What do you do when your mind wages war against you? When you suffer from a disorder the majority of people simply don’t understand? What do you do when your perception of reality doesn’t mesh with what others think, leaving you feeling perpetually invalidated?
When I received a diagnosis of borderline personality disorder (BPD), I wanted to scream, fight and deny. This couldn’t be me! Why couldn’t people at least try to understand what I was dealing with? I wasn’t defective or broken—my world was.
However, in learning to cope with my disorder, I discovered dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT). I’m forever grateful I did. I learned so much about myself in the process, and I want to share what I learned with others.
Thoughts and emotions are neither good nor bad
Most of us live in a dream world. I don’t disparagingly say this. Many of us dwell within our heads, paying little heed to the actual events in our world.
In Protecting the Gift: Keeping Children and Teenagers Safe, personal security expert Gavin de Becker writes about worry. He describes that when you see lava pouring from a volcano, you don’t worry—you flee. The mere fact that a thought worries you indicates one thing—whatever you’re worrying about is not happening right at this moment.
While de Becker wrote these words with the intent of cooling the jets of overanxious teen parents, most of the fears driving us exist solely within our minds. These thoughts don’t always indicate that something terrible is happening at the moment. If you’re truly closing in on your imminent demise, you’re not thinking about it—you’re taking action to save your hide.
In what I think of as “my past life,” you couldn’t tell me this when I was in the midst of an overreaction. Whatever fears or needs drove my behaviour were valid, they were happening and it was a legitimate crisis. At least, according to my thoughts.
Here’s the most important takeaway I got from DBT—just because my thoughts told me something was a crisis, I wasn’t Chicken Little, and the sky wasn’t falling.
Your thoughts simply are. So are your emotions. They feel real. They seem real. But can you touch a thought? Can you reach out and lay your hands on pure emotion (outside of metaphoric love songs)? Of course not.
As much as they’re intangible, our thoughts and emotions govern our lives. But here’s the beautiful part: You don’t need to remain captive to your thoughts. Just like you can make peace with your eye or hair colour, you can learn to objectively observe what you think and feel.
The next time catastrophic thinking or powerful emotions threaten to hijack your common sense, try this: Stop for a moment. Ask yourself, “What am I thinking right now? What am I feeling?” Label your emotions, but don’t judge them. Perhaps you feel furious — perhaps for good reason, perhaps for no reason at all. Instead of trying to justify your right to feel angry, simply think, “Boy, I sure am livid right now.” The act of naming an emotion without judging it helps to diffuse overreactions.
Do the same for thoughts. When you think, “Ugh! Barb in accounting is such a witch! And I’m a horrible person for having such a mean thought,” simply observe: “I thought negatively about Barb in accounting.” You’re observing what you did without judgment, which gives you a better perspective for deciding how to act going forward (by allowing you to brush that chip right off your shoulder!).
You’re not God—everyone has their valid reality
DBT helped me improve my interpersonal relationships greatly. One side effect of DBT and mindfulness is that your growing awareness of your thoughts and emotions awakens you to the reality that everyone else lives in their heads, too. Recognizing this enables you to relate to others on a much deeper level.
DBT teaches you skills to help you balance your needs with the needs of others, which will draw people to you. Everyone needs to feel validated. One of the biggest complications of treating people with BPD stems from the way these individuals feel like the world invalidates their feelings constantly.
When you learn to accept your thoughts and feelings not as negative or positive, but as things that simply are, you extend this spirit of non-judgmentalism toward others. This encourages them to open up to you. They feel safe and secure that you won’t betray their confidence by decrying their experiences as strange or abnormal.
“What on earth would make you say that?” becomes, “I feel you, dude.” The power of understanding and empathy speaks louder than any words.
The present moment is the only reality
Stop reading for a second and close your eyes. Recall something you experienced in the past year that you felt was life-changing. How does that event impact you at this very moment?
Traditional therapy tells us we’re the sum total of our experiences, and in many ways, this holds. Certainly, everything we’ve experienced influences our feelings and thought patterns. However, think of your past like the maps you used to print for navigational purposes, before everyone had a GPS on their phone—a map plots out a course from point A to point B, but where you go after point B? That’s entirely up to you.
DBT teaches that your present reality is the only true reality you need to worry about.
It’s liberating when you realize you no longer need to adhere to self-defeating negative thoughts and emotional outbursts. DBT teaches that your present reality is the only true reality you need to worry about. This doesn’t deny the trauma you experienced in the past. It simply reminds you that what happened then doesn’t need to define who you are in the present moment.
For example, as a survivor of relationship abuse, I clung to a victim status as part of my identity for a long time. What I didn’t realize is, by seeing myself not as a strong, empowered survivor but a helpless victim, I perpetuated that reality going forward.
Eventually, I chose to celebrate overcoming trauma and abuse. And, over time, my life reflected one of a triumphant survivor, not a hapless victim of circumstance.
DBT and mindfulness can benefit everyone
While it took a diagnosis of BPD for me to adopt many of the mindfulness techniques I learned through DBT, I’m happy I did. Anyone, regardless of whether you have a personality disorder or not, can benefit from integrating mindfulness into their daily practices.
Give it a try: The next time you feel caught in a whirlwind of negative thoughts and emotions, just stop, take a deep breath and accept what is.