The Emotional Intensity of Borderline Personality Disorder


I pinch the bridge of my nose as I try to get my pounding headache under control. With the other hand I grasp the desk so tightly my knuckles turn white. My chest is clamped in a phantom vice, making every breath like a thousand icy shards piercing my lungs. The lump in my throat won’t disappear, and I fear if I take one more breath my whole body will explode – or the tears I’ve been holding back will flow uncontrollably, and I don’t want that.

I sit in this rigid position, waiting for the moment to pass. To anyone watching me, they would think I was having some excruciating migraine, or an asthma attack, or trying not to be sick (although the latter is marginally true). Truth is, I’m just trying to cope with the intensity of my emotions – which at this moment in time are shame and sadness.

To the average person, these emotions would be uncomfortable at best. You might feel your face burn with shame, or a “hot, prickly” feeling creep up your back. But you can probably rationalize these for what they are, and soon enough may yourself laughing about whatever it was which made you feel that way. For me, however, these emotions are so strong, so intense, that it is like being burned by a fire over and over again. The wounds never heal, and each time a strong emotion overcomes you, the wound is reopened and scratched raw again.

Whatever pain I feel in my head is magnified tenfold throughout my entire body. Every strong emotion I feel radiates throughout my whole being, burning bright – if I were a lightbulb I would be at my brightest setting. The emotional becomes physical, and the physical becomes visible. People see me contort in pain, they watch my knuckles turn white as I squeeze the nearest solid object with all my might in an attempt to divert the pain from my head. They see me breathe a sigh of relief when the intensity finally passes, they watch me crumple in my chair as exhaustion takes over.

A common characteristics of borderline personality disorder is self-harm. I have come to realize  this is because the emotional pain we feel is so intense, that we will do anything to divert it or distract from it. I would do anything than sit for a minute with the thoughts and pain in my head. And the emotional pain always comes back – what do you do then? That’s not a question I have found the answer to yet.

Dealing with these complex emotions and the pain derived from them is a full-time occupation in itself. I constantly try to protect myself from criticism and comments from other people because even the slightest remark that someone else might brush off can trigger a downward spiral of pain for me, which could last minutes, hours or even days. I watch for situations where I might get hurt and wrap myself up in cotton wool to prevent that from happening. Unfortunately this makes functioning in everyday life extremely difficult. Keeping down a job and accepting criticism and trying to take things at face value rather than let them prick at me over and over again is near impossible on top of keeping everything else in check. It makes my life chaotic, and I can’t always keep a handle on my emotions, which is when the spiraling starts.

Learning to cope with my illness has made me better at dealing with the intense emotions, but there are still times – not infrequently – where I simply cannot cope. I become a child navigating an adult’s world, I need someone to pick me up and take the pain away because I can’t do it myself. One day I might learn how to be an adult and function normally, but for now, I’m taking it one small step at a time.

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Thinkstock photo by Victor_Tongdee

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