Building Resilience in BPD
By Zoe P
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This piece was written as part of the blog series ‘My Mind, My Story’ for Mental Health Month 2021. Reflections are by mindshare writers with lived experience of mental health challenges. Content may contain triggering themes.
Resilience (noun): the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness.
Having Borderline Personality Disorder, my identity is ever shifting and easily influenced. Sometimes I feel whole, sometimes I feel that my entire sense of self is leaking out of me. Sometimes I feel like I am wilting under the pressure of what I am told I should and should not be, and while I am learning to set these goals for myself, I, like anyone else, still absorb the messages around me and take them to heart. One that has been an ongoing battle is the messaging surrounding resilience.
For years now, I have grappled with the concept of resilience and how it applies to the context of me. In school, I would watch presentations about resilience and would be told ‘here’s how and why you should bounce back quickly after a bad grade’, or an argument with a friend, or a rejection from a university, or from a job. And somehow, the ‘resilience’ part always seemed to be centred around stopping an emotional response to these things. But then how could someone like me, who has strong emotional responses to, well, just about everything, be resilient?
I found myself drawing a baseline for resilience around external events, not internal ones, and convinced myself I was fragile. I would go so far as to read psychological journals which always seemed to say one thing: ‘having borderline personality disorder means you will always be limited in what resilience you can build’. Some go so far as to say that developing borderline personality disorder shows an inherent lack of resilience because if we were more resilient we would have turned out healthy. (Those of us with borderline personality disorder are generally all too aware of the stigma surrounding our diagnosis; this is one aspect I never thought I would encounter, and I am more than happy that the outlook on BPD has become more positive since the times when I saw these.)
I think myself, and so many others with borderline personality disorder, are a testament to the contrary. Resilience is a necessity in order to battle with such strong emotions and come out on top. To say that we are not resilient is to steal our hope. Mental illness is an adversity the presentations never thought to mention, although I can guarantee it was one many audience members were facing. Ironically, these presentations dampened my resilience by making me feel like I would never develop it. But here is something I have since learned:
To be resilient is not to be unfeeling. To feel like you are drowning is not failure. It is not the drowning that measures resilience: it is the ability to come back up for air.
And most of us manage to come back up for air constantly. We get up, we drag ourselves to the shower, we make a meal and eat it, we talk to our support systems and try to find ways to grow. We go on with our lives. Being able to do these things may not be a sign of resilience in the context of some peoples’ lives, but to me, it means perseverance despite extreme emotions, even if the emotions were not suffocated under a cloak of success.
The chronically narrow definition of resilience has taken away representation from those of us who are a few standard deviations away from the mean. Those of us who are fighting internal battles. Sometimes, the ‘adverse event’ isn’t observable to others, or even to us. The difficulties from which we are recovering are not always something that can be overcome quickly. Chronic mental illness is just that: chronic. And perhaps it is that – the ongoing battle – that has led to the toughness we all clearly show. Even if not the traditional genre, our strength and toughness is valid and worth building upon so we can breathe a little better.