I think I need a new pair of ears. I’m quite attached to my current ones, and there is not a great deal wrong with them cosmetically; nor are they more than usually clogged up with wax. Nevertheless there seems to be a rather serious fault with my hearing, which I think I have been ignoring for some time.
The problem seems very much like the one my children are inflicted with. It’s called selective hearing. The selectivity can depend either on the content of the message (‘please get dressed’ versus ‘there’s cake in the kitchen’); or on the person uttering it (me versus anyone else in the universe). The selectivity may also depend on the emotional state of the child at the time. For example, feeling angry involves hearing nothing at all – although in fairness this applies to anyone within a hundred yards, given the volume at which my children voice ‘being angry’. Alternatively, feeling hungry for cake and therefore being open to bribery, entails hearing everything, even if it is only spoken once.
Lastly, the selectivity also depends on expectations. If my children are expecting me to give them cake before bedtime (if, for example, I have been foolish enough to promise them such a thing in exchange for five minutes of peace in the car on the drive home), absolutely nothing I say regarding a lack of cake will be heard at all. If I burn the buns, if there is no flour in the house, if all the supermarkets in the world are shut – none of that will matter. Instead, I will be expected to magic some cake into existence to satisfy their all-consuming need, or else I risk facing their impressive explosions of irrational rage.
A few days ago, I resumed therapy after a few weeks’ break over the summer holidays. As often happens after my sessions, I tried to remember particular parts of the conversation, or particular things that my therapist said, but struggled to do so. But in trying to remember, I did recall a couple of phrases which brought me up short and which really made me conscious for the first time, of how great my hearing problem really is.
I had challenged my therapist over a sentence which I had found upsetting, in one of her recent emails. During the course of her explanation of what she had been hoping to convey, she mentioned that I ‘used words well’ and that she had been trying to show that I was ‘held in mind’ during the break. I had clearly heard the words (in a purely auditory sense), and I had even remembered them. But at the time, they simply washed over me, neither heeded nor absorbed. They made no impact, and yet on reflection, that fact astounded me.
In my post ‘Good therapy’, I referred to the fact that fellow blogger BPD Transformation had said to me that it’s possible to train yourself to ‘look for signs’ that your therapist cares about you. My intense and all-consuming attachment to my previous therapist, Jane, meant that I didn’t really have to try ‘look for signs’ – I found them readily, in precious, remembered phrases that still serve to uphold my conviction that she did, in fact, care about me. When thinking about my current therapist’s words, it occurred to me that from Jane, those words would have been gold. I would have clung onto them, absorbed them, taken them to heart and held them. They would have been a ‘sign’ of the fact that she cared, and the fact that she thought about me and thought well of me (or at least, of my writing!).
But as described in some of my other posts on the subject of therapy, I have been struggling for some time now to feel cared for, understood and accepted by my current therapist. There has been progress on all those fronts; and I still have Hope. But I remain desperate to know and to feel that she cares about me; and I have been dying for some praise, whether that concerns my writing, or some progress or realisation I might have made in therapy. So how could those words of hers have passed me by so blithely?
When it comes to selective hearing it seems to be a case of ‘Jane versus the rest of the world’. It’s not that my hearing wasn’t selective when it came to Jane – it was that it was selective in a diametrically opposing way. My rigid determination to keep her on her pedestal ensured that my mind filtered out anything remotely negative or less than perfect, and completely ignored it. Whereas with all other people, I suffer from quite a common BPD tendency to notice the negative much more than positive, or to construe the neutral in a negative way, wherever possible. In large part, I think that’s a function of the fact that I project how I feel onto others; and also a function of assuming that everyone else sees the world through my own particular brand of borderline lens. But with my current therapist, the situation appears to be even worse – it seems to be a case not just of noticing the negative more, but of barely noticing the positive at all.
When it comes to selective hearing it seems to be a case of my feelings being either the amplifier or the attenuator of what is heard. If I am worshipping someone, I hang off their every word, and their words sustain me. If I am feeling rejected and misunderstood by someone, then it’s very difficult for anything they say to get through, and to be truly heard. Difficult, that is, unless it happens to live up to my expectations of what I think I need to hear. Difficult, unless it happens to match up to my script.
Perhaps the problem with my hearing is that it is like one of those badly designed internet search engines which will not find what you are looking for unless you happen to guess almost exactly, the correct combination of words or phrases to search for.
I’m coming to realise that, at least with those closest to me, when I’m in distress and in need of validation and reassurance, I expect it to arrive in a certain way. I expect others to reassure me using words that are part of a script that exists only in my mind. And I expect them to intuit it word perfectly, without any help or clues, or without even the knowledge that the script exists. These expectations are not necessarily conscious, and the script may not even exist until I think about what I needed ‘after the fact’. But the after-effects as described in my posts on communication and on anger – the disappointment, hurt and the rage of expectations not met – are there none-the-less.
This is ‘magical thinking’ at its worst. It doesn’t just rob me of the ability to ask for what I need; it robs me of the ability to receive what I need, unless it is delivered in ‘exactly the right way’.
My post on the relationship between BPD and expectations, and the difficulties that this results in, in terms of communication, was entitled ‘Are you receiving me?’. However, it seems to me that I am the one who needs to be receptive. I need to widen my channels of communication, and allow more than one route in. I need to scrap the script, and allow for the possibility of improvisation.
And with careless disregard for mixing my metaphors – when it comes to therapy, I need to remember that it is more like jazz, than a piano duet. I found the following wonderful words online: “Playing jazz is as much about listening as it is being able to play your instrument. In that kind of situation, a player isn’t thinking about ‘what should I play next’, but rather ‘what is the music, at this moment in time, missing that I can provide?’” .
Turning this on its head, perhaps for me, in therapy, I should be thinking not so much ‘what am I expecting to hear?’ but ‘what are the words, at this moment in time, providing for me, that I am missing?’
[‘Magical thinking’ is a phrase that my ex-therapist Jane used, to refer to my expectation and 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.]