**The ideas contained in this post are the opinions of the writer and communicated without reference to supporting documentation. The writer also recognizes that BPD is a disorder that affects both males and females, and uses of “she” or “he” in the communication of ideas are not intended to covey sexual bias. Breakaway MHE Disclaimer
Experiencing intense and hard to manage emotions is commonplace for those living with borderline personality disorder (BPD). However of all the emotions experienced by this population, some of the most common and difficult to feel are guilt and shame. There are reasons for these recurrent emotional challenges in BPD, although it can take some time in therapy before the reasons are well understood.
Guilt happens to people when they believe they have made a mistake, hurt others, are at fault, or otherwise should be blamed for things that didn’t go well (e.g., “I yelled and she became scared, and for this I feel guilty). Shame is the experience of having one’s perceived flaws or lack of worth exposed and then sensing judgment from self or others (e.g., “I drove off in a rage again and got another speeding ticket; I can’t believe I keep doing this!; I should have known better”).
It is normal to sometimes have feelings of guilt because mistakes are made, and shame sometimes because patterns of behavior may be in need of some improvement to better align with held values and morals. But in cases of BPD, feelings of guilt and shame tend to take on a type of permanence rather than transience. In other words, it can be very hard for a person with BPD to let go of things… to stop feeling guilty and ashamed for things that didn’t go well in the past, to stop directing blame and shame towards self when it isn’t clear who or what contributed to life problems, and also to consider if there is any room being given for self-love and self-forgiveness (permission to be imperfect).
In persons with BPD, guilt and shame feelings are rarely put into their proper perspective or considered for their relevance to the present moment (i.e., “does it make sense for me to be feeling this way right now?”). Sometimes this preoccupation with guilt and shame is due to the fear of having future interactions with others that may induce these kinds of feelings, and then trying to figure out ways to avoid it. But of course, the guilt and shame feelings tend to get re-experienced anyways because of the ongoing imagining and reliving of things.
The way a person with BPD experiences guilt and shame is furthermore different because of the way he has been conditioned to think about himself, his experiences with others, and his place in the world. He has learned that things tend to go wrong for him and that people tend to blame and judge him for the way he reacts/overreacts. He has been in trouble, corrected and criticized so much that he tends to believe that the world is against him. He doesn’t yet know why it works this way, but he is making many assumptions (perhaps having bad thoughts about self; perhaps blaming others). He hasn’t considered his limited awareness of self; hasn’t reflected on his beliefs and level of understanding of mental health; hasn’t learned how disorder develops in the first place; and hasn’t developed the knowledge and skill to successfully manage disorder once it has taken root.
The manner and extent to which a person with BPD experiences guilt and shame feelings is therefore exaggerated and inappropriate because he does not yet understand himself or his illness. He doesn’t understand the significance of his childhood or development. He isn’t aware that he can’t manage his disorder without the necessary awareness, knowledge and skills. He believes he “should have known better” and that there is no excuse for errors in functioning. He sets his own trap for repeat feelings of guilt and shame, and may likewise “buy into” to the unhealthy and unforgiving attitudes that others have about “behavioral issues” and “mental health problems”.
Then there is the unfortunate tendency to suddenly react to chronic feelings of guilt and shame that have built up over time. Reactions may include all sorts of “acting out”, labeling oneself as “bad”, or worrying that others will not tolerate any more mistakes of emotion or behavior, and possibly vocalizing these insecurities and seeking reassurance from others. These types of reactions may result in “getting in trouble” once more as others don’t understand where the reactions are coming from. These types of experiences may then be interpreted by the person struggling through BPD as yet another “piece of evidence” that he is “always at fault”, “always annoys”, “always hurts”, or is “always a burden on others”.
Indeed it is a sad thing, but a person with BPD will habitually torture himself by inducing unnecessary guilt and shame feelings through his own thinking style. He can’t let things go. When bad things happen, he will personalize the situation and automatically assume he is at fault because he has been “at fault” so many times in the past. He can’t stop personalizing. He will react to his own thoughts and emotions and set off reactions in others. He can’t stop reacting.
When feelings like guilt and shame are felt unnecessarily (when it doesn’t really make sense to feel that way given the circumstances) this is when the feelings could properly be labelled as “misplaced”. This is one of the keys to overcoming Borderline Personality Disorder… learning to become mindfully aware and critical of misplaced guilt and shame, learning to let it go, and learning to replace the misplaced guilt and shame with something more fitting to the situation.