Borderline Personality Disorder,  Mentalizing,  Validation

Just in time for the holidays

Sometimes the holidays can be stressful
Sometimes the holidays can be stressful

Hey all, I haven’t posted much in the way of skills lately, but today, as the holidays are upon us, I think it is helpful to go over some emotional skills and other tools that can help us non-BPD people get through the holidays reasonably unscathed. The holidays are a tough emotional time for everyone. There are expectations that the holidays be “jolly and happy” when, sometimes, the holidays are anything but. The get-together with relatives – many who don’t understand the actions, feelings and behaviors of someone with BPD – can cause huge stress for those with BPD and for the loved ones. Expectations of a low conflict Christmas (or other holiday) are typical, but not often “delivered upon”. Stress and the feeling of being “on-stage” or “good enough” for the family can cause emotional dysregulation and distress. Sometimes an invalidating family can compare the person with BPD with other, less emotional family members. You know, “why can’t you be like your cousin?”

So, in order to skillfully approach the holidays, I’d like to remind non-BPD people and people with BPD alike of the following skills that can help all of us get through. Here we go:

1.    Frustration Tolerance. Sometimes we are overcome with frustration. We feel like we “can’t stand it” or “can’t take it anymore.” When you feel that way, I would encourage you to ask yourself some questions that can help build frustration tolerance. Some questions are:

a.    Can I really not stand it?
b.    Am I really going to explode?
c.    How does exploding/raging help me in my relationships?
d.    What can I do to decrease the frustration?

2.   Mentalizing with yourself in a search for meaning within other people’s actions. Often people jump to conclusions or assume the intent and motivation of others. Sometimes these motivations are assumed to be malevolent, invalidating or uncaring. You can ask yourself the following questions to help understand the intent within yourself:

a.    Do I really believe that he/she is being mean?
b.    Is there another explanation as to his/her motivations?
c.    What would he/she be feeling that could explain this action?

3.    Mentalizing with others to understand others’ internal mental states. Be curious. Ask questions. Don’t “load” these questions. That is, ask “can you clarify what you meant, I’m not sure I understand you intention?” vs. “Why are you being so mean to me?”

4.   Be validating toward yourself and others. Remember that emotions are a major influence on people’s behavior. Listen to others and validate the emotions. Validation does not equal agreement with behavior. It shows that you have heard the other person’s emotions and that it is ok to feel however one feels. Normalization can also be helpful here.

5.    Don’t label people, label events. In other words, rather than saying “he’s an asshole”, say “he did something that bothered me.” This can be used on your own actions as well. Rather than telling yourself you’re a “failure,” you can say “I didn’t do that as I would have liked.”

6.    Be mindful of the moment. Monitor interactions actively and in a way that is non-judgmental. Don’t get caught up in past reactions or fear of future reactions.

7.    Cheerlead yourself and others. This is not “positive mental attitude” statements. This is encouraging others to be brave and effective. The essence of this skill is “you can do/face hard/difficult things.”

8.    Consider the consequences of mind-altering substances. Too much alcohol and/or drugs can create impulsive situations and ones that you may regret later. Think before you drink.

Here’s wishing you all an effective holiday season!

Take good care,

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  • Wandering Coyote

    Hey Bon,

    THANK YOU for this post! I really needed to read this at this really difficult time for me. I just wish I could have taken it to my DBT aftercare group on Wednesday! I really loved #1 in particular; great checklist to go through and a good way of helping someone with the action urge/action distinguishing. That is probably the most concrete and specific way I have ever seen this skill written down or heard articulated.

    Also, #2 is very key. That is a skill I learned way back in my 20s, well before DBT, only it was called contextualizing and it was part of a communication skill I did in another group therapy thingy. Very important to take that step back and OBSERVE, which I think is what #2 is getting at, in my mind.

    I am definitely bookmarking this post, Bon. Thanks again!!

  • Adelaide Dupont

    Wandering Coyote:

    It’s interesting to see that you learnt about contextualising. And also about how to distinguish between the urge and the actual action. I think it might be good to put a gap/pause between urge and action, and then gradually tolerate longer ones.


    These skills seem progressive. From the thing before the thought, to the feeling, and then to the action.

    Also I have been reading heaps about boundaries and maintaining them.

    And it’s always good to be reminded to be “mindful of the moment”.

  • Bon Dobbs


    You said: “Also I have been reading heaps about boundaries and maintaining them.” I would caution you regarding this research. There are many, many bad interpretations of “boundaries” out there – including in some of the most popular books about BPD. I posted something about boundaries sometime ago: I would encourage you to develop boundaries that are just that, not rules. Too many people confuse boundaries with rules for other people’s behavior.


  • Sis

    Bon, Sis here. Awesome post. I agree, these are helpful for anybody- I know I’ll be re-reading this for myself.

    I’m not keeping up at all with the group these days but love these reminders that come in your newsletters. I’ve also read WHINE a couple more times. And if you’re wondering, things continue to progress in my relationship with my bpd. Actually, all of my relationships have been blessed by the stuff I’ve learned from you and ATSTP.

    Have yourself a great season! Sis

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