The Real Root Behind a Borderline Personality Disorder Diagnosis BY KRISTEN MCGEEHON

Do you ever feel as though you’re unable to control your emotions? Or that your emotions are “too much” for any one person to handle? Do you find that it’s easier to lean on “retail therapy” or other impulses rather than opening up and talking about your experience? Perhaps you’ve always struggled with the ability to have stable relationships and perhaps you feel safer in using harmful behaviors to help yourself regulate, because laying blame on an actual physical wound is a heck-of-a-lot easier than trying to figure out what emotional wound needs attention and healing.

I specialize in working with trauma as well as with folks who meet the criteria for borderline personality disorder (BPD). Something that is often overlooked within a BPD diagnosis is the presence of a traumatic, unsafe childhood. Most humans I know who meet the criteria for this diagnosis describe an environment during childhood that was a “rollercoaster – nothing was stable”, and now those experiences are being translated into their adult lives. In some ways, all of the symptoms of BPD are NORMAL human reactions to abnormal situations. Without learning the ability to attach with our caregivers in a healthy and safe way, we have no ability to learn how to regulate ourselves as adults.

People that struggle with BPD symptoms have difficulty maintaining meaningful relationships, they are overwhelmed by big emotions, and, ultimately, they operate from a place of fear. No wonder you keep people at a distance by any means necessary! Keeping others at bay is a way to make yourself feel safe because no one can hurt you when you’re protected by a wall. However, it is my belief that, as human beings, we generally value connection with others; so while disconnecting feels safe, it also keeps us from living a life that honors our values.

I often hear folks describe their emotions as “too big and too much – I feel everything too deeply”. When thinking about childhood, it was likely incredibly useful to be hypersensitive and aware of other’s feelings around you; it probably made you feel attached and safe! Additionally, neuroscience tells us that folks who may fit this diagnosis literally have a different brain chemistry than those who do not have this diagnosis. There are many people that are maybe somewhere on the continuum and do not meet the full criteria for BPD, but still struggle with regulating their emotions or unstable and chaotic relationships.  There is often a “push/pull” pattern to relationships that in the beginning have an “instant attachment” and very few boundaries, but then end in cut off or high conflict break-ups.

Researchers believe that if you have BPD, your brain is constantly on high alert and this may be a result of trauma literally changing the way your brain processing things. Things feel more stressful or scary than they do to others. Your fight or flight response is easily switched on, which hijacks your rational brain and triggers your animal brain survival instincts, which aren’t always fitting for the situation that you’re in. Maybe you’re thinking, “great, it’s literally affecting my brain so there must be no way I can change it!”? There is hope! There is now 20 years of research showing that EMDR therapy can get to the true root of your pain and change the way those memories are stored in your brain. You can learn how to cope in new and healthy way with your “big feelings.”

It’s not bad to feel things deeply! Especially in a world where all anyone wants to do is check out. Glennon Doyle says it best in her book Love Warrior: “I’m not a mess, but a deeply feeling person in a messy world. I explain that now when someone asks me why I cry so often. I say, “for the same reason I laugh so often – because I am paying attention.” I tell them that we cannot choose to be perfect and admired or to be real and loved. We must decide.” I believe it’s admirable to be so in touch with our emotions in this world, which is lacking those kinds of folks right now. We need big feelers! But having big feelings can be exhausting and can make us want to check out, rather than lean in. It makes us burn out in our jobs and our lives. Through therapy, I invite each person to look at which stories are serving us in a health way, and which ones are not, and therefore need to be let go of.

There are a number of therapists who shy away from treating clients that meet the criteria for this disorder and many believe that it is a fixed personality trait.  I respectfully disagree with this doctrine. If we process trauma, clients can learn to regulate emotions, tolerate the stress of life and learn to have meaningful relationships and no longer meet the criteria for this diagnosis. By using EMDR therapy, I invite each client to learn how to access those “big” emotions (which can sometimes feel like “too much”), and then help your brain reprocess it so that these early childhood memories can became integrated in your neural networks. Through therapy, I invite each person to learn which stories are worth giving energy to, and which ones are not and therefore need to be let go of. The transformation that can take place in this process provides hope for those that struggle with BPD symptoms, symptoms that we would all have if we were raised in an abusive, chaotic, invalidating environment.

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