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What Is 'Middle Path' & How Can It Help Me?

'Middle path' is an idea from dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT). In DBT, walking the middle path means finding a balance between two opposites. Many people with a diagnosis of borderline personality disorder (BPD) struggle with emotions, thoughts and behaviours that can be strong, painful and all-consuming. It seems that many people with BPD act in 'all or nothing' ways in an effort to survive or cope how painful life can feel.

Purple background. Text reads: Walking the middle path means finding a balance between two opposites.

One example of 'all or nothing' behaviour could be texting someone repeatedly until they reply or, conversely, refusing to reply to someone for several weeks. The middle path between these two extremes of behaviour would be sending one or two texts with some gaps for the other person to respond. Another example could be working so hard to reach a deadline that you become ill with exhaustion or, by contrast, not turning up to work at all because the task feels too big to even begin. The middle path here would be going to work, but stopping before you seriously compromise your health.

I think that people with BPD can find it harder than others to walk the middle path. For people with BPD emotions can be so intense and the associated thoughts can feel overwhelming. For example, someone with BPD who feels shame might feel consumed by the emotion, have near-constant thoughts about being worthless and then perhaps act on this painful emotional experience by self-harming. When I was at school and university, I was so anxious about succeeding academically that I would stay up late into the night studying and not allow myself any rest. On the contrary, I've met people similarly scared of failing exams that they were too frightened to do any studying at all.

DBT is about changing patterns of emotions, thoughts and behaviours. It is about transforming them without judging ourselves for our difficulties. My amazing therapist told me that in order to change how I felt, I had to change how I acted. I was shocked at first. I was expecting to change how I felt before changing my behaviour. I was under the impression that I would have to feel less ashamed in order to stop self-harming. However, my therapist taught my that the only way to feel less ashamed was to stop behaving like I was shameful.

Background is purple sequins. Text reads: my therapist taught me that the only way to feel less ashamed was to stop behaving like I was shameful .

Similarly, I thought that I would only stop seeking reassurance once I felt less anxious. To my surprise, my therapist told me that I had to stop asking for reassurance and only then would my anxiety subside. Trying to help myself the other way round, she told me, would not work. The behaviours, she said, were reinforcing the thoughts and emotions.

Walking the middle path has been, and still is, central to how I have felt better over time. Instead of working at hundred percent effort all day every day so I become exhausted, I give myself slightly more room for rest and imperfections. For example, when I am writing emails I don't worry about having every capital letter correct or every line perfect. The one percent of energy that I save is one percent more resilience I have at the end of my day.

Some more examples of middle path from my life are leaving social events when I want to rather than staying for the full length, cleaning my house to a slightly lower standard than usual when I am tired and going to work fifteen minutes later some days. I don't think that walking the middle path means you have to be exactly in the centre, it's more about being open to doing something slightly more or slightly less than what you feel the urge to do.

At first, the idea of walking the middle path was terrifying for me. It felt scary to work less hard, to not punish myself and to make mistakes without beating myself up. There are times today still when it feels extremely difficult. However, walking the middle path is the way I can give myself the respect I deserve at all times, not just when I feel I have earned it.


Have you heard of walking the middle path before? Have you tried it? I would love to hear your experiences...

Useful book about DBT with lots of detail: DBT Skills Training Handouts and Worksheets by Marsha M. Linehan. Guilford Press; 2nd edition (9 Dec. 2014).

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