Borderline Personality and Vigorous, Competitive Exercise

One component of Marsha Linehan’s DBT worksheets is the “PLEASE” acronym (see page 2). The final “E” stands for “get regular exercise, working up to 20 minutes a day”.

The benefits of consistent exercise cannot be overstated: walking, jogging, biking, weight lifting, swimming and most fitness programs (Crossfit, etc.) can provide immense benefits, both physical and psychological.

After exercising, I feel less edgy, more focused, and occasionally euphoric. Exercise days also make falling asleep easier. I can use exercise time to process emotions or “lose” them altogether: focusing on my body effectively disrupts whatever was in my head. Often I’ll return home wondering why I was feeling frustrated 40 minutes earlier, now suddenly calm and positive.

BPD and Intense Exercise/Competition Can Feel Different

Balance is key. Those who take exercise to competitive extremes will face different emotions compared to someone exercising moderately. Exercise should almost always be a positive experience, even when you’re pushing yourself. I say almost because there will be days when you’re frustrated with your body’s performance.

Always “check in” with yourself before, during, and after intense exercise to asses your state of mind. Never dismiss positive feelings, work through the negative ones.

Why Would Someone with BPD Constantly Run, Workout or Lift Weights?

Positives are global:

It can be personal time, escape from work, fresh air, socialization, and improving competitive performance.

Negatives are multi-layered, pervasive:

Some days, hard workouts border on self abuse. The idea of “punishment as motivation”, and “no pain, no gain” often cuts athletic aspirations short. These notions are toxic motivation for people with BPD.

Those prone to self-image problems, e.g. Body Dysmorphic Disorder, may exercise too much and eat too little. Tough workouts are followed by inadequate nutrition, fearing much-needed calories will cause weight gain.

Some BPDs exercise for vanity, due to some healthy narcissism, no pun intended. 🙂Most fit people are viewed as sexually attractive. For BPDs, this makes starting relationships easier. They will – at a superficial level – feel that validation they have long desired, all due to working out. Fit body = Easy dates = A relationship. The logic is sound. However, a BPD’s partner will eventually feel misled: “I gave this girl many chances because she was beautiful”. Or, “This guy at the gym was hot and really intense, the sex was great, I enjoyed his body, but the rest was unpleasant.”

Strict workout schedules can be part compulsion, part avoidance, part escape and self-isolation thrown in. From doorstep to post-run shower, 10 miles on Saturday can easily kill 2 hours that can’t be recouped elsewhere in the week. Most of this time is spent alone under physical stress. The “I’ve gotta do this” thought butts heads with Linehan’s other axiom: “Avoid Avoiding” (page 25). If you’re lonely, having relationship issues or just need to relax, this isn’t a wise use of time. Instead, consider whether you’ll feel better socializing, going to therapy, talking with your partner, journaling or just relaxing.

Finally, achieving fitness goals can feel like the validation you’ve always wanted, but extra balance is needed with BPD. Just did your best bench press? Great! Make sure that feeling is thoroughly enjoyed and celebrated. However, if you find yourself depressed afterwards or “not yourself away from the gym”, you could be neglecting other aspects of your mental health.

What Emotions Do People With BPD Experience While Doing Hard Workouts?

I can only speak for myself, having experienced just about everything in my head. Intense workouts are as much mental as they are physical. With BPD, the mental part can be extremely baffling, frustrating and volatile.

Exercising Alone and BPD

My Tuesday long-run arrives. I begin feeling pretty good. Halfway through, I slow down. My motivation vanishes almost immediately. I start feeling anxious, bitter, angry; my self-talk becomes demeaning. By the end I’ve missed my goal and feel terrible. Why am I doing this? Why am I alone? What a waste of time, I’m exhausted, pissed off and feel terrible. Isn’t there more to life? Is this really what I want?

Good runs aren’t an antidote. Even after a great workout, the positive feelings are fleeting. Within a couple hours I feel anxious and obsessed with the next challenge. Then a slight desperation arises: Why am I doing this to myself? What is causing the good feelings to dissipate? I begin to question myself while experiencing painful emotional whiplash.

These feelings are less problematic in people without BPD, because their self worth is more intrinsic. A bad workout – even a bad competition – doesn’t equal a bad person, wasted time, or a signal to quit.

Exercising With Others and BPD

Everything from “Exercising Alone” applies, plus interpersonal stress.

My friend coaches me in the weight room. He’s tough, uncompromising, and a stickler for form (the hallmarks of a superb trainer). Similar to romantic relationships, the non-BPD won’t comprehend the BPD’s dramatic emotional reactions.

One day my friend was really pushing me. I was recounting a stressful night with my diabetes and he started lecturing me about proper nutrition. It was out of love and concern. I knew that in my core because he is a wonderful human being.

But as I was straining through some chest presses, listening to him trying to motivate me, I snapped. I slammed some heavy dumbbells and got up. He was rightfully aghast by my reaction. We were walking on eggshells for the rest of the workout.

Later I called and unconditionally apologized, knowing full well I lost control. Our friendship has since improved. I’m more mindful of my emotions during tough workouts, making sure NOT to hurt others who are only trying to help me.

People with BPD have to know who the good people are, and do their best to treat these people well. Ignore the bad ones.

Moderate exercise can be extremely beneficial for people with BPD. However, those taking exercise to a more competitive level must be aware of their emotions at all times. Exercising should be positive and helpful. If you experience negative emotions while exercising, work through them. Never forget the good you feel or dismiss it as unimportant. Finally, remember interpersonal relationships are still vulnerable during tough workouts, especially if emotions are running high. Exercise doesn’t turn BPD off, but it will provide an opportunity to catch problematic thoughts and socialize in a healthy manner.