I may write blog posts and enjoy giving presentations, but in many ways, I have a BIG problem with communication. I think the difficulty is two-fold: on the one hand it stems from the desperate desire to be understood (which I described in a previous post) and the fear that communication will not result in the understanding or acceptance that I crave.
On the other hand, my difficulty with communication also stems from something which, just like fellow blogger and friend Cat Earnshaw from ‘Half of a Soul – Life with BPD’, I believe is at the core of BPD. And that is the issue of EXPECTATIONS. ‘Expectations’ writ large – the way they are inside the minds of so many with this diagnosis. We withdraw and stop communicating when we feel betrayed and disappointed because our expectations are not met; and sometimes we don’t realise we need to communicate how we think or feel, because our expectation is that the other person does, or should, already know.
Cat Earnshaw titled her post on expectations, “If you’re going to read one post I write, please let it be this one”. If you’re going to read one post on expectations, please let it be that one. (Although I admit I’d also appreciate you coming back to this post!). It’s one of those wonderful pieces of writing that, at least for me, describes a phenomenon exactly as I experience it.
So what is it, exactly, that we expect? In some cases, it is nothing short of perfection: someone who is perfect for us; a perfect relationship; perfect patience; perfect words; perfect understanding; perfect care. Someone who will always be there, who will put our needs first, and who will never let us down. I would suggest that few of these are conscious expectations – our logical brains know that perfection is unattainable and human beings are fallible. But our hearts, and our emotion-minds, and those very young parts of us that have not yet been able to grow up, think and feel very differently. They still believe that perfect care is possible – they still need it to be true.
That need gives rise, I think, to an incredibly heightened sensitivity and reactivity to others’ words and actions, to the extent that everything someone says, does, doesn’t say or doesn’t do, can become evidence of that person’s lack of caring. Much though I hate it, I know that when I’m in that frame of mind and being triggered by my expectations, regardless of what may be going on in someone’s life that influences the way they relate to me, in my mind it all becomes about how they feel about me. This leads to me being much more likely to become wary or suspicious of them; to misinterpret or read things into what they say; to feel wronged by them; to feel jealousy towards them, particularly with respect to their attention and time; and to want to test them, or more accurately, to test their caring for me. My instinctive reaction to these feelings is often to want to blame others and to ‘punish’ them for the crushing disappointment and rejection that I feel. And the greatest punishment I can inflict is the one I fear the most myself – distancing, pushing away, and withdrawing communication.
But for me, the greatest threat to communication is not withdrawing it, but assuming it. Undoubtedly one of the largest and most crippling expectations that I have, is what my ex-therapist called the expectation of ‘magical thinking’. That is, the assumption that others could (and should) be able to know what I’m thinking and how I’m feeling, without me having to tell them. ‘Half of a Soul – Life with BPD’ referred to this as someone being able to telepathically intuit my every need, for ever. The expectation of magical thinking plays havoc with communication and with relationships and its poison lies not just in its assumption of another’s knowing how I think or feel, but in the importance and meaning that is attached to that assumption.
Put simply, part of me holds this unshakable belief. That if someone really understands me and cares about me, they should know what I need without me having to ask, and they should know what I’m thinking and how I’m feeling, without me having to put it into words. And consequently, if they don’t know, they don’t really care or understand. Moreover, part of that unshakable belief is that if I have to ask for those things (for example, if I have to ask for reassurance, or ask for a hug), it diminishes their value, in two ways. Those things can no longer serve as ‘evidence’ of caring and understanding; and I can no longer be sure that they are ‘freely given’. Part of me feels that if I have to ask for something, emotionally, then it is not my due, and I do not deserve or merit it. If I have to ask for something, emotionally, I feel that the giving is in response to my coercion, and not to a genuine feeling within the other person.
It’s a fallacy. I know that it is. But it feels so incredibly logical. It feels so incredibly true.
And as with any other of these seemingly logical expectations, when they are not met, the accompanying feelings are a whirlwind of rejection, blame and hurt. I spoke about blaming and punishing others, but we also blame and punish ourselves. Just tonight, I read a post on ‘Big battles, small victories’, which I think was also, at root, about expectations (apologies to the author, if this is not the case!), and which contained the line “I want to hurt myself again”. Every time I feel crushed because my expectations are not met, I want to hurt myself again.
I suspect that for almost everyone reading this who has BPD, the phenomenon of ‘great expectations’ is a familiar one. But it’s also worth saying that it’s possible to carry on with life and with relating to people for years, without realising the powerful force that lies within, waiting to be triggered. ‘So Illuminate Me’ said, in one of her posts, “My BPD often comes out more, when I genuinely care for someone”. And so it is with BPD and the expectations we have of people. Our exceptionally high expectations, and the thoughts, feelings and behaviours that flow from those, seem to manifest mostly in relation to those we feel closest to. In my own case, they manifest in relation to those to whom I have made myself vulnerable, and those to whom I have made myself more fully known. And because I spent the majority of my life being determined never to be fully known, it’s only been in the last few years that I’ve experienced the painful phenomenon of BPD expectations on a much more regular basis.
Although I’ve made progress over the last couple of years in terms of revealing more of myself to a very small number of friends, I’m still very wary of widening that ‘inner circle’. Part of me doesn’t want to add yet another person to the list of those who trigger me in this way. I’ve tried to understand how it happens – how someone can go from being outside that circle one minute, to crossing the line into the centre of it, in an instant. I think it’s a complicated picture involving a number of factors: it’s about me sharing a great deal of myself, and my feelings and thoughts; it’s about the other person having either explicitly or implicitly given some sort of commitment to ‘be there’ for me; it’s about trust; and it’s about me testing that trust and commitment by revealing ever more ‘difficult’ things. Sometimes the very process of ‘unburdening’ myself to someone can lead to an immediate and invisible bond being forged between us, which may be very real to me, but which the other person may be completely oblivious to.
Given the fact that my expectations tend to be triggered by the factors described above, it’s unsurprising that I experience these feelings with respect to my therapists (both past and present). This is particularly true of me at the moment, and as it is such a recurring theme in my therapy, I intend to write about it separately.
In the meantime, however, I wanted to leave you with a quote from an excellent post I came across on ‘Tracing the rainbow through the rain’. Although it is mainly about BPD and ‘competence’, it describes how I experience the problem of expectations so exactly, and so completely, that I wanted to quote the relevant paragraph in full. In particular, it talks about the expectation of magical thinking, and about how it applies in the context of medical professionals and service users. I hope you came back from Cat Earnshaw’s post to this one, if only to read this paragraph:
“Paradoxically, whilst constructing a mask of competence and coping with excessive levels of stress and responsibility, I would vilify those closest to me along with medical professionals for not seeing my real needs. Effectively, I would blame everyone around me for not being mind readers. This is one of the greatest challenges to professionals trying to help those with BPD who display apparent competence. I will not openly tell you about my emotional distress, but I will hold you accountable for not seeing ‘through’ my mask of competence and I will make you ‘suffer’ as a consequence. My outward co-operation as a service user was tempered by a harsh assessment of those seeking to help me, particularly if I felt they couldn’t see through my outward competence. If anyone failed to ask the ‘right’ question, or misread my mood on any given day, then progress for that day would be painful if not halted.”
The tragedy of expectations is how self-defeating they are: we are so desperate for someone to truly ‘see’ us, that we pull down the blinds simply because they fail to ‘see through us’. We make ourselves invisible, by not accepting the inherent invisibility of our minds.
Somewhere deep down, we are still the infant who believes that she and mother are one being; we are still the toddler who believes that everyone else knows and sees what she does. These are the growing pains of BPD.
[If you read the comments on Half of a Soul’s post ‘If you’re going to read one post I write, please let it be this one’, you may notice a strong similarity between my post above, and the comments of ‘Still Hiding’. That is because ‘Still Hiding’ was the ‘name’ I used before I started blogging and before I created ‘Life in a Bind’!]