Why People With BPD Have Trouble Identifying Emotions

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People who have borderline personality disorder (BPD) often struggle to identify emotions, both in others and themselves. The data on the ability of those with borderline personality disorder to read other's states is mixed. Some studies indicate a greater sensitivity to the emotions of others, but often these can be interpreted negatively. The ability to identify emotions is a key aspect of emotion regulation. Being unable to do so can have significant consequences on social interactions and relationships. 

BPD is considered by some a disorder of emotion regulation. While the term is not official, some mental health professionals and organizations suggest referring to BPD as emotional dysregulation disorder.

Why People With BPD Have Difficulty Identifying Emotions

It's not entirely clear what causes people with BPD to have trouble identifying emotions, but researchers have hypothesized several possible explanations.

The ability to identify emotions is a skill we develop early in life and our caregivers play an integral role. If children grow up in an invalidating environment, it may make it more challenging for them to develop the capacity for self-reflection and the ability to identify their own emotional states.

BPD is frequently linked to a history of child abuse and neglect. Childhood maltreatment is a risk factor for many mental health conditions, including BPD.

Many people who have BPD were not abused or maltreated as children. A 2011 study published in The Lancet found that 10-20 percent of people with BPD have no history of any sort of abuse or maltreatment.

It is felt that there are inborn vulnerabilities and sensitivities in those with BPD that interact with parental behaviors that can lead to the emotional challenges of borderline personality disorder.

In some cases, adults in a child's life may be overwhelmed or not know how to respond to these intense emotions. Such interactions can create an emotionally invalidating environment if caregivers struggle to acknowledge a child's emotions when they seem to be out of proportion with the triggering event.

Why Identifying Our Emotions Is Important

Emotions are a normal, necessary part of life and daily functioning. They guide our decisions, help us connect with other people, and keep us safe.

For example, imagine if you were not able to identify the feeling of fear. Without the ability to recognize the signals of being afraid that keep us from harm, you might find yourself in a dangerous situation.

If you can pick up on your fear cues, you are more likely to stay away from people or things that could hurt you. Fear, while it is sometimes an unpleasant emotion, is actually critical to our safety and well-being.

Another reason it is important to be able to identify emotions is that when we can’t identify our feelings, we often end up with a vague, confusing internal experience—what is sometimes called “muddy emotions.”

Some people who have trouble recognizing their emotions will say things like, “I just feel awful!" — but awful is not an emotion. What a person is likely feeling and trying to express is a muddled experience generated by a confusing mix of emotions.

Muddle emotions aren't just frustrating, they're also not very helpful. It's far more comfortable (and useful) for us to be able to identify and accept the emotions that are present, such as by saying, “I feel sad, fearful, and ashamed."

How to Get Better at Identifying Emotions

If you have trouble identifying emotions, you're never too old to learn. Even if you didn't develop the skill as a child, you can learn emotional identification as an adult.

Like any skill, identifying your emotions and expressing them in a healthy way will take practice. Keep in mind that as children, we learn to do this over the course of years, putting in work nearly every day.

Although you can learn and further develop these skills as a teenager and adult, it will take consistent commitment and patience. You may need months, if not years, to become adept at identifying your feelings and expressing them.

If you have BPD, a therapist who specializes in the condition can help you develop emotional skills and empower you to use them appropriately. They can also serve as a resource for information and support for you throughout your journey.

While it can be a lengthy and challenging process, learning to identify, express, and regulate your emotions will improve your ability to cope with BPD, your experience at home, work, or school; and how you communicate and relate to other people.

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