Why boundaries and detaching can make things worse….
I decided to write this post because I have seen many non-BPs frustrated over the fact that when they try to use the tools in certain books with their BP, the tools seem to cause more rage and emotional dysregulation. The two “tools” that I have found that cause the most problems are boundaries and detachment. I’ve already written a LOT about boundaries and where my view of boundaries diverges with some of the other “Non-BP authors.” Today, I’d like to turn to detachment.
“Stop Walking on Eggshells” recommends on page 98, that a Non-BP “detach with love” from a BP and BPD-like behavior. This concept was “borrowed” from Al-Anon as it is made clear in SWOE. I think that “detaching” (whether with or without love) works in some situations and blows up in the Non’s face in others.
What are the differences? In WHINE, I explain that the “engine” of BPD is emotional dysregulation (which is the opposite of regulation). A person with BPD will heat up more quickly and cool down more slowly than someone without the characteristic of emotional dysregulation. One study that I cite in WHINE deals with “neutral” reactions to someone who is dysregulated. The basic evolution of an (as “Tides” calls it on her blog) Emotionally Dysregulated Moment (or EDM) is trigger -> cognition -> emotion -> expression -> behavior. Emotions can spur on other emotions. Anger is IMO the most powerful of the basic emotions and it is easily triggered, especially when a person with BPD is feeling judged. Ok, now back to detachment. On page 39 of WHINE, I explain that:
One of the most interesting findings of a study in which scientists used functional magnetic resonance imagining (fMRI) to measure the emotional reaction (limbic system activation) of patients with BPD is that these people react to neutral faces in the same manner they react to angry faces. In essence, when shown a picture of a person with a neutral expression, people with BPD showed amygdala activation as if the picture was one of a person with an angry expression. These people expect judgment and anger in others towards them and react physically and mentally to neutral situations as if they are threatening. They are likely to find “meaning” that is judgmental or threatening in an event that others would see as meaningless. A member of my list compared this reactivity to neutral faces to neutral feedback on eBay. As a buyer on eBay, you don’t give neutral feedback to a seller when everything about the sale is perfect. You give [neutral] feedback when something is wrong. A person with BPD will interpret a neutral face as “something wrong.”
Emotional detachment from an EDM will trigger more emotional dysregulation within a person with BPD. Instead, an EDM is a time to engage someone with BPD and engage them on an emotional level. Otherwise, if you detach emotionally from the situation, the BP will interpret your “calmness” and detachment as judgment or criticism. Additionally, they will likely consider you untrustworthy to validate their emotional states. What I mean by this is that if they are feeling so much emotional pain that they are dysregulated what they are really trying to do (regardless of the content what they say) is to communicate that pain to you. If they’re “dying in pain” and you’re detaching and calm, they feel they can’t come to you with the problem. On page 95-96 of WHINE, I describe this situation as follows:
The purpose of someone coming to you in an emotionally dysregulated (or close to one) state is to communicate the emotions that she feels. She may have difficulty expressing these emotions and may use other means for expressing them such as blame, sobbing, cutting, raging or other behaviors that are difficult for you to deal with. The underlying point however is one of communication – she is trying to tell you something, but she doesn’t have the language for it. Therefore, if you respond to an emotional communication in either an invalidating fashion (using one of the many, many invalidating phrases above) or in a way that doesn’t match the emotional distress, the BP will feel unable to communicate. She will think “I’m going off the deep end here and you are so calm! You don’t understand anything! You’ll never understand me!”, and not trust you. The tenor of your voice is more effective if you express your emotional identification with emotion in your voice as well, but with slightly less emotion than the BP is feeling. In other words, express distress in the identification, but less emotion than if you are actually in distress yourself.