by: Kelsey Lewis, MSW, LGSW
This past summer, I attended a session at the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) conference entitled “Borderline Personality Disorder: Demystified and Destigmatized” led by Dr. Alan Fruzzetti, a Professor of Psychology at the University of Nevada, Reno. As a featured speaker, he opened the session by sharing the most up-to-date research on individuals with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD). In his presentation, Fruzzetti focused on the concept of emotional dysregulation as a central process in BPD.
Emotional dysregulation (ED) is characterized by quick and frequent mood swings that are beyond the control of the person with the problem (New Harbinger Publications). ED can also be associated with fear of negative emotions, difficulty concentrating, impulsive behavior, low self-esteem, and fear of abandonment. Although heightened in individuals with BPD, such feelings are shared by many individuals with or without a diagnosed mental health condition. These dysregulated emotions may significantly affect an individual’s relationships, both personal and professional, in and out of the workplace.
Fruzzetti explained that when an individual reaches a heightened state of emotion, he or she is more inclined to think in rigid terms — black or white, good or bad. It’s during these periods of emotional arousal that dysregulation may occur, particularly for those with BPD. In order to function happily and effectively in any relationship, we must first accept the ambiguity of the other person’s intentions, including the constant change of expectations and preferences. But how is this possible when one is thinking in such a polarized way?
Fruzzetti suggests learning to take a step back – giving yourself a breather – and then addressing the situation more tactfully so, as he explains, you learn to interact healthily, express yourself and your needs when your arousal has lowered. This will help you express yourself more accurately and appropriately. Instead of reacting when your coworker or supervisor has acted in a way you perceive as offensive, you instead walk away until you have reached a point of calmness, and then readdress the situation. You can now explain that the interaction did not sit well with you instead of blaming, calling someone names, or potentially overreacting in a way that will make you feel embarrassed later on. He emphasized that the more accurately you explain your feelings, the easier it is for the other person to understand and validate your experience. This does not necessarily mean that the other person will be able to fully understand why you feel this way, or even agree with your position, but at least this opens the line of communication that will enable you to feel heard and respected.
Fruzzetti believes that if people do not feel validated in their feelings, their arousal will not drop. For employers, this can mean that employees with BPD may not be able to work effectively, without distraction, if they feel unsupported in their workplace. Instead of moving on from a negative event or encounter, they may alternatively believe their feelings aren’t safe in their workplace. Although difficult at times, particularly if an employer is unfamiliar with BPD, validation can change this frame of reference and potentially lead to a more productive employee.
According to Fruzzetti, the tricky part is learning to differentiate between validating “false” perspectives versus emotions regarding the matter. This means that you don’t necessarily want to validate an employee’s perspective if it could cause more harm, but instead validate the feelings attached to this perspective. For example, if an employee wrongfully believes that her supervisor is singling her out, it would cause more harm to agree with this perspective. However, you can still express your understanding that she is upset over feeling this way. This interaction can help the employee feel supported while also providing a different viewpoint on the situation.
Relationships can be challenging — especially with our work colleagues and supervisors with whom we interact during a large portion of our days. But in trying to relate to each other through validation and respect, these relationships can provide many benefits that will enrich our workplace lives. Particularly for those with BPD, this relational strategy can make a huge difference in both morale and productivity. Through simple but new levels of understanding, we can allow our professional relationships to provide collaboration, inspiration, motivation, and a new perspective on life.
For more information on Accommodation Ideas for Mental Health Impairments, JAN publications offer a variety of suggestions. JAN consultants can also provide one-on-one consulting to discuss a specific workplace situation.
- Fruzzetti, A. (2015, July 8). NAMI Presentation — Borderline Personality Disorder: Demystified and Destigmatized. San Francisco, CA.
- New Harbinger Publications. (n.d.). Borderline Personality Disorder. Oakland: New Harbinger Publications, Inc. https://www.newharbinger.com/psychsolve/borderline-personality-disorder
- National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI)
- “NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, is the nation’s largest grassroots mental health organization dedicated to building better lives for the millions of Americans affected by mental illness.”