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**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
Everyday life is already a massive challenge when Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) plays a role in so many moments, bringing difficult emotions like guilt, shame, fear, rejection, and worthlessness to the surface. These feelings can result in urges to fight, flight, or freeze. The BPD challenge can get beyond overwhelming during typically high-stress times of the year, such as Christmas, when there is pressure to be around family and participate in a “Christmas experience.”
The Christmas season comes with a host of expectations for “how” to participate, regardless of the capacity of family members to cooperate and enjoy this time together. Christmas can, therefore, be a time that brings some of the most intense emotional difficulties and interpersonal drama, rather than the often hoped for the sing-along, sharing and caring, ho ho ho, and holly-jolly.
Despite the negatively biased opinions of the mental health misinformed, that “some people just enjoy ruining a good time or being difficult,” a person with BPD typically wants to feel connected and loved in a family and intimate relationships. The unfortunate truth, however, is that the BPD condition can very easily undermine the much-desired connection and love experience.
For instance, intense feelings of worthlessness may be experienced if it SEEMS like Christmas dinner wasn’t appreciated after all the effort that was put into it (even if it was appreciated). The BPD person may react with irritability, sarcasm or avoidance. Others in the family may then comment in ways that are invalidating (“calm down!”, “why are you so upset?”). The BPD reaction may then escalate further and turn into conflict and drama.
These kinds of experiences are frustrating, disappointing, and hurtful to all involved, although rest assured that the person with BPD would probably take it far worse and suffer much longer as the memories linger. She may eventually conclude that the drama was all her fault because of her feelings and reactions, or that things will never work out for her and that people must hate her.
Sometimes Christmas becomes a matter of putting up with extended exposure to relationships that have not functioned well over time, with old wounds resurfacing and old feelings reignited. Powerful emotional experiences may arise due to misinterpreted body language or facial expressions, or words and vocal tones misconstrued. Perceived alliances, favouritism, slights or abuses may likewise spark difficult feelings and overreactions in the BPD individual.
Of course, being the one to have “BPD reactions” in these situations usually means being the one blamed for any trouble, despite any ignorance or lack of sensitivity from others. For all these reasons and the many other possible ways to end up alone in emotional suffering during Christmas, it is wise to consider a survival plan to increase the odds of having a decent experience.
One important thing to remember is that small doses of exposure to stressful situations, and people (and hence, difficult emotions) can help with making the challenges manageable. Everyone has their limits. Everyone has a different level of skill to manage thoughts, feelings, and reactions.
It is OK to create some space when needed to regain balance and regulate. Even so, others may not understand this need and start to judge your decision. A personal sense of obligation to tradition and family values may, therefore, create pressure to conform and undermine your decision to keep reasonable limits/boundaries.
It might be a “make or break” decision to love yourself regardless of judgments and expectations from self or others, and to accept where you are at and what you can handle. Conforming to pressures that don’t account for your struggles, needs, and limits won’t help you regulate. On the other hand, taking the time to settle and reconsider your approach to situations may very well do so.
Another essential cognitive tool is to keep a realistic mindset about what you are getting into during a celebration like Christmas. There are going to be emotional triggers, and some people are going to be who they have always been (quirks, attitudes, opinions, judgments, insensitivities, etc.).
Sometimes there is an unrealistic belief that people can (or should) set aside their quirks and eccentricities just because it is Christmas. For instance, if someone in the family likes to make off-the-cuff jokes that he believes are harmless, that person will probably continue to behave like this.
The challenge for the BPD person is to accept each person for who they are, and also to remain mindful of feelings that could trigger unproductive reactions. The need to work through painful emotions and find acceptance can arise many times during a single gathering. It’s hard to do this work at first, but it is possible to get good at it.
The last suggestion I will make is that you have distress tolerance activities available for segments of time you can’t remove yourself from situations and are overwhelmed with feelings. Sometimes no matter how hard you try to think of things differently, and no matter how much time you give yourself to recognize emotions and settle, the situation remains complicated.
Distress tolerance activities could include listening to music, reading a book, doing some crafts or colouring (maybe with kids that are present), watching a movie, massaging your hands or arms, playing on Facebook. They could also include playing a video game, playing an instrument, playing in the snow, taking a nap, rinsing your hands with warm water, holding an ice cube, imagining a better time or something enjoyable coming up in the future.
The main thing with these activities is that they distract you from distressing thoughts and feelings, and generally give you a break from being overwhelmed. It helps if the activities are a good fit for the situation you are in, such that they appear “socially acceptable” and others are not interrupting or commenting in emotionally troublesome/judgmental ways. When you start feeling a little more settled, you may want to participate again in the activities as before.
Of course, using these types of recommendations in real life is much easier said than done. Because the challenge can be so difficult is one of the reasons that persons with BPD often shy away from gatherings. People with BPD know the emotional difficulties will be there, that it will be hard, and falling apart may be a possibility. The hesitancy to participate is entirely understandable.
It can be both draining and daunting to enter family and social situations over and over for the sake of staying connected to people who may have little to no understanding of mental health. To every person with BPD who has accepted these challenges despite the difficulties faced, I salute you. Know that you are a courageous warrior and that you can get more skilled as you work at it.
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photo credit: Christmas Eve Dinner via photopin (license)
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