* The advice in this article can be used by all people dealing with trauma—not just people who have BPD
After several years of experiencing everything from sexual assault, religious abuse, psychological abuse, and shunning by family members, it came as no real surprise to be diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Before I received this diagnosis, I thought it would shatter me to learn that there was something clinically wrong with me. But as soon as I heard the list of symptoms (and learnt that their combination culminates in a very common, very explainable mental illness) I breathed a sigh of relief. Because, after all these years of pain and anger, I finally had a why to help me understand the what of the emotions and behaviors I had exhibited all my life.
Mario Kart’s Cool, Yellow Boost Pad of Awesomeness
My whole life, I thought I was an inherently evil person; explosive, unable to commit to anything, and—fundamentally—hateable. But hearing what the psychs had to say, I was soon able to understand that who I had become was the chaotic, emotional manifestation of someone who had endured years of consecutive traumas.
So I had all these symptoms for a variety of reasons—yet I felt optimistic. Why? Because knowledge is power. And I was determined to use my knowledge as one of those cool, yellow arrow Boost Pads in Mario Kart—a burst of added impetus to propel me into a better future.
If One More Person Tries to Talk to Me About SMART Goals, I Will Actually Scream
Once I knew that my particular form of mental illness was treatable, my aunty—who I was living with at the time, and who worked in the mental health field—linked me in with a support group for people with BPD. While it turned out that this group was not right for me in the long-term, I maintain that the first session I attended was utterly mind-blowing for me.
SMART goals are not new to us, right? I mean, we’ve all heard of them. So when the support group facilitator began writing them up on the board, I sighed cynically under my breath. Here we go. I thought. Another clichéd presentation on why setting goals is important. Why did I come all this way to hear something I’ve heard a million times? Ugggggh. But I told my aunty I’d give it a chance, so I stayed for the whole session. And I’m glad I did.
The facilitator did go through the usual commentary on SMART goals, but only briefly. Then she went back to R for Reward. And then she elaborated on how important this particular step is for people with BPD. But now, three years on, I would adjust that statement to include most people who have experienced debilitating trauma throughout their lives. This R for Reward held the key to much of my future success. Let’s think about why.
Hands up who, while experiencing extreme abuse, felt like they were the most beautiful, precious, lovable person in the world?
No hands? Yeah, didn’t think so.
No matter what kind of abuse we’ve suffered, making people feel like scum is a pretty basic tactic for controlling them. For those of us who spent years curled up in literal or proverbial balls for fear of upsetting our abusers, we understand that self-worth is not a priority when you’re trying to survive.
Think of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. The first level is physiological: food, water, breath, sleep, stability in the body, and excretion. The next level is related to safety: security of body, employment, resources, family, and property, etc. When I spent nearly a year without a stable home, when I experienced shunning from my family, and had no job, I was not thinking about the importance of building up my self-esteem. I was looking for a bed and roof that wouldn’t be taken away from me at any moment. But once those things were put in place, I could rest easy enough to start working on securing my sense of value.
When we’ve been made to think we are awful and worthless, it can seem pointless to aspire to anything because we don’t think we can—or that we even deserve it. This is where the importance of reward comes in.
R for Reward
For most of us, we associate the idea of punishment with the consequence of doing something bad. But, in the case of abuse, many of us have experienced punishment when we didn’t deserve it. So when it comes to bouncing back from the fear, self-hatred, and self-doubt that our abusers trained into us, the same works in reverse.
Our brains are plastic—this means they have the power to shift and change through when we reinforce certain beliefs through habit and behaviour modification. For positive or negative. So, now that we’re safe, we can do something good then meet it with the appropriate consequence—which is also goodness.
Where we’ve felt like a failure or not had the ability to follow through in the past, we can start setting small goals for ourselves. And, at the same time, we set the reward for reaching those goals. For example, This month, I am going to practice mindfulness to help me regulate my emotions. And my reward for doing this will be a spa pedicure on the 31st.
When you hit your target and when you reward yourself for doing so, you will reinforce your own goodness, worthiness, and competence. And, at the end of the day, this is what your goals need to be about. Your goals should not feel like an iron fist coming down on your soul. They should reflect the belief—even if you don’t feel it yet—that you deserve good things and that you, yourself, are good.
Even if you don’t end up practicing mindfulness every day, reward yourself anyway–for trying. It’s been long enough that you’ve withheld honor from yourself as payment for not measuring up.
Now that you’re on the path to knowing you rock, it will get easier and easier to refuse deprivation as a method of self-improvement.