Recovering from Borderline Personality Disorder Means Learning To Change The Way You Think

Recovering from Borderline Personality Disorder Means Learning To Change The Way You Think

People with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) have a skewed way of thinking. We see criticism where there is none, we see abandonment when someone doesn’t return our phone calls, and we see despair when really it is just a different perspective. Although BPD is not classified as a “thought disorder”, in my opinion it should be. People with BPD internalize their skewed visions of themselves and turn their own thoughts against them. My husband used to always say to me, ‘Every feeling first begins with a thought.’ I think this is true.

So how does one go about learning to change the way he or she thinks? For me it began with the daily practice of gratitude. A friend once commented to me that even though I had lots of money, lots of friends, and four beautiful children I was always so unhappy. She could not understand why. My initial reaction was anger.

In complete and utter indignation I thought, ‘How dare you say something like that to me?’. But I recalled that after my last overdose, and being in the hospital for six months when I gave myself an acquired brain injury, that when I was discharged I had to decide whether or not I would go back to smoking. I had been a smoker for almost thirty years.

Each day when I woke up I had to recommit to my decision not to go back to smoking. I did that every year for three years because that’s how long it took for my cravings to finally go away. I lay in bed after that night following that exchange with her thinking, ‘I can choose to practice happiness. In the same way I chose to be a non-smoker, I can choose to practice happiness.’

After that every day when I got up I would log on to my Facebook page and post a daily gratitude posting. They were simple and were things we all take for granted like access to clean water, electricity, easy access to good food. Gradually I began to see changes in myself. The way I saw the world and the way in which I interacted with the world began to change. I began to feel more centred and more grounded within myself. I began to see the world as a place of immense beauty and bounty as opposed to a battlefield where I was always the loser.

Changing the way you think is not for the faint of heart.

Changing the way you think is not easy, nor is it for the faint of heart. If you want to have a real BPD recovery, it takes practice and diligence and yes, falling down again and again. The trick is that when you fall down, you have to get back up and start over again. Learning how to change the way you think so you can enjoy BPD recovery is a skill like any other. You did not burst from your mother’s womb knowing how to tie your shoes or eat with a knife and fork. Those are skills you were taught.

Most people with BPD experience negative thoughts about themselves all the time. This learned behaviour is often taught to them by their family and can be unlearned. Over time¨ those thoughts become knee-jerk reactions to certain stimuli. In order to change those thinking patterns, you must first become aware of them, then make a conscious choice to challenge them, and then stop them in their tracks. Life is all about perspective and changing the focus of your vision will help you learn to see things in a different light.

My favourite saying is, ‘Introspection brings insight and insight enables change’. It’s that simple and that difficult. In a similar fashion, people with BPD generally have very low self-esteem. This may be because they were not taught to value themselves when they were children. I use an analogy that if your parents did not know how to make pasta, it would have been impossible for them to teach you how to make pasta. Similarly, if your parents did not have good self-esteem, they could not possibly have taught you how to have it. But you can learn how to make pasta on your own. It takes a conscious effort to change the way you think. Acquiring this skill takes time.

It takes a conscious effort especially for the person with Borderline Personality Disorder.

Change is always difficult. This is because when the behaviour is familiar, you know what to expect when you do it. When you embark on change, it’s very frightening because you are embarking on virgin territory. But change is possible. How many psychiatrists does it take to change a lightbulb? Just one. But the lightbulb has to really want to change. You can do it.


About the Author: Dee Chan

Dee Chan was diagnosed with BPD more than 35 years ago back when the diagnosis was still fairly new and not very well understood. She has been living with it and coping with it ever since and finding ways to thrive despite it. She has been able to put it into complete remission and turned her life around completely through the practices of gratitude, forgiveness and accountability. Find out more about Dee’s work on her website bpdnomore.com.

7 Comments

Rachel

What a breath of fresh air to hear from a person with BPD about their personal growth. Thank you Dee.

Reply
susan

actually these cognitive distortions are always at the root of any & ALL personality problems.
self monitoring is arduous & constant.
hardest work I have EVER done & still do. but now that I am more conscientious & stop the blaming, my world has improved.

Reply
Anne

I thought this was a very useful piece. My mother-in-law was diagnosed with BPD a few years ago. She is in the throes of a relapse (so to speak) and the insights you shared related to low self-esteem are extremely relevant. A huge challenge in her situation, I believe, is that she is 76 with a lifetime of untreated mental health issues and all that goes with it. I think it would be very helpful to her to have a provider who also has expertise in gerontology. Not even sure if such a unicorn exists!

Reply
Deb

Fabulous article. I will certainly share this article with several folks that struggle with BPD on a daily basis. Thank you so much for keeping it simple, and with a guide on several examples on how to find relief from BPD.

Reply
Jackie

I learnt about this condition while studying mental health and community services. It is great to hear that there is a way through this for people who are willing and wish to make changes to their lives. many thanks for the well written article. Most impressed/

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Behaviour is never from ‘bad’. It’s from ‘big’. Big hungry, big tired, big disconnection, big missing, big ‘too much right now’. The reason our responses might not work can often be because we’ve misread the story, or we’ve missed an important piece of it. Their story might be about now, today, yesterday, or any of the yesterdays before now. 

Our job isn’t to fix them. They aren’t broken. Our job is to understand them. Only then can we steer our response in the right direction. Otherwise we’re throwing darts at the wrong target - behaviour, instead of the need behind the behaviour. 

Watch, listen, breathe and be with. Feel what they feel. This will help them feel you with them. We all feel safer and calmer when we feel our people beside us - not judging or hurrying or questioning. What don’t you know, that they need you to know?♥️
We all have first up needs. The difference between adults and children is that we can delay the meeting of these needs for a bit longer than children - but we still need them met. 

The first most important question the brain needs answered is, ‘Is my body safe?’ - Am I free from threat, hunger, exhaustion, pain? This is usually an easier one to take care of or to recognise when it might need some attention. 

The next most important question is, ‘Is my heart safe?’ - Am I loved, noticed, valued, claimed, wanted, welcome? This can be an easy one to overlook, especially in the chaos of the morning. Of course we love them and want them - and sometimes we’ll get distracted, annoyed, frustrated, irritated. None of this changes how much we love and want them - not even for a second. We can feel two things at once - madly in love with them and annoyed/ distracted/ frustrated. Sometimes though, this can leave their ‘Is my heart safe?’ needs a little hungry. They have less capacity than us to delay the meeting of these needs. When these needs are hungry, we’ll be more likely to see big feelings or big behaviour. 

The more you can fill their love tanks at the start of the day, the more they’ll be able to handle the bumps. This doesn’t have to be big. It just has to be enough. It might look like having a cuddle, reading a story, having a chat, sitting with them while they have breakfast or while they pat the dog, touching their back when they walk past, telling them you love them.

All brains need to feel loved and wanted, and as though they aren’t a nuisance, but sometimes they’ll need to feel it more. The more their felt sense of relational safety is met, the more they’ll be able to then focus on ‘thinking brain’ things, such as planning, making good decisions, co-operating, behaving. 

(And if this today was a bumpy one, that’s okay. Those days are going to happen. If most of the time their love tanks are full, they’ll handle when it drops a little. Just top it up when you can. And don’t forget to top yours up too. Be kind to yourself. You deserve it as much as they do.)♥️
Things will always go wrong - a bad decision, a good decision with a bad outcome, a dilemma, wanting something that comes with risk. 

Often, the ‘right thing’ lives somewhere in the very blurry bounds of the grey. Sometimes it will be about what’s right for them. Sometimes what’s right for others. Sometimes it will be about taking a risk, and sometimes the ‘right’ thing just feels wrong right now, or wrong for them. Even as adults, we will often get things wrong. This isn’t because we’re bad, or because we don’t know the right thing from the wrong thing, but because few things are black and white. 

The problem with punishment and harsh consequences is that we remove ourselves as an option for them to turn to next time things end messy, or as a guide before the mess happens. 

Feeling safe in our important relationships is a primary need for all of us humans. That means making sure our relationships are free from judgement, humiliation, shame, separation. If our response to their ‘wrong things’ is to bring all of these things to the table we share with them with them, of course they’ll do anything to avoid it. This isn’t about lying or secrecy. It’s about maintaining relational ‘safety’, or closeness.

Kids want to do the right thing. They want us to love and accept them. But they’re going to get things wrong sometimes. When they do, our response will teach them either that we are safe for them to come to no matter what, or that we aren’t. 

So what do we do when things go wrong? Embrace them, reject the behaviour:

‘I love that you’ve been honest with me. That means everything to me. I know you didn’t expect things to end up like this, but here we are. Let’s talk about what’s happened and what can be different next time.’

Or, ‘Something must have made this (wrong thing) feel like the right thing to do, otherwise you wouldn’t have done it. We all do that sometimes. What do you think it was that was for you?’

Or, ‘I know you know lying isn’t okay. What made you feel like you couldn’t tell me the truth? How can we build the trust again. Let’s talk about how to do that.’

You will always be their greatest guide, but you can only be that if they let you.♥️
Whenever there is a call to courage, there will be anxiety - every time. That’s what makes it brave. This is why challenging things, brave things, important things will often drive anxiety. 

At these times - when they are safe, but doing something hard - the feelings that come with anxiety will be enough to drive avoidance. When it is avoidance of a threat, that’s important. That’s anxiety doing it’s job. But when the avoidance is in response to things that are important, brave, meaningful, that avoidance only serves to confirm the deficiency story. This is when we want to support them to take tiny steps towards that brave thing. It doesn’t have to happen all at once.l and it doesn’t matter how long it takes. Brave is about being able to handle the discomfort of anxiety enough to do the important, challenging thing. It’s built in tiny steps, one after the other. 

We don’t have to get rid of their anxiety and neither do they. They can feel anxious, and do brave. At these times (safe, but scary) they need us to take a posture of validation and confidence. ‘I believe you, and I believe in you.’ ‘I know this feels big, and I know you can handle it.’ 

What we’re saying is we know they can handle the discomfort of anxiety. They don’t have to handle it well, and they don’t have to handle it for too long. Handling it is handling it, and that’s the substance of ‘brave’. 

Being brave isn’t about doing the brave thing, but about being able to handle the discomfort of the anxiety that comes with that. And if they’ve done that today, at all, or for a moment longer than yesterday, then they’ve been brave today. It doesn’t matter how messy it was or how small it was. Let them see their brave through your eyes.‘That was big for you wasn’t it. And you did it. You felt anxious, and you stayed with it. That’s what being brave is all about.’♥️
A relationally unsafe (emotionally unsafe) environment can cause as much breakage as as a physically unsafe one. 

The brain’s priority will always be safety, so if a person or environment doesn’t feel emotionally safe, we might see big behaviour, avoidance, or reduced learning. In this case, it isn’t the child that’s broken. It’s the environment.

But here’s the thing, just because a child doesn’t feel safe, doesn’t mean the person or environment isn’t safe. What it means is that there aren’t enough signals of safety - yet, and there’s a little more work to do to build this. ‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, it’s about what the brain perceives. Children might have the safest, warmest, most loving adult in front of them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll feel safe. This is when we have to look at how we might extend bigger cues of warmth, welcome, inclusiveness, and what we can do (or what roles or responsibilities can we give them) to help them feel valued and needed. This might take time, and that’s okay. Children aren’t meant to feel safe with every adult in front of them, so sometimes what they need most is our patience and understanding as we continue to build this. 

This is the way it works for all of us, everywhere. None of us will be able to give our best or do our best if we don’t feel welcome, liked, valued, and free from hostility, humiliation or judgement. 

This is especially important for our schools. A brain that doesn’t feel safe can’t learn. For schools to be places of learning, they first have to be places of relationship. Before we focus too sharply on learning support and behaviour management, we first have to focus on felt sense of safety support. The most powerful way to do this is through relationship. Teachers who do this are magic-makers. They show a phenomenal capacity to expand a child’s capacity to learn, calm big behaviour, and open up a child’s world. But relationships take time, and felt safety takes time. The time it takes for this to happen is all part of the process. It’s not a waste of time, it’s the most important use of it.♥️

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