Borderline Personality Disorder,  Emotions

Emotions and Borderline Personality Disorder

Emotions, understanding the enimga of BPD

Why discuss emotions when we are talking about a personality disorder? Well, most researchers agree that the main component of BPD is emotional dysregulation. If you understand the function of emotions and how they play a part in BPD, you can understand the relationship better and interact more effectively with someone with BPD.

A threat or not?

Emotions involve both the body and the mind. Each emotion has a physical and mental configuration. [Dr. Paul Ekman has shown that for “universal emotions” (he cites seven of them: anger, sadness, joy, disgust, contempt, surprise and fear) the person feeling the emotion also will display the emotion on their face. It is impossible to suppress this emotional display inside of 1/25th of a second. Ekman calls those expressions that are quickly suppressed (but not completely suppressed) “micro-expressions” and has developed a tool for recognizing those within other people. I highly recommend Ekman’s tools for learning to read emotions as displayed on other people’s faces.] What we see is that, once the emotional system becomes engaged, the body reacts automatically and reacts in a way that is “hard-wired” in our brains and bodies. We may feel a knot in the stomach, sweaty palms, a loss of blood to the extremities, a rise in blood pressure or other automatic physical reactions.

The emotions triggered are in line with the interpretation of the event. Sometimes the interpretation is “misaligned” with reality, yet the emotions are real and felt nonetheless. An example I use in When Hope is Not Enough, is that of an ancient Hindu parable. In this parable, a person sees a rope as a snake and jumps away with fear. The fear is real to the person seeing the “snake.” The fear only dissipates when the person realizes that it is a rope and not a snake, and perhaps the person will feel foolish that they jumped away in fear from something that was harmless. Still, the person feels the fear and has the natural physical and emotional feelings run through their body and mind. Also, this person behaves in the natural way as a reaction to fear: they jump away from the “threat.”

What I realized about this story after I published that book was that humans get more utility from a “false positive” (thinking a rope is a snake) than a “false negative” (thinking a snake is a rope). It allows us to better survive in a threatening world. Considering the “false alarms” (positives) that a person with BPD experiences, this threat-awareness, for whatever reason, seems to be on a hair trigger for someone with BPD.

Emotions play a huge role in our lives and in our decision-making. Many people believe that a person can’t make sound decisions if they are “too emotional.” Most people place value in being rational (as opposed to rash). However, studies have shown that every decision – from buying ice cream to hiring an employee − has an emotional component. We just don’t notice the emotional component often because it is so built-in that it just seems natural, unless the emotions are expressed for everyone to see. We usually only notice the emotions of people that “wear their heart on their sleeve.” Yet, everyone has emotions. When something just doesn’t “feel right,” that is your emotional system contributing to a decision.

Typically, people do the natural thing when responding to their emotions. This natural thing is built-in. In Emotions Revealed, Dr. Paul Ekman tells us that there are seven universal, built-in emotions.

Emotion Reflex
Fear Run away
Anger Attack
Joy Rejoice, laugh, smile
Disgust Turn away
Contempt Judge Others
Surprise Jump back
Sadness Cry and withdrawal

So, when your loved one reacts in the “reflex” way to the  emotions, he/she is reacting naturally. Whether the “trigger” is appropriate for the situation remains to be determined, but the reaction is typically the normal one.

These emotions are “reflexive” emotions and can save a person’s life. However, if the reflexive emotion is not aligned with reality, it can cause problems. One skill  is how to turn reflexive emotions into “reflective” emotions. Reflective emotions can encourage wise choices.

Adapted from “Beyond Boundaries” by Bon Dobbs


One Comment

  • cmh

    Thank you for helping me to better understand how the emotional triggers work with someone with BPD. I’ve read through a tremendous amount of your website and have found it really informative. I’ve suggested a few people who are dealing with infidelity from their partners suffering with bpd and want to reconcile read over here because their goal is to stay in the relationship. I totally get that the reaction to a false positive is more instinctual and better serves our survival. I think the part that got me really stuck was staying in conversations for hours (up to 4-6) processing us and the incident as if it were a snake for real and not a rope as it turned out to be. Even though I tried to validate the feeling I could not in good faith validate the reality. Once the character attacks started and the accusations of my motives which weren’t the case it was really hard to stay calm though I tried and did not counter attack. I could validate that she felt that I was an awful person but I couldn’t stay. I think with children or parents it becomes a different matter or if you have a spouse with whom you have children it makes sense to work through this. But if you are beginning a relationship with someone and this stuff starts to present itself under most circumstances I think the person should leave. People with bpd really deserve compassion and understanding and one needn’t be awful to the person when they extricate themselves from a romantic relationship.

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