9. Emotional Intelligence - RonaldMah

Ronald Mah, M.A., Ph.D.
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist,
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9. Emotional Intelligence

Therapist Resources > Therapy Books > Ouch Borderline in Couples

Ouch! Where'd that come from?! The Borderline in Couples and Couple Therapy

Psychologists, evolutionary biologists, psychiatrists, computer scientists, and others have described human capacities involved in identifying and understanding emotions.  Daniel Goleman in "Emotional Intelligence," (1995) popularized the concept to the general public.  Emotional intelligence improves social effectiveness and social relations.  Quite the opposite of the borderline personality, the individual with high emotional intelligence is less likely to engage in problem behaviors, and avoid self-destructive, negative behaviors, or aggressive conflicts with others.  Mayer, Caruso, and Salovey (2000) define emotional intelligence.  "Emotional intelligence refers to an ability to recognize the meanings of emotion and their relationships, and to reason and problem-solve on the basis of them.  Emotional intelligence is involved in the capacity to perceive emotions, assimilate emotion-related feelings, understand the information of those emotions, and manage them" (p. 267).  Emotional intelligence is particularly challenging due to high emotional reactivity for the individual with borderline personality disorder.  "One potential common etiological mechanism in BPD… what Kernberg (1984) calls identity diffusion (an absence of identity consolidation), what Bateman and Fonagy (2003) call a deficit or inhibition of mentalization, and what Linehan (1993) calls a deficit in mindfulness.  All of these terms describe a lack of metasocial-cognitive ability to observe, reflect, and describe emotional states; predict and understand behavior; and recognize the difference between inner and outer reality and the capacity to reconcile opposing thoughts or mental states" (Levy et al., 2006, page 485).

Theories of the etiology of borderline personality disorder suggest dynamics that interfered with the development of accurate emotional awareness.  "Linehan (1993) posits an environment in which the child's emotional experiences have been invalidated. Fonagy and colleagues (Fonagy, Target, Gergely, Allen, & Bateman, 2003) suggest a similar process by which the parent fails to comprehend the child's mind.  This process results in the child's having difficulty thinking about his or her own mind and that of others and leaves the child holding the caregiver's mind.  Fonagy contends that the child experiences the caregiver's projections as 'alien' or as an 'alien self,' which in Winnicott's words is experienced as a 'false self.'  This alien self leaves the child feeling disconnected from his or her true internal world and needing to project the alien self onto others.  Likewise, Kernberg describes similar experiences in childhood" (Levy et al., 2006, page 485).  The individual with borderline personality disorder is challenged to possess emotional intelligence in the four different areas described by Mayer and Salovey (1997, p.11) as foundational to emotional intelligence.  Each of these areas when applied to the individual with borderline personality disorder offers insight to his or her specific challenges.

High emotional intelligence is not the same as high cognitive ability or IQ.  Frieda for example was very intelligent with an almost gifted IQ.  Having a high IQ does not necessarily mean that a person will have high levels of emotional intelligence.  A very intelligent person can have high, moderate, or low levels of it.  The individual with low levels of emotional intelligence is at risk of social or emotional problems.  Facial expressions such as happiness, sadness, anger, and fear are universally recognizable in and by human beings.  The ability to accurately perceive the emotional content of facial expressions or voice tone or inflections of others is critical to understanding emotions, and thus the thinking and intentions of others.  The individual who cannot empathize with others' feelings is less likely to curb his or her own aggression, and more likely to become insensitive to brutality in general (Wallach, 1994).  

A fundamental characteristic of the individual with borderline personality disorder is trouble interpreting intimate partner's cues, which compromises ability to perceive the other's emotions.  The individual with borderline personality disorder may have typical or even high emotional intelligence when not under duress, but may become low functioning as emotional reactivity cause him or her to miss and misread emotional cues.  Frieda was great figuring out how others felt and what they needed as long as she was not stressed from anxiety over betrayal, abandonment, or rejection.  When triggered or stressed however, she often misread Cliff's cues horribly.  The individual may have difficulty managing triggered high intensity and complex feelings.  He or she can be overwhelmed by emotions without supportive environments that help him or her develop competence in understanding, interpreting, and coping with feelings.  Interpretation and perception of other's emotions are distorted by anticipatory fears of betrayal, abandonment, and rejection.  The individual's misperception of other's emotions and behaviors trigger reactions that in turn confuse the partner, and also the therapist without experience with borderline personality disorder.

Emotions may be important for certain kinds of intellectual pursuits, creativity, and social skills to emerge.  Unfortunately, the overriding emotions for the individual with borderline personality disorder are fear, frustration, hurt, sadness, anxiety, and anger.  Rejection and abandonment fears become prioritized because of frequent devastation about loss relationships.  Rather than facilitate thinking, borderline emotions obscure thinking that could otherwise lead to functional choices for long-term success.  Frustration from previous relationship failures may prompt thoughts about avoiding relationships altogether rather than how to do better.  Depression and anxiety about social difficulties for the individual with borderline personality disorder may cause him or her to obsess about incurring the partner's rejection, rather than making good choices.

Emotions convey critical information.  Happiness has a logical set of messages and behaviors, while sadness has another set.  If the individual feels deceived or taken advantage of, anger is a likely emotion.  Anger also comes with predictable actions: aggressive behavior, vengeance, reaching out, or calming behaviors such as reading or physical release.  The individual with high emotional intelligence tends to understand emotional messages and associated actions.  The individual can reason with emotions and about emotions.  Thus, the individual may be better able to accept both oneself and other people.  The individual with borderline personality disorder is often frustrated and react in ways that neither him or herself nor the partners understands.  "Why did you do that?" "Why did I do that?" "Where'd that come from?" "What'd I do (to deserve such treatment)?" become unanswerable questions.  They are accusatory rhetorical questions that can trigger conflicting thoughts and feelings.  Since they are in the form of questions, the individual with borderline personality disorder tries to find responses to please the partner and the therapist.  This can cause anxiety since the individual senses their disapproval or frustration.  The therapist needs to be careful in using language that can be interpreted as rhetorical questions such as  "Why did you do that?"  It can become an accusation to the individual that he or she did something wrong.  Worse, it asserts that the individual did something incomprehensible, that no well behaved, sensible, intelligent, or normal member of a couple would do!  The rhetorical question does not actually ask if the individual did it or not.  The individual often feels compelled to come up with an answer to the rhetorical question.  He or she often does not have sufficient insight or language to articulate borderline sensitivity and vulnerability explanations for the behavior.  Therapy can provide help provide the awareness, understanding, and words to answer accurately and productively.

Cliff was perplexed when Frieda first snapped back for no apparent reason, and then shut down with the silent treatment for half the night.  Cliff asked, "What was that about?!" in exasperation.  With training from the therapist, Frieda was eventually able to sometimes answer, "I did that because…

…I was frustrated again that you seem about to reject me again, and that makes me feel unwanted again like my mother didn't want me.

…when I'm starting to feel stressed and anxious my mouth goes moves faster than my brain can tell it to be careful about what I say.

...I have a certainty about that you're going to hurt me from all the other times I was hurt by people I trusted.

…I have adult ambivalent attachment style from my formative experiences from my emotionally erratic parents, so sometimes I adore you and other times must push you away."

The individual with borderline tendencies may not be introspective, insightful, or articulate enough to adequately explain his or her emotional and behavioral processes.  As a result, Frieda's default answers whether it is expressed or unexpressed becomes "Because my partner is evil!" or "Because I'm really screwed up. I'm doomed to never have a good relationship!"  The partner and possibly, the therapist "ask" rhetorical questions out of frustration.  It serves everyone much better to say, "I don't like what you did".  Or, "What you did is not productive in getting the response you want."  In other words, the individual with high emotional intelligence who understand personal emotions is better able to present them in ways less likely to confuse the partner.  The therapist with high emotional intelligence is likely to be a more mindful and effective in therapy.  Therapy should develop awareness and insight behind the behaviors and teach communication to better express emotions at different levels.

Emotions convey information about experiences and processes to oneself if the emotions are not too painful to tolerate.  Blocking out or minimizing overwhelming emotions may establish emotional comfort zones- sanctuaries from distress and despair.  This may be considered the fundamental flaw in the borderline personality's psychic structure- an inability to block out overwhelming emotions.  In fact, virtually anything can unexpectedly accelerate otherwise benign emotions into overwhelm for the individual with borderline personality disorder.  Triggers do not appear to be particularly provocative or intense.  The less reactive individual can monitor and regulate his or her and other's emotions to facilitate positive experiences and consequences.  The partner may not be aware that the individual with borderline personality disorder often exerts exceptional energy trying to manage his or her emotions.  In fact, the individual almost always have to exert greater energy than other people in many areas of functioning.  If fatigue, frustration, and repeated failures accumulate, unmanageable emotions eventually predispose the individual to further relationship drama and explosions.  Managing emotions can become difficult for the individual with dysfunctional characterological responses who accrue depression or anxiety through numerous negative experiences.

The roots of where dysfunctionality arises are complex.  There may be other issues including potential neurological reasons that affect the ability to manage emotions.  "There may be neurological reasons why there is a problem with emotion and management in general and anger management in particular… in the case of people with Aspergers Syndrome… information on the increasing emotional 'heat' and functioning… emotion and stress levels are not available… as a warning of impending breakdown. This can explain why the child or adult does not appear to be consciously aware of increasing emotional stress, and his or her thoughts and behavior are not indicative of deterioration in mood.  Eventually the degree of emotional stress is overwhelming, but it may be too late for the cognitive or thoughtful control of emotion" (Attwood, 2006, page 145).  The individual with gifted abilities may have dysplasia- disparity between a strong ability to cognitively understanding issues mismatched with a relatively limited ability to handle them emotionally.  The gifted individual doesn't always think, feel, or act as expected, especially for his or her chronological age when younger.  The therapist needs to be aware of many different potential contributing issues to emotional intelligence much as he or she needs to be aware of multiple influences on emotional, psychological, cognitive, and behavioral processes.
Thinking about or cognitions affect perception and emotions.  "Baucom et al. (1989) developed a typology of cognitions implicated in relationship distress. Although all of these human cognitions are considered normal, all are susceptible to being distorted (Baucom & Epstein, 1990; Epstein & Baucom, 2002). The typology includes:

(a) selective attention, an individual's tendency to notice particular aspects of the events occurring in his or her relationship and overlook others;

(b) attributions, inferences about the factors that have influenced one's own and the partner's actions (e.g., concluding that a partner failed to respond to a question because he or she wants to control the relationship);

(c) expectancies, predictions about the likelihood that particular events will occur in the relationship (e.g., that expressing feelings to one's partner will result in the partner being verbally abusive);

(d) assumptions, beliefs about the natural characteristics of people and relationships (e.g., a wife's generalized assumption that men do not have needs for emotional attachment); and

(e) standards, beliefs about the characteristics that people and relationships ''should'' have (e.g., that partners should have virtually no boundaries between them, sharing all of their thoughts and emotions with each other)" (Tilden and Dattilo, 2005, page 142).

Since there is always extensive information conveyed in an interpersonal interaction, selective attention is normal.  The therapist should examine for biased perceptions.  Attributions and expectations also affect inferences for understanding and predicting behavior of others, especially when there is an assumption malicious intentions or misinterpretation of others reactions.  A person regularly makes assumptions about the feelings, motivations, and desires of others.  Accurate assumptions facilitate positive interactions and relationships.  The individual with borderline personality disorder not only makes various judgment errors (Frieda about Cliff's thoughts, feelings, and intentions) but also often holds his or her partner to impossible standards of morality, insight, and behavior (page 143).  The partner is supposed to intuit without any clear cues what the individual with borderline personality disorder feels, thinks, and desires perfectly.  Then the partner is supposed to choose the perfect response to meet those desires.  When the individual has unreasonable expectations or the partner "errs" in judgment, the individual's subsequent reactive behavior almost inevitably corrupts and risks terminating intimacy.  The individual with borderline personality disorder has fundamental deficits in all these relevant cognitions.  Cliff complained bitterly about being punished for not doing things for Frieda based on her feelings and needs that she herself was not fully aware of.  "I get blasted for not doing what she doesn't even know she wants.  I cross boundaries that she doesn't know she has!"

Under stress, the individual with borderline tendencies loses capacity to practice traits of resilience or social emotional intelligence.  The individual with borderline personality disorder- especially, when activated may not have personal charisma or skills to enlist compassion from others.  Frustration, disappointment, social rejection, and impatience from others may cause the individual to develop a highly negative personality.  Who needs a particularly astute and skilled therapist?  Not the "charming" or resilient or emotionally intelligent individual.  Such an individual tends to do well anyway in relationships.  He or she uses charm and social graces to attract and develop intimate relationships.  The individual may have difficulty managing emotions adequately to engage a romantic partner in positive reparative relationships.  Instead, his or her actions repel potential partners, or as is common for the individual with borderline personality disorder draws a partner in only to push him or her away.  Well-intended caring people, especially the therapist get punished for trying and may eventually give up.  As a result, the individual with borderline personality disorder may lose a potentially reparative relationship with the therapist.  The individual with borderline personality disorder needs a great therapist.

The individual such as Frieda does not reward the therapist Selena for effort and attention, yet still desperately need the therapist to hang in there with him or her.  The individual desperately need the guidance and nurturing of an intimate other that he or she cannot otherwise attract and retain.  The therapist needs to have high emotional intelligence to stay present and therapeutic when the individual's low emotional intelligence causes problems.  Selena's emotional reactivity threatened the quality of her therapeutic responses.  The individual needs a very insightful and sophisticated therapist to see through and work through the off-putting negativity to reach the desperately lonely heart within.  Therapy needs to raise the emotional intelligence of the individual with borderline personality disorder.  In order to heal, the individual also requires an insightful and sophisticated partner who will not be ignited and drawn into the borderline drama.  The partner has to have or develop high emotional intelligence in order to effectively and lovingly parry the onslaughts of reactivity directed at him or her.  Couple therapy should include the skilled therapist who trains the partner to be insightful and behave differently for the individual with borderline personality disorder.

3056 Castro Valley Blvd., #82
Castro Valley, CA 94546
Ronald Mah, M.A., Ph.D.
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist, MFT32136
office: (510) 582-5788
fax: (510) 889-6553
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