Q: How do I balance validating somebody’s feelings with protecting myself or my children from emotional abuse?
A: This is an excellent question and one that I have grappled with for years. My wife’s behavior before I started down the path to effectiveness was off-the-charts and was affecting my children’s feelings of safety in our household. Numerous times I felt the only solution to protecting my children was to leave my wife and apply for full custody of our children. When my wife was “acting out” and/or in a rage around the children, I would take the kids to the library or to events around town. I worried that they would associate going to the library (a nice quiet place) with my wife’s raging. However, once I understood the reason for her raging, I also understood that there was a more effective solution to my wife’s behavior. The reason my wife was raging was because she had dysregulated emotional states that were painful for her, yet out-of-line with the evidence of the world around her. Still, these emotional states seemed quite real and justified to her. All of her life she has felt that her very being is under threat from those around her. This situation causes fear in her, but the fear quickly turns to rage and no-holds-barred behavior toward others, even those she supposedly loved. In fact, this dangerous and confusing behavior was worse with the immediate family. The reason is that she felt that her emotional states were not understood, not accepted and judged by those with whom she had the most at stake. If your immediate family doesn’t accept you, who will? This judgment and rejection was seen as a prelude to abandonment, rejection and confirmation of her shame. This situation made her frightened, desperate and angry. The anger then translated into rage from which much of the emotional abuse arises.
Behavior is most often conditioned and based on previous beliefs, reactions and conditions. I found that if you, as a loved one of someone with BPD, change the conditions, the behavior will change. If the emotions are accepted and validated, they don’t typically spiral out of control and trigger dangerous abusive behavior. It is not a question of right and wrong, like many people believe it is. It is a question of effective reactions and behavior on your part versus continuing to react ineffectively and, essentially, throwing gasoline on a raging fire. Better to put out the fire with water, which is a soothing elixir. Punishing a person for their feelings becomes translated into more shame since “all feelings all the time” is how they “are”. Rejection confirms that to the borderline that he/she is a bad person, which, in turn, causes more and more rage. Remember, however, that emotions and behavior are not synonymous. You can validate emotions without condoning the resultant behavior.
What about past abusive behavior? When will my borderline take responsibility for that? Should I let that go?
If I’ve learned anything about borderlines in the past five years, it’s that they generally know what they’ve done “wrong” in life, whether or not they will admit it to you. The shame component causes a “deepest, darkest” reflection about who they really are. When a borderline identifies with a particular role in life – such as being a mother – anything that threatens that identity is usually met with fire. Yet, on the flip-side of the defense of their very being, there’s shame, unworthiness and self-flagellation. It is most likely that your borderline will punish herself for the discretions she has committed. Of course, sometimes, the emotion-fueled behavior is not even remembered. It’s sometimes an emotional vomit session to get all the bad feelings out, to purge the nasty sickness of the painful emotions – of course, those around them can get spewed on. When I said that it might not be remembered some time ago on the ATSTP list, I got a response from a recovered borderline that went “oh, we remember it. We just can’t run to the toilet when it is occurring. And we almost always see the mess that has been made and feel bad about it afterwards.”
My suggestion about “balance” between validation and protecting the children from emotional abuse boils down to the belief that, if the borderline doesn’t let the emotions run away with them, the abusive behavior will (almost) cease entirely. I still get raging from my wife every once in a while – maybe once every 4-6 months. It used to be once every 2-3 days, then it was 2-3 weeks, then once a month and so on. What I changed was the environment for my wife’s emotional expression. I stopped judging her. I validated her when she felt bad. I built a safe, accepting environment for her emotional life. One that she has never experienced before. It was not my “fault” that she felt that way – it was merely how is actually was in her life. I had to accept the reality of the situation and do what I could do to change it.
Several members of the ATSTP list have reported that once they “turned their mind” (and behavior/reactions) toward what I purpose in WHINE, the raging in their borderlines ceased. The Buddha said of dependent origination: “When this exists, that comes to be. With the arising of this, that arises. When this does not exist, that does not come to be. With the cessation of this, that ceases.” My suggestion to each of you is to cause the “ceasing of this” (the non-accepting, judgmental, invalidating environment) to insure that “that ceases” (the abusive, dysregulated behavior).
NOTE “Ask Bon” is a new category within this blog in which Bon answers burning questions about being a non-BPD from his perspective and with the skills an attitudes with which he was able to rebuild his relationship with his borderline wife. The opinions are Bon’s alone.