Last night I read a blog post by a woman who has BPD that described how out of control she felt. As a fellow borderline (who is not symptomatic), I could relate, and shared something I learned with her. I hope it helps.
In 1996 when I was hospitalized for major depression (and diagnosed with bipolar I with underlying BPD) I had no idea how to regulate my emotions. I had barely any more control over my emotional state than a toddler who throws temper tantrums in public. My disorder caused me to fly off the handle at the tiniest things, especially if I felt slighted. I overreacted to things that would have caused barely a ruffled feather in a normal person–but of course being married to a gaslighting narcissist made things so much harder for me. The only reason I wasn’t more out of control than I already was was due to the introversion and reticence that comes along with my Aspergers and Avoidant PD. In a sense those disorders helped keep me sane. Even when I didn’t lose control, I often felt like I was out of my body or the world felt odd and dreamlike. I learned later on these strange feelings were really a dissociative state that is common in borderlines when they feel emotionally overwhelmed. Many borderlines use illegal drugs to self-medicate, and I smoked a lot of pot in those days.
I’ve gotten a lot better since then, and found the DBT therapy I was given during my stay there immensely helpful. I still use it. Back then I still lived with my MN abusive husband and that made things difficult but I still found the DBT exercises helpful once I returned home (things are a LOT better now that we’re not together). I believe they kept me able to just get through life on a day to day basis, even if I still barely managed it.
One thing we learned in the DBT classes was a simple little thing called “turtling.” Whenever you feel like you’re going to lose your composure and “go off,” you imagine yourself as a turtle retreating back under its shell. A turtle does this instinctively when they feel threatened; for BPD patients, “going inside your shell” teaches us to be mindful and THINK before reacting, because impulsivity is something that is a problem for us. In the classes, we made ourselves little turtles out of clay. It was fun and childlike making the turtles, and we even got to paint them and fire them in a small kiln afterwards. I remember carrying my turtle with me everywhere for awhile and pulling him out whenever I felt myself about to lose my composure. My clay turtle helped me remember to be mindful. I still have mine. Recently I found my turtle in the back of a drawer and pulled him out again.
I remember there was a young woman in those classes who used to cut herself whenever she felt her emotions going out of control. The video I posted last night talked about why so many borderlines cut themselves. Cutting is a temporary way to regulate emotions that seem out of control. Instead of “going off” and possibly attacking someone else, she would cut herself. She said she felt relief whenever she did this, like the lid being taken off a pot of boiling water. But after learning how to “turtle,” she told the group she no longer felt the need to do that. Turtling is an equally tactile but a much less self-destructive way to self-regulate.
It isn’t necessary to have a physical object like a clay turtle to be mindful and think before acting, but the tactility of it can be helpful and keep me grounded in reality.
I know this little exercise sounds kind of stupid and childish, but it really does work!