Borderline Personality Disorder,  Emotions,  Resources,  WHINE Book

When Tools Become Triggers

Tied in Knots?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.


  • Mindsite

    Hi Bon –

    Interesting post. I wanted to let you know that we’ve recently published the personality disorders section from the DSM-IV; the section on Borderline is here: [link now dead]

    No doubt you’ve seen this, but this is the first time it is available for public consumption on the Internet.

    Any feedback is much appreciated. Cheers.

  • livenlaughnluv

    “Emotionally Dysregulated Moment (or EDM) is trigger -> cognition -> emotion -> expression -> behavior”

    I like this, Bon! This is exactly what it is like. And this is followed by…

    more emotion (shame) -> more expression -> more behavior

    …until the untreated BP feels better — oftentimes through self-injury, drug/alcohol abuse, or (as we promote) validation.

  • beep

    I disagree with your neutral faces or feedback or neutral emotion causing problems. I grew up with parents who just didn’t care. When they showed no expression or neutral expression it meant they didn’t care. Perhaps BPDs are in tune to that. I know I am. So when I’m expressing my emotion to someone and they are showing no emotion it says to me they don’t care. This has been life experience. When my parents showed no emotion they weren’t even listening to me, they couldn’t even repeat what I had just said. Can anyone show me I am wrong about people who show no emotion not caring?

  • Bon Dobbs


    I appreciate your comment, but you read my post incorrectly – in fact I think you read the exact opposite meaning as to what I was saying. I was saying, when dealing with someone expressing am emotion, you should NOT have a neutral face. You should IMO express equal, but slightly less emotion than the other person is feeling. That indicates you are hearing them and that you care.


  • Beep

    Thanks Bon. I understood that you were saying to show emotion. I wasn’t clear. I was speaking about the study about BPDs responding to neutral faces the same as angry faces. I was trying to suggest that those neutral faces may not be neutral at all to the trained eye. Also that a neutral reaction can be just as harmful as an angry reaction even to a person without BPD and that it is not abnormal to feel threatened by a seemingly neutral face. For example when they show serial killers with neutral faces while killing victims – killing is threatening. I was feeling like it wasn’t fair to say that BPDs react negatively to something neutral because perhaps the neutral is not neutral. Maybe I did miss it somewhere on your post where you said this is not abnormal to react to a neutral face. What if your abuser maintained a neutral face while being abusive. Would that not cause a normal person to be weary of neutral faces. Of course I realize I could be overreacting but it just seemed unfair to me for a study to state that “patients with BPD is that these people react to neutral faces in the same manner they react to angry faces.” Right now I’m feeling embarrassed about the entire thing.

  • Bon Dobbs


    Cool – I see your point. A couple of things. First, in these studies they used the Ekman faces – Dr. Paul Ekman actually used his daughter as the subject and before producing those images, he and Richard Davidson had used electrodes to create EVERY expression that the human face could make – even some that couldn’t be made naturally. So, I think the “neutral faces” thing WERE neutral – but the interpretation is where the study comes into play. I bought “Emotions Revealed” (by Ekman) a few years ago and my wife wanted to take the test at the end of the book to recognize neutral, slightly angry, slight contempt, etc. in Dr. Ekman’s daughter. She consistently identified neutral as “slightly angry” and slightly angry as very angry – so I think there is some validity to the low tolerance to anger/judgment argument. In this study the researcher found that people with BPD/ERD reacted to those faces 14 times more than those in the “control” group (those without BPD). Also, I met a woman with BPD at a group once when, taking the test, said (at a “slightly angry” face) “He is angry and he is angry at ME.”

    All that being said, I have a recovered BPD/ERD woman in my group (who I adore and think is wise as you can be) and she said, “Think of neutral feedback on eBay. You don’t give a neutral review when everything is perfect. SOMETHING is wrong with a neutral review.” So, I think your assessment of a neutral reaction being harmful is not only important – but it is also normal. Look, I don’t feel people with BPD or ERD traits are weird or not normal – heck, I have at least two important people in my life (my wife and daughter) that have these traits. My point (mainly) is to educate the (I hate this term) Non-BP to let them know that neutral CAN be interpreted as threatening when someone has a naturally occurring low tolerance for judgment of their emotional reactions.

    In the next day or so, I will be posting some thoughts on tolerance, intensity, up slope, length of reaction and down slope when it comes to emotional reactions – and I feel everyone has his/her own “signature” in that way. It’s not that “calm” people are “better” – everyone has their own profile/signature. Sometimes I even wonder if BPD is a “disorder” at all – maybe it is just a natural adaption to one’s emotional signature.

    Anyway… thanks for the clarification and comment. Feel free to contact me if you’d like. And (plug) read my book and have your love ones read it as well (more plugs). No, really, I think I take an interesting “middle road” between the “screw them” people and the “they’re disordered/crazy” people. I try to walk that tightrope because I really believe that there are many hues of “normal”.


  • beep

    Thanks for clearing that up Bon. I’m knew to all this – I suspect you may suspect this already. BPDs seeing neutral faces as angry may explain a lot of things for me. I’m going to do some research on this angry/neutral face study. I think it’s just fascinating and bewildering. What could cause this? Is there a cause? What type of protection would this provide a BPD? Again, thank you for your thoughts.

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  • AreJ

    You obviously haven’t been around that many Scandinavian Americans. Neutral is all we do!

    And BTW, not everything has to be about the BPD, you know. Sometimes non-BPDs choose to do things for their own survival and shouldn’t be constantly evaluated as to whether their behavior is therapeutic or not.

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