The poem above was recently posted on the Facebook page for the mental health charity SANE, by Michael, a supporter of the charity. It’s about the differences in how people react to mental and physical illness. I think it makes the point briefly but powerfully, and what particularly resonated with me, was the effect that others’ reactions have, on the individual with the illness. The question ‘Am I a fraud?’ is one that has plagued me for some time, and continues to play on repeat in my head, on a regular basis.
It’s as if there is a very small but very annoying and hurtful person living inside my head, who keeps up a running commentary trying to counter-act any feeling, thought or belief related to my diagnosis and my mental health difficulties. The voice likes to level accusations such as ‘you’re making it all up’, ‘you’re pretending’, ‘it’s not really that bad’, ‘you’re just being dramatic’ and ‘you just want to be ill’. All of which is accompanied by a secondary commentary along the lines of ‘what sort of person must you be if you’re doing all of this deliberately….’. A typical example of how the voice likes to operate is this. I can be driving in my car, feeling an oppressive yet somehow inaccessible sadness somewhere within me, and I will think ‘I feel really sad’. Immediately, the voice chips in with ‘you’re not really sad, don’t be silly. You’re not crying, you can’t possibly be sad. You just think that you’re sad. The reason you can’t access the feelings of sadness is that they’re not really there. Stop pretending.’
So powerful is this voice, that it even pops up in my dreams. On one occasion, I’d dreamt that I was in the process of travelling to an appointment, and one moment I was in my car, and the next I was standing in front of a house. It felt incredibly frightening, because I had no recollection of how I had arrived there, and I remember having the thought, in my dream, ‘I wonder if I don’t remember, because I dissociated’. Immediately the voice retaliated with ‘you just want to believe you’ve experienced dissociation in order to reinforce your belief that you have BPD. You’re just making it up’.
Those sorts of voices that many of us carry with us, are the ultimate invalidators, because we can’t just avoid them, or shut ourselves away from them – we have truly internalised them. They are often the offspring of real-life human invalidating influences in our pasts (or presents). It is well recognised that growing up in an invalidating atmosphere, where one’s thoughts and feelings are constantly being belittled or ignored, is a key environmental risk factor for the development of BPD. (Of course the causes of BPD are many and varied and the inter-play of contributing factors, both genetic and environmental, can be very complex, and is not well understood. However, for those who do go on to develop BPD, one can often trace a prior climate of invalidation).
Because of this history, many people with BPD are acutely sensitive to invalidation, whether perceived or actual. The sense that my feelings are being invalidated is a powerful trigger for me, and can result, depending on the situation, in acute distress, anger, feeling uncared for, or wanting to hurt myself. Feeling invalidated and worrying about potential invalidating reactions from others, is one of the key reasons why it took me so long to tell a few key people in my life, about my diagnosis. The voice inside my head, telling me I was a fraud, was so powerful and created so much doubt within me, that I couldn’t see why other people wouldn’t agree with that voice as well.
I have found it incredibly hard to accept my diagnosis – not because I found it shocking or disturbing, though I know this is the case for some – but simply because it is so hard to keep believing it to be true in the face of internal accusations and self-doubt. Even the fact that my husband thinks that ‘Stop walking on eggshells’ could have been written about me, simply reinforces, as far as ‘the voice’ inside my head is concerned, what a good job I have done of convincing myself and others of a lie.
In my own case, the ongoing sense of invalidation was exacerbated by the circumstances surrounding my diagnosis. A little while ago, I formed one of those very strong, quite obsessional attachments, that for me has been one of the hallmarks of my BPD. Having spent most of my life telling no one about my mental health difficulties, I decided to confide in one of my closest friends, who herself has severe mental health difficulties. Typically for me, it had to be an ‘all or nothing’ approach, and the process of completely ‘unburdening’ myself drew me in, and before I’d realised what was happening, I found myself on the roller-coaster ride of BPD attachment and the idealisation/devaluation cycle.
‘Identity disturbance/an unstable sense of self’ is one of the key diagnostic criteria for BPD, and one of the implications of this is that people with BPD often mould to their environment and take on the characteristics or tastes of other people, particularly when they are in a relationship with someone. They attempt to take on another’s identity, in the absence of a solid and determinate identity of their own. This has certainly been true of me in the past. When your partner is into opera, or hill-walking, or is a writer or a musician, that may not be too much of a problem. But when the object of your obsession has BPD, you’ve just handed your ‘critical inner voice’ the perfect weapon and means of invalidation. My ‘critical voice’ took advantage of the fact that I was desperate to get closer to my friend, and accused me of ‘bringing BPD on myself’, or ‘pretending I had the symptoms’ in order to achieve this aim. Never mind the fact that this was a circular argument in any case, as the obsessional desire to get closer and the taking on of another’s identity, were themselves symptoms of the condition!
Invalidation, or perceived invalidation, can take many forms. Sometimes, and with some people, I experience it as a lack of respect or acceptance of my views or feelings, or a sense that I’m not ‘allowed’ to have a different viewpoint – that I’m expected to be an extension of someone else, and conform to their expectations. This is particularly true for me, when it comes to my relationship with my parents. On other occasions, and with other individuals, I experience it as the sense that there is no point in putting an alternative viewpoint across in a debate or a discussion, as the other person will simply keep coming back with a counter-argument in an attempt to get me to agree with them, and this sets off another significant BPD trigger for me – the sense and fear of being controlled. Sometimes, almost anything that isn’t complete agreement with, or assent to, what I am doing or asserting, will be construed as invalidation.
I am far from coming to a realisation or understanding about how to address these issues of invalidation, and they continue to be daily struggles for me. For a time, the ‘inner critical voice’ rose up less frequently and was less intrusive, and, at least as far as my diagnosis was concerned, it seemed as though I was coming to a very gradual acceptance of its reality – I was starting to ‘let myself off the hook’. This was a time in which I was in therapy with someone who I felt truly understood me, accepted me, and cared for me. She understood how I struggled with the sense of ‘being a fraud’, and every now and then – not too often, but often enough – she would indicate that she could see how my behaviour or my feelings made sense in the context of my diagnosis. I don’t know if she would have done this anyway – I felt that she did it because she recognised what a difference it made to me – but it was incredibly validating. Her acceptance of my diagnosis and what I was going through was the one thing, more than anything else, that had an impact on the ‘critical voice’, on my sense of invalidation, and on the degree to which I felt I could ‘accept myself’.
The progress I made during that therapy, in that one respect, was one of the yardsticks by which I measured its success and the ”fit’ that I had with my therapist. It brought me a greater degree of peace, a greater sense of acceptance – it helped me validate me, which at the end of the day, is where one’s sense of validation, ultimately, needs to come from. It was as if, held by that most intense and intimate of bonds between therapist and client, I was able to finally face my inner accuser, stand accused of fraud, hear the charge against me and say, with belief rather than self-doubt – not guilty…..NOT GUILTY.
March 30, 2014 at 5:27 am
“Not Guilty” indeed. And some grapes, too, from me. X
March 30, 2014 at 8:40 pm
Thank you Katy 🙂 And the grapes are much appreciated (particularly as I’ve had too much chocolate already this weekend) 😉 On a more serious note, I do appreciate the time taken to comment, and the support. x
April 6, 2014 at 5:26 pm
Great post on invalidation – that central tenant of BPD rage/misery (at least for me it is)! This week in group we talked about radical acceptance of suffering and how, by removing the resistance to the reality of just suffering (in your case, the invalidating thoughts of, “I don’t really have BPD, I’m faking it, I’m a liar, etc”), you do something both terrifying and empowering: take on the actual suffering and nothing else that detracts from it. Which gives your emotions focus and boundaries rather than letting them bleed into every area of your life – or so the theory of it goes anyway. Does that make any sense? I wonder if you have come across this concept at all in any DBT-related (or other) materials? I am so bad at it, I know I have a loooooong way to go so I’d be interested to hear your take on it! xxxxx
April 6, 2014 at 8:09 pm
Thank you – it does make sense, in a theoretical way, but I’d be really interested in hearing about its practical application and how it works, and if you have tried it, and in what context…..I should probably write a post about it someday (!) but I guess the most recent conscious example I can think of (or maybe it wasn’t really an example, I don’t know), was the fact that I consciously decided to let myself fully feel the grief and loss of stopping therapy with Jane (ex-therapist). I was really scared that I might go into self-protect or dissociative mode because I was adamant I wasn’t going to diminish the experience and the importance of it, in my life. Which is odd for me, as I have been equally adamant since I was ten, that I was not going to feel grief on any level, and that it would not touch me again. I still puzzle about why I was willing to open myself up to it with Jane – I guess there are some obvious differences (Jane didn’t actually die, there was the possibility of seeing her again, she wasn’t an intimate part of my life etc), but I still don’t quite understand it. The difficulty is that I’m not sure it’s an example of the DBT skill in question, as it more than bled into every area of my life! Which is not to say that the skill doesn’t work – more that clearly I wasn’t exercising it in the right way! The grief affected everything, but I guess at least it affected it more ‘openly’, whereas the squashed down and un-experienced stuff probably affects me in ways I haven’t even begun to appreciate and will take a huge amount of unpicking. I guess in those cases, the ‘bleeding in’ is absolutely woven into the fabric of everything, because it’s unacknowledged, and has taken root and its influence is unconscious. At least with the acknowledged and accepted emotions, I know when they are taking over, and hopefully their influence is therefore less likely to be lasting…….so having gone through all of that (my goodness, writing really _does_ help to clarify thoughts!) I think I probably do agree with the ‘focus and boundaries’ thing. The reality and the suffering may be destructive and all-encompassing and may take over for a while, but the focus and boundaries lie, perhaps, in the fact that one is aware of all of that, and whatever is going on, is going on before the mind’s eye, and not in hidden places, in the unconscious, where there really isn’t any ‘focus’, and where the destructiveness can spread without control…..sorry, I feel like I’m rambling….does that make any sense?
June 13, 2014 at 10:52 am
Thank you, thank you, thank you for writing this. I’m not alone in feeling this way. Thank you for helping me feel less alone.
June 15, 2014 at 9:27 pm
Thank you so much for your comment, and I’m so glad that what I wrote was useful, in terms of helping you to feel less alone. This is so much a part of why I write, because I’ve been helped in exactly the same way by others, that it’s humbling to know I might have been able to do that for someone else as well. I have across a number of others, including other bloggers, who feel exactly the same about invalidation/fraud, so you are definitely not alone, and it is SUCH a hard thing to cope with and get through, as the temptation to think this way keeps coming back even when you think you’re managing to defeat it. But knowing that others go through the same thing, and feel the same way, can be a really important and effective weapon against self-invalidation – so just keep reminding yourself you’re not alone! Take care….
June 13, 2014 at 2:10 pm
I have recently told an aunt if mine what has been been going in with me over the last 2 weeks which includes a lot of fighting in my head I don’t have a diagnosis yet as my therapy is still on going. I am doing a dbt course at the minute which was developed to treat bpd I have been doing it for just over a year and it is currently not helping me. I told my aunt about all the suspected mental health issues I have and she said I was just creating drama in the Kerry show. I am a full time mum to 3 children one if which has severe autism and I’m so close to the brink of fighting now I just want to end it. To end my life will traumatic and upsetting for others because they don’t understand me. Yet to end my life will be a blessing to them and to me.
June 15, 2014 at 10:02 pm
Hi, thank you so much for your comment, and apologies for my delay in replying – I have been away from home this weekend. My heart goes out to you – without knowing you, it’s hard to know what you need to hear at this moment, but please do get in touch by email if you’d like to, and there’s just a couple of things I wanted to say, that I hope will help. Firstly, it takes a huge amount of courage to talk about mental health difficulties, and I think it can be even harder with those in our family, or who we’re closest to – the fear of non-acceptance or lack of understanding, is so much greater. So I have great admiration for you for talking about it to your aunt. Although it’s not really my place to comment on your aunt, I do want to validate your feelings about this and to say the following: she may be a wonderful wonderful person, and I hope you are able to continue talking to her about this, but she is _wrong_ in her statement about you just creating drama. Her comment may sound plausible and logical to a part of you; it may feed into some of your deepest fears about what’s going on; but fundamentally, her statement is not true, and if you feel as though it is, that is because our brains, when ill, can be incredibly good at lying to us and taunting us. You have been in therapy for a while, you have suicidal thoughts and feelings – this is not about drama, it is about illness and survival, and I do hope that at least a part of you can believe that. Secondly, as a mum myself, I know how incredibly challenging it is to cope with parenting and a mental illness, and I can’t even begin to imagine how much that must be compounded when one of your own children needs additional support. And speaking personally, I know that when I am at my lowest, and when I have suicidal thoughts, the one key thing that makes me feel, deep inside, that I couldn’t do it, is the effect it would have on my children. I know that you are suffering so much, but your kids love you, and losing you would _not_ be a blessing to them. I don’t want to say much more, as the last thing you need is to feel as though I am trying to ‘lecture’ or tell you what to do – I am not. I just want to let you know you’re not alone, and I have had these thoughts and feelings, and although holding on can be grim, and it can be a ‘second by second’ affair sometimes – things can and do get better. And in terms of parenting, if BPD has taught me anything, it’s the fundamental value of providing unconditional love and acceptance, without judgement or reserve, and I’m sure that you can do that for your children. On a practical note, if DBT isn’t helping, can you discuss this with someone (e.g. even the DBT therapist themselves) and try and work out why, or what might suit you better? And if you can bear to, and if it’s important to you, do push for a diagnosis – for me, personally, it was important to know what I was dealing with. Without that information, I felt like I was trying to fight a nameless enemy, and it was a battle for which I was ill-equipped and uninformed. Finally, if you feel very unsafe and at risk, please do call someone – I’m not sure what country you are in, but there will be support you can access. I have found the following website helpful at times, and I really hope you find it helpful too: http://lostallhope.com/help-me. Take care, and do continue to reach out in this way. There are many of us out there (including here, in the world of mental health blogging) who understand how you feel, and we’re here to support….
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October 25, 2014 at 4:28 am
I’ve only just received my official diagnosis with BPD, and I actually had multiple therapists and mental health professionals recognize “borderline tendencies” but refuse to diagnose me with the disorder because “personality disorder diagnoses are so stigmatizing.” When I finally reached a breaking point and very nearly attempted suicide (my roommate caught me and stopped me before I followed through with my plan), I decided it was time to seek out a new therapist who specialized in treating individuals with Borderline. Within ten minutes of speaking with me, she said I met all of the diagnostic criteria and was amazed that none of my previous therapists had been willing to diagnose me.
All of this to say, I feel that I had and continue to have a similar, but opposite, experience with invalidation. Most of the invalidation I experience regarding my diagnosis is external. But I am also very quick to internalize the opinions of others (probably because of the BPD…) so it makes for this really nasty cycle of doubt and invalidation. Ugh! But I am so glad to have finally found a therapist who is supportive and validating, and my family and friends are slowly becoming more willing to acknowledge the very real daily effects of BPD in my life.
October 29, 2014 at 11:04 pm
Thank you for reading and for your comment! I’m glad you have finally had a diagnosis, despite the fact that unfortunately, it can indeed be a stigmatising thing. For me, I found that without a diagnosis, I felt I was trying to fight a nameless enemy, and I felt helpless. Being able to ‘name’ it meant I could read about it, and about the experiences of others who have been diagnosed with it as well. I have come across so many instances of mental health professionals acting in this way – with-holding information or refraining from making a diagnosis, and although I understand that it may be because they believe it’s in the patient’s best interest, I must admit I find it shocking. I’m so glad you now have a therapist who is supportive and validating and who understands BPD and I wish you all the very best for your therapy journey. My family and the majority of my friends (certainly the ones who I see day to day) don’t know about my mental health difficulties, and so perhaps that’s one of the reasons why so much of my invalidation is internal. As with so many aspects of BPD, I find that my vulnerability to invalidation is triggered quite often in relation to those I am closest to and have confided in, and so for me, that tends to be my husband, my therapist and a handful of close friends, mainly non-local. I’m glad your family and friends are gradually becoming more willing to see and acknowledge the effects of BPD, and I hope they are able to support you and come to understand a bit more about how crucial validation/invalidation is to BPD, and how it can make all the difference…..take care, and keep in touch!
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September 27, 2015 at 9:56 pm
Extremely well articulated!
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October 1, 2015 at 9:16 pm
Thank you so much! 🙂
September 30, 2015 at 10:52 pm
Love this! This is something I have been coming to terms with since I entered DBT 7 months ago. It is tough accepting that the people you love don’t know how to love you and have contributed to the illness. However, I have made a lot of progress with self-validation and radical acceptance. Thanks for writing this! I like hearing that other people have experienced something similar.
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October 1, 2015 at 9:20 pm
Thank you so much for reading and commenting! Yes, though it is always sad to hear of others going through pain, it is at the same time a comfort to know that our experiences are understood and shared. I am so glad you have been making progress with such incredibly difficult and important areas as self-validation and radical acceptance. I think I am very very slowly becoming acquainted with the concepts! But it’s very very hard indeed, even when you know that those skills will be of great benefit in the long run. Thank you again for sharing your experience!
February 19, 2016 at 9:15 pm
I’ve only just come across your blog and you make soooo much sense. You really express, so articulately, the battles that I too, with BPD, struggle with. I have only read some of your posts so far but I can identify with so much of what you say here. I don’t think I know anyone else personally who has BPD – I hardly need anyone else to invalidate me – I do that to myself with such experience and ‘expertise’. I constantly tell my therapist that I am a fraud and I could stop ‘all this’ if I really wanted to (knowing full well that I can’t). I feel very much a fraud too, because of how I can mould myself to be like/fit in with whoever I am with at the time even if that’s not like me (who in the hell is me anyway?). I feel like I am a chameleon so how can I be real? Who is ‘me’? I never feel authentic and I hate that about myself, that I don’t have an identity of my own – I just steal other peoples’ identities and constantly live in fear that I am doing something terribly wrong – I’m an identity thief. I don’t know if I’m making any sense at all – I feel like I’m just waffling on and it’s all rubbish! (Not you; me) – rubbish, I mean. Oh, sorry, I get so complicated sometimes that I can’t always work out whether I’m making any sense or not. I’ve never had the opportunity of doing DBT although have always felt this might help me cope better, but I have just been offered a ‘Managing Emotions’ course which runs for 20 weeks, three hours a week in all. I want to do it. I’d do anything at the moment, to be honest in an effort to sort my mess of a head out. I don’t know if you’ll read this as I note that this post was written last year but I wanted to say thank you for sharing your blog and for making me less alone in the world. Hugs, Ellie xx
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October 17, 2021 at 11:59 am
“My ‘critical voice’ took advantage of the fact that I was desperate to get closer to my friend, and accused me of ‘bringing BPD on myself’, or ‘pretending I had the symptoms’ in order to achieve this aim.”
I had a relationship with someone with BPD, afterwards looking back I started to wonder if I had brought on my present emotional difficulties masquerading as BPD because I was mimicking her. It seemed like we were taking turns to become more and more dysfunctional and the accusations of invalidation flew both ways. We both accused each other of invalidating our own emotions in turn, became quite chaotic