In When Hope is Not Enough I have a section in the “getting ready for the tools” chapter that talks about being effective, rather than being right. I’d like to post a large excerpt from that section to illustrate what I want to talk about today. The most important part of this section of the text is the end, after which I will comment on why I’m talking about this today:
It is most important to be effective (rather than right all the time)
This particular attitude is one that has been the most controversial in my Internet group. Many people in life pride themselves on their morals and ability to discern right from wrong. Many people try to do the “right” thing in any given situation. Sometimes people will do what they think is right, even if that hurts another person that is close to them.
People are typically very judgmental. Before I started down this path, I also was very judgmental. Sometimes I can still be judgmental. When I talk about judgmental, I am talking about judging whether other’s behavior is “right” or “wrong” in your eyes. It is the act of labeling other people’s behavior as “good” or “bad.” The problem with being judgmental when dealing with someone with BPD is two-fold. First, because of the shame involved in BPD, when a person’s behavior is judged as wrong or bad, the person will expand that judgment to his or her feelings and further expand it to his or her self. Therefore, a judgment of the other person’s behavior is essentially a judgment of the other person’s self. Secondly, the person is acting on their feelings and doing something that has, at one time in their life, been used to assuage negative feelings. They are acting in a way in which they will feel better. They are acting in a way that they have used to adapt to strong negative feelings in the past. While the behavior may be maladaptive, it is understandable behavior based on how the person feels. You might not behave in the same fashion, but if you had their history, thought like them, had strong negative feelings as they do; chances are you would behave in the very same way. Thus, judging their behavior as “wrong” or “bad” is missing the objective of the behavior. Yes, the behavior may be self-destructive or nasty, but the behavior is a tool for adapting to how that person feels.
One of the biggest problems with being judgmental toward someone with BPD is that it denigrates their feelings and creates the “invalidating environment” that I spoke about earlier. If you judge another person’s feelings (by way of their behavior) as bad, you are judging them as bad – at least for a highly emotional person.
It is extremely difficult to drop the judgmental attitudes that you have. It takes time and practice. Being judgmental is taught to us from a very young age and it seeps into our language. In some respects, we are taught that being judgmental is a positive thing, a moral attitude. We are taught not to accept others and their behavior because their behavior is bad or wrong. This attitude helps keep us within our social group and helps keep us from risk. However, in interpersonal relationships, particularly with a highly emotional person, it is corrosive. If someone feels they can’t be accepted “as is” and “for what they are,” that person will be either shameful or will fly into rage against the judge (or a combination of the two).
A sure sign of being judgmental is name-calling and labeling. If you find yourself, internally or externally (meaning to yourself or to others) labeling someone, you are likely being judgmental. I will talk about how to be less judgmental shortly.
I say, “It is most important to be effective.” What does it mean to be effective? Before I could talk about effectiveness, I had to dismiss being judgmental, because it is a roadblock to effectiveness. Being effective is doing whatever is necessary to gain a positive outcome in any given moment. In the case of emotions, it is doing what is necessary to feel better in any given moment. The major difference between effectiveness and mere adaptive behavior (as mentioned above) is that effectiveness takes into account the consequences that are associated with a given behavior, not just the immediate effects. That is where the idea of “positive” outcome comes into play.
In the case of emotional situations, sometimes the most “conditioned behavioral” response is not the most effective one. An example of this is self-harm. Most often, self-harm – such as cutting, burning oneself or pulling at one’s own hair – functions to reduce pain, not to inflict it. In other words, it is an adaptive response to internal (usually emotional) pain. While you might not think that the behavior is “right,” it is a valid response to internal pain, because it works to reduce pain. Although it is adaptive and “works,” it is not effective, because of the significant negative consequences involved. It can lead to embarrassment, injury, infection or death. The potential negative consequences outweigh the effectiveness of the behavior.
So, doing what “works” is not always the most effective solution to a problem. Learning to identify the most effective solution is a skill itself, and I will discuss it at length later. The point of bringing it up here is that one must adopt an attitude of doing the most effective action in any given situation. You have to be dedicated to being effective.
Now you might ask (as many of the people on my list ask), what if the most effective thing goes against my values? What if being effective is “wrong” in a particular situation? Well, my response to that is that emotions trump values. Emotions are immediate and primal, whereas values have been developed over time (sometimes over generations) and are more abstract than emotions. Again, this is not a case of “if it feels good, do it.” This is the accumulation of the first few attitudes I have directed you to take. If emotions are important (attitude #1), not all people think the way you do (#2), no one has a corner on the truth (#3) and some things have to be accepted (#4), what we arrive at is the attitude that your values and judgments are not necessarily valid for other people. If someone is overcome with powerful negative emotions, we find that: 1) it is important to them; 2) they are not thinking the same way you might; 3) your version of the truth in this situation does not match theirs; and 4) the fact that they are in this state is a truth and must be accepted. Once those attitudes are applied to an emotional situation, you can start to be effective, even if being effective goes against the grain of what you deem is “right” or “good.” I know this might be a difficult concept for you to understand at this point. It was extremely difficult for me to come to terms with it as well. However, in the case of emotional situations, it is essential.
OK, well there it is a long quote from When Hope is Not Enough. The reason I am posting it today is that I have come to understand more fully how this attitude conflicts with many strongly-held beliefs of my readers. It takes a LOT of time to understand and “grok” this approach to life and to your relationships with a person with BPD or any emotionally sensitive person. Once, I was asked what qualities do I dislike the most about other people and I answered: contempt, sanctimoniousness and judgmentalism. I feel that all of these qualities are those that hurt relationships with other people and they all center on the idea that person A (with those qualities) is RIGHT and person B is wrong, for whatever reason. That reason could be that person B is disordered, like have Borderline Personality Disorder. However, person B is no BPD, person B is a person first and can be respected as a person. I read recently an introduction written by the Dalai Lama to a book. His first words were “Every person wants to be happy.” I agree. A person with BPD wants to be happy. The nons want to be happy as well. Yet one stumbling block to happiness is the desire to be right and lord it over the other person. Relationships are not competitions in which one person is right and the other wrong. That’s my belief anyway. When you’re ineffective, what you’re really doing is “winning a battle but losing the war” by gaining points on a particular situation yet hurting the relationship in the longer run.