Tolerating being alone, even in small dosages, can be very difficult (to say the least) for those who suffer from Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD), who have BPD traits, who are in recovery, or who identify as emotionally sensitive. I recently brought a loved one to the airport, and even though I have years of DBT under my belt and technically no longer meet the criteria for a BPD diagnosis, it was tough. And that’s not to say it isn’t very human to have sadness and anxiety when someone you love is traveling and is going to be away. You don’t need to have any diagnosis to have that experience. It’s normal. What becomes an issue is that when you have BPD/traits/are emotionally sensitive, your reaction can be so intense that you become completely emotionally dysregulated and unglued, which can lead to so many other problems. I will give you some hope and encouragement though. If you’re someone who suffers deeply…if you have excruciating emotional pain when a loved one goes away – be it on business, to visit other loved ones, or even just to go to work or to spend time with others for half a day – things CAN get better.
There was a time when I simply could not tolerate being apart from a loved one with whom I had a strong emotional connection. My ex-boyfriend traveled a lot to see his family in Europe. From the moment he would purchase his ticket, my anxiety kicked in (as well as a myriad of dysfunctional behavior – essentially desperate attempts to get him not to leave), and the suffering would begin. I’d have anxiety attacks. Sleepless nights. Days when I was too nervous to eat. I’d behave like a little girl and then feel embarrassed about my behavior. I’d act out in desperate ways to raise the concern of my treatment team and would book extra one-to-one therapy sessions with an out of network (read “out of pocket) therapist, because my regular therapist couldn’t see me as frequently as I thought I needed.
What was I so afraid of? Some of the things that many people with BPD are concerned with: a fear of being abandoned and a lack of sense of identity. For the former, my logical mind knew that this person had intentions of coming back and that I didn’t need to worry, but my emotional mind was on red alert, remembering the times my father would leave us and then randomly show up in our lives months later. I never knew when I would see him again. Because I never properly resolved this issue, it appeared as a reopened wound every time my partner would go away. I didn’t make the connection at the time and could only do so in retrospect. Not everyone who has the fear of abandonment has specific examples to tie the fear to, and that’s okay. You don’t have to know to know your emotional reaction is real in the here and now and deserves your attention.
So, back to that time in my life…I hadn’t yet been introduced to Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) skills, so I did not have tools to manage the dysregulation I experienced. I would just spiral and usually end up in the emergency room, desperate for anyone to take care of me and to keep me from being alone. For the lack of sense of identity (the criteria of BPD that ultimately led to my diagnosis years ago), I would always be morphing into the person that I thought my company wanted me to be or the person I thought I needed to be for them to like me. At the time I had this boyfriend, I didn’t really have many friends. I was on an emotional roller coaster most of the time and had pushed nearly everyone away. So, when he left, I felt beyond alone. It was terrifying. I only knew how to “be” when I was around him. I was what I thought he needed me to be. Without him, I felt lost, confused, scared, empty, and directionless. He was my emotional compass.
Fast forward several years later to my recent dropping off of a loved one at the airport. This person and I are very close and spend a lot of time together. It was difficult. I was flooded with emotion (mostly sadness and a bit of anxiety/apprehension). I didn’t want to watch this person leave and go so far away. I realized that this is normal for anyone! What was absent was the extreme reactions I used to have, such as severe panic, literally making myself sick from nerves, losing sleep, having appetite problems, and wanting to go to the ER to get emotional support and to feel safe. Intense emotions did arise, but instead of letting them carry me away and completely derail me, I did something that allowed me to experience the very human pain of separation from a loved one WITHOUT adding on unnecessary suffering. There is a distinction. Life is full of inevitable pain, but we can choose how much we are going to suffer in response.
So, what changed? Ultimately, learning DBT skills and practicing them until they were second nature is what helped. Specific skills that I used during this recent experience include:
- Self-soothing: I did this through taste (purchased some unsweetened iced tea and sipped on it), listened to the radio on the drive home (nothing sad…I kept changing the channel to be sure something that would make me feel better, not worse, was on the dial).
- Distract: In addition to the soothing nature of talk radio, it can also be a great activity and thought changer for distraction. I turned on some NPR and listened to a program. I focused on the content of the program and not on my intense emotions and thoughts.
- Cheerleading: I repeatedly told myself that I can get through this, I’m strong, and I have skills to utilize.
- Contributing: I began to put together a free webinar for other BPD and emotionally sensitive sufferers so that I can be of service and take my mind off of things.
- Activity: Made plans to attend yoga and have lunch with a friend for the next day
None of these changed the fact that my loved one carried on with travel as planned. They didn’t erase my sadness. But, they did help me get through the emotions without making matters worse.
I’ve been doing well, and I have hope for you that you can get to this point as well. It doesn’t happen overnight. It takes trust and faith in yourself that you have the strength to get through intense emotions. It takes repeatedly turning the mind from self-sabotaging behaviors that no longer serve you to more skillful, rational, Wise Mind choices. I believe in you!
I hope this article helped you in some way.
Thanks for reading.