Monday, February 25, 2013

Self-Esteem vs. Self Destruction - Responding vs. Reacting

I found an article while researching BPD and self-esteem by Sonia Neale in a series called Therapy Unplugged. I don’t usually repost other blogs like this in their entirety but there was a bit of information that I think is crucial for us to understand, to learn, and to incorporate into our lives. That bit of wisdom is this:

Respond rather than react.

With BPD we get smashed with a situation and our emotions are little more than impulsive reactions. Not planned, not thought out, with little to no thought to the inevitable consequences.

Therapy Unplugged: 

There is a saying in a self-help group I used to be in back in the eighties. When a “normal” person gets a flat tire, they call the Automobile Association. When someone with (what’s now known as BPD) gets a flat tire, they call the suicide hotline. There’s an awful lot of truth in that.

My goal recently has been to respond rather than react to what I perceive are excruciatingly provocative circumstances and situations. I want to think and act with grace and dignity, to deep breathe, turn around, walk away, move on, learn the lesson and get a life. This attitude has, in the past, kept me in relationships, out of the law courts, out of jail, out of psychiatric hospitals, in employment and in therapy (or life coaching as we are now doing).

No longer is my therapist my nurturing supporter, smothering me endlessly with loving/kindness, reassurances of never abandoning me and justifying my bad behavior and lack of social skills as a result of my environment. We have a more pragmatic egalitarian relationship where I feel mentored, rather than mental.

Responding quickly and with social correctness to sudden galling and goading instances and happenings when newly symptom-free, means being switched on to mindfulness at all times; even – especially – when you are unprepared. Life is full of incidental learning curves and today was no exception.

I went to the loo (bathroom) before going into her office and on the wash basin was an expensive text book so I took it to her office and said perhaps we should call office management and pass it on. She told me in a very stern voice, which broached no disagreement whatsoever indeed, that it was all sorted, to take it back to the toilets and leave it there.

But…I started to argue. So she told me that people knew about this and the best course of action was to take them back down – now. But...I started to argue again. However, her icy glare penetrated my fierce resistance and indignation and with my armpits itching I said with a forced smile: oh well I’ll have to take another trip down the stairs then.

So I resentfully stamped down the stairs and left the book on the bench and by the time I got back, I had decided to let it go, move on and get down to life coaching.

We then processed what had happened. I asked her how did it feel when I started to argue and she said that she felt I took it well, acted with grace and dignity and even had a sense of humor about it. I said that I felt she was quite directive (because she said we were about to start therapy and she did not want to waste time), however, seeing as I had no emotional investment in the book, I chose to cooperative with the current prevailing winds.

I compliantly conformed with the situation rather than resisting and rowing. I had passed (with a high distinction) my own unexpected accidental learning curve without realizing it until it was over. I responded rather than reacted. My external appearance was one of going with the flow. This is what has kept me in the same employment for the past eighteen months.

I do know that eighteen months ago I would have argued with her till I got my own way. We would then have had a magnificent row and I would have shouted at her, devalued her, called her all sorts of names and cast aspersions upon her therapeutic ability, secure in the knowledge she once said she would never abandon me. The added bonus would be that I would have had an audience. Her colleague was in another room with an open door, and I could have seriously embarrassed us both.

[Up until a couple years ago this was me all over. I am the queen of arguments and tailoring a debate to prove my point. With my family and many bad relationships these would be constant, angry, shouting matches, where I’d feel utterly misunderstood and as if they weren’t even making an effort to see my perspective. All the while not realizing I was so dug into my own perspective that I wasn’t taking the time to take a look at theirs. ]

I would have then driven home (perhaps through a tree or a freeway pylon) or gone home and drank, smoked, drugged and overate and blamed her for everything (of course) taking no responsibility for my actions.

[I still do this sometimes. I’ve curbed the emotional reacting, I’ll just hold it in instead of expressing myself constructively, which is still a point that I need to work on… go home and drink my way to numbness and hurting less. ]

Then, as the evening progressed, I would have sent her the obligatory apology email crucifying myself. She in return would send a very nurturing, and supportive email expressing loving/kindness (and we’d be back to therapy and not life coaching) and she would reiterate that she would not abandon me – ever.

Her colleague would have understood and silently labeled me as a borderline personality disorder and sympathized and debriefed with her. I would send her more idealizing emails and probably a huge bunch of very expensive flowers. And then we would start the cycle over again. Not dissimilar to the dynamics of a very dysfunctional relationship where abuse and possibly domestic violence are involved.

To a casual observer, this was a simple non-report worthy event, yet it was a monumental life-changing phenomenon to me. This all gets recorded in my body and in my unconscious and builds up and compounds on my social skills, resilience and a theory of mind, so the next time when it happens, I will do the same thing because it will feel right and keep doing it until it becomes automatic and I don’t even have to think about it.

This is what other people have taken for granted all their life; the ability to mentalize, empathize and see life from another’s point of view, even – especially when they don’t agree with them.

[This is something I think gets lost in translation between us and our loved ones. They often take for granted that we’re not trying to be purposefully difficult, but the way that we think is very different from how they do. It’s our responsibility to learn to communicate this difference in a constructive way. ]

It’s easily to flow down the river than to fight against the rising tide because you get to your destination a lot quicker, feel a lot less exhausted and you get to enjoy the view on the way down.


We need to learn to break that cycle!!!!!!

The difference between responding and reacting is that:

            A Reaction is a spontaneous action in response to a simulating event.

To Respond means to mindfully consider the situation, think about the consequences and tailor your reply in a manner that is appropriate and non-destructive.

Here’s a phrase that I’ve mastered which gets A LOT of productive mileage in conversation where I don’t necessary agree with the other person:

“I see your point. I agree with you completely when you say {this thing}, on this {other point} however, I see it from this point of view…”

Another helpful phrase is: “Interesting, I’ve never thought about it from that perspective. That gives me something to think about. I tend to see it like {this}. What are your thoughts?”

Acknowledge that you understand them. Give them credit where credit is due. Pursue your alternative opinion in a way that is respectful and productive.

One of the things that I think trips us up, is the sense of ego-self that says if something challenges our “correctness” they’re challenging who we are at our core and it feels devaluating and shameful. People like to be agreed with. People like to be right. What people don’t realize is that it’s okay to be wrong. It’s okay to not know everything. When you have BPD though, it’s deeply ingrained in us that any amount of flaw or failure will create a deeply emotionally scarring event (which is due to past trauma, and not necessarily due to the current event at all, but those defense mechanisms have remained which is what makes them maladaptive and something to heal from). Acknowledging another person’s perspective, is much more likely to inspire a similar reaction in them, towards you. Work with them in the discussion, not against them. Approach the discussion or event as if both sides have valid points, now try to figure out how they go together, in order to figure out which parts can be discarded as unnecessary (Tailor that for the situation).

I relate to this article to an incredible degree. I used to be SO reactive, and SO emotionally impulsive, that people would avoid bringing up subjects with me for fear of my reaction. It really cultivated an environmental aura of being closed off. I needed honestly, but my reactions were creating an environment of hostility where people would rather avoid telling me anything. People can’t be honest with you if they’re afraid to talk to you and tell you the truth. I didn’t have that concept of Responding vs. Reacting.

I do now of course. I’m actually quite good at it and it has certainly helped me hold down jobs and get through school. Believe me there have been times a coworker or a superior “needed” a swift kick in the buttocks, verbally or otherwise, but learning to respond rather than impulsively react, helped me to continue functioning in the environment I need to function in.  

I don’t know if you’ve ever been able to accomplish this, but it makes me feel much better about myself when I’m able to walk away from a situation with my dignity intact. My self-esteem stays in one piece and I don’t spiral down into a pit of self-destructive despair when I’ve reacted horribly and hurt myself and the perception others have of me in the process. Working to feel good about ourselves, and have the people we care about feel good about us, is something that definitely deserves attention.

What things do you find help your being mindful through difficult discussions? 


  1. I agree, it is momentous event. Good for you! Sharing our accomplishments is an important thing to do. I've not been diagnosed with BPD, but Anxious attachment types have similarities to BPDs and responding rather than reacting is something I am having to learn as well. I've been told by my Therapist that it gets easier with each time I do it, and it's encouraging to see that it's working for you.

    I find it helps that I keep telling myself that my reactions aren't really me, that they are a product of the faulty programming I received as a child, and by learning how to respond rather than react, I am allowing my authentic self to remain in control.

  2. Yep, I feel everything in this article for sure. Sometimes I look back over the last year when I wasn't aware of my BPD and feel slightly ashamed at how reactive I was. Things honestly seemed life or death! It's nice to look back now and think, maybe some of those times I should have just shrugged and called it a day as it really wasn't that big a deal.
    Loving the blog Haven, it really is an amazing resource. Thank you!


Leave me a comment! It makes me feel good and less paranoid about talking to myself =)

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