Substituting Anger for Other Unprocessed Emotion in Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD)

**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

Sometimes when I meet with people who are suffering from Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD), it becomes clear very quickly that an unusually common emotional state experienced in their day-to-day life is anger. They become angry in response to many common life situations that wouldn’t seem to require that level of energy. They don’t know why they express this type of emotion so much, but do often realize that too much anger is probably causing damage to relationships, is probably putting too much stress on the body, and also isn’t really helping with effective problem-solving. Sure, they may get the short-term benefit of “feeling release” from yelling, for instance, or getting someone to do what they want, but in the long-run there is more cost than benefit.

In my own life before developing a good understanding of mental health and BPD patterns, I was often getting angry over little things and influencing others to become angry in response to me. Now I realize that my anger was a “fight, flight, freeze” response that I used because I had no other developed ability or capacity to notice, tolerate, or manage the full-range of my internal/emotional experience. I believed I was in danger when I wasn’t simply because I was interpreting my internal (and as yet unknowable) emotional struggle as a threat. I fought against my real emotions and blamed others for my internal problem… for “making me” upset. I was emotionally unskilled and immature but had no awareness of this fact.

Some may have a hard time reading the word “immature” as it may apply to their condition, but in fact when “anger” as an emotion gets overused, it basically means there was a lack of emotional development, and so becoming over-reliant on anger becomes a strong possibility. A person with BPD may be developed in many other ways and have many skills, but this does not mean that a healthy emotional development ever took place. In fact, emotions as an area of development important often get de-prioritized or overlooked as other areas of development (e.g., logic, knowledge, athletic) tend to take precedence, or parents don’t know how to (or don’t want to) guide their children in this area.

The bottom line here is that when people do not know how to work with their own emotions, they tend to fall into either “fight”, “flight”, or “freeze” in their behavioral response. Sometimes it turns out to be a combination of two or three of the behaviors listed above, but regardless, it remains a pattern of avoiding the real emotions rather than trying to work them through honestly. The part that amazes me is that the “fight, flight, freeze” response can become so normalized in a culture that people just start to believe it’s normal and natural to act as though you are in danger when you aren’t. For instance, someone might say… “it’s just the way I am and there’s nothing that can be done about it”. However, there is, in fact, lots that can be learned to manage it.

All that being said, it does sometimes make sense to use anger as a response in human life, although only very rarely. If you think about anger as a strong type of energy that would be useful if there was a real threat to safety, then you can gauge more specifically when to use it. For instance, if you are being attacked, or if one of your children or another loved one is being attacked, it would make some sense to harness that kind of energy. If on the other hand you are feeling intense emotions on the inside, but nothing really threatening is happening on the outside, then it doesn’t make sense to use that level of energy.

Sometimes people start getting “called out” on their anger because of it’s damaging effects, and there can be attempts made by the struggling person to conceal the anger (hold it in). This does not work as a strategy, as it doesn’t actually insert any skill for noticing or working through the real emotions. It is just another avoidance tactic, and the emotional energy will find another way to manifest in the person’s life, if not eventually anger once again.

Taking the time to practice noticing your inner workings (learning mindfulness) is highly relevant to settling down anger, although probably not very often taken seriously as a corrective approach. There are so many ways to spend our time, and apparently, so little time to fit everything that we want and need into our lives. Choosing to become curious about our emotions and the associated thoughts and body experiences can be hard to justify as time well spent. However, if your anger has repeatedly proven to be an ineffective response to life situations, then choosing to expand the possibilities for how you deal with emotions can become essential.







photo credit: punch_fist_hand_strength_isolated_human_fight_wrist – Must Link to via photopin (license)

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