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When I am speaking to a group about my history, I always list the typical symptoms of borderline personality disorder (BPD), since most people are unfamiliar with the diagnosis. One of the questions I am most frequently asked  is “What is black and white thinking?”. Usually, I will tell them sort of about a funny example from my life of the first time I ever saw myself thinking in black and white, which I will share later in the post, but first let me explain black-and-white thinking in detail.

The official psychological term is splitting, though it may be called all-or-nothing, either/or, love/hate, us/them, and most commonly, black-and-white thinking.  Splitting is not unique to BPD alone. Most people will experience splitting sometimes, but with BPD, splitting may happen the majority of the time, if not all the time pre-treatment. It’s a constant in my life that I have to check my thoughts for evidence of splitting. Black-and-white thinking is ingrained in me, the natural way my brain works.

So what is splitting? Splitting is the inability to see the dichotomy of both positive and negative aspects of our thoughts, usually associated with how we think about people. Everything is either all good or all bad – there is no middle ground. All of my thoughts are polarized. My life is either absolutely terrible or completely amazing, but nowhere in between…

That’s why the main treatment for BPD is called Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT). “Dialectical” means the integration of opposites, seeing that two seemingly opposite things can be true at the same time. The therapy and its coping skills intend on helping patients more easily find a balance between these two extremes we are used to experiencing.

There is nothing intentional about splitting; it’s an automatic response to intense and/or dysregulated emotions. It’s a natural defense mechanism all humans have as children. What causes BPD is a complicated issue, but most professionals agree trauma can play a key role in disrupting the development of the person with BPD. Due to this, when someone with BPD is acting out, it’s not that they’re failing at using their coping skills effectively – it’s that those skills may never have developed at all.

Most children see everything as all good or all bad. This is especially imperative with relationships, most crucially the relationship with their parents. Young children lack object constancy, meaning if they can’t see something, they think it isn’t there. This is why you can play Peek-a-Boo with babies. So if Mom is another room the child may think “Mom abandoned me! She hates me. My mom is bad.” while later at dinner they might think, “Mom is feeding me because she loves me! I have a good mom.”

As you can imagine, thinking in these extremes causes a lot of the symptoms associated with BPD. Splitting is one of the reasons we can so quickly change from idealization to devaluation, and because of that, we may have chaotic and unstable relationship patterns. It isn’t only about others – we may think of ourselves under these strict guidelines as well. Often “I am a bad person” is an idea we are positive is true. This contributes to our identity disturbance and poor self-image. Splitting also contributes to frequent mood swings as we switch from all good to all bad.

As I said, splitting is something I have to constantly be on the lookout for. I also have to take precautions to avoid situations that cause splitting. For example, I cannot debate or realistically discuss politics with someone I disagree with. You should have seen how upset I was getting this past election season and how many people I unfriended! Splitting says my views are right, so yours are wrong. When I did engage in political discussions, more so when I was younger but occasionally still do, I would do things like argue facts that have been proven to be incorrect, just for the sake of staying right. Splitting says you’re either with me or against me. So I would suddenly hate someone I had liked just based on their political views – which is unfair and immature. But dialectically, I realize I do this and I take measures to prevent it by avoiding political conversations. I wish I could participate and stay reasonable and rational, but time has proven I still can’t, even in recovery – so I don’t (well, I try not too). I don’t feel I’m losing much by avoiding politics, so it’s an effective way for me to cope with splitting.

But I am constantly polarizing my thoughts, and I can’t avoid everything that causes it because then I’d get upset with every person who prefers Miracle Whip to mayo. Even something as irrelevant as that is processed by my splitting thoughts. So part of living in recovery of BPD is constantly analyzing my thoughts to look for signs of my symptoms like splitting. (Pro Tip: watch out for words like “always,” “never,” “hate,” or “wrong,” as signs you may be splitting.) 

The best part is once I realize I’m splitting, I’m able to dialectically work it out in my mind so I don’t get so polarized about everything. I try to see the situation from the other person’s point of view. I list out reasons why they might be like that. For example, if I am convinced someone hates me because I haven’t heard back from them in a while, I may remind myself of things like they might not be able to pay the bill, the phone may be broken, etc. As I do that, my thoughts move into the shades of grey I couldn’t see, and my emotional intensity comes down as I move into the grey.

When my therapist first asked me to read the DSM criteria for BPD and see if I found it familiar, I told her that wasn’t me at all. I didn’t think I had black-and-white thinking or pretty much any of the other symptoms that I can now see I obviously had. So it wasn’t until about six months into DBT that I was able to take a step back and notice myself splitting. I remember it very well as it was a huge revelation for me and a leap forward towards recovery. Note, this story does contain adult topics and may be NSFW.

I met L when we were in DBT in 2012, and she is still one of my best friends to this day. At the time, we both were struggling with BPD and quickly clicked when she joined my group a few months after I did. Before L joined, our group would sit in silence in the waiting room until our therapists called us back to the meeting room for group. That changed when she joined, as L is very gregarious, and the dynamic of the group evolved as we became more talkative and closer to one another.

This was about six months into my DBT treatment. L and I were just beginning to become friends. We had just started texting outside of group. That day, L entered the waiting room, sat down, and told the group of women she needed to buy a new vibrator. This led to a lengthy yet funny discussion of the quality of different vibrators and recommendations of which one she should get. I laughed through the conversation, though felt slightly embarrassed by the topic, not really contributing to the conversation. After about five minutes, they let us head back to group, and the conversation died out as we got our binders out and prepared to start. I laughed so much my face hurt and went into group in a jovial mood.

A few weeks later, M, one of the group members, was graduating. Graduation was not a formal event, but when someone felt they knew the program well enough, they would stop attending group, and graduation happened at the beginning of the last class a person attended. The therapists would talk about how much the person has grown since they started DBT, the class members would comment on her successes and send well-wishes, ending with the person making a short speech to say goodbye.

When M was ready to speak, she did not discuss her time in DBT at all. Instead, M quietly said, “So, um, there is something I need to say. I wanted to speak up then, but I couldn’t, but I really want to say it before I leave. A few weeks ago, there was a very inappropriate conversation in the waiting room before group. It made me feel very uncomfortable, but I didn’t feel I could speak up. I–”

L cut M off. “M, I know I started that conversation, and I wanted to tell you I am so sorry. It was a really inappropriate conversation, and I should have been more mindful. I did not mean to make you uncomfortable. I will be more careful in the future and I’m sorry to have upset you.”

“It’s OK, I just wanted to get the chance to speak up…”

M continued on, and L continued to apologize for starting the vibrator conversation, but I wasn’t really listening at this point. Instead, I was seething.

Who does she think she is? I thought to myself. L can talk about whatever she wants and just because M’s a prude doesn’t mean she can be such a bitch about it. And my thoughts kept going, totally trashing M while praising L, when suddenly it hit me. I was starting a fight in my head while the two women were actually apologizing. I had drawn a line in the sand and was intensely angry at M.

This is it! I’m thinking in black and white! 

This is what black-and-white thinking is!

I spent a lot of time analyzing my thoughts through the rest of class, curious as to how it became so extreme in my mind when the situation didn’t warrant it. I was creating a fight when there wasn’t one. I complained that M was being a prude for being uncomfortable with the conversation, when I knew that I, myself, was a little uncomfortable too!

I remember I kept saying to myself that I was “on L’s side,” when L’s “side” was actually one that was forfeiting. In my mind, L was right and M was wrong and I had L’s back. Not only was M wrong, but she was a terrible person – in fact, I never liked her anyway. 

There I was, totally devaluing someone based on one thing she said that I didn’t agree with. No, it wasn’t that I didn’t agree, it was that she said my friend did something wrong. At the same time, I was idolizing L, thinking about how cool I thought she was and how I was impressed by her candid constitution. Suddenly, she was my best friend and I had to defend her, though I really didn’t know L that much better than M at the time.

It was completely irrational, but it was an obvious display of black-and-white thinking to me — a demonstration I really needed because I didn’t even know I was splitting. I can’t spot it all the time, but I am pretty good at noticing when I’m splitting now. And the best part is once I realize I’m doing it, I can use my skills to talk myself to a middle ground. If I start getting worked up, I will actually ask myself questions about my symptoms, like, “Am I thinking in black and white?” and look for statements that are all or nothing.

Now you all have a more comprehensive understanding of splitting. It’s complicated to explain exactly how it works to people as they have a very elementary understanding of what that is like for the person experiencing it. Luckily, as long as we remain mindful of moments when we do start polarizing, we are able to correct those cognitive distortions before much damage is done. I can’t speak for other people with BPD, but I feel this is something I may never get a hold on. I don’t think I can rewire my brain to not immediately jump to the extremes, but as long as I keep mindful of my thoughts and watch out for splitting, it’s manageable.

Editor’s note: This story is based on an individual’s experience. Not everyone experiences BPD in the same way.

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Tonight I can do anything.

“Take me to the cinema,” I say to my carer. “No, no… let’s go bowling,” I beg. “God, I really wanna go visit Megan,” I say. Or wouldn’t it be awesome to take a flight somewhere and just get out of here? I think to myself, secretly Googling prices and times. We could leave now. We really could.

While most of these suggestions might seem perfectly harmless, they are the workings of my manic mind — a mind currently high on life, ready to fly, though likely to burn out at any given second.

I have borderline personality disorder and am more prone to experiencing borderline’s depression than I am its mania, so I am familiar with suicidal thinking, hard-hitting depressive episodes that last anywhere from hours to days, feelings of worthlessness, lack of hope, etc. But once in a while, I will experience small bursts of mania. I can’t quite decide if these small bursts are positive or not. On the one hand, they fill me with energy and drive, but on the other, they consume me and fill me with a dangerous sense of urgency.

Largely due to my severe obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), which I have previously written about on The Mighty, I have spent the past seven years inside and fully dependent on my carer. Realistically, I can’t set foot outside my front door without panicking. Right now, however, in the height of a manic episode I tend to forget about my illness. It’s with extreme anger and rage that I tell myself I can “defeat” it, that it doesn’t exist at all. When my carer gently reminds me I shouldn’t push myself, I want to scream at him and tell him he doesn’t know me, he doesn’t understand. I want to run outside into the wind and rain. Literally. I want to run and keep running – it doesn’t matter where I’m going so long as I am moving forward, away from this illness.

There are times, rare as they are, that I will give in to the mania. Take the past weekend for example. I woke up early and asked my carer to take me into Belfast, the largest city in Northern Ireland. He was shocked and wary, but I convinced him I’d be fine. See, that’s one thing I’ve gotten really good at – manipulating myself into believing I’ll be OK. It’s so convincing that I managed to fool us both. Now, Belfast was hard, really hard… but I did get through it. And as I expected there was a lot of mania: compulsive spending, wanting to go everywhere, to experience everything. I talked to people, I laughed, I later cried. I felt alive – and that felt wonderful.

What I failed to prepare for, however, were the days that followed. After our trip into Belfast, I had to spend three days lying in bed recuperating. I couldn’t move. My energy levels were low, my muscles ached to the point of crying. I was massively emotional and suicidal – all because of one day out. I experienced extreme guilt and shame at my reactions to things. I mean, if you could have seen me out there, running around Belfast like a kid on too much candy, and that’s just it; my moments of mania are extremely childlike. I was wild and free, but then something terrible happened. The child became afraid and ashamed for having “lived,” for having felt excitement. And then I go into myself again — tired, torn, eaten and spat out by the world, scared I would never feel that excitement again.

I cannot begin to explain the fear I experience when I feel the mania slipping away from me. It is like watching a beautiful sunset dissolve into darkness – never to reappear. I can feel the energy inside of me dying. I watch as it turns from happiness and possibility to despair and hopelessness.

I begin to loathe myself for having wasted it. Ten minutes ago, I was ready to book a flight to Glasgow, just because. Now the idea alone would give me a panic attack.

Once the mania has worked its way out of my system, it is replaced by a dark and gloomy, heavy depression which tends to last for days. And even though I know this cycle never changes, that the mania leads to depression, I still crave it, still desperately hold on to the next time I’ll feel those small bursts of energy, those giant waves of possibility.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.
If you need support right now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255

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If you are diagnosed with borderline personality disorder (BPD), it isn’t your fault.

If you love someone with BPD, it isn’t your fault.

I don’t believe people with BPD shouldn’t be held accountable for their actions. I know there is somewhat a “no-man’s land” with regards to accountability. Can someone really be held accountable for their actions if they have no idea what they are doing?

For example, there were many times I hurt my various ex-partners. I believed so powerfully I was going to be abandoned or hurt that I would lash out and attack at the merest hint — imagined or otherwise — that something wasn’t quite right in the relationship.

My immediate reaction would be a full breakdown, complete with self-harming, crying, sometimes getting aggressive and the standard “we’re breaking up.” Sometimes I would seriously consider it and even attempt it.

I thought if I wasn’t around to hurt, I couldn’t get hurt. Or sometimes I believed “you couldn’t hurt me if I hurt you first.” It’s the worst ploy in the world. “I’m going to show you how much I don’t care about you so you don’t think I’m weak and leave me, but in reality I care deeply about you, please never leave me.” None of it made any sense.

I find a lot of my worst experiences with BPD have heavily featured contradictions that somehow for the moment, made complete sense. In the midst of any kind of emotional breakdown it’s as if there’s a tiny switch representing logic that gets flicked off in all the ruckus and all semblance of decency, understanding and empathy just vanishes.

Then afterwards when you’re putting all the furniture the right way up again, you notice the little switch was off this whole time. And so you just flick it back on like, “Hey what does that do? Oh God.” And it all comes flooding back in in the next barrage of intense, overwhelming emotions. But this time it’s the guilt and the shame and the dregs of the logic you forgot.

I understand BPD is not an excuse for any sort of bad behavior towards another person. It’s not an excuse, but it is a reason.

In a way, it isn’t your fault. You don’t have the right tools yet. You don’t have the right skills to help you to communicate better. You haven’t learned how to grow thicker emotional skin yet and you’re still very vulnerable.

However, what you can do is recognize when these lapses in logic happen. Recognize and accept they happen. Don’t try to forget it or it will just repeat over and over and over. Once you recognize it, then you can begin to work on it.

Follow this journey on The BPD Informer.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “START” to 741-741.

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Editor’s note: If you experience suicidal thoughts, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741.

I’m writing this in the midst of a borderline personality disorder (BPD) episode.

I’m sitting at my laptop, tears streaming down my cheeks, painfully aware of what feels like a hollow cavity where my heart is. My throat is tight; my head is spinning. All I can seem to think about is what I should be doing: writing my book.

One of my current projects is a non-fiction book about my immigration journey with my husband, Adam — he’s English and I’m American. We’ve had to cut through a lot of red tape just to stay on the same piece of earth together, only to discover a room full of lasers on the other side.

And my “monster” has picked the perfect time to visit. She’s trying to convince me this book isn’t worth writing, that I’m not good enough to write it anyway. She’s asking me why I bother. She’s wondering why I didn’t kill myself four years ago, like she urged me to. She tells me I could’ve spared him from this mess, and he would’ve been none the wiser.

And she’s winning. The proof is in my tears. It’s right here, in this very article, which I’m writing instead of working on my book or my freelance articles which are due in two days.

I know I need to do something productive, so I’m talking to you, because maybe you know how I feel. Maybe you know how frustrating and stressful it is when the monster decides to perch on your shoulder when you have so much else to do.

Maybe you know how it feels when she tries to convince you that she’s not even real, yet she’s right there, in your face. She tells you that she’s just a mirage, something you made up to excuse your own laziness and lack of talent.

But she’s not a mirage, and I know that, deep down.

She’s there and causes the emotional “brakes” of my brain to malfunction, sending my train of thought careening off its tracks. She’s really there, and she won’t leave me alone today.

To people who don’t have this disorder, personifying my mental illness probably sounds — for lack of a better word — “crazy.” But it’s the only metaphor I can come up with that accurately describes how this feels. My BPD isn’t really a monster, but it’s so powerful and sometimes so alien that it feels like a separate entity.

Now that I’ve gotten through a good chunk of this article, my tears have dried. In an instant, my mood has transitioned from the strongest winds of a catastrophic hurricane to the eye of the storm. I can feel my heartbeat again. I can swallow and breathe comfortably.

Ten minutes ago, I wondered if there was any way I’d be able to get out of bed today. Now, all I can think about is the sandwich Adam’s kindly making me, because my hurricane mood eclipsed my hunger. Ten minutes ago, I stared at the blinking cursor of my manuscript, wondering where I’d find the motivation to write even a single word. Now, my borderline brain is quiet, purged, empty. Ideas and motivation are slowly returning.

Maybe I snuffed out my monster’s voice by writing this. Maybe she went away on her own, as she sometimes does after she’s wreaked sufficient havoc.

That’s how quick it is. I go from 100 to zero in 10 minutes. And who knows? Maybe 10 minutes from now, I’ll read over this article again, and my monster will come right back. She’ll probably tell me it doesn’t deserve to be published, that no one will care how I feel, that it doesn’t really matter.

For now, though, I’m going to enjoy this brief wave of peace and quiet and get some work done, even if it’s just for 10 minutes.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “START” to 741-741.

We want to hear your story. Become a Mighty contributor here.

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To be diagnosed with any mental disorder and have your family doubt if it’s real is one of the toughest things someone could ever deal with. Borderline personality disorder (BPD) is difficult to deal with on its own. Emotional instability that manifests itself in unstable relationships and self-image, like you’re jumping from one extreme to another all the time. There is never an in-between.

Before I was diagnosed, I spent a great lot of time wondering if other people function the same way I do. It didn’t feel right, how I function, but I thought if someone else did the same things, maybe there was nothing to be bothered about.

It was always just one of two things. Either, I was really depressed or really hyper (but not necessarily happy). The only consistent thing about me was that I was always over-thinking. Sometimes, I literally feel total chaos in my head as thoughts race and jumble into one massive pile of mental torture.

It wasn’t obvious, to say the least, because I got great at faking it around people. Yet, I had, and still have, sketchy relationships, especially with friends. Sometimes, it seems like I trust too much. More often, I don’t trust anyone at all.

I remember specific moments when I find myself not caring enough, if at all, even for the closest friends I have. I do things, mostly impulsive, ridiculous things, that I know might threaten my friendships without much regard to the possible cause. It feels like some sort of nightmare or a curse.

Then, I wake up and realize I don’t want them gone from my life, and they actually mean something to me. I make it up for whatever I’ve done wrong. Then, the cycle just resets.

I used to think I was just naturally mean (although I knew I wasn’t.) The truth is, it often feels like there are multiple sides to who I am, and there are moments when I cannot figure out if any of them is even the real me.

Yet, the thing that makes it harder is when you have no support from the people you’d expect to be there for you. The support you need becomes doubt as they insist that everyone goes through the same things.

I still don’t know how to deal with it, to be honest. I’m still not sure how to convince my family that this is more than real. If only they could see what goes on inside my head, then they wouldn’t doubt for a second that this is not a matter to be ignored.

To people like me who live with BPD, or any mental illness, and find themselves in a similar situation, let’s stay strong. It is difficult to be met with doubt instead of support, but I am with you. We are going to get through this. We will find ways to be better and live above this disorder. Believe me, even if they don’t believe you and even if there are times when even you don’t believe in yourself, I believe in you.

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For me, living with borderline personality disorder (BPD) is like living the life of a chameleon. I feel like I have no identity of my own. In any given situation, I am both consciously and unconsciously trying to be someone I think others will accept. Trying to “fit in.”

For example, I would say I like a diverse genre of music. Mainly because if I am around you and you like country music, I will then listen to country music. If you like alternative rock, then I listen to alternative rock. And so on and so on.

Sure this makes me flexible and adaptive in many environments, but it also means I don’t know what I like. There is a sense of panic and a wrenching in my stomach when you ask me what I like. The honest answer is really I don’t know. The fear of abandonment with BPD is so strong, it feels like I am constantly drowning and I have to use whatever means necessary to stay afloat. Even if it means putting your needs before my own.

In time, it becomes automatic without forethought. The pain of abandonment is excruciating. It feels like in the blink of an eye, everything I love and hold dear to my heart is ripped away. In that moment, I cannot think rationally and I think the way I feel right then is going to last forever. I spiral into the “nobody loves me and I am all alone” trap. Depression kicks in. I panic. I feel worthless. I feel I am a burden and the world is better off without me. I am sure from the outside, it looks like I am being overly dramatic. I assure you, I am not. I am merely responding based on the sheer intensity of my thoughts and emotions.

If you care about someone with BPD, I hope you can understand why we would do anything to prevent this from happening. It truly does feel like our world is crashing down on us.

And if you ask “What do you want to eat?” and the person with BPD says, “I don’t know” or “I don’t care,” they might be a chameleon like me and they are doing their best to adapt to the current environment they are in. Please have patience. We are doing the best we can.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “START” to 741-741.

We want to hear your story. Become a Mighty contributor here.

Thinkstock photo via indianeza.

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