First of all, BPD is not a pleasant experience. Being awash with negative emotions all the time is quite painful and unpleasant. Most people with BPD know that they are “not normal” in some way and don’t like feeling like they do. No one would as it is very painful.
A person with BPD is characterized by having a diminished ability to regulate one’s emotions during the interactions with other people. This means that someone with BPD will likely react much more emotionally to a given situation than someone without BPD. People with BPD are likely to get angry and, at times, fly into a rage of seemingly trivial events and interactions. They also have a tendency to personalize external events. In other words, the person suffering from BPD will believe that other people’s behavior and comments are “about them”, sometimes interpreting veiled criticism or judgment of their behavior when the evidence shows that there is none. The person with BPD is also likely to be seemingly obsessed with blame and fault-finding. You will likely hear a person with BPD say, “It’s not my fault!” or “I did nothing wrong!” These comments and fault-finding behaviors are a consequence of sensitivity to judgment and rejection.
Everyone has both an in-born and learned capacity to regulate his or her emotions. I will discuss what factors contribute to these capacities and how you, as a loved one of someone with BPD, can cope with the problem. As stated earlier, emotions play a vital role in our ability to survive in a sometimes threatening environment. They are “mind reflexes” that protect and inform the mind of the state of the body and the body’s assessment of the immediate surroundings. Unfortunately, as with BPD, the messages that are sent are sometimes misaligned with the actual environment.
The ancient Hindu text characterizes this “misperception” of reality in the following manner: “A rope may be momentarily perceived as a snake before ignorance is lifted.” [Sankaras Aparoksanubhuti, verse 44] The importance of this “ignorance” is that during the time the rope is perceived as a snake, your emotions react almost completely automatically. (I say “almost” because if you have been taught to love snakes and not to fear them, you will not have a fear reaction even if you misperceive the rope as a snake). You feel fear, it is real and you jump away. Your body reacts as well. When I say “feel fear” I really mean it. Your heart rate increases, the capillaries in your extremities contract to save blood for vital organs, adrenaline is released to your blood stream. Your fear is real and felt directly. However, it is based on a misperception with reality. When you see that it is actually a rope, you might feel foolish or you might, if you had BPD, still try and convince everyone else and yourself it is really a snake or it is a rope that can harm you. The reason is that your feelings are so immediate and seem so “true” than you have to make “reality” match your feelings, rather than the other way around. When an emotional reaction conflicts with the state of the environment for whatever reason, it is said to be a “misaligned” emotional reaction.
The core problem with BPD is poor emotional regulation. However, that particular problem can cause other symptoms to arise as the person with BPD becomes emotionally dysregulated. This term emotionally dysregulated (or just dysregulated) is used to denote the state in which a person with BPD is overcome with powerful and, at many times, misaligned emotional reactions. Remember that emotions don’t arise on their own; they are based on cues or triggers from the environment and compared by our “emotional immune system” to the meaning of the cue. For a person with BPD, the meaning can be wrong or, as is more often the case, the sensitivity to emotional cues is greatly heightened.
An example is a heat-sensing system that helps to detect and suppress fires. Sometimes companies will install heat-sensing equipment in addition to smoke detectors so that they can protect assets that need a certain temperature to operate (e.g. computer equipment which might cease working at a high temperature). The setting at which an alarm goes off might be 80 degrees Fahrenheit. In the case of someone with BPD, the setting (or “tolerance” as it is called in the control community) is naturally set much lower, at say, 50 degrees Fahrenheit. That means that the alarm will be raised much more often and lead to a reaction to the alarm. In other words, people with BPD will experience many, many (what you would consider) false alarms. However, these false alarms seem completely real to them, because their tolerance for emotional triggers is set very low.