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.
If you can’t see your own mental/emotional functioning for what it is, then how are you ever supposed to make ongoing adjustments and long-term changes? This may be one of the most important questions that every person suffering from Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) asks him or herself. Another related (and paradigm-shifting) question is this one: Is my mental/emotional experience manufactured by me or by someone/something else? Short of facing the full truth and reality of BPD by asking such questions, the person suffering from this condition will most likely continue repeating the same patterns and experiencing the same outcomes in life and relationships, which are frequently disastrous. More specifically, prior to developing the ability to see oneself in action, to become mindfully aware, and to self-reflect, chances are good that relationships will become toxic and get broken. Further yet, thoughts will remain irrational, emotions will painfully fluctuate, and harmful coping behaviours will remain active.
There is a very specific formula (or pattern) of dysfunction in BPD that you can familiarize yourself with in order to free yourself from hell and misery. It is a vicious circle of thought, emotion, and behaviour that takes on a life of its own, especially when there is no awareness that the vicious circle is even happening. Indeed, it can happen so fast and so automatically that it seems like life couldn’t possibly transpire any other way. This is why people who suffer from BPD can have a very hard time grasping the fact that something isn’t right with their functioning, and likewise, why they may be inclined to blame others rather than assume some responsibility for the way interactions unfold.
Even the smallest of stimuli (or combination of stimuli) can “get the ball misery rolling,” meaning it could be as simple as seeing some body language, hearing a phrase or sentence, or remembering an unpleasant past event. For example, if remembering a past unpleasant interaction that involved feeling degraded and rejected, combined with misinterpreting the facial expression of someone nearby as yet another rejection, it could quickly transpire into an angry reaction or passive aggression that baffles the nearby other. The baffled (and perhaps irritated) reaction from the nearby other that naturally follows the unexpected angry or passive-aggressive behaviour of the suffering person may then get easily misinterpreted by the suffering person as meaning the rejection was in fact real. Short of having the faintest clue of what’s going on here, this unfortunate experience may easily and quickly continue escalating until more destructive words and behaviours start appearing.
In cases of BPD, the vicious circle starts with a thought/interpretation (what does the event mean?). The interpretation immediately triggers an emotion (or set of emotions), which is then followed by a behavioural reaction. Again, this process happens so fast that it typically evades consciousness, but this lack of awareness can change after self-awareness activities are initiated and practised. To further improve awareness of how this all happens, it helps to study visual representations of the vicious circle of thought, emotion, and behaviour. I have produced several of these visual representations based on real-life examples, and all are available in my book, “9-Steps to Mastering Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD).” Once you can begin seeing yourself and your experiences visually in the same manner as outlined in the book, your capacity for ongoing awareness, self-control, and freedom of choice improves drastically.
The reason that the circle is described as “vicious” is because once it gets going it can be very difficult to break free from it. The reason it is a “circle” is because one misinterpretation/unmanaged emotion/ineffective behaviour leads directly into another misinterpretation/unmanaged emotion/ineffective behaviour, and then another, and another, etc. And while this is occurring, there can be much that is said and done by all involved that is destructive to individuals and relationships. Finally, when the vicious circle has run out of energy, there is very commonly much regret for having participated in such a production and the harms that have resulted. Although not to suggest that the misery is over, because the lingering regret (guilt and shame) can act as yet another triggering stimuli that erupts into another vicious circle of thought, emotion, and behaviour!
Not only do these vicious circles get activated because there is no developed awareness that they are occurring, but also because there is no developed skill to adjust the pattern as it is. Other skills that need to be developed to adjust the pattern include improved methods of communication, emotion regulation skills, and acceptance skills. In particular, at least from my experience, there needs to be a strong willingness to feel emotions instead of impulsively avoiding emotions by any means necessary (fight, flight, or freeze). By “feeling through” the emotions mindfully and lovingly, the other identified skill areas can be easier to develop. Working through emotions with determination and courage and purpose furthermore results in realizing that emotions are not dangerous in-and-of themselves, and that adjustments can be made as needed. It is very much an confidence-building exercise in emotion management that many people are faced with completing in their adulthood, even though the ideal time and place for this development would have been in childhood.
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