Today’s batch of self help gurus and arm chair psychologists always advocate “setting goals” as a way to improve one’s life. Although this is good advice in terms of organizing your ambitions, the process of achieving a goal – particularly one that is challenging – can sometimes consume you so much that you begin to lose sight of your former self. The real question these “experts” need to answer is, “When should I quit after making an earnest attempt at achieving a goal and how do I feel good about myself again?”. Those infomercials for “turning your life around in 6 months” are great at pumping you up in the moment, but terrible about giving you the mental framework for the time consuming process of making a substantive change in your life.
Want to lose weight? Train for a 20 minute or better 5K. Want to make money? Start a business and work day and night until you’re a millionaire. Want to have a good family? Spend every waking minute nurturing relationships with your children, spouse, and relatives. All of these goals are definitely worth attempting, but is it worth all the sacrifice?
I would like to refine some of the finer points of the “goal setting” process for people with BPD because we’re unique cases. When you operate with a distorted view of the world, are constantly searching for something to fill you up, and have trouble interacting with people even on a basic level, the psychological soundbite “set a goal and achieve it” can often be misleading and disappointing. People with BPD make up less than 2% of the population. Therefore, advice geared towards the 90+% who otherwise have normal mental health is useless for those with Borderline Personality Disorder.
The stakes are higher for people with BPD because “quitting” can feel like we’re throwing part of ourselves away. When this happens, BPDs take it extremely personally.
Suppose your goal is to find a life partner for marriage. Relationships for people with BPD are always rocky, but this time you’re going to put it all on the line in order to achieve a level of happiness you’ve never experienced before. You signup for all the internet dating sites, spend a few hundred dollars on a new wardrobe, and maybe hit the gym 3 times a week to get your body back in shape. Then you meet someone you like and are convinced he or she “is the one”.
Off you go, head over heels into a new relationship. You’re in BPD “idolization” mode, when you practically worship your new partner and love everything about them. Every date feels like a chapter of a romance novel. You feel like you’re finally on solid ground, have true love, and most importantly a potential partner for life. Everyone around you is happy, and you’re happy.
Now for the reality check. Things probably go great for 6 months, but when the inevitable “commitment” talks loom, your partner isn’t quite ready to go all in. But why? You’ve poured your heart and soul into this relationship for months, and feel a fresh excitement about your life you’ve never felt before. Now, there are some real doubts. Maybe your partner starts to dodge your phone calls, cancel dates, or tells you outright that “I’m not ready to move to the next level”. What about your goal now? You’ve become a new person, but suddenly that identity is on very shaky ground. You might be one bad argument or a late night “let’s breakup” chat away from failure.
The goal you set and the work you performed to secure a healthy relationship is now in jeopardy, potentially down the drain. You feel as if you will be left with nothing – materially or emotionally – should the relationship ultimately fail. All your efforts might be for not.
How do you quit and walk away feeling like a unique individual, worthy of giving and receiving love, worthy of another chance and worthy of good fortune in your life?
You DON’T head for the last chapter of the latest self-help best seller. Instead, you must reflect on what you had BEFORE you made a big change. Your immediate emotional reaction might be that you had nothing before and nothing now, but your emotions can be wrong. If you have BPD, emotions can be wrong most of the time.
A thought for a positive mental health exercise popped into my head partway through dinner about how to set goals, go for them, and then walk away without feeling like a loser when things don’t work out.
Immediately before you embark on a new chapter in your life, a new goal, a new relationship, or a new job, find a piece of paper and write down what makes you feel happy about yourself right now. It might be hard at first because you’re thinking of the future, but with some deliberation and deep thought, you’ll probably be able to come up with at least 3 things that give your life some purpose.
Set this paper aside the instant you launch into version 2 of your current life. Go after your goal. If you achieve it, great, you’ve improved your life. If you don’t, and think all is lost, dig out that paper of things you were happy about before you began a big change. Reflect on them: even though you didn’t get what you wanted and feel devoid of any sense of self or individuality, chances are, those things you wrote down months or years ago are still a part of you. You will realize that all is NOT lost, that in the fog and confusion of defeat, there might not be a light ahead, but there is certainly one behind.
Take it a step further: remember those things you wrote down as you effect a major change. Remember how happy they make you feel, how important those people, places, or things are to you. As you progress towards your new goal, take time out to experience the emotional comfort and peace of mind you had from an earlier time. When your new dream starts to sour, know that there ARE things to fallback on, no matter how empty you feel.
The time to surrender chasing a new goal is when your life deteriorates towards a lower point compared to where you started. How do you remind yourself that you are still worth the trouble? Reflect on what made you happy before you decided to make a change, and carry those feelings with you as constant reminders that happiness – even in smaller quantities than desired – is still a part of you.
This can be very hard for those of us with BPD, however a written reminder of what made you happy – no matter how insignificant – can serve as foundation for finding yourself again and moving forward.