external measure of control that I attempted to employ was taking authority over the way things looked around the house, even the way people acted or appeared. For instance, if people didn’t look “happy enough” then that meant something was bad about me… like I was letting them down, or I was in trouble, or something else. If people didn’t look at me or give me eye contact, then that was bad too, since it meant that “I didn’t matter or they were rejecting me”. I had my thoughts and my feelings as they were, and I believed all of it was real and factual (emotional reasoning). My reactions were off the cuff, sarcastic, passive aggressive comments. For example, I might say “you are soooo completely happy to be here with me today, I can tell” (with a snotty look on my face). Sometimes I would just go for broke and tell my target person exactly what I thought, like… “You’re never happy with me and I’m a failure, and that’s just the way it is” “anything else you say to me is just a pack of lies”.
I didn’t get control of people, situations, or my emotions by taking the sarcastic/passive aggressive approach, but I did get a lot of upset and passive aggressive reactions in return, and that would lead to hurting even more, then upping the ante on reactions, then conflict, then drama, then bla bla bla… down the rabbit hole. I even developed Panic Disorder at one point because of my inability to manage thoughts and emotions, expecting so much conflict with others, and feeling so anxious about it all. Everything just seemed so “out of control”. No matter how much I might have denied it at the time, this is the way I felt and nothing inside me was getting properly dealt with. Being unable to control people and circumstances, I often turned to substances or anything else (vices) that might make me feel a little bit better for a little while.
Of course I wasn’t in tune with my thoughts sufficiently to recognize I was personalizing just about everything… making everything all about me. I was also thinking in all-or-nothing, black-or-white terms. I feel embarrassed to admit these things now, despite the fact I know that at the time I didn’t know any better. Sometimes I feel especially ashamed as I was a psychology student for much of my severe illness period. The personalizing, the all-or-nothing thinking, the emotional reasoning, still happens from time to time, and all of that is embarrassing to admit, but hey… I know I am just a human and this healing from borderline personality disorder is going to take some time.
Making the transition from external to internal involves taking the time to tune in to the inner world, so you can actually see what’s going in the moment of difficulty. Tuning in to the inner world can perhaps be achieved in a multitude of ways, maybe even as many ways as there are different kinds of therapy. But however it is attained, it means taking the time to practice paying attention and self-reflecting, and perhaps most importantly, being honest with yourself. For me, it meant learning mindfulness meditation, learning to identify judgments, learning to identify thoughts and feelings, learning how to validate, and learning to think more rationally and accepting reality as imperfect as it is. Of course there have been other skills learned, but these types of shifts seem to stand out as being important according to my experience. After consistent efforts have been made, and usually with the guidance of a trained mentor or therapist, dependence on the external starts to diminish and changing a dysfunctional life pattern actually becomes possible.
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