Being vulnerable is a very scary and frightening thing for most people. We feel naked and open to the world without any protection and so we learn to try to avoid experiencing that feeling. Sometimes, when we avoid it too much it causes us to become afraid of our feelings. This is what happened to me when I was knee deep in my BPD pathology.
Whenever I would feel vulnerable, I would almost automatically turn that feeling into anger. The best defense is a good offense, right? It was terrifying for me to experience feelings of vulnerability so I learned how to go to great lengths to avoid allowing myself to experience it.
I used to feel terribly vulnerable whenever I wanted to confront someone. I learned how to stop feeling that way by learning how to be assertive. I used to feel terribly vulnerable whenever I felt abandoned. I learned how to stop those feelings by learning how to practice mindfulness meditation. I used to feel extremely vulnerable whenever I was having anxiety about something. I learned how to stop feeling anxiety by practicing different anxiety-busting techniques. I used to feel very vulnerable whenever someone would criticize me. I learned how to stop feeling overly defensive by developing my self-esteem.
The thing about feelings is that although we may be terrified of feeling them they can’t actually hurt us. It is what we do with the feelings which causes the pain and suffering. Every time I acted out on the feeling and took an overdose, it wasn’t the feeling that caused me to do that. It was my inability to contain the feeling long enough until it could pass. I learned how to stop doing things like taking overdoses to deal with my feelings by learning how to practice DBT distraction. I remember the time I was in my DBT class and the facilitator said that feelings were transient, they pass if you only give them enough time to do so. I was shocked by that statement because even though my mother-in-law’s favorite saying was, “This too shall pass,” it was never something that I really understood or internalized. Hearing the facilitator say those words, “Feelings are transient” caused a light bulb to go off in my head. It was a huge wake up call for me.
Feelings can be overwhelming at times and I used to always just want to run away from them, no matter the cost to myself, my husband, my children. I used to tell my psychiatrist that I didn’t really want to die, I just wanted to the pain to stop. Learning DBT skills was how I learned how to stop being afraid of my feelings. I learned how to accept them through the practice of radical acceptance, how to stop making judgments about the feelings and about myself for feelings. This allowed me to stop trying to fix the feeling and just let them be until they passed which they always ultimately do.
Learning this skill helped me tremendously because it freed me from the anxiety of wanting so desperately to run away from my feelings and not being able to do that which then led me to feeling stuck and impotent, two other feelings that I hated.
People are very afraid of being vulnerable are that way because they didn’t feel safe when they were a child. They may have had a father, like I did, who belittled their feelings and made fun of them for feeling certain things or told them to just “Stop it!” I never felt like I was allowed to experience my feelings and because of that, I never learned ways of coping with them. I just learned to try to avoid them. Learning my DBT skills changed all of that for me. I learned that even though I would often feel like I was standing on the beach facing down a tsunami, that I did indeed know how to swim and could ride out the wave even though it threatened to engulf and drown me. This was an entirely new experience for me. I had never given myself permission to feel my feelings. Doing this has become a cornerstone daily practice for me now. My biggest feeling stumbling block continues to be anger but I have learned how to address that as well. Whenever I have a strong anger reaction I ask myself, “What experience from my past is being triggered?” I also know that the strong anger reaction is a message that there is work from my past which is unfinished and needs attention. Even though I may not like experiencing a strong anger feeling, I no longer have to lash out at other people. Instead, I pay attention to it, let it be until it passes and then return to it later to re-examine it.
When I am feeling vulnerable I ask myself, “What is it that you need right now?” If I can identify the need (and I can’t always do that), I can then try to figure out how to give it to myself. Another way I have learned how to stop being afraid of my feelings is through the practice of self-care.
Finally being able to make friends with my feelings was a great step for me in terms of my BPD. It had a tremendous impact on me. I am no longer afraid of experiencing my feelings because, through DBT, I now know how to accept them and process them in a way that is completely different from the way I managed them in the past. I am not afraid to feel them anymore. I know they can’t hurt me. Because I learned how to acknowledge them without making a judgment about them, I can let them just “be” in a way that was never possible before. Learning how to do this transformed my life.
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Dee Chan is a long-term BPD survivor who has learned how to cope with her illness and thrive with it. She is in a long-term happy relationship and owns and operates a website called bpdnomore.com. She lives in Toronto with her little dog where she pounds the pavement every day for 2-3 hours at a time. You may also find her on Twitter at @bpdnomore
To check out all of Dee’s guest posts on MHT, click here.