In the Netherlands, borderline persoanlity disorder is sometimes also called emotion regulation disorder. There were in fact psychiatrists advocating for this name change in DSM-5, but it didn’t happen. Indeed, I myself notice that emotioon regulation problems are, besides having little sense of self, the most prominent symptom of my BPD. Tonight, I noticed how being told that I had to ask a fellow patient to help me with something minor rather than a staff member, set into motion a train of emotions and behaviors that I now realize, at least to some extent, was uncalled for.
Learning to regulate emotions does not mean stuffing them. Rather, it means observing and describing your emotions, decreasing your vulnerability to negative emotions and increasing positive emotions. Identifying what emotion you are feeling is usually the first step, and it can be especially hard. Many people, even those without mental illness, learn that certain emotions are not allowed, so they convert them into others. I for one often act angry when I’m sad or overwhelmed. However, all emotions have value.
Changing emotions requires first observing them without judgment, then letting go of them through for example mindfulness. Mindfulness allows you to experience the coming and going of emotions like a wave. In mindfulness, you shouldn’t try to block or suppress an emotion or try to keep it around. Rather, let emotion run its natural course.
This does not mean acting on emotions the moment they come up. We are not our emotions. Therefore, another step in emotion regulation is choosing whether to act upon your emotion. This seems impossible at first – at least, it does for me -, which is why mindfulness is important. When you have chosen to challenge an emotion, some therapies, like dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), explicitly teach acting opposite from the emotion. The most useful example of this I’ve heard is from a woman who suffered from bipolar disorder. When she was sliding into depression, she was encouraged to become active, while she was encouraged to take it slow when she was climbing towards mania. Other therapies, like rational emotive therapy, emphasize the fact that an emotion doesn’t come out of the blue, and encourage sufferers to challenge the thoughts that lead to their emotions. I believe that challenging cognitions may be best done when emotions are not overflowing you.