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[epistemic effort: I tried this and it worked for me, but different people’s brains work differently]

Some people theorize that borderlines experience a dialectical dilemma of unrelenting crisis and inhibited grieving. Basically, borderlines both have constant overwhelming emotions and self-destructive behavior, and also avoid emotions that they are frightened of or overwhelmed by. Although these seem like opposites, in reality they are mutually reinforcing: an emotion that is avoided often reappears as a different, overwhelming emotion. This is one of the reasons borderlines often have emotions that are wildly inappropriate for the situation, like feeling ashamed when someone hurts you, or getting angry at people they mistreat.

So that made me wonder if trying to experience emotions I’m avoiding would make me have fewer overwhelming emotions. And the answer is yes!

If I’m experiencing one of my usual overwhelming emotions– anxiety or shame– I identify the trigger of the emotion. For instance, recently, I was feeling a lot of shame about how much of my life I’ve spent being depressed instead of doing anything that was more fun or improved the world. Then I ask myself whether the emotion I’m feeling makes sense. Does it make sense to feel shame about how much of my life I’ve spent depressed? Not really! I don’t expect anyone to reject me for this. And I don’t think it makes me into a fundamentally bad or evil person, particularly given how many of my thoughts were about fun things I didn’t get to do. Not doing fun things does not make you evil.

What emotion would make sense?

Sadness. Loss. Grief.

There are years of my life I spent doing nothing but refreshing social media. There are opportunities I didn’t take advantage of and won’t get again: interesting classes I barely passed or never took, professors I didn’t talk to, college events I never went to. There’s a big gap in my resume I’m not going to be able to fill. There are skills I could have acquired, friendships I could have made or nurtured, experiences I could have had, and instead I spent the time being depressed.

That really sucks.

Next, I figured out how to act in accordance with the justified emotion. In the case of my sadness, I asked my husband Topher to hold me while I cried and not comfort me. His natural urge is to reassure me that this sort of thing happens to everyone and I still have fifty years of my life ahead of me and so on, but what I really needed was to grieve. It felt a little artificial at first– I deliberately thought “it is sad that I didn’t get to spend much time at college”— but eventually I wound up feeling very sad about it and cried for about half an hour.

This works astonishingly well for me! For instance, previously, I’d felt shame about that for a few hours a week, but since I cried about it I haven’t had a recurrence of the shame, and it’s been a couple of months. So if you have overwhelming emotions that don’t seem to go with the things that trigger them, try this! Maybe it’ll work for you.