Mindfulness Practices that Help to Settle the Emotional Brain – Step 9 (slide set 4)

**The ideas contained in this post are the opinions of the writer and communicated without reference to supporting documentation. Any uses of “she” or “he” in the communication of ideas are not intended to covey sexual bias. Breakaway MHE Disclaimer

Author: Peter Miller

One of the hardest skills to acquire and maintain while working through Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) is to accept reality exactly as it is. I left this aspect of mindfulness for the last slide set of BreakAway MHE’s 9-Steps on purpose so that you would be prepared for it through your prior learning. In every moment of our life experience, there is some aspect of “reality” that influences how much we can get what we want, versus preventing us from getting what we want. If we are not prepared to mindfully process these parts of our reality (especially those parts of reality that prevent us from getting what we want), then it can result in many unhealthy thoughts, toxic emotions, unwise behaviors, and unfortunate situations.

For example, when I was working towards becoming a psychologist it was necessary to find places where I could practice doing therapy sessions with people and also be supervised by a registered psychologist. In Alberta, you have to get 1600 hours of supervised practice before you can even qualify to take the psychologist registration exam. I remember being extremely frustrated in this process of accumulating supervised hours because on some occasions I needed to travel more than an hour to a clinic location and I might only see one or two people (therefore only getting two supervised hours). On some occasions people didn’t even show up for their counselling appointments and so I drove all that way for nothing.

I really believed that things “should” be working out differently for me (more accommodating, more efficient), and this resulted in experiencing difficult emotions that also influenced other parts of my life in unwanted ways (conflict, task errors). There were several other parts of the psychology process that I believed “should” be happening differently for me as well, but weren’t. Unfortunately, I didn’t yet understand my BPD diagnosis needs, and therefore, didn’t have effective ways to work through my emotions. The consequence was that I couldn’t accept reality as it was; I suffered a lot and brought others with me into my suffering.

Since there are so ways to experience life, there can be many instances in which reality acceptance is required as well. The slide below details some ways that reality acceptance can be required in everyday life for most people. Whenever any of these types of situations arise, there is usually an emotional component to the experience that is either dealt with skillfully (or not). And before learning more about mental health, most people do not yet have a skillful way developed to work through their emotions. This essentially means that many people do not have a way to get past their “should” thoughts, and therefore end up demanding things that aren’t realistic and continue suffering in their emotions.

When several of these reality acceptance situations “stack up” in a parts of your day, or over periods of time, it can produce much emotional reactivity (or emotional suppression) that in turn results in more life problems and issues in relationships etc., eventually if not immediately. And if you are a person who experiences her emotions with great intensity, then you can see how going through life could involve a great deal of emotional work.

Being in therapy, a person who struggles with her emotions and all the related fallout (such as in cases of BPD) ends up realizing that she is going to commit to getting emotionally skilled to accept reality as it is when necessary, or otherwise continue attempting to ignore reality and suffer the consequences. I wrote this blog article about “Unrealistic Expectations in Borderline Personality Disorder” if you would like to gain even more perspective about why (and how) this can be a problem and ways to deal with it.

One of the strategies I use (and also recommend to others) for accepting reality is to continue mindfully noticing and validating emotions, but also to create a list of words that specifically describe the realities of the situation… the things that ARE WHAT THEY ARE (unchangeable). The longer the list of “ARE WHAT THEY ARE” words, within reason of course, the better the exercise works. Doing this works to effectively lower expectations and thus bring you into reality and reduce emotional suffering.

So for example in my psychology training, my frustration about getting the supervised hours completed was indeed understandable and the process was indeed “inefficient”, “slow”, and “unaccommodating”. The situation wasn’t something other than this, and my demanding that it “should” be anything different wouldn’t help to settle my emotions. In fact, if I was to maintain that the situation I was in “should” be efficient and accommodating when it was anything but, I would have remained highly frustrated and eventually felt other challenging emotions as well (e.g., hopelessness, powerlessness, defeated). I did in fact struggle with those emotions as well, but luckily eventually found a full-time paid position where the supervised hours could be completed.

Even though it is recommended that the above-mentioned skills in reality acceptance are attempted when life gets challenging, there can also be times when accepting reality remains very difficult. In other words, even though you might acknowledge the real feelings, validate your feelings, and use reality acceptance words to bring yourself more into reality, the situation can still remain very emotionally distressing for a time. For instance, if a friend or family member (or pet) suddenly died, or if you got rejected by someone you care about, or if you lost your job and were financially stressed, or if your house burned down. During these times it is important to have a healthy coping strategy (or set of strategies) that helps to tolerate the ongoing distress.

The slide below depicts several of these types of coping strategies that can be part of your regular lifestyle, but also could be used when reality remains hard to accept no matter what you do. Everyone is different in their preferences with these kinds of activities, which of course is completely fine, but sometimes there isn’t enough consideration for and development of these activities so that they can be “on hand” when needed. If that’s the case, it may be wise to try some new things out to determine what works for you and is calming, soothing, or enjoyable, etc. The important thing here is that you have something to help yourself when needed so that emotions do not end up getting out of hand and the BPD pattern gets ignited.

Another important thing to remember of distress tolerance activities is that they can sometimes be “overused”, meaning that they are being used to avoid everyday emotions that could in fact be faced and processed. The idea of learning all about Borderline Personality Disorder is to ensure you are making every possible effort to work through your emotions skillfully, rather than getting into patterns of avoidance. Therefore, if you find yourself fixating on your coping activities then it would be wise to consider if it might be replacing your mindfulness practices. Staying emotionally resilient and stabilizing is not so much about feeling better as it is about working through emotional challenges.

The last thing I will mention in the 9-Steps is to remain mindful of multi-tasking, or in other words, to make a commitment for doing ONE THING AT A TIME as you live your life. No doubt if you were raised in modern westernized culture, you probably believe that it is “absolutely essential” to become a good multi-tasker in order to be productive. However, this type of living tends to promote tension and stress rather than inner calm and stability. In fact, it isn’t even possible to keep your attention on more thing at once, and the reality is that people end up jumping from thing to thing to thing, believing that they are multi-tasking when in fact they are scattered. And scattered actions usually means scattered thoughts, which also usually means scatter emotions.

If you goal and interest is to settle your emotions and release yourself from a BPD pattern, then this is a very important piece of the puzzle. It can be difficult to switch from a scattered approach to living to doing one thing at a time, but it is in fact possible with practice. To get started, it might be helpful to make a list of tasks that you want to complete and then put all of your focus on the first task until completion, then move on to the second task. You notice that it feels good to check off the items as you complete them, and that your overall productivity will actually be better than when you were attempting multi-tasking.

As you are doing this, you may be faced with thoughts and emotions that urge you to return to being scattered. In these cases, I would encourage you to observe and describe your thoughts and emotions (mindfully), but then return your attention to the one thing you are working on finishing. It isn’t east to start living more mindfully like this, but it is definitely worth practicing as part of your effort to master emotions and be freed from Borderline Personality Disorder. I know you can do it and I believe in you!! Thank you so much for reading through the 9-Steps to the very end!