borderline personality disorder · mbt · mental health · mental illness · mentalisation

What Therapy Taught Me About Managing Emotions

Following on from my last post about what therapy taught me about relationships, here is what it taught me about managing emotions.

(The treatment that I had was Mentalisation Based Therapy which you can read all about through this blog.)

To start off I should explain what I mean when I talk about ‘managing’ or ‘regulating’ emotions. For me, it is about being able to identify my emotions, to experience them and to respond ‘appropriately.’ Might be best to illustrate with examples of how I failed to regulate and manage emotions in the past (and still do.)

Sometimes I experience dissociation when my emotions get to a stage where I do not feel capable of managing them. What does this look like? I shut down, my eyes glaze over and I stop feeling reality. It can last 30 seconds or several hours. It’s a defence mechanism that has developed over time in reaction to intense emotional situations.

Another way in which I have ‘dealt’ with difficult emotions has been self harming behaviours including cutting but also drinking and smoking. These either numb the emotions long enough for them to diminish slightly in the short term or provide at least an instant relief.

The ways in which I have ‘managed’ emotions in the past have been self destructive and have always made things worse in the long run. Therapy taught me about why I reacted in these ways and how I could change it.

One of my most prominent and difficult symptoms of BPD is the intensity of my emotions. For someone with BPD, emotions are felt more deeply in every way. That includes loving more fiercely and feeling incredibly happy. Those parts of the lack of emotional regulation can be positive (although can lead to not so positive behaviours.) The extreme happiness and love gets outweighed by the anger that makes you do horrible things, the sadness that feels like it is in your bones, the pain that runs so deep that it feels like a permanent part of you.

My biggest revelation in therapy was (and this may seem obvious to a lot of you) that people can experience intense emotions and survive them. In my head, I’d developed this belief that I needed to stop negative emotions as soon as possible because if they escalated then I would end up trying to kill myself. That belief was founded on experience. The truth is that emotions can be so incredibly painful but you can allow yourself to feel them without dying. With the nature of my mental illness, my emotions are likely to always be of a higher intensity than a lot of people. That means that I have to work a little harder to regulate them but it is possible.

So how do I manage emotions? Well, I still take part in self destructive behaviours from time to time and I accept that rather than pressuring myself to always respond in a ‘healthy’ way.

The first thing I learned to do was to identify my emotions. I’ve always had difficulty with knowing exactly how I feel. It probably stems from pushing down and covering up emotions so often. There were times when my therapist would ask me how I was feeling and I had to say ‘I don’t know.’ When I find myself not knowing how I feel, I usually try and recognise how I am physically feeling. My body tends to indicate when I’m feeling stressed or anxious. Once I know what I’m feeling, it helps me to stop avoiding or ignoring emotions. I’m very guilty of avoidance of emotions until they build up to an explosion so knowing what I’m feeling is important to stop this behaviour.

‘Sit with your emotions’ was a favourite line of my therapist. At first, I hated her a bit every time she said it. How can I just let myself feel these horrible things without doing anything to stop it? Why would I put myself through that agony? The reason we are asked to do this is because it really is the only way of actually managing your emotions effectively. If you do not sit with them and allow yourself to feel these things then you’ll never really address the thoughts and events that surround the emotion.

I’m not going to pretend that ‘sitting with’ your emotions is easy but it is a skill that can be practiced. There are still plenty of ocassions when I refuse to sit with emotions and try to fight against them (usually work situations) but I never completely avoid them. There will always be a time (usually when I’m home and doing nothing) that I give myself the space to feel really angry or really sad and let that happen as it needs to.

One thing to always ask: ‘is this emotion about the present or is it from the past?’ It’s common, especially for those of us with trauma history, to subconsciously link present events with the past and feel emotions that are appropriate for the past but not for now. For example, I get frightened when somebody is angry at me. Real fear runs through me. This is due to events in my history. But at these times, I stop and remind myself that the level of fear is not necessarily needed anymore. Separation of the past and present is crucial in being able to manage emotions. We cannot manage our emotions that we had before, we can critically look at our current ones though.

We cannot always control our emotions but we can control how we react to them. It’s easy to let emotions completely take over when they are intense and to respond impulsively. I have a lot of experience with that. It has taken a lot of time to get to a point where suicide isn’t my first thought when everything feels awful. But I’m here. Do I still feel suicidal? Yeah, sometimes. It’s just no longer my go to automatic thought. 

The one thing that I’m still not good at with emotions is talking. I find it really difficult to put into words how deeply I feel things. Particularly as a teenager, I would use self harm as a way to demonstrate it. People seem to understand a behaviour demonstrating an emotion rather than the emotion itself. However, words are more appropriate and less damaging all round. I’m still working on it but nowhere near as much as I should be. So I guess this is a note to self: talk to people about how you are really feeling. Not just the palatable stuff, find someone who will listen to the dark and twisted shit without freaking out.

Have I missed anything? How do you regulate your emotions?

I haven’t been around much… I won’t apologise because this is my space and I can use it how I want. Life events have been a bit… Well, fucking awful. I’m pretty proud that I’ve managed not to try and kill myself to be honest. 


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