One trait of people with borderline personality disorder is the difficulty they have managing their emotions. Their emotions bubble over easily and they find it hard to find stability.
They may have many emotional ups and downs that hinder their relationships to the outside world. Precisely for that reason they need specialized help to learn useful tools for social behavior.
To situate ourselves, borderline personality disorder (BPD) is characterized by a rigid and inflexible way of functioning.
People with BPD have trouble relating to others, have an inappropriate way of functioning socially, evident emotional instability and a very negative self-image.
But, why is it so hard for people who have this disorder to manage their emotions?
The biosocial theory of borderline personality disorder
Biosocial theory holds that the main problem of BPD is a lack of emotional regulation. In addition, this deficiency may have several different origins.
They include a biological predisposition, an environmental context of avoidance, and the interaction of the two. The theory says that emotional imbalances come from an emotional vulnerability and lacking effective emotional management strategies.
Emotional vulnerability is defined as hypersensitivity to any emotion, regardless of its value (positive, negative or neutral).
This hypersensitivity often results in a very intense and variable response by a person with BPD. Such intensity produces an imbalance, so then people with BPD have a hard time recovering it.
On the other hand, the instability and lack of emotional regulation, according to the biosocial theory, have a biological basis. This does not mean that it’s hereditary.
The biological predisposition may be different in each person. Therefore, a biological factor common to all cases of borderline personality disorder has not yet been discovered.
An invalidating environment in the family affects emotional regulation
One factor that gives people with (and without) BPD trouble regulating emotions is the family context they grew up in. Normally, therapy reveals that families have not validated the emotional needs of their children. Their environment sees emotional expression as unimportant.
An invalidating family can do a lot of damage to a person’s self-esteem, since childhood is when it is formed. If parents ignore a child or respond in an extreme way to his needs, he will feel that it’s not important to keep living with rejection and without understanding.
The critical environment leads to frustration, anger, sadness and fear becoming part of the child’s personality.
For example, if the child cries, instead of attending to them or trying to find out what is wrong, the parents tell him he’s a “crybaby”. So he learns that it’s bad to show his emotions and that he will be reprimanded when he does.
The child learns to express his emotions in an extreme way, or completely inhibits or disinhibits them, as this dysfunctional expression grows.
How do people with BPD respond to emotions?
Extreme intensity and emotional sensitivity
People with borderline personality disorder are very sensitive to external experiences because they are afraid of abandonment. That’s why they respond with great intensity to any emotion, whether anger or joy.
They suffer from a very marked emotional instability that they find difficult to control. For example, they often have episodes of intense anxiety and frustration that manifest in disrespectful behavior.
Difficulty getting back to emotional neutrality
Calming down, after the intensity with which they experience emotions, is not easy. They can be very impulsive and have difficulty modulating their emotions when something bothers them. So much so that they often involuntarily delegate the control of their actions to their own emotions.
In addition, people with BPD are also characterized by unwise, radical and very fickle opinions. Their instability in this sense also hurts any social support they have.
They usually have less support. And the people who do stick around understand that many of the impulsive behaviors the person has are the disease.
“Self-injury is a way that people with BPD have to express their contained anger. It is important that they learn another way to manage their anger that does not harm them.”
Holding back deep emptiness and sadness
A feeling of emptiness is very common among people who suffer from borderline personality disorder. Nothing fills them up. This generates a large, general emptiness and a sadness that’s hard to explain or express.
Thus, in their emotional backpack they end up carrying a sadness they can’t get away from.
Contained anger and self-injury
They have a lot of difficulty regulating their anger. That’s why they either explode or bottle in their anger to the point of self-harm. Self-injury is their way of expressing the anger they don’t know how release any other way.
They must learn to manage their anger, consciously channeling the energy so it doesn’t come out in a way they’ll later regret.
How to regulate emotions in borderline personality disorder?
A first step will be to learn to accept and validate their emotions as they feel them. Identify which emotions are there before they bubble over. Then accept them as they come, without trying to deny reality.
It will be important to learn to tolerate their emotional distress with emotional regulation strategies.
The therapy that has had best results is DBT (Dialectical Behavioral Therapy), by Marsha Linehan. This therapy focuses on teaching social and motivational skills to reduce impulsive and suicidal ideation behaviors. The idea is to help them see the world as a place where there is also room for them.
Enriching the emotional abilities of people with BPD is a very important aspect in improving their social and personal adaptation.
To conclude, individual therapy, group therapy, and work to do at home will be essential, provided it is organized and supervised by a specialist.
Linehan Marsha.M (2003) Manual de tratamiento de los trastornos de personalidad límite. Paidós.
American Psychiatric Association (2014). DSM-V. Manual Diagnóstico y estadístico de los trastornos mentales. Editorial Médica Panamericana.