Embarrassing Emotions and EUPD: My Relationship with Shame and BPD
By Ophelia Blackwell
Content warnings: mentions suicidal feelings and police intervention.
I distinctly remember sitting in my English class, with a girl sitting at the table in front of me talking about me posting lyrics onto my Facebook wall. I do not entirely remember what she said, although I am pretty sure the words “cringe” and “embarrassing” were thrown around. Perhaps also, “sad” or “attention seeking” – although I couldn’t say for certain. The memory is solely focused on the feeling of burning shame from the weight of my heavy emotions.
Ironically, years later, she is commending me on Instagram for my openness about my mental health and online advocacy. I wonder if she remembers that afternoon at all.
That deep burning shame was not an unfamiliar feeling to me, but it was probably my earliest recollection out of childhood. Intense, deep emotions are fine when you are a small child – some little comments are made, you’re “being silly”, or “there’s no need to get upset”, or “you must be feeling sensitive today”. But as you grow, things change. The expectation to bounce back as a woman is one I never really adapted to. When I was young, my feelings were minimised for being a child. Being a teenager was worse. Then my feelings were reduced to my new stage of life, hormonal changes, and stereotypes. Finally, we arrived at the point where no one could deny that I did not have mental illness, but I was told it was depression and anxiety. Growing up, I had many friends struggling with mental illness; some of my close friends suffered from anxiety, depression, or a combination of the two. But I always felt different. It felt frustrating and so isolating. My frustration only grew as my peers’ health problems petered out as we approached adulthood, or if their medication actually helped them. I was happy for them but felt deeply troubled that I was still struggling on the same level as I was, or arguably worse than before. I had tried speaking to the school nurse, school counselling, several medications, CAMHS, and CBT. Nothing helped. I felt like I was being pulled underwater and everyone was approaching the shore. I was diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder/Emotionally Unstable Personality Disorder (BPD/EUPD) at age 16/17 and transferred to adult mental health services early. Receiving my diagnosis was the first time I felt an alleviation of this shame. I had never heard of BPD before this. Learning that other people experienced emotions as I did was so affirming. I felt validated, understood, and no longer alone.
For as long as I can remember, I have always felt emotions intensely. A crush was debilitating, academic feedback was soul-destroying, endings felt like abandonment, and a lack of intense emotions simply felt like emptiness. Always “too upset” about breakups, miscommunications, people cancelling, and plans changing. Always bending over backwards to manage these feelings so others only see a fraction of the things I feel. The ones I deemed more ‘appropriate’ for the situation. It is so frustrating to understand that socially I am “feeling too much” and feeling it anyway.
For me, experiencing these intense emotions is only half of the issue. This problem cannot exist in isolation. Everything is connected to my emotions. My friendships, relationships, work, my daily functioning, everything. These emotions are constantly put in the context of situations, the wider world, and other people. Without my consent or control, they are automatically placed into context and judged for their excess, intensity, or validity. I sometimes envision my emotions suspended in space. A free space where they can materialise and evaporate, without perception or judgement, as natural as clouds forming and rain pouring. My emotions only feel shameful with perception. First, others’ perception: “Why are you crying?”, “Why are you so happy?”, “It’s not that deep”, “Calm down”. My perception also plays a part in this shame. “Why are my emotions like this?”, “Why am I so affected by this?”, “I wish I could respond more like other people”. It feels almost impossible not to compare my reactions and emotions to other people.
The awareness of other’s perception of my emotions, coupled with extreme relationship anxiety, means that I have spent most of my life:
feeling these emotions.
being aware of how others are perceiving my emotions/actions
trying my hardest to regulate these emotions in the most socially acceptable way
feeling ashamed and embarrassed of my emotions
desperately trying to not let my shame or embarrassment exacerbate my mental state
explaining my emotions, processes, and perceptions to other people.
It has been exhausting.
Managing my embarrassment is draining and explaining my emotions to other people has been arduous. The embarrassment of feeling excruciatingly suicidal but no longer feeling that way by the time the paramedics arrived. Arguing with the police that I was not lying about not feeling suicidal anymore, but the emotion had passed. I remember the officer looking me in the eyes and saying it was impossible to have feelings change so quickly and therefore I must be lying.
Similarly, the deep shame of experiencing such intense recurrent suicidal thoughts and not feeling able to be honest with my friends about how frequently I felt that way. Constantly feeling like I have a finite number of times I can reach out for help. Struggling on my own for as long as possible and trying to save these imaginary tokens for the rainiest day. Beating myself up if I misjudge a feeling as stronger than it is, or conversely, misjudge a feeling as lesser.
It is not only negative emotions that are intense. They all are. My happiness feels like ecstasy, love feels like understanding my place in the universe. The joy beaming from my smile like an actual ray of sun. Kissing someone and hearing music. Seeing colours brighter than they are like the world’s colour saturation has been dialled up and it is so vibrant that nothing feels real anymore. It is all too perfect and beautiful.
I remember occasions of being happy, laughing with my friends and my ex-boyfriend telling me to ‘chill’. My deep emotions made him uncomfortable, even my joy.
The truth is you are not responsible for others’ perception of you. Nor are you responsible for managing their comfort or discomfort around emotions.
Although there is a general societal expectation of emotions and how to express them, there is a certain level of evaluating who is around you. If everyone in your life is extremely uncomfortable with emotions, the more shame you will most likely feel about your own. Sometimes these situations are unavoidable, for example, if you live with family who are like this, but other times we can have more choice and influence over this in our friendships. Surrounding yourself with people who are more compassionate and comfortable with their own and others’ emotions can significantly help.
I wish I could write that I never feel ashamed of my emotions now. I am in my mid-twenties, and I see my friends function, maintain jobs, manage relationships, and regulate their emotions. (Obviously, this is not to say they do not have any struggles or difficulties). It feels incredibly isolating, and it is hard not to feel shame that my emotions cause disruption across so many areas of my life. It is also hard to know that socially my emotions are generally viewed inappropriately or ‘intense’. I do have a better relationship with my shame now. I have learned to understand that all of my behaviours, and mechanisms, are designed to protect myself in some way – even if these do not all serve me well in my day-to-day.
My shame has significantly reduced over the years due to several things; being diagnosed, becoming better educated on BPD, distancing myself from judgemental people, and accepting my emotions.
I have to remind myself that I cannot control other people’s perceptions of me. Some people will think I am too much. Some people will not necessarily understand me. Some people will judge me for my emotions. Most importantly, I have to remind myself that I do not have to have these people in my life. I do not need to bend over backwards to accommodate someone who is particularly shaming and judging my emotions. Removing or distancing myself from people who have particularly worsened my feelings of shame or embarrassment but judging my emotions has helped significantly.
In reference to my own perception and all the “should” statements plaguing my thoughts, I have crafted my own little space in my mind. A space where I allow my emotions to exist, where I can observe them without panic, judgement, or shame. “I see you, I hear you, I understand you”. This is a practice I cannot always access but is increasing over time.
More recently, instead of desperately trying not to feel shame, I am trying to let myself feel the shame but open up a dialogue with it. Practising compassion with the shame. Allowing it a space to exist, not hurrying it along. Why do I feel ashamed of this emotion? What is the fear driving that emotion? What if that fear did happen? Following my thoughts to the source to remind myself that I will still be okay even if that anxious thought did happen.
Accepting my emotions and not placing value judgments on them has drastically improved my stability and helped dismantle my black-and-white thinking. I try not to deem certain experiences and emotions good or bad but to accept them neutrally. Holding my emotions and listening closely to the tone of voice helps me identify what parts of me are hurting and what ways I can best support myself. This makes people failing to understand my emotions easier because now I can say to them what I need. It is lovely to feel understood and seen but not everyone needs to understand me to treat me compassionately and support my needs. Similarly, just because someone understands your emotions, does not mean they are willing or even able to support you. This has been particularly difficult to come to terms with. Feeling misunderstood has tended to feed into my feelings of isolation but having compassionate and caring support has made me feel more connected. Also, being a part of the BPD community has helped me feel understood and connected. Even if not everyone can understand me, some people do, and even if not everyone can support me, some people can; it is not a reflection of my worth.