Wanting to be understood is part of the human condition. For someone with BPD, that can be a craving so strong that it eclipses almost everything else, save what I’m coming to see two sides of the same coin – wanting to be loved.
Wanting to be understood can be the force that drives us so strongly to connect with another individual that it tries to push all boundaries, physical and emotional, out of the way. I remember vividly, when in the grips of an obsessive attachment, the sense of wanting to be ‘in another person’s head’ and ‘under their skin’, or, conversely, the sense of wanting to be ‘taken over’ and ‘subsumed within another’s identity’. I’ve heard it described as ‘the urge to merge’, and I think it has its source in the desire for a perfect connection, a perfect understanding. A union so metaphysically powerful there is no need for words in order to convey meaning.
However, wanting to be understood can also be the force that drives us to put up barriers and build barricades behind which we hide ourselves. The desire is so strong, that when it is not met, or met ‘imperfectly’, the inevitable result is devastating pain and disappointment. We dare not take the risk of making ourselves vulnerable, or trying to explain how we feel, because we could not bear the pain of being misunderstood, particularly by those we most yearn to be close to. It’s the reason my husband still knows virtually nothing of what has been going on in my head for the last few years, and why my marriage is essentially in crisis. I cannot bear the thought of opening up, and not being understood. It’s the reason why I’m contemplating leaving my current therapist – because I have opened up, and because I don’t feel understood, and that has been a source of great distress, on a number of occasions.
Wanting to be understood is part of the human condition, but that doesn’t mean that we all experience it in the same way. Many individuals with BPD are acutely sensitive to any sense of being invalidated, and being told that everyone has these feelings and reactions, but perhaps not quite to the same extent, can feel like a minimisation of their difficulties. On the other hand, it is also hugely painful and isolating to feel as though your thoughts and feelings are so out of kilter with society’s ‘norms’, that you may as well be inhabiting a different planet to everyone else. I remember a mild dissociative episode in which I felt as if life was going on on another train, while I was stuck alone on my express train to ‘who-knows-where’, my reality frame-shifted onto a parallel, un-intersecting track.
I think I’m coming to realise that both of the above positions can be true. That the borderline’s experience can be a more intense and perhaps a more ‘extreme’ version of a standard, human reaction, without this being invalidating; but that those experiences can take place within the context of a BPD worldview that does not just frame-shift the way that ‘most people’ see things (if I may make a gross generalisation), but completely turns it on its head.
Feeling as though my therapist and I are worlds apart, is not normally a positive experience. However during my last session, I came up against the stark realisation that parts of my world-view that I do not question and assumptions which I assume that everyone makes, are far from universal – and it was a breath-takingly powerful experience. According to my therapist, ‘most people’ go around feeling understood ‘most of the time’, and don’t find it difficult to trust in that understanding, even when it is not being made explicit. That may sound like an obvious point, but it was genuinely news to me. As was the realisation that my default position is precisely the opposite – why would I assume, let alone trust, that I was understood by anybody? It seems like an utterly bizarre way to approach life, and other people.
And yet, why so bizarre? It makes perfect sense that those who have grown up feeling understood and accepted, not only come to expect or assume understanding and acceptance from others, but also feel they have little need to hide who they are, and are therefore open to giving others the opportunity to understand them. But the experience of so many with BPD is one of growing up in an invalidating environment in which understanding and acceptance were in short supply. And those who experience pain over not being understood or accepted for who they are, very quickly learn to close themselves off and present only a version of themselves to others, which they feel will be acceptable. My assumption of a lack of understanding is therefore based on a worldview created through my earliest lived experiences. However, it is also reinforced by the fact that I am not giving others the opportunity to understand me, because I am not allowing myself to be truly ‘seen’.
Sitting diagonally across from each other, in our small therapy room, the obvious disconnect in worldviews was palpable, almost comical. My therapist said I found it hard to trust and believe that I was understood. To her, the significant and profound realisation was the fact that I do not assume that I am understood. To me, the significant and profound realisation was the fact that other people do. Thus demonstrating that in fact, she had not really understood me at all. Alanis Morissette, take note – there’s something that’s actually ironic.