Understanding Emotional Avoidance Behavior – Step 5 (slide set 3)

**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

When a person suffering with BPD remains stuck in a pattern of emotional avoidance behaviour, it can be very hard for his partner and others close to him to live freely (i.e., to live without doing things that accidentally influence the suffering person to feel emotions he can’t yet tolerate). The point here is that the person with BPD wants to continue avoiding all unwanted emotions, and so also wants everyone and everything around him to “help out” with maintaining an environment where he can avoid experiencing unwanted emotions. Whenever the unwanted emotions do get triggered through the way the person with BPD interprets things happening around him, he is then very likely to have a “knee-jerk” reaction (some sort of aggression or passive-aggression).

**Please review step 3 (slide set 4) if necessary to understand how people create their own emotional experience through their interpretations. A person with BPD creates his own emotional experience, no matter how much he believes someone or something else “made him” feel a certain way. He must learn to take responsibility for this. No exceptions.**

The experience of being in a relationship with someone who has BPD often includes being blamed and criticized for many apparently trivial things. It can, therefore, be confusing and unnerving – to say the least – to remain in be in a “BPD relationship” since you never really know when you’re going to get an unnecessarily big reaction (unfitting to the situation). This is where the analogy of “walking on eggshells” comes from. Unfortunately, many partners and family members will go along with the BPD pattern and attempt to behave in ways that the BPD person believes are necessary (e.g., “don’t say those words”, “don’t look at me that way”, “don’t move that stuff”, “don’t spend that money”, “don’t disagree with me”). This only makes things worse.

The number of emotional avoidance behaviors a person with BPD may use to maintain his false sense of internal security can be extensive. This is why each and every person who suffers with BPD can appear so unique in their struggle. That said, persons with BPD do tend to have “bigger” reactions and do things that seem more extreme in their desperation to feel and function better. I believe that all humans – at least to some degree – engage in emotional avoidance behaviours; the difference with BPD is the emotional intensity and more apparent destructiveness/dramatization in the behavior. Sometimes people believe that in order to have BPD, that you need to be doing things like cutting or threatening suicide, but believe me it can be much more subtle than this.

If you look back on the slides presented in step 5, you can see there is much variety in how a person can be emotionally dysfunctional. In my experience working with people (and working through BPD myself), I believe the level of emotional avoidance depends on what comes naturally, what has been learned from others, and how big the emotional challenge of living in one’s body actually is. There can be profound ignorance between humans with regards to THE FACT that not every human experiences his emotions in the same way, and likewise the notion that humans live on a level emotional playing field. Just because a person does not appear emotionally unwell does not mean that he isn’t.

Therefore when the challenge of learning to live in one’s body (the brain, the nervous system, and everything else as it is) is profound, and when the individual’s understanding of mental health is limited, the tendency to adopt various emotional avoidance behaviors can be greater. Sometimes these emotional avoidance behaviors can be mildly destructive in terms of the outcomes they produce (e.g., people being annoyed by behaviors, mild wear and tear on the body, wasted money, limited relationships, limited career advancement). Sometimes the emotional avoidance behavior has more harmful/destructive consequences (e.g., lost relationships, excessive wear and tear on the body, excessive debt, and inability to function in jobs or maintain jobs).

Sometimes people with BPD can maintain emotional avoidance behaviors indefinitely because of the people they know who are willing to play along, and possibly also because they can “pay their way out” of the consequences of their actions using their resources (monetary or otherwise). It continues to amaze me how people can continue fooling themselves that there isn’t a problem with their emotions and functioning, even until death, when they have an appeasing set of circumstances.

Emotional avoidance can actually become an unconscious way of life when you don’t know any better (haven’t done any self-reflection). I suppose it could also be concluded that living life to avoid unwanted emotion will invariably result in some sort of life dysfunction since emotional challenges are bound to crop up whenever we interact with people and have life experiences. In other words, if unproductive behavioral reactions (emotional avoidance behaviors) occurred every time emotional challenges were experienced, then things couldn’t be very productive, or constructive, or run very smoothly such that important problems could get solved and important need get being met.

My experience working with people informs me that non-suffering humans are more likely to give up on whatever they are working on (projects, relationships, etc.) if in addition to the regular challenges of everyday life they are also faced with difficult or confusing behaviors of suffering humans. For someone living with BPD, the experience of others “giving up on him” would most likely be interpreted as abandonment and maybe increase the chances of more reckless emotional avoidance behavior occurring. I would likewise speculate that it is very common for persons with BPD to feel rejected whenever their emotional avoidance behaviors are not appeased by others, since it would seem to the person with BPD that they are “trying to do the right thing” and there is no other way to make things work.

Indeed there are many problems associated with emotional avoidance beahviors, but please do be careful not to overgeneralize the idea of emotional avoidance as “always a bad thing”. A basic rule of thumb here is that if it makes sense to feel a certain emotion (to a certain degree) in a certain situation, then take the responsibility to work through that emotion. If on the other hand you find yourself feeling an emotion that doesn’t make sense given the situation, then changing your thinking to let an emotion go or replacing it with another emotion becomes a wise choice. If a certain situation tends to trigger a certain emotional sensitivity you have (or tendency to think irrationally), less exposure to that situation might be wise. I have written an article on misplaced feelings of guilt and shame that might help with understanding when to feel and not to feel these types of emotions.

One of the hardest things about living through BPD is when life stresses seem to accumulate as a result of problems not getting solved and relationships not remaining in good repair. When overwhelmed with so many things going wrong, it becomes very easy to start judging oneself as worthless, no good, etc., and then for the emotional struggle to result even more life problems because of choices made. The real problem that tends to remain unrealized in cases of BPD is that the problem-solving process has been “high jacked” by an underlying need to avoid intolerable emotions – emotions that with some proper understanding and training could actually be tolerated. In other words, with so much priority being put on the perceived need to avoid certain emotions, the best decisions for solving life’s problems are often not made, and so the problems are either not solved very well or not solved at all.

The urge to give up on life may become stronger when a person with BPD does not realize that much of his life difficulty has nothing to do with him personally (his worth, etc.), but rather because his normal life problems are not getting solved effectively due to lacking emotional awareness/mastery. Feelings of shame (in particular) tend to take over when a person with BPD does not get the right understanding about why things have been going badly in his life. A typical set of shaming thoughts might include: “I am old enough that I shouldn’t be having this much stress, or continue experiencing the same problems over and over again”. Shame feelings can in fact be some of the most difficult to endure, and therefore the urge to give up on life becomes completely understandable when the shame feelings persist.