BY VAALPARK MHU | October 14, 2021

Blog By

Dr Melané van Zyl
Psychiatrist

Being mindful is an exceedingly popular topic these days, not only in the field of psychology but also in the corporate sector. Mindfulness is defined as “the awareness that arises from paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgementally” (Jon Kabat-Zinn). Mindfulness is the first and biggest component of Dialectical Behavioural Therapy (DBT), and DBT is one of the most effective treatments for BPD.

We can all benefit from being more mindful, but why is mindfulness so helpful for managing the symptoms and behaviour of Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD)?

It brings you into the present moment

They say if you live in the past you feel depressed, and when you live in the future you feel anxious. One of my favourite quotes from Jon Kabat-Zinn, the father of modern mindfulness meditation, is that ‘as long as you are breathing there is more right with you than wrong’. So, in the present moment, NOW, we are ok. If the past and the future did not exist, and we only lived in the now, we will feel perfectly fine. People suffering from BPD often have had trauma in the past, so the past is not a pleasant place to be. They also tend to anxious and worry about the future (because the future will probably be difficult like the past in their minds)-and this ruins the present moment.

It helps to manage feelings of emptiness

People suffering from BPD are used to extreme mood swings. They struggle to feel the finer nuances of their emotions, and they tend to feel chronically empty. When asked they will often say they feel numb or dead inside. Feeling empty is extremely unpleasant and even intolerable at times. Ironically, often feeling empty can indicate ‘progress’- the extreme mood swings are quieting down. A regular mindfulness practice teaches us the skill of noticing subtle changes in our emotions, and this enables us to intervene and manage an unpleasant emotion before it escalates.

It validates your experience

One of the core problems of BPD is that the sufferer as well as those around him/her are never totally sure what is real (vs subjective experience), what are the facts (vs imagined), what did really happen (vs interpretations)- you get the idea. This uncertainty causes the person with BPD’s experience and emotions to be invalidated. This is an enormous problem, because if told constantly that what you are feeling is bad, that what you remember is wrong, or even worse, that you are liar- it is a brutal attack on the already fragile self-esteem of the person with BPD.

Looking at the triangle of awareness- what emotions, sensations and thoughts are you experiencing right now- it is comforting to know that whatever comes up in those three areas are true, real, and perfectly acceptable. Nobody can take the truth of the present moment away, not even yourself.

It gives you time to think before you act

Impulsivity is another big problem. Because people with BPD cannot tolerate distress, they will often do something impulsively without thinking it through. Doing ‘stupid’ or even dangerous things leads to shame and regret afterwards, resulting in another blow to the self-esteem. It becomes part of the identity- you identify as a person who is uncontrolled, aggressive, ‘wild’ etc. On a philosophical and spiritual level what we do (our behaviour) does not reflect what type of people we are, but unfortunately, we are judged by the way that we behave. One of the wonderful things about DBT (Dialectical Behaviour Therapy) is that it targets behaviour first, and because the behaviour is less impulsive and more considerate (mindful), it creates a positive effect on the self-image.

It cultivates compassion

I think Borderline Personality Disorder is ultimately a problem of love. This means a perceived lack of love for oneself, and the expectations of how you will be loved. People suffering from BPD do not find themselves lovable, and although they crave love (like we all do), they do not believe that others will love them. Mindfulness, which can be experienced when doing a loving-kindness meditation, teaches us how to have compassion for ourselves and others. It is usually the part of having compassion for ourselves that is so difficult. Being mindful of how we judge ourselves and others relieves us of a lot of anger and pain because we can see to the core of each human being, which is easy to love.

Being mindful is a skill that we must practice, it is fortunately not a natural talent or gift that some people are lucky to be born with. In future articles I will give some ideas to practice mindfulness.

Dr. Melane Van Zyl