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Painted Brain | Black-and-white Thinking In Borderline Personality Disorder
We're bridging communities and changing the conversation about mental illness using arts and media.
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  • August 29, 2016

BLACK-AND-WHITE THINKING IN Borderline Personality Disorder

Black-and-white thinking is what causes us to idealize or split on someone, have difficulty forming our own identities, and oscillate between loving ourselves and hating ourselves. It’s this all-or-nothing thinking that, for me, has caused countless meltdowns, depressive episodes, suicidal gestures, rifts in interpersonal relationships, and self-destructive behaviors. The Middle Path module in dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) specifically addresses black-and-white thinking and identifies it as a driving force behind the symptoms of borderline personality disorder (BPD); the word dialectic literally means “integrating two seemingly opposite things to find the gray area and understanding that things aren’t black-and-white.”

While DBT is great at addressing black-and-white thinking, it doesn’t seem like we really understand why it’s so common in BPD.

I wrote about this a while back, wondering if maybe our need for settling on extremes has to do with the fact that there is comfort in certainty, especially when we feel vulnerable/in distress. As we all know, when you have BPD you’re pretty much always feeling vulnerable/distressed.

I wrote that based only on conjecture and my own experience, really. There wasn’t exactly any actual research behind it, and so I fully accepted that it was quite possible that my theory was just a steaming pile of cow shit.

But somehow I stumbled across this article from the Washington Post which provides evidence that, in times of distress, people scramble to find certainty in their lives, even if it’s completely unrelated to what is distressing them. The article states that after the devastating 1906 San Francisco earthquake, there was a sudden spike in marriages especially amongst young people. Marriage is certainly a type of, well, certainty, and divorce would be at the other end of the spectrum. There is comfort in certainty in something, anything, because it gives us closure and helps us anchor ourselves when everything else is falling apart.

Some people embrace and enjoy uncertainty. Others, like my BPD ass, cannot tolerate it for one second. With BPD, we experience certainty so rarely that we cling to it as hard as we can – we’re in distress nearly all the time. Our identity, mood, relationships, everything is constantly shifting and changing, and feeling certain about even one little thing can help us feel a little less helpless.

If you are at a higher need for closure, you are more prone to the urgency effect, which is psychology-speak for “jumping to conclusions.” You are also at a higher risk of permanence effect, psychology-speak for “the unwillingness to change your opinion even when faced with contradictory evidence.” The urgency effect would explain imprinting and splitting – we pretty quickly decide on whether someone is The Best Human Ever or actually just terrible and therefore plotting to hurt us. The permanence effect would explain why we need constant validation and reassurance from our friends that they won’t leave us. I’m pretty firm in my belief that everyone will leave me, and even with tons of evidence that they will not leave me, I still low-key believe it. If a friend accidentally says something rude and apologizes for it, I may fixate on it (and jump to the conclusion that they hate me) all day even if they do lots of things to make up for it – they may apologize a million times, offer to help me with things, ask me if I’m okay, etc. With the permanence effect we seem fixated on the negative things.

I also found this part of the article particularly interesting:

“While many people think of confusion as a negative thing, Holmes says the reality is more nuanced. He calls uncertainty an “emotional amplifier,” echoing the work of psychologists Tim Wilson and Daniel Gilbert.

Wilson and Gilbert carried out experiments in which they had subjects watch pleasant or unpleasant films, and then had them repeat phrases connoting certainty or uncertainty to induce certain emotions. It turned out that when subjects felt uncertainty, they took more pleasure in the enjoyable film, but also found the unpleasant film more unpleasant.

The result has also been shown for gifts. Studies show people derive more pleasure from being unsure whether they are going to receive one or two gifts than from knowing for sure they will receive two…

So uncertainty amplifies the emotions of whatever you’re thinking about. It’s unpleasant to be uncertain about whether you’re going to be fired, but it’s pleasant to be at the Museum of Modern Art,” says Holmes.”

Uncertainty as an emotional amplifier? Is this why my anxiety spikes into paranoia while I’m waiting for someone to respond to me, especially when I am unsure if I’m on good terms with them? Is this why I get massively depressed when my friend doesn’t invite me to hang out when I’m already feeling pretty lonely?

Thankfully, there are ways to help us tolerate uncertainty. The distress tolerance skills can help us in immediate crisis, but we can also desensitize ourselves to uncertainty on a larger scale:

“Two other surprising things that have been shown to lower our need for closure are reading fiction – which invites us into the minds of other people – and thinking about multicultural experiences, says Holmes. Likewise, studies show that just remembering time spent abroad, or a unique musical or culinary experience, can also lower a person’s need for closure.”

“Indeed, looking at modern art, reading fiction, doing puzzles, eating new food, learning a new language, and traveling abroad all appear to make people more open to uncertainty, and more creative.”

So maybe, rather than eating Chipotle three days a week and continuing to be totally inept at Spanish, I’ll try eating Korean BBQ and take online courses in Spanish.

While I really love learning how to manage my symptoms, I also yearn to understand why I even have these symptoms in the first place – because some of them, like black-and-white thinking, arise as a protective mechanism before completely spiraling out of control and doing far more harm than good.

So ironically, I got closure in understanding why I need closure.

Tequila Mockingbird is a young mental health activist who writes about borderline personality disorder (BPD) for Painted Brain News

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