**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
Please note: I credit much of my understanding of applying mindfulness to Borderline Personality Disorder to Marsha Linehan.
I got serious about practicing mindfulness shortly after hearing about how it might help me sort out some of my Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) issues. In particular, I needed help with adjusting my instant and ineffective (usually verbal) reactions to typical/everyday life situations, such as dealing with disagreements and personality differences between people. There was no space between what I experienced in life and how I reacted to it, meaning that my reacting happened hard and fast, and without consideration for the potential consequences.
If you have some experience with reactivity issues, then you probably realize how big of a problem it can be… the reactivity tends to produce toxic reactions from others, and that in turn produces more of your own reactivity. The end result can be unwanted outcomes in relationships and ongoing problems that need solutions but remained unsolved. In saying this, I am not implying that people can’t take the risk of having conversations with each other; the problems come about when there is little to no developed capacity for working through emotions in the midst of interacting with each other.
Not only could I not tolerate the emotions generated through common interaction, but I was also busy re-experiencing and re-feeling (and then re-experiencing and re-feeling some more) events from my past and concerns for the future, plus misinterpreting most everything I heard others say. In other words, I was a human being who was frequently (but unnecessarily) offended and constantly putting mental/emotional stress on myself. I had no way to orient myself to the present moment and slow things down. The long-term consequences of this for me were panic disorder, disturbed relationships, anger problems, and abusiveness to others – just a few of the issues that go hand-in-hand with BPD.
I started into a mindfulness practice skeptically as many people probably do. The hardest part for me was developing a willingness to practice “just being” in my life experience. I was so accustomed to staying busy “doing” in order to keep up with the common demands of life (e.g., working, bills, education, and parenting) that spending time in any other way seemed like a waste of time. I was convinced that if I wasn’t constantly working towards “becoming successful” then I was falling behind and that would only result in more demand and stress on me than I could handle. I was running away from an imaginary demon that many people believe they need to run away from – the notion of “failure”. Ironically, the more energy I put into running away from my imaginary demon, the more I increased the odds of remaining unhealthy and getting worse.
So to even get started and remain consistent with a mindfulness practice, there needs to some type of perceived value that mindfulness holds and that it is worth investing your time into. If you believe you can “get away with” endless neglect to your mental/emotional health, then it is going to be hard to get started and remain consistent with a mindfulness practice. Sometimes people need to experience serious mental, emotional, relational, and other types of breakdown in order to start taking these kinds of ideas seriously. I was one of those people, unfortunately. Believe it or not, the body and the mind (and nervous system, etc.) does start to say “NO” eventually, and this is when disease, disorder, and problems with functioning becomes apparent.
It really took me a long time “to get it” (read my extended bio here if you like). Even though I was working towards a Masters in Counselling Psychology when I was at my worst, I didn’t fully appreciate that if you want to be healthy then you have to take care of yourself in ways that work. The body and the mind do not take care of themselves; you have to take responsibility. Inconceivable! Right? I am being a bit sarcastic and repetitive here, but I am really hoping you can avoid getting as sick as I got before changing course. If you realize and accept that you have BPD, then you need a way to settle your anxiety and emotions (including your fight, flight, freeze response) as independently as possible. Mindfulness as a practice has proven to be very useful for this purpose.
One of the keys to practicing mindfulness (so that it works the way you need it to) is to observe your experiences, particularly your internal experiences non-judgmentally. What does this mean? To observe non-judgmentally is akin to looking at things “clinically”, or “scientifically”, without any personalizing, valuing, or moralizing the content. If something shows up in your experience, then you notice it exactly for what it is – nothing more, nothing less. Be the observer of what happens, not the judge who attempts to interpret or decide what is happening.
So for example, if I feel sadness, or guilt, or shame, then I just notice that these emotions are showing up and allow them to exist and pass through me. There are feelings that arise sometimes and then go away. And as you continue to practice noticing non-judgmentally like this, you start to realize that emotions are just like ocean tides or waves – they come and they go and that it is normal.
Another thing you can do mindfully is to observe how and where the emotions show up in your body (e.g., tension in the neck, stiffness in the jaw, butterflies in the stomach, heaviness in chest). Another thing you can do is to BREATH through your experience (into the abdomen, not the chest). Did you know that when you take slow deep breaths into your abdomen, it communicates to your body that you are not in any danger? In Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD), one of the most important things we need to learn is that it is safe to experience emotions!
The exact same thing goes for thoughts… meaning that they show up in certain ways but we don’t have to cling to them, attach to them, take them so seriously. So, if I have a thought that “I am a worthless piece of shit”, I can mindfully notice that a self-loathing thought has shown up. To make it more obvious how I approach this mindfully, I might go through a little verbal process like this: “Hi there self-loathing thought! I see you and accept that you show up sometimes. You are free to pass through me.” I recognize these kinds of thoughts for what they really are… just thoughts, not facts. If I have an emotion that goes along with the above-mentioned thought (maybe shame or worthlessness) then again I acknowledge this as emotion (and emotion only) – not fact.
Sometimes people find it hard to believe that doing a mindfulness practice could help them function better. Because of this – and especially in the initial stages of practicing mindfulness – it is easy to start judging mindfulness itself. If this is the case, then you can mindfully observe that you are judging mindfulness. If you start judging yourself for judging mindfulness, then you can mindfully observe that you are judging your judging. Do you see how this works? The more you follow this process, the more you will find stability in your behavior and wisdom in your choices. The reason for this is that the practice works to settle down the emotional area of the brain (the Amygdala).
Determination, consistency, and courage are required for mindfulness to have any real benefit to you. In general, I would say that people don’t really want to spend much of their time following a mindfulness practice, simply because it can be uncomfortable to face yourself. It’s sort of like going to the gym and starting a workout routine… at the start it usually isn’t all that enjoyable, but then after you start to experience some benefits (e.g., weight loss, muscle development, or feeling differently) you have some inherent motivation to keep going. So, how bad do you want to improve your mental health? Are you willing to face yourself to make progress?
If you are serious about your health, an important step to take in developing your mindfulness practice is to start studying emotion words. If you don’t have an emotional vocabulary, then it is going to be difficult to pinpoint how you are feeling when you are feeling it. It is also going to be difficult to develop an “emotional range” without having the right words to use. If you have BPD, then for sure you need to develop an emotional range, because not everything that happens in life is extreme. Likewise, it doesn’t always make sense to feel sadness or anger. There is a huge continuum of life experience and feeling that you need to locate and acknowledge as truth.