On Being a Gold Medalist in Emotional Reactivity

Yesterday in my DBT skills group, I arrived in quite an unusually perky mood. I was feeling positive and energised, and as a result was able to contribute to the group effectively. I got really involved and had lots to say to my fellow Martians Borderlines about what we were learning. I felt present and content, passionate and bubbly.

We were talking in group about urges and crisis survival skills. I explained how engaging in self harm used to be something that wasn’t a choice for me. I lacked the skills, the pause button, the mindfulness, and even the willingness and motivation to try alternative coping mechanisms, just a year or so ago.

A year down the line however and I can admit that if I were to cut myself today, it would be a conscious choice. I shared this with the group to try and give one girl who was struggling with urges some hope. Because it definitely didn’t used to be a choice; but it definitely is now.

Even if today it may not feel like a choice in those moments of desperation, I know deep down it would be. The only thing that explains how I’ve gotten through such intense urges without giving in to the behaviour recently is exactly through this element of choice. I have chosen to refrain from cutting, by being effective and skilful, instead of choosing to throw in the towel and resort to old coping behaviours. I could not say this was true a year ago. The choice really was not there and I didn’t know any other way. (That was not my fault, and I didn’t do anything ‘bad’ or ‘wrong’; it is just how it was at the time – it was all I knew.)

So, back to group… in which one of the facilitators thanked me for my expressing my experience to said girl. We then moved on and continued with skills. Everything was hunky dory.

A little while later the same therapist was talking about how having BPD means that we are highly reactive individuals. She then cracked a joke,
“If emotional reactivity was an Olympic sport, you would all be winning gold medals”.
This is true, indeed. And so we giggled.

However, she then turned to me and said,
“Except for you – maybe you could get a silver or bronze medal instead”.

I felt everyone’s eyes on me and some laughter from one of my friends who clearly did not understand how NOT funny that comment was to me.

Whilst the comment may seem like it was meant as a compliment, to me it was anything but. All that I heard was:
“Just because you are not actively engaging in target behaviours, it must mean you are less emotionally pained. Just because you are not engaging in target behaviours, it must mean you don’t need as much support. Just because you are not engaging in target behaviours, we think that you are fine.

I felt myself switch from feeling positive and hopeful, to becoming intensely negatively aroused in an instant. My face flushed red, I shut off eye-contact and looked instead towards my left distancing myself from the room, my jaw and hands clenched, my leg started shaking, I started welling up, I noticed the urge to lash out or walk out the room. Ironically, I also noticed the urge to go and hurt myself.

Instead, I counted to ten and then spoke up, trying desperately to be effective. I said
I just need to express that when you made that comment I noticed a very strong reaction“.

I proceeded to explain myself descriptively and non-judgmentally.
“I notice anger and sadness and urges to lash out. I notice worry thoughts and my interpretation of your comment feeds into some of my biggest fears: that just because I’ve stopped cutting myself, you will all think I’m not in pain any more. I need you to know that I am still in as much pain as I ever was; the only difference is that I am not cutting myself in order to manage it”.

They validated my feedback for all of ten seconds before continuing with the class. Everyone moved on thinking that I had too, but I was stuck in a rut of thoughts, emotions and urges. I still felt unseen and like the extent of my distress wasn’t being heard. I had urges and thoughts to hurt myself in order to prove the therapist wrong and resort to physically showing my pain again.

After not too long, I noticed my anger dissolve into dissociation as my body struggled to contain the bombardment of internal experiences that had been elicited.

The rest of the session (15 minutes or so) passed in a haze of anger, upset and spaciness. I desperately wanted them to see how much internal distress I was in but had zoned out too much by that point and felt muted for the remainder of the class.

Afterwards I went to the bathroom and splashed water on my face to try and ground. I returned to the room where I lingered awkwardly hoping that one of the therapists would see my pain (it felt so obvious) and ask me if I was okay. Neither of them did and I realised that this is such a pattern for me: I respond so acutely to every little trigger around me and people rarely realise the extent to which life affects me. I then feel invisible because I feel so alone in my pain, and this perpetuates the suffering.

Instead of trying to get reassurance and validation from others I need to move towards giving that to myself. Nobody – nobody on the face of this earth – will ever know what it is I truly experience on a daily basis, nor be able to validate that in the way I wish, simply because they are not me.

No one will ever be able to satisfy my insatiable needs and I will for ever remain feeling deficient if I do not somehow learn to manage my feelings for myself instead of relying on others. People upset me constantly in ways they are totally unaware of and do not intend and it impacts me hugely. If I continue to hang my chances on others, through no fault of their own, I am truly screwed.

So, I didn’t reach out to the therapist and I didn’t reassurance seek and I didn’t try and make her understand something that she perhaps never will.

Instead I left group and I got on with my day. And it ended up being an unproductive, dissociative, low level painful day . But it was also a day in which I built mastery – because I dealt with myself differently to how I usually do.

… And maybe one consequence of that was dissociation and exhaustion. But another was that I showed myself I could let an emotional experience be painful, overwhelm me temporarily, peak, and still get through it by being my own therapist for once.


7 thoughts on “On Being a Gold Medalist in Emotional Reactivity

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