What You Should Know If You Have Been Diagnosed With Borderline Personality Disorder

Here is the truth: BPD, or Borderline Personality Disorder, has a historically bad rap with mental health professionals. I’m going to give you some truths to what you should know to not only think about this clearly, but to consider your options in terms of the person you want to be and the person you want to become.

BPD was historically known for “bordering” on the lines of neurotic vs. psychotic. In the olden days, clinicians who didn’t know if a person was living in the confines of “reality” could put them in a category that didn’t really fit either one. Historically neurosis has to do with issues related to anxiety, mood, and depression. Neurosis can also be related to trauma, vigilance, and paranoia about bad things re-occurring. Psychosis is related to problems hearing and seeing things that others do not see or hear, and is often associated with schizophrenia. “Borderline” has often been referred to as a category that doesn’t really fit any category, and in some cases has been the in- between of no-place.

BPD is also historically written about from an extremely pejorative and hopeless point of view. Words like “manipulative, gamey, cagey” are often used, and mental health professionals often refer to this diagnosis when talking about people that bug them, that they do not like, that get them enraged, and people that can tie up crisis hotlines and emergency rooms. In many cases, labeling someone with BPD has become a substitute for observing and describing behavior, providing useful feedback, and encouraging people to behave in ways that make them competent and more effective.

Here are some truths that you should keep in mind if a mental health professional has “informed” you that you have BPD:

Mental health diagnoses are not valid nor reliable. This means that (in terms of validity), if the same professional assessed a person over time (such as an assessment 20 years ago, 10 years ago, and 5 years ago), the likelihood that that professional would give the same person the same diagnosis is unlikely. It also means that if many different mental health professionals assessed the same person it is highly unlikely the all of them would come to the same conclusion about diagnosis. This is assuming that the only measure of giving a diagnoses is a working familiarity with the DSM-TRV, or the “psychiatric Bible” of diagnostic criteria (which is highly controversial. Be aware that homosexuality was once considered a psychiatric disorder, and now it is not). Mental health diagnosis may be more reliable and valid if the diagnosis is given based on a range of valid and reliable assessment batteries; thus if you have had some comprehensive personality assessment and testing this may be less of the case for your situation. Bear in mind that most people in the counseling profession are doing nothing more than giving you their clinical opinion; hence my point about reliability and validity. Also, there are some counseling programs that don’t cover concepts such as instruments of mental health measurement.

For some mental health professionals, telling someone they have BPD can sometimes be a communication of frustration. In a helpful world, telling someone what diagnoses they have can be useful and even helpful- it can validate if a person really is depressed or help figure out specific treatments. In the case with BPD, the “right treatment” is more complicated and may not be readily available. If your mental health professional is telling you have BPD, you might want to consider: So what? How it is it helpful or useful? Does it help people have the resources or tools for solving painful problems? Is it specific enough to describe what behavior shows up- and how behavior can be changed? Does it provide access to literature that is actually helpful? For some people, being diagnosed with BPD can only serve to increase shame and self-loathing. Literature is not always helpful and mental health professionals don’t always shore up resources for how to move forward to obtain resources and supports. Is the expectation to hide in a corner the rest of your life and not tell people who you “really” are? And do you seriously want to live this way?

There is a lot of confusion for most people around diagnosis being a cause. Diagnoses are actually descriptions of behavior, and mainly identify patterns of responding or behaviors that are typical for a person. Many people, including some mental health professionals, actually believe that they are describing reasons or causes of behaviors when giving someone a diagnoses. For instance, if the way that you behave is because you have a disorder, then someone people think they have adequately not only explained the reasons you behave the way you do, but they think they know why you behave the way you do. In terms of diagnosis, this really is not the case. The failure of the mental health system is that people think they are being helpful (“You have problems because you have a disorder”) rather than addressing causes and potential solutions for behavior change. In this case, many problems of pain are not being solved as the focus of attention is on the “correct” diagnosis, which, in my opinion, is a rather useless pursuit. It can be akin to a parent who has several children; one of them is determined to be “bad.” Instead of figuring out how to prevent problem behavior, solve problems, and tend to the child’s needs; the parent simply attributes all problem behavior to the child being “bad.”

What you can do if you have, or think you have, or someone else thinks you have BPD:

Don’t think you are permanently impaired, hopeless, or beyond help. Fear and shame keeps may people paralyzed from acting with self-respect, doing things that are meaningful, and putting oneself out there in the universe. Universally, fear and shame can prevent anyone from living a decent life. You are not an exception.

Learn to talk about yourself and your behaviors in a descriptive, non-judgmental, and matter-of-fact ways. This will make you competent, understandable, and respectable. This also means that if you go around and tell everyone you are disordered, people may treat you as fragile, incompetent, incapable, or helpless. Create and practice ways to talk about yourself outside of the realm of “mental illness.”

Pay attention to providers, mental health professionals, or family members who attribute your behavior to being “mentally ill” or “bad” or “personality disordered.” Realize that everyone has vulnerabilities and that many, many people struggle with giving accurate, helpful, and specific feedback. Consider how giving and receiving feedback is either helpful or not helpful, and don’t seek out relationships where blame seems to be an acceptable solution for reducing pain or resolving differences. Finding “fault” only works if the consequence is taking responsibility and making changes; not amplifying shame and paralysis of action.

Be aware that if you do delve into literature on BPD, you may encounter a wide range of confusing terminology that attempts to define you; which may not only be disconcerting but also downright confusing. You might encounter terms like object relations, transference, countertransference, self-objects, self-soothing self-objects, object mirroring, intrapsychic processes, or projections. Don’t get bogged down by mental health-ese. Bear in mind that some mental health professionals have a lot of trouble observing and describing behavior and giving useful feedback and sometimes hide behind their own jargon.

Find other things that provide you a sense of identity, that define you, that make you the person you are, and that you value. Consider roles you take on in society; engage in them and be proud of them. What is important to you? Why would you let a diagnoses get in your way with pursuing what is important to you? In what ways do you not “show up” because you have shame around a diagnosis? Life is bigger than the world of “mental health.”

Bear in mind that many mental health professionals are obsessed with political leaders that they believe to be personality disordered. In truth, political leaders are still political leaders, and political leaders have made great gains, influenced many, changed laws, and maintained power. Being diagnosed with something “bad” hasn’t deterred people from being politically active, advocating, having power, or being influential. There is no good reason why you have to be shamed from participating in the universe just like everyone else- people with a lot of problems still manage to be successful and competent in a myriad of different ways.

Finally, feel free to visit the National Education Alliance for Borderline Personality Disorder, a nonprofit that may be more helpful than the general google search. Their website (www.borderlinepersonaltydisorder.com) has some useful non-pejorative literature, trainings, and free services for friends and family members.

Manchester By The Sea- A Psychologist’s Point Of View On How To Work With Lee

Recently I went to see an excellent movie: Manchester By the Sea. Here are some thoughts I have about how I would work with Lee.

As a provider of clients who experience intense, severe, and painful emotions; Lee really does fit the bill. General questions that I might consider asking include: What would it take to reduce pain, survive loss, and manage or cope in a way that made things better? What would help Lee feel less stuck? What resources or connections could sustain him better, enable him to bear the weight of his pain, or enhance his quality of life? What could him grieve more fully and to get through this crisis? What is he doing that is working, and what is he doing that is not working? Could he be more likable to himself, sustain the burden or his guilt, or have more fulfilling relationships?

One agenda item I have is getting Lee to stop doing things that could potentially make his current situation worse. Often times I have clients who have severe emotional pain and it is so intense and unbearable that they are looking for any distraction to take away the pain. The distractions sometimes have a short-term effect of feeling better, which makes them hard to stop. However, in most cases these distractions can make problems worse- and are not effective long-term strategies to mitigate the severity of what they feel.

So one treatment agenda is to reduce risk taking or crisis-generating behavior. Specifically, Lee tends to get drunk, pick fights, and throw punches. The natural consequences for this behavior can result in serious injury, concussions, brain damage, head injuries, broken jaw, soreness, swelling, or other various medical trauma. Drinking heavily can result in poor decision-making, hangovers, dehydration, and liver damage. Other natural consequences of his behavior include legal problems, court dates, jail time, being seen as a threat in the community, increased relationship conflict, and isolation. Grabbing the gun of an officer might result in unintended harm to other people. Not only would Lee have the current dilemma of living with the intense and painful losses he has suffered, but he would have to address the above consequences in addition to everything he has already gone through.

Some people actually believe Lee’s behavior is justified. They would say that because he is in unbearable pain, he should be able to act the way he does. Or he should be let “off the hook” because his behavior is understandable. I would encourage those people to consider: Would you recommend your closest confident or best friend- who is deeply hurting- do something that could result in head trauma? Liver disease? Incarceration?

Another “justification” for Lee’s behavior is that he has significant guilt and self-hatred and he is trying to punish himself. After all, the law did not punish him enough! What would be an effective punishment, and how long does he need to punish himself for his actions? Are self-inflicted/ high-risk behaviors actually effective in making him feel less guilty? What if a police officer was shot by accident? What type of effective repair work needs to be done? What lifestyle habits could he change to prevent bad things from happening in the future? What would he need to do to redeem himself in the community? And what would it take for members in the community to find forgiveness, employ him, or tolerate him being around?

How would treatment move Lee towards growth, movement, and decreased pain? There are several ways to approach this- the key being a sensitivity and flexibility to what Lee would be able to handle at the time he seeks help. One is a baseline ability to talk about what happened. As he pieces together his story, there may be parts that are difficult to talk about. Avoiding these topics might show up in the form of escaping, not talking about it, dissociating, becoming numb, becoming argumentative, keeping one’s distance, staying detached, avoiding intimate relationships, leaving, drinking, or even picking more fights. The difficulty is that there are multiple reminders (or stimuli) that will show up throughout his life that he may not be able to avoid. These may include:

  • Conversations about young children
  • Seeing a house fire in the news
  • Talking to his ex, Randi
  • Seeing Randi’s newborn
  • Getting news that young children die or are dying
  • Randi saying “I love you”

For instance, what if he is watching the evening news and suddenly there is coverage about a house fire? What if Lee has a building tenant who loses a child to death, and Lee is present when the tenant tries to discuss it with him? What if Randi tries to contact him again or “shows up” in an unexpected manner? Maybe Lee can try to avoid these situations in the short term, but inevitably life, reminders of life, and young children are the life that surrounds us.

Therapy would work on staying present with emotional discomfort when these topics come up; and doing so in the presence of one or more people. That means not attacking, hiding, or getting drunk. It means being willing to experience grief, pain, discomfort, or tears. It means staying in a conversation and having a willingness to tolerate the stuff that seems unbearable. The more Lee does to avoid it, the worse it is going to get.

Healing results when a person’s grief can be managed, survived, and tolerated. Healing is about experiencing, talking about, and coming to terms with what happened in the presence of others. Healing happens when people can forgive themselves and each other and can make changes to prevent bad things from happening in the future.

Healing doesn’t happen when a person is literally “stuck” in blocking out all things reminding them of pain, and lives a life where they are blind and deaf to such triggers; avoiding any stimulus in real life that will inevitably show up at some point.

Healing doesn’t happen when emotions literally control lives, and people can’t engage a full, meaningful, rich, and productive life as a result. Healing doesn’t happen when there is no compassion for self or others, when there is no forgiveness, and when there are no second chances.

 

What if I’m wrong?

Here are a couple of thoughts on the business of being “wrong.” First, the question itself begs a certain dichotomy to form in a relationship. It implies a one-up, one-down position. It can make one person more powerful, keep another at a distance, or in extreme circumstances serve as an opportunity to belittle or berate. What does being “wrong” imply about the relationship, the importance of keeping a relationship, or the way that people will continue to relate to each other? Is it worth it to damage or hurt a relationship to be “right”? If one person is “wrong”, then how is the relationship handled in the future? How do people move forward?

Next, being “wrong” might be rephrased as being technically inaccurate. If you are responding in a way to that does not match reality in a reasonable sort of way, you may be considered “wrong.” However, in some circumstances this begs the question of differences in opinion, perception, feelings, and agendas. A person can have a valid point of view, see things differently, or see aspects of a situation that another person is not able to see. This can prevent communities from being rigid, thinking “inside-the-box”, refusing to consider alternatives, or being racist or non-diverse in their thinking. Trying to understand the validity in where others come from can help us be more understanding, have better relationships, be more forgiving, and become less “stuck” in the right/wrong dichotomy. If you are technically “wrong”, this also might be your opportunity for self-correction, learning, or growth. Consider teasing out the differences of being “wrong” vs. being technically accurate, and if being “wrong” has anything to do with conflict around perspective, perception, intention, or emotion.

In addition, there is a certain cost to being “wrong.” Everyone at some point in their life has probably had an experience in which they thought something to be true, accurate, or reasonable but found this to not be the case. The cost to being “wrong” is often related to embarrassment, shame, humiliation, or perhaps the loss of trust or leadership. Are you able to correct your actions based on what happened? Can you tolerate the pain of your own humiliation and consider what really matters? If the inability to bear the cost of being “wrong” results in isolation, criticism, withdrawal, and becoming more adamant that you were “right”; you may want to give some thought to what it is costing you in terms of your relationships.

Here are some final questions for you to consider:

  • What are your intentions? Sometimes we are in long term work, romantic, or family relationships that must be giving careful consideration.
  • What are the intentions of the other person? (Are you sure, or are you assuming? What evidence do you have?)
  • What is the true cost of being told you are “wrong”? What do you have to gain by making sure others know you are “right”?
  • If you are “wrong,” can you tolerate your embarrassment enough to grow, learn, regroup, or reconsider how you will handle future situations?
  • Is it more important to be right than to be effective? (Consider what the relationship means to you and if your own self-respect in handling the situation is on the line).
  • Are you unforgiving of other people when they are “wrong”, thus unable to forgive yourself? Is your own criticism preventing you from moving on, getting unstuck, or responding in a way that is potentially painful but perhaps necessary?

When Things Fall Apart by Pam Chordron

Here are some paragraphs from this book:

“When the bottom falls out and we can’t find anything to grasp, it hurts a lot. It’s like the Naropa Institute motto, ‘Love of the truth puts you on the spot.” We might have some romantic view of what that means, but when we are nailed with the truth, we suffer. We look in the bathroom mirror, and there we are with our pimples, our aging face, or lack of kindness, our aggression and all that timidity– all that stuff.

This is where the tenderness comes in. When things are shaky and nothing is working, we might realize that we are on the verge of something. We might realize that this is a very honorable and tender place, and tenderness could go either way. We can shut down and feel resentful or we can touch and I met throbbing quality. There is definitely something tender and throbbing about that groundlessness.

Things falling apart as a kind of testing and also a kind of healing. We think that the point is to pass the test or to overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It’s just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: Room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy.”

(pages 7-8).

What to do instead of criticize yourself

Try softening your stance, gently relax your face, and allow your muscles to become loose and less tight. Put a hand over your heart with an intention of lovingkindness, and try repeating the following statements with a tone of voice that conveys self-compassion:

May I bear this pain with kindness to myself

May I safely endure this pain

May I accept the circumstances of my life

May I find peace in my heart

May I let go of what I can not control

May I remember that others are also suffering

 

A mindful approach to self-hatred and self-criticism

Often people with self-hatred, shame or self-criticism get “caught up” in a thought process that includes a fair amount of self-attacking. This thought process can include arguments with oneself, reasons a person should not be the way he/ she is, or a rationale for how he/she “should” be feeling. Sometimes this thought process is associated with muscle tension, headaches, the suppression of emotion, the inhibition of interactions, or the shutting down of expression and experience.

People sometimes think that by punishing themselves in a self-hating dialogue is an effect way to change thoughts, feelings, or reality. Almost as if they are somehow being “deserving” of “bad” things someone sets things right. The difficulty is, it typically is not an effective strategy for changing thoughts or feelings! It might temporarily suppress feelings, shut down hurt or sadness, make one feel more empowered or less vulnerable, or even distract from other problems. But the bottom line here is this: Does actually work to reduce suffering? Does it get rid of emotions in the long term?

Being mindful, or starting to observe this process, is really the first step towards making some changes in this process. Being able to notice the thought, step back, practice using a gentle tone of voice, and practice saying “I am noticing the thought that…” is one way to start to just notice thoughts, rather than try to change them.

Next, assess your willingness to “shift gears.” Often people who are stuck in a ruminative process somehow believe that if they keep ruminating, something will change. That’s not to say you have the power to immediately “stop” ruminating, it just starts to get you thinking about an alternative.

If you feel miserable, want to stop hating yourself, and invest a lot of unproductive energy into engaging in self-hating thoughts, the option of doing something different just might be appealing. Once you decide to try something different, you can try softening your facial expression and relaxing your shoulders. Consider being curious about the physical sensations in your body that accompany the thought. What uncomfortable sensations might you be pushing aside in order to invest in the thought? Practice accepting physical discomfort and think about how you might approach or move towards it instead of away from it. If you could be curious about your pain and your emotion, you might be able to work with it a little bit differently. Remember to stay non-judgmental.

Finally, try out the phrase, “May I be at peace.” Try stating this phrase quietly and softly to yourself. Make sure you keep your face and shoulders relaxed, and practice acceptance. Try doing these steps several times throughout particularly difficult days, knowing that practicing new behaviors (and getting “good” at them so they are more automatic) takes effort and rehearsal.

Boston DBT Parent Class: Parenting the Emotionally Extreme Teen

 How did this class help you? Here is the feedback from four parents who took the Spring 2015 class:

 

“To try and react better..To try and anticipate my daughter’s behavior triggers..try to find out what is causing the extremes and deal those triggers… By accepting emotions and where they are coming from; not to deny my emotions but they are there for a reason. To validate how I feel as well as my daughter. To be calmer. “- Parent 1

“To better understand my emotions, and that they have a purpose…To explore that purpose. Better able to identify escalation in my daughter. I’ve learned to buy time, to put some time in between responding to my daughter and others. What was most helpful was the overall impact of the course which has left me better equipped and more curious about DBT.” -Parent 2

“It made me more willing to bit my tongue, take a deep breath, and not focus on ‘fixing things’. Acceptance was important, both dealing with my own emotions and allowing for acceptance of my child’s emotions. Using mindfulness techniques to tone down my level of arousal was also important. Understanding that emotions might be valid but ineffective in some circumstances. I thought the (video content shown in class) outlined some very pragmatic examples and techniques.” -Parent 3

“To be more present with my emotion. To validate how I feel as well as my daughter. To be calmer, to think things through. Being able to listen to others’ experiences. Each class was built on each other. Have learned many skills to be more effective with my daughter.” -Parent 4

Please contact

drhoekstra@bostondbtgroups.com

 if you would like

more information about

upcoming classes.

Have you been told to change your “bad mood”?

Here are some steps to figuring out your mood- and what to do if, indeed, you want to change it.

Our moods- or our feelings- can be extremely important in helping us understand ourselves, organize our behavior, know what matters, and have better relationships. One of the first steps to figuring out feelings is to be able to describe, understand, and put words on experience. Think beyond just being in a “bad mood”: Try figuring out what, exactly, you are feeling. Instead of thinking about your mood as bad or good, try approaching this task with curiosity. Are you down, flat, depressed, lethargic, or disinterested? Are you irritable, angry, frustrated or impatient? Are you struggling with loss or sadness? Remember that feelings give us information about ourselves, our situations, and the people around us.

Next, consider what is valid, relevant, and sensible about what you are feeling. Some reasons that others tell us to stop being in a “bad mood” is because they want us to behave a certain way. Consider this: If the person telling you to stop being in a “bad mood” got what they wanted, what specific action would that entail? If you stopped being in a “bad mood”, would you stop avoiding conflict, go to work, keep a relationship, participate fully in an activity, or attend a social event or function? We may know and understand our mood, and have a good reason to feel the way we feel, but our mood gets in the way of rising to the occasion and meeting an obligation.

Expressing negative feelings frequently or pervasively can hurt relationships; on the other hand never being to share our innermost pain can prevent us from having more meaningful and connected relationships. In other words, ranting, venting, or complaining can join people in their beef against the universe, while expressing vulnerability can increase caring and intimacy. Consider how acting or expressing how you feel works or doesn’t work for you. Does it bring you closer to the people you care about, or does it tend to push them away?

Next, consider if you want to change how you feel. Is someone else trying to get you to change how you feel? If so, trying to change how you feel can be much less effective.

One way to change how you feel is to act in ways that are incompatible with how you feel. In some situations, acting on how we feel can enable us to feel congruent and genuine with what is going on for us on a more personal level. However, sometimes moods are so pervasive that they interfere with our lives. If your “mood” is interfering with your ability to organize action, meet obligations, make deeper connections with others, keep relationships, or engage in meaningful activity, it might be time to experiment with alternative behaviors to shift gears, engage your brain differently, or do something you wouldn’t typically do.

Here are some suggestions: Express appreciations to other people, talk about what you value in the relationships you have, avoid “complaining”, practice not talking about anything negative, shift gears by doing an activity that demands your attention, shift gears by doing a something physical (washing dishes, raking leaves, taking care of a child), become invested in someone else’s problem or dilemma, try generating compassionate reasons for why people behave the way they do, soften your body and facial expression, wish other people well, do something that challenges you, do an activity you like or enjoy, or do an activity for someone else that they like or enjoy. Doing these things even if you don’t feel like it– may help you change your mood all by yourself.