It seems to me we repeatedly return to feeling states, even when they are extremely uncomfortable for us, until we understand what those feelings mean to us. The more complex the meanings they have, the longer this process can take. It can take a long time, as well, when the feelings are too intense to tolerate long enough to explore its meaning fully.
One reason why Dialectical Behavior Therapy can be so helpful, especially for borderlines who have such intense feelings and so much difficulty tolerating them, is just that–because “distress tolerance” is a part of that package. And when we can successfully manage our difficult emotions, we can better construct meanings about our world that accurately incorporate our feelings.
I have been thinking about the meaning of my sense of despair, because that is one feeling state I continue to return to. It stems from an understanding of the world as a place that is unredeemably evil, full of horrors that cannot and should not be comprehended. And this isn’t to say that isn’t also full of goodness and wonder, but simply to say they co-exist and I find the evil difficult to live with.
My horror at the evil I have witnessed and been the victim of has tremendous meaning for me, because that is what sets me apart from the perpetrators. They were unmoved by the distress they were causing their victims and untroubled by the wrongness of their own actions.
Horror may make the world a difficult place for me to live in, but it make it easier to live with myself. This is important to me because I was forced to harm others in the course of my own abuse, so knowing where I fall in terms of good and evil and right and wrong is crucial to accepting myself. What distinguishes me from them is only partly our actions. It is much more how we feel about those actions.
The perpetrators did not feel any responsibility for the distress of their victims, nor did they experience any guilt. In contrast, my sense of guilt at having harmed others and having been complicit in the harm done to myself arises from what fundamentally separates me from them: a concern for the anguish of others and for my own anguish, an ability and willingness to take responsibility for my own actions and the outcomes of those actions, and an attendance to right and wrong.
To put it succinctly, it is my capacity for horror and for guilt that makes me someone that has value and worth in my own mind. While I may be horrified at the world, I do not have to be horrified at myself.
And although, in a real sense, I am not responsible for the actions I took that harmed others or myself, it is the fact that I can take responsibility that proves to me I am not one of them. I am muddled about power and causality, but I am not muddled about right and wrong, nor am I muddled about what it means to care.