Many people with borderline personality disorder (BPD), and other psychiatric disorders that involve intense emotional experiences, have trouble accepting emotions. It’s very hard to accept emotions that are painful, extreme and sometimes even scary; however, accepting emotions can actually help improve your emotion regulation and lead to less mood swings and more emotional balance.
What Is Emotional Acceptance?
Often, when we have an uncomfortable feeling, such as sadness, fear or shame, our first reaction is to reject that feeling. We may tell ourselves that the feeling is a “bad feeling” that we do not want to have. Next, we may do something to try to get rid of the feeling, such as trying to push the feeling away or using drugs or alcohol to feel better.
Certainly, no one wants to walk around feeling emotional pain all of the time, but when we reject our emotions, we may actually make things worse for ourselves (see this article on problems associated with suppressing emotions). And often, emotions arise because they give us helpful information about the world. So sometimes getting rid of emotions is not the best idea.
An alternative is learning to accept your emotional experiences. Accepting means that you practice allowing your emotions to be what they are, without judging them or trying to change them. Acceptance means letting go of attempts to control your emotions and learning that emotions themselves cannot harm you (although, the things we do to try to get rid of emotions, i.e., using alcohol, can harm you).
Accepting Emotions Is Not Resigning Yourself to Pain
It is important to make the distinction between acceptance and resignation. Accepting emotions do not mean that you resign yourself to always feeling terrible or wallowing in pain. It also doesn't mean that you hold on to painful emotions or try to push yourself to experience emotional pain. Acceptance simply means being aware of your emotions and accepting them for what they are right now.
As a metaphor for acceptance, imagine that you are a soldier who has fought a long battle with your emotions. Acceptance is the act of putting down your weapons and walking away from the fight. You are not resigning yourself to be beat up by your emotions; you are simply letting go of the struggle.
In some ways, accepting emotions means also accepting that emotions will change. When we are happy, we have to accept that it is a short-term condition: we will not always be happy. Also, when we are sad, this is a short-term condition too.
Why Do People with BPD Have Trouble Accepting Emotions?
There are a few reasons why people with BPD, in particular, have trouble accepting emotions (although, it is important to note that everyone has trouble accepting emotions sometimes).
First, people with BPD were often raised in emotionally invalidating environments. These are environments where feelings are not accepted. Sometimes people with BPD were punished for expressing feelings, or sometimes they were told that they were weak for having feelings. This can lead a person with BPD to have trouble accepting their own emotions in adult life.
Second, people with BPD experience very intense emotions, and this intensity makes it harder to accept them. People with BPD will often describe feeling that they are afraid their emotions will “overwhelm” or “destroy” them. As a result, many people with BPD feel very afraid of their emotions and are convinced that they cannot tolerate their feelings.
Why Accepting Emotions Is Helpful
Why is accepting emotions helpful? What is the point of trying to accept your emotions, and wouldn’t it be easier to just get rid of them? Well, no, it isn’t easy to get rid of emotions. In fact, most people with BPD have tried to get rid of their emotions with little success. What they have learned (and what research supports) is that it is very difficult, if not impossible, for us to just get rid of an emotion.
We have emotions for a reason, so you shouldn't want to get rid of them completely. Emotions are part of a complex system that helps us decide what we should stay away from and what we should approach. Emotions also help us keep lasting relationships with other people. Without emotions, we would make terrible decisions all the time! Therefore, accepting emotions is helpful, because when we listen to our emotions, we can actually learn important information.
How to Practice Accepting Emotions
It is not easy to learn how to accept emotions, because they often do not feel very good and we have instincts that may tell us to avoid them. With persistent practice, though, you can learn how to be more accepting of your emotions. Mindfulness meditation, or the practice of being aware of both your internal and external experiences, can be tremendously useful as you are learning how to accept your emotions. Here are some exercises to try:
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Linehan MM. Skills Training Manual for Treating Borderline Personality Disorder. 1st ed. The Guilford Press; 1993.
Roemer L, Orsillo SM. Mindfulness- and Acceptance-Based Behavioral Therapies in Practice. 1st ed. Guilford Press; 2008.