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.
Experiencing intense and hard-to-manage emotions is commonplace for those living with borderline personality disorder (BPD). However of all the emotions experienced by this population, some of the most common and difficult to feel are guilt and shame. There are reasons for these recurrent emotional challenges in BPD, although it can take some time in therapy before the reasons are well understood to the point that they can lead to a targeted recovery.
Guilt happens to people when they believe they have made a mistake, hurt others, are at fault, or otherwise should be blamed for things that didn’t go well (e.g., “I yelled and she became scared, and for this I feel guilty”). Shame is the experience of having one’s perceived flaws or lack of worth exposed and then sensing judgment from self or others (e.g., “I drove off in a rage again and got another speeding ticket; I can’t believe I keep doing this!”).
It is normal to sometimes have feelings of guilt because mistakes are made and shame sometimes because patterns of behaviour may be in need of some improvement. But in cases of BPD, feelings of guilt and shame tend to take on a type of permanence rather than transience. In other words, it can be very hard for a person with BPD to let go of things… to stop feeling guilty and ashamed for things that didn’t go well in the past, and also to stop directing blame and shame towards self when it isn’t clear who or what contributed to life problems.
Misplaced Guilt and Shame
Guilt and shame feelings are rarely put into their proper perspective or considered for their relevance to the present moment (i.e., “does it make sense for me to be feeling this way right now?”). Sometimes this preoccupation with guilt and shame is due to the fear of having future interactions with others that induce these kinds of feelings, and then trying to figure out ways to avoid them. But of course, the guilt and shame feelings tend to get re-experienced anyways because of the ongoing imagining and reliving of things.
The way a person with BPD experiences guilt and shame is furthermore different because of the way they have been conditioned to think about themselves, their experiences with others, and their place in the world. They have learned that things tend to go wrong for them and that people tend to blame and judge them for the way they react/overreact. They have been in trouble, corrected and criticized so much that they tend to believe that the world is against them. They don’t yet know why it works this way, but they make many assumptions (perhaps having bad thoughts about themselves; perhaps blaming others). They haven’t considered their limited awareness of self; haven’t reflected on their beliefs about mental health; haven’t learned how the disorder develops in the first place; and hasn’t developed the knowledge and skill to successfully manage the disorder once it has taken root.
BPD Exagerates Guilt and Shame
The manner and extent to which a person with BPD experiences guilt and shame feelings are therefore exaggerated and inappropriate because they do not yet understand themselves or their illness. They don’t understand the significance of their childhood or development. They aren’t aware that they can’t manage their disorder without the necessary knowledge and skills. They believe that they “should have known better” and that there is no excuse for errors in functioning. They set their own trap for repeat feelings of guilt and shame, and may likewise “buy into” the unhealthy and unforgiving attitudes that others have about mental health.
Then there is the unfortunate tendency to suddenly react to chronic feelings of guilt and shame that have built up over time. Reactions may include labelling oneself as “bad” or worrying that others will not tolerate any more mistakes of emotion or behaviour, and then vocalizing these insecurities and seeking reassurance. These types of reactions may result in “getting in trouble” once more as others don’t understand where the reactions are coming from. These types of experiences may then be interpreted as yet another “piece of evidence” that a person struggling with BPD is “always at fault”, “always annoys”, “always hurts”, or is “always a burden on others”.
Indeed it is a sad thing, but a person with BPD will habitually torture himself by inducing guilt and shame feelings through his own thinking style, even when it isn’t necessary. He can’t let things go. When bad things happen, he will personalize the situation and automatically assume he is at fault because he has been “at fault” so many times in the past. He can’t stop personalizing. He will react to his own emotions and set off reactions in others. He can’t stop reacting.
When feelings like guilt and shame are felt unnecessarily (when it doesn’t really make sense to feel that way given the circumstances), this is when the feelings could properly be labelled as “misplaced”. This is one of the keys to overcoming Borderline Personality Disorder… learning to become mindful of misplaced guilt and shame, learning to let it go, and learning to replace the misplaced guilt and shame with something more fitting to the situation.
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