BPD and disappointment

Everybody suffers disappointments; it’s part and parcel of life. People let us down, we don’t get every job we apply for, emails don’t always get answered, our favourite restaurant is closed on the one day we decide to treat ourselves, plans get cancelled… There is so much in the world that can and does disappoint us, but on the whole people see disappointments for what they are and they get on with going about their business. The bigger the disappointment the longer it may take to feel on top again, but that’s normal right? Sure it is, if you don’t have BPD.

What happens when we face disappointment?

In general emotions are felt much more intensely and deeply by someone with borderline personality disorder so when ‘we’ talk about disappointment, we’re talking more about tragic, end of the world, nothing has ever, or will ever go right for us again. We feel utterly crushed – all our dreams and hopes will never come true now. We feel mortified, and we feel as though this emotional state is all we will know from here on in. 

Thankfully, now, I rarely act impulsively or destructively in the face of disappointment, but there was a time when all hell would break loose and nobody within my orbit (myself included) could understand why on earth I was so upset.

Are we just overreacting?

I can’t speak for everyone with borderline, but I know that I take disappointment very personally and my initial instinct is to believe that ‘it’ is a deliberate act against me. That being the case, and with my already unreliable sense of self, my feelings of emptiness and lack of meaning, and my identity being dependent on my interaction with others and the world around me, feeling disappointed has a profound and devastating impact on me. 

People with borderline tend to live entirely in and for the present which no doubt further exacerbates our sense of transience and inconstancy. Whilst situations in the here and now (be they good or bad) can often trigger experiences from the past, the strength and intensity of our emotional responses are firmly rooted in the present as that is the reality we are working with. One of the reasons we constantly need to check you still love us, for example, is because, as a rule, you loving us yesterday doesn’t count for us today. And you loving us today doesn’t mean you will love us tomorrow – hence the fear of abandonment. 

Bearing all this in mind, when we are faced with a disappointment, right there and then in that very moment we can see no hope. So what if we got the last job we applied for –  we didn’t get this job. Of course another bus will come in a few minutes, but I didn’t catch the bus I wanted to. My wife will be home an hour later than expected? At least she’s coming home, so everything’s okay, right? Wrong! Because she’s not home now which is when I expected her. 

We are defined by what we are feeling (usually as a result of what is happening) in this very moment. This very moment is the only time we can really rely on,  and if what is happening is ‘bad’ we are very, very bad.

In answer to the question or assumption that we are just overreacting because something didn’t go our way, I will quote a dear friend of mine who has worked for many years with people who have BPD: “I think many of the ways people with PD think, feel, and act are actually quite rational responses to the kind of early experiences they’ve had”.  And this, right here, is the key to us learning to manage disappointments more rationally: we need to recognise that what has happened in the past is not necessarily what is happening now. That’s what you do, isn’t it? We can get to that point – we can, but it may take a while.

What can you do?

  • Learn as much as you can about borderline personality disorder. Understanding is key to learning to manage BPD. 
  • Don’t try to fix ‘it’, or undo the disappointment.
  • Don’t say things like ‘calm down’, ‘you’re overeacting’, ‘it’s not the end of the world’. You may not understand but to us our feelings (if not our behaviours) are valid. Feeling our emotions are being dismissed or belittled can cause further panic and distress.
  • Acknowledge that we feel disappointed, and ask us to explain exactly what we are feeling. Be prepared for a tirade, but as long as this remains verbal remember that this opportunity to rant may stave off other impulsive or destructive behaviours.
  • Don’t remind us of all the things we have achieved in the past because we won’t be able to process this and will probably feel more frustrated as a result. 
  • We can rarely rationalise when we are in a full-blown meltdown, so don’t try to rationalise with us just yet. Wait till we’re in a calmer, more reasonable frame of mind to talk with us and see if we can get to the bottom of why ‘it’ was so devastating – what did it remind us of? What did we think it meant? How did we feel about ourselves when it happened?
  • Help us to formulate a back up plan, if you are aware there is a possibility of disappointment (such as waiting for an email). What can we do to distract ourselves and keep ourselves safe? What sort of things might remind us that ‘it’ is not a personal attack on our very selves? 
  • Don’t let us wallow too long! Allow us the space to feel our disappointment, but at some point we really do need to get back on our feet and try again. Gently encourage us to do this and if necessary suggest some small steps we could take. 
  • Don’t compare your disappointments, or the way you deal with them to ours. Chances are we already feel pretty inadequate, and this will make us feel even more so.
  • Don’t tell us you know how we feel, because you don’t, not really. Just as we don’t know how you feel when you face your own disappointments.

What can I (we) do?

  • Learn as much as you can about borderline personality disorder. Understanding is key to learning to manage BPD.
  • Get help! Find a therapist, or a therapy group, or talk to your GP (sorry to say you may need to help them understand a little). Find someone (preferably a professional) who can help you learn to understand and manage your emotions, your triggers and your behaviours. The sooner you do this, the sooner we will be able to effectively implement the following:
  • Don’t try to fix ‘it’ or manipulate the situation to undo the disappointment. 
  • Be gentle with yourself. You are already suffering with your intense emotions – don’t punish yourself or make yourself suffer even more.
  • Try, with all your might, not to be impulsive; more often than not self-harm or other destructive behaviours lead to feelings of shame or guilt and more self-hatred as well as further disappointment in yourself. If you feel your impulses might overwhelm you, try something like the CalmHarm app which will help you to pause and breathe while the wave passes over (or through) you.
  • Don’t assume you are responsible for everything that happens, particularly everything bad. Make a list of all the reasons why ‘it’ might have happened that don’t include you not being good enough. That said…
  • Don’t blame other people if you do something impulsive as a result of suffering a disappointment. Take responsibility for yourself, your own actions and your behaviours.
  • Try as hard as you can to see this as a ‘blip’ rather than something that defines your entire worth and purpose.
  • Communicate. The more you are able to communicate what is going on internally the more chance you have of unravelling the tangle it has created, including the blurring of past and present experiences. 
  • Plan ahead. When you are calm think about what your triggers are and make a list of how you might cope with the next disappointment.
  • Don’t compare yourself or the way you respond emotionally with others. 
  • As soon as you are able, plan and implement a counter-attack to the disappointment. Don’t give up and assume every aspect of life will follow the same patter. Fight back, try again and face your fears head on (maybe make sure you have support while you do this).
  • Stick with your therapy for as long as it takes.

‘It works if you work it’

Learning to live with and manage BPD is not easy for anyone involved. It can often feel that we the only time we can get off the emotional rollercoaster is when we are derailed by tragic, end of the world, nothing has ever, or will ever go right for us again life-events (otherwise known as disappointments). The good news is that it is possible with the right help and support to learn how to control our impulses. We will still feel disappointment keenly, too keenly sometimes, but as long as we are prepared to work hard we will be quicker to rationalise, slower to blame ourselves or lash out at others, and it will become easier to ride the wave (ok, maybe doggy-paddle through the wave) that threatens to submerge us in despondency.

If you have more ideas or things that have worked for you, please feel free to write these in the comments section below. 

Next Week…

I’ll be on holiday! So the following week will be the next instalment and I’ll be looking at anxiety & BPD. Don’t forget to contact me if you have other emotional states you want to explore. 

Let me know what you think, or ask me a question...

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