Emotionally sensitive people and neurotypical supports: We ALL have to change

If we want change from our people, we have to model it.

As neurotypical adults who live with and love someone with borderline personality disorder (BPD) or someone who is highly emotionally sensitive, we often (and incorrectly) think they are the only ones who need to change.

It makes some sense to start with that assumption because emotionally sensitive people tend to act from their emotion mind, meaning that instead of words, they use behaviors to communicate their emotions.

The truth is, even as neurotypical adults, we do this, too. When we simply don’t know how to communicate our emotions or perhaps don’t feel safe doing so, we use behaviors to communicate, too.

Our behavior sends a clear message that they can't do things for themselves

When someone we care about is vulnerable, whether it’s from anxiety, learning disabilities, adoption, divorce, death, depression etc. it’s very easy for us to become overly involved with monitoring our loved ones, rescuing them, or trying to change them in any number of ways.

We don’t realize that our behavior sends a clear message to our loved one that they can’t do things for themselves.

There are three states of mind: emotion mind, reasonable mind, and wise mind.

It takes time to learn and to practice behaving in what we call a wise mind manner. And, it takes courages because it requires us to expose our own vulnerabilities.

Even though this might be scary, learning to move between the three states of mind is one of the most impactful shifts one can make to improve their lives and their relationships.

Emotion mind

When a person is emotionally sensitive or perhaps has a diagnosis like borderline personality disorder or ADHD, it can be difficult to act from anything other than the emotion mind, where they often use behaviors as a form of communication such as:

  • closed off
  • self-absorbed
  • defiant
  • making constant excuses
  • finding loopholes/arguing
  • acting helpless
  • substance abuse
  • sexual promiscuity
  • self harm
  • running away
  • school refusal
Much like watching a toddler learn language, we may have to decode the hidden message our people are sending via their actions. We may also need to repair damage we’ve caused when we have been unable to communicate our own internal experience accurately.

Almost always neglected in treatment programs, be it CBT, DBT, residential and other higher levels of care is that the absolute best way we can support those we love as they learn how to manage their hyper-sensitive nervous system is to learning to observe and manage our own experience of emotions and verbalizing what we are learning and practicing along the way.

Whether we feel worried, afraid, uneasy, depressed and isolated, all common when we are supporting someone we care about who has periods of emotional dysregulation, we may notice feelings of intense regret and guilt or a sense of failure, and of being cut off from the rest of the world.

Reasonable Mind

Reasonable mind is our traditional, thinking state of mind. It’s our practical, pragmatic, logical, rational, facts-and-reason mind. 

Reasonable mind is essentially the opposite of emotion mind. Not because emotion mind is completely without reason, but it’s unreasonable in the sense that it doesn’t rely on reason to inform behaviors. It’s not concerned with logic and it couldn’t care less about facts, whereas the reasonable mind allows us to act based on these very things instead of urges that arise from an emotional state.

venn diagram graphic of emotion mind and reasonable mind intersecting to form the wise mind

Wise Mind

You can think of wise mind as the intersection of reasonable mind and emotion mind. 

When in wise mind, we can consider both the rational and emotion. It allows us to see the big picture so we can behave reasonably while also remaining true to our values.

venn diagram with Spock as reasonable mind, Dr. McCoy as emotion mind, and Captain Kirk in the middle as wise mind

If we use Star Trek characters as an example, Spock would be the reasonable mind. He’s all about the facts and only the facts. Dr. McCoy would be our emotion mind, as he’s reactive, impulsive, compassionate and empathetic but often irrational. And our wise mind would be Captain Kirk with his synthesis of both reason and emotion. Kirk has deep inner wisdom and a knowing of the truth within his heart, while remaining emotionally calm. 

How our behavior gets in the way

Our behavior gets in the way of our person developing the internal resources they need for becoming confident and resilient human beings, able to solve problems and to set goals, to work hard, delay gratification, motivate themselves and to identify their core strengths and talents.

As supports, we have to engage in our own process of change in order to move out of a state of feeling distraught and reactive to one of calm, confidence, and connection.

Common behavior patterns of supports include:

  • Rescuing / Enabling: doing anything you can to take away your person’s discomfort in an attempt to make them happy
  • Yelling: using guilt, blame or threats in an attempt to get your person to listen
  • Stoicism: removing yourself emotionally from any conflict and responding in a detached, unaffected way
  • Lecturing / Preaching: explaining, solving, fixing the problem, telling your person what to do and what “should” be happening
  • Being a Workaholic: finding ways to avoid the home and stay at work because you feel more effective and in control there
  • Finding Distractions: always looking for something else to focus on and keeping busy
  • Addictions: excessive engagement in anything that gives a feeling of escape, alcohol, computer, internet abuse etc.
  • Worrying / Ruminating: constantly going over and over the worst case scenario, catastrophic thinking

What are your patterns when you’ve exceeded your bandwidth and start to get close to the edges of your window of tolerance?

How to break the pattern

When we find ourselves stuck in emotion mind we have to learn how to access our own state of wise mind in spite of or in the midst of our person’s unwanted behavior. In short, we have to engage in the same process as our people.

Learning to move intentionally between states of mind requires those of us who love emotionally reactive people to allow our people to be independent, make their own decisions and suffer any associated consequences, become accountable, and resilient all of which are wise mind abilities.

We need to allow our people to make their own decisions and suffer any associated consequences

When we as supports try to prevent or fix things for our people over and over again, we rob them of their sense of self. Their individuality (sense of self) becomes merged with ours and they never learn to feel entirely responsible for themselves. For them, it’s like we feel every experience they do exactly as they experience it.

Should they steal or use drugs for example, they believe it’s our responsibility to fix the problem and if we don’t they blame us for not being good parents and “not getting it.” If they feel disliked or hated by us they assume we feel that dislike and hatred toward them. For our loved one, their reality is assumed to be shared with us.

The inevitable outcome of what we refer to as enmeshment is that our people may feel little or no remorse, and aren’t overly affected by failure except in the area of self-esteem which is extremely sensitive. Enmeshment means that with the best of intentions our person’s individuality is being crushed or has never developed. This makes our loved ones feel invisible and unseen.

I was stunned when I saw how often and for how long I had undermined my family members’ attempts to mature and develop their own set of values apart from mine. And I don’t mean just my children. Orchestrating positive outcomes and damage clean up was my superpower in the home with extended family, at PTA, in my job or at church.

In hindsight, I blocked so many opportunities for others to learn to manage themselves, learn life skills and manage their emotions because I put myself and the prevailing wisdom of my culture at the time in charge of their happiness.

Young adults in particular and all of us as human beings require opportunities to develop internal resources, emotional resiliency and inner strength.

I’m certain you are wondering where and how to begin. In my experience the initial step is practicing skillful connection instead of attempts to control our person’s behavior. This includes:

  • Creating a safe environment in the home where they are welcomed to explore their identity, and push limits with along with experiencing natural consequences.
  • A space of connection and understanding where rifts are expected and repairs are welcomed.
  • A space where there is at least one person who is able to empathetic with the intensity of their emotions, what it’s like to live in their body and who values any positive connection with them as precious.
  • A space where failure and struggling to build mastery is celebrated as necessary for learning, good enough is effective and perfection is identified as a myth.

Regardless of the age of our loved ones we can begin to create that safe space by:

Joining a group of like-minded peers, all struggling to change how they experience their own emotions and how they relate to their emotionally sensitive loved ones.

Practicing and mastering the same skills and techniques that our people are struggling to implement in their lives.

Identifying, communicating and maintaining our own clear limits and boundaries for our relationship with our people.

Honoring and respecting our loved one’s right to their own limits and boundaries and to endure any unwanted consequences whether or not we approve or agree with them.

Watching out for the easily missed signs that indicate a child, young adult or partner wants to find ways to reconnect and recover from conflict.

Normalize requests such as, “I need a repair or a do-over” by using such language yourself.

Maintain awareness. If you think you may have caused upset or harm, circle back and check in with the other person.

Building a better environment by using frequent repairs can have a significant impact on what others hear. Encourage family members to express how they feel without blaming others.

For example: “I am hurt by what you said last night” rather than an accusation such as, “You were totally inappropriate last night.”

We have to learn how to survive and even grow under adverse conditions as families because the family unit is being challenged from all sides, inside and outside the home. It is impossible to prevent all conflicts.

Our job is to create a family environment that reduces unnecessary friction, repairs rifts and misunderstandings, grows and moves forward. The way we speak to each other – what we say and how we say it – is the single, most important key to connection. It can improve with practice and commitment learning to observe the needs of others. As families we can learn skills and techniques for emotion regulation, tolerating distress, building resilience, and healthy coping that strengthen the individual and the family group at the same time.

Learning to move intentionally between states of mind requires those of us who love emotionally reactive people to allow our people to be independent, make their own decisions and suffer any associated consequences, become accountable, and resilient all of which are wise mind abilities.

If your family is in need of additional support, I am here to help.

This information is not a substitute for professional advice from a Medical Doctor, Psychiatrist, or Licensed Counselor. The information provided by www.coachlisabond.com does not constitute legal or professional advice nor is it intended to be.
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My mission is to provide high quality, evidence-based tools to meet the unique needs of individuals and families who want to create a life worth living, and coaches who want to help others do the same.

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