Hello, friends! In this episode, I answer two super important questions relating to whether it is necessary to talk about trauma details in depth in therapy, the worry of upsetting your therapist, and supporting someone with Borderline Personality Disorder.
I started going to therapy in November, because I was feeling really shitty and suicidal, and my friend kinda talked me into it. I love my therapist, he’s phenomenal, and super patient and kind!He is aware of some of the very basics of what happened between me and my ex, but I have a really hard time even talking about it at all, and I seriously struggle to be emotionally vulnerable in general. I start to panic if I feel tears coming in session and tend to crack a joke and try to talk about something else, but my friend has told me that she thinks I should tell him the specifics of what happened and the ways it’s impacting me now.The question: Does he really need to know specifics to help me process and move on from it? I’m really worried about upsetting him or making him uncomfortable, or feel like I’m using him to vent or whatever. I don’t know I’m just very stressed I don’t want to over share. I try really hard to be upbeat in session and make it a fairly pleasant conversation instead of emotionally draining. Also, I just really fucking don’t want to talk about it, or think about it, because I didn’t even realize that there was anything abusive happening in the relationship until I started talking to my friend about it. It makes me super panicky and I get really strong urges to self harm or unalive myself.
Thank you for writing in. This is a super important question, I think. Good job getting out of the relationship and getting into therapy. Your friend was right for pushing you in that direction. You are on the right track.
First off, let me talk a little bit about trauma. As Dr. Copley said on episode 167 of the podcast, trauma is not the event, it’s your body’s reaction to it. One thing that traumatizes one person may not traumatize another and vice versa. Whether you are experiencing something as severe as PTSD or not, there are some indications that you are experiencing some trauma because of what you’ve been through.
The thing with trauma is that it makes us store the memories of what happened in a way that feels very immediate and threatening. In some cases, memories cause someone to re-experience what happened and it feels like it’s happening to them all over again. This causes strong bodily reactions, which people obviously do not like. This leads to avoidance. Avoidance of things that trigger memories of the trauma and also avoidance of the feelings that come along with remembering. When you said that you have a really hard time talking about it at all and start to panic and have urges to self-harm. I wonder if you are also experiencing some dissociative symptoms. Feeling disconnected from your body and your experience. This often leads to self-harm as a way to feel grounded again. This would be common in people with trauma as well. The thing is, the avoidance of the topic makes the trauma stickier. It IS super hard to talk about, but avoiding it at all costs also makes it take root even deeper.
So. Let’s get to your actual question – do you need to talk about the specifics to help you process and move on from it. Not necessarily. You don’t always have to go into deep detail about what happened. And even if you do, you don’t have to go into it all at once. One way to process the trauma is to gradually expose yourself to the thoughts and feelings that come along with remembering what happened. There are a variety of ways to do this.
I think that it IS important for your therapist to know that you do have trauma to work through. You can be honest with them that you don’t feel like you’re ready to dive into it all right away, but they need to know that there is a traumatic history so that they can help you better. If I were your therapist, I would want to know. You could say something like “I want you to know that I have trouble talking about certain things in therapy. I do want to talk about them, but I don’t think I’m ready yet. Can you help me with this?” You can also be honest about the fact that you are worried about upsetting them etc. If it were me, I’d give you comfort and normalize being afraid to talk about it. Then I’d educate you a little bit about trauma like I just did. Then we’d probably work on skills for self-regulation like breathing strategies so that you have some tools to work with before we dive into what happened to you. The reason for this is that you need some tools to withstand the processing without spiraling. It might be too intense to just dive right in. From there you might start to dip your toe in bit by bit while you continue to build a strong working relationship with your therapist. Eventually, you will build more trust with them and more confidence in exploring deeper topics. You do NOT need to impress your therapist. The hardest sessions are the ones where people don’t have anything to work on. We are there to help.
It sounds to me like you have some fundamental misunderstandings about what therapists do. You said you don’t want to vent and you are worried about making him uncomfortable. That’s literally our job! We are trained and prepared to hear difficult things and help you work through them. You don’t need to worry about making him uncomfortable. However, as always, I think that it’s great to talk about the way that you are feeling and any fears that you have about the therapy process in therapy. You could say that you are worried about upsetting him with details of what happened and he can reassure you about that. It’s not the only thing you need to talk about, but I think it’s important to pay attention to that resistance you feel. Often that’s an indicator that there is something there that you should be addressing. I think regardless of what you talk about, therapy is going to be a great prompt for you to build some distress tolerance and learn how to better talk about difficult things that are somewhat activating for you.
So again I am proud of you for your progress so far and I think that you are on the right track. Keep it going. I’d encourage you and everyone to listen to ep 209 as well, which are tips on how to make the most out of therapy including don’t try to impress your therapist, don’t lie to your therapist, and don’t be afraid to cry.
I have and am recovering from borderline personality disorder, and so does one of my best friends. She often comes to me upset and crying, and I always do my best to comfort her. We both have grown up in toxic environments and she’s still stuck in one. I do everything I can to validate her (we’re both victims of constant lifelong invalidation), but she often tells me No and hurriedly invalidates herself the minute I try to tell her it’s okay and that she’s not wrong and her feelings are normal. Example, she’ll say “I just need to get over it” or “I’ll be fine” or “I need to change.” How would you respond to someone who does this?
You’re a good friend for writing in about this. I am happy to hear that she has you in her life. I’m sure you can relate that tendency to put herself down. A lot of people with BPD (and other issues) do a lot of mental filtering where they only give credit to the evidence that seems to support the negative way that they are already feeling about themselves. I’d encourage you to read my 4 Cs of supporting someone with mental illness blog post.
I think that as someone with BPD interacting with another person with BPD, one thing that you’ll want to pay attention to is how much the conversation is activating to both of you. The best thing that you can do for her is to be tempered in your response, but also clear and consistent with your message. If you think that she is valid in her feelings, tell her that and understand that her instant reaction will be to deny it and put herself down. Expect that. When you expect it, you can not be too emotionally activated by her response. Try your best to not get frustrated with her about it. You can say that you believe what she’s saying and you understand why she feels that way. You disagree that she needs to just get over it and think that she deserves more. But more than anything you feel for her and want to bring her comfort because it sucks to feel that way. Even if she’s not in a place to hear you or believe you, it can still make a difference that you say it.
As someone with BPD, she may also be trying to elicit a certain response from you as well. It deeply impacts interpersonal relationships, which can sometimes lead to unintentional manipulation. Not in a malicious way, but in a way that uses your own emotional state to pull a certain response or emotion from another person. I think that this is also a good opportunity for you to do some self-monitoring and make sure that you are exercising good personal boundaries. You may not always be in a great place to hear what she is going through if it is really activating for you. This is where that clarity comes in again. If you aren’t in a place for her to just unload on you, you can say something like “I hope you know that I love you very much. I don’t feel like I’m in a place with my own mental health to take on all of this right now. I can shoot you a message when I’m in a little bit better of a spot if you’d like.” You can also take the constructive parts of what she is saying and support her in those.
While she doesn’t need to feel like a bad person for experiencing what she does or feeling this way, it is totally valid for her to want to make some changes. She doesn’t need to just “get over it”, but she might need to change her circumstances or get some additional help in coping with this stuff. That is something that you might be able to help her out with especially if you’ve been able to identify some resources for yourself. You could say something like “I don’t agree that you need to just get over it. I don’t blame you all for feeling like this. It’s totally valid. BUT I know that you’ve wanted to do something about this for a while. Can I help? I can look into some therapists for you” etc.
You don’t need to solve her problems, but it DOES make a difference that you are there and you hear her.
Keep doing what you are doing!
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