Borderline Personality Disorder: emotionally intense or emotionally empty? Part one
There are many paradoxes in the life of having Borderline Personality Disorder.
For instance, you may be highly intuitive when it comes to reading people, but struggle with interpersonal situations. You may be sensitive and loving, yet fearful of intimacy.
On top of having intense emotions, you also have a mind that is constantly in overdrive. Since there have not been enough conversations about these complex experiences, you may have thought you were the only one struggling with these paradoxes:
- Can I be emotionally intense and emotionally empty at the same time?
- Why do I have a mind too busy, yet a heart that at times feel so vacant?
- How is it that I can be both too full and too empty?
The mind, the heart, and the body
Although we identify as one person, our internal world is a complex system. For example, sometimes a part of us wants A, but another part of us wants B. In some situations, we are mature and adult-like, while at other times we find ourselves feeling and acting like children. Or, we experience a head-and-heart split when we have to make important decisions.
Not only are different parts of us, but there are also multiple dimensions to our existence in the world. We have an intellectual mind, an emotional world, as well as a physical body. Most of us have a predominant way of functioning or an aspect that we most identify with.
At birth, we connect most naturally to our physical and emotional bodies. Babies are the most in tune with their bodily needs and are unapologetic in expressing their feelings, even when they have not yet found the words for them.
As we grow older and go to school, we begin to develop vocabularies, learn about using languages, syntax, and grammar. We now have thoughts, and we turn to abstract concepts and words to represent our experiences.
This is when we discover that sometimes when things get difficult, we can escape from our feelings and hide in our thoughts. There is something about the predictable and tangible aspect of logic and reason that allows it to be a refuge when things get messy. Since it is so effective, this ‘flight into reason’ can quickly become a default coping mechanism.
Some people are born more sensitive than others. You may have a neurological system that is more susceptible to pain; You may be more open to being affected by what happens around you. When you were young and had not developed the skills to regulate intense emotions, or if your primary caregivers were not available to guide you or help you to modulate upsets, you would be left in a vulnerable place of having to feel too much, too early, and too soon. As a result, your entire emotional system might become fatigued and traumatised. It is not surprising that, to protect yourself, you have learned to do the complete opposite. To stop feeling. Perhaps unconsciously, you have come to dissociate, to distant and to numb yourself.
In psychology, the term ‘dissociation’ can describe a spectrum of experiences from mild disconnection from your immediate surroundings to a more severe detachment from your entire physical body and emotional reality. It does not just mean cutting off from your surroundings, but also cutting off from yourself. This is the experience of many individuals with a BPD diagnosis, especially if you identify with having real dissociative symptoms like losing time or feeling surreal.
If attending to your feelings have once brought you pain that you were unable to escape and could not bear to feel, it is utterly natural that you have chosen to shut down, cut off, close your eyes, push away and deny your emotional world. As you become more out-of-practice in dealing with your feelings, however, you may end up in a vicious cycle of becoming less and less able to cope with the ebbs and flow of life, and get confused and anxious when intense emotions come up.
The dark side of being intellectually gifted
Of course, not all of these come from trauma. Many people who are being labelled or mislabelled as having a ‘personality disorder’ are in fact gifted, and with that, comes a degree of emotional intensity (known as ‘over excitabilities’).
Like many intellectually gifted individuals, your fast running mind and intellectual curiosity are your comfort zone. Instead of staying with what is happening in your physical and emotional realities, your automatic reactions to whatever that arise in you is to problem solve, and to figure-things-out. While your intellectual rigour and processing speed are gifts, they can also conveniently cut you off from the rawness of the visceral and embodied dimensions of life.
The shadow side of being capable and gifted is that you are in a state of constant overdrive. Because it is in your nature to continually strive for growth and betterment, many gifted people find it hard to slow down. Plagued by the existential awareness that time is finite and there are a million things you want to and know you can achieve, you are constantly thinking, feeling, trying to synthesise ideas and concepts.
Your moral sensitivity may also mean that you struggle to accept injustice, cruelty and unfairness that happen for no apparent reason. You want to get to the bottom of the truth, and to make meaning out of these phenomena, so you are always seeking answers. As much as your overdrive comes from a place of healthy drive, your psyche and your body may not be able to keep up with such demand.
There is nothing wrong in exercising your mind and using it to your advantage, but if that becomes your only mode of existence, you miss out on the many other aspects of life. It is like seeing only one shade of the rainbow and not savouring the whole spectrum of richness in this human experience.
Feeling empty and lost
One of the BPD symptoms according to the diagnostic Manual (DSM)is chronic feelings of emptiness or boredom.
Without connecting with your feeling world, life can feel barren.
Hiding in your head might have offered you a temporary sterile space, away from the messiness of human relationship and the imperfections in the world. But overstaying in this uncomfortable comfort zone for too long, you will lose the ability to dance the human dance, to tolerate some degree of chaos and uncertainty that are so essential to feeling alive.
Underneath the mental activity of your mind, you may have a lingering low-grade depression or background anxiety. Although your mind is busy, you may paradoxically also feel vacant, lethargic and bored with life. You may also lose the ability to connect to other people or to dig within yourself for your deeper desires and purposes. These result in the sense of void— the feeling that somehow life is passing by in front of you without you fully living in.
Scientific research has found that we form memories when we have strong emotions. The same part of the brain that's in charge of processing our feelings and senses is also responsible for storing memories. That is why certain sights, sounds and smells can transport you back to a time in the old days. If you have used ‘hiding in your head’ as a strategy for too long, to a point where you struggle to feel things, you can have memory losses. And without emotionally charged memories, you may struggle to form a meaningful personal narrative, make meaning of your life, or have a solid sense of identity.
Ironically, the deep sadness and loneliness that comes from such non-living state can be as painful as, if not more painful than the original emotional turmoil that you were trying to avoid. Running away from the ‘hotness’ of emotions at the moment, you ended up in a dry, cold and arid land that is indeed no better than the struggle in the first place.
The definition of trauma is something that happened to you - perhaps too early, too soon- that had overwhelmed your ability to cope. Some memories, emotions and grievances are too floodingly painful that to protect you and your ability to function in daily life your mind automatically blocks them out.
Perhaps you are burying an unbearable regret, a painful departure without closure, a grieve that can never be amended. By relying on logic and reason, you do not think about the painful event, and you get on with your life, your work, and your new relationships.
Except that there are exceptions.
You are able to suppress the pain, except in moments where a song, an image, a smell takes you back.
Except when suddenly you are plagued by sadness of no knowable sources or a panic attack that does not seem proportionate to the current reality.
Except when someone says something that triggers you, and you find yourself breaking out in an uncontrollable rage.
Whenever something occurs that the mind associates with your original upset, the memory of that bad experience will be re-activated. You may suddenly feel drastically different, have certain intrusive thoughts, or act in a certain way, have unexplainable outbursts, or engage in addictive or self-sabotaging without knowing why.
Humans are not robots. Feelings are not rational and they are not meant to be. The more you try to push them away, the more they will come back in full force, in ways and times that you least expect them.
The truth is, our psyche has its wisdom. It knows that if we are to ignore these memories and painful emotions, they will grow like weeds and eventually destroy us. Your soul knows you need to find a way to digest, process, and dissolve them.
Losing touch with your instincts
Initially, hiding in your head seems helpful - it helps you to park your emotions away, to show up to work with a stoic outlook and to achieve tangible goals in the world.
In the long run, however, numbing yourself from your feeling world has the opposite impact on your ability to be effective in the world.
By numbing your emotions, you miss out on a rich source of information that can help you problem solve and make decisions. We often experience head-and-heart splits in life. Sometimes, your thoughts say you ‘should’ be acting a certain way or choosing something, when your emotional and physical bodies scream otherwise. Perhaps your mind says you are calm, but you are trembling and sweating and getting a headache. You tell yourself that you ‘should’ be a loyal friend and lover, a diligent worker, while your depression, jealousy and irritations speak the opposite. By losing touch with your body and your emotions, you also lose connection with your intuition. Intuition, also known as ‘tacit knowledge’, is an immaculately designed calculator that combines all that it knows about your desires, knowledge and past experiences - including those that you do not consciously remember - to make decisions that are best for you. Just like your empathetic abilities, your intuition is constantly at work in the background, even without your conscious awareness. When skillfully used, it is your perfect guidance. Even Einstein has famously said “The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honours the servant and has forgotten the gift.”
To access this well of innate wisdom, you need to stay connected with the more subtle flow of feeling energies within yourself. If you can catch a break from analysing, you will be able to receive the richness of information from a whole different dimension. When you can quiet your mind, you will hear that your heart is trying to tell you something.
When we collectively disconnect
The tendency to hide in our head has implications that are beyond a personal level. Crime, violence, discriminations happen when we as a society become desensitised to each others’ suffering. The result of our collective numbness is especially reflected in our current political climate.
It may feel ‘easier’ to detach from the pain and injustice in the world. However, such temporary tranquillity is brittle, because just like waves can never separate from the ocean, we can never completely disconnect with the rest of the world.
We have an intimate relationship with the space we share with others.
On a physical level, We breathe it. We smell it. We taste it.
On a metaphysical level, We are it.
Our world suffers when we turn a blind eye on everything but unicorn and rainbow, when we lose our tolerance for differences, and when we become too intimidated to stand up for our truth.
Therefore, it is only natural that we cry over the woes of the world, and be pained when it is in pain. What else is a heart for, if not this? Mother Teresa once beautifully said, "May God break my heart so completely the whole world falls in." Her heart may be broken day after day, yet she is one of the emotionally strongest people ever lived.
(Please continue to part two of this article for ways to move beyond the tendency to hide in your head and more)
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About Imi Pui Yin Lo
Imi is an award winning mental health professional, accredited clinical psychotherapist (UKCP), art therapist (HCPC, BAAT), certified schema therapist, supervisor and trainer. She specialises in emotional intensity, sensitivity, giftedness, and borderline personality traits. She is the founder of the Eggshell Therapy and Coaching Practice.