Part of the frustration of learning more about BPD and becoming more self-aware, is the sense of feeling boringly and predictably ‘textbook’. I can just hear my therapist laughing at this point, at yet another example of wanting to be ‘special’ – which in this case is manifested as annoyance at being simply pedestrian. I’m having that feeling of predictability, right now. It’s coming up to the two-week Easter break, and the mood in therapy (at least my internal one) has changed. It’s not just that I’ve suddenly entered the zone of ‘stage-fright’ – the term my therapist used to refer to the anxiety and indecision that takes over when I enter the last fifteen minutes of our one-hour sessions. It’s the fact that I strongly suspect that I am testing her again; which, as far as my own behaviour goes, is utterly predictable in the light of the upcoming break and the emotional abandonment feelings that go with it.
It is fairly common for those with BPD to test those they care about – unfortunately, it is one of the behaviours which, due to a lack of understanding of the motivations and world-view that underlie it, can lead to accusations of manipulation or game-playing. But ‘testing’ is not a game, by any interpretation of that word. Neither is it a conscious and deliberate choice. The person with BPD may be completely unaware that they are doing it, but even if they are aware, they may be unable to stop it, or the drive to continue may feel too strong to resist. And what drives it is, quite simply, a need to feel loved, cared for and understood.
Testing is intimately linked both with the fact that many with BPD have very high expectations of those they care about, and also with the issue of ‘magical thinking’ – that others will know what I’m thinking and what I need, even without me asking. Many with BPD unconsciously link feeling cared for, to having their expectations met and to having people intuit their needs. Testing is a way of seeing whether those criteria have been met, and therefore ultimately, it is a way of finding out whether one is cared for. This may sound far from sensible, but it can feel undeniably logical to someone with BPD as well as feeling emotionally true.
The logical and emotional forces behind testing are immense. For example, if a close friend doesn’t contact me for a while, I will worry that they don’t care, but rather than getting in touch to find out if all is well, I tend to maintain my distance. You could argue that that is game-playing; trying to elicit a response using passive-aggressive withdrawal. But according to my logic, ‘forcing’ a response would be meaningless; I want my friend to freely and without prompting, think of me and get in touch. I can see that whereas I might think of this as an opportunity for her to show me that she cares, she could argue that I am restricting the way in which she can demonstrate her caring. Her demonstration has to fit my expectation.
On a conscious level, my testing is always seeking a positive outcome – that is, I desperately want the person to pass the test. As far as my conscious mind is concerned, that is why I persist in the test even when I know that it is very unlikely to succeed. I can be so desperate for that evidence of caring, that the associated risks of huge disappointment and pain, seem worth taking. However, I think it is highly likely that there are unconscious motivations at play as well, which are the complete reverse of my conscious awareness.
My therapist has said, on a number of occasions, that it looks as though I am setting up therapy to fail or to be unsatisying. I create a situation in which I am bound to feel upset or disappointed; I may try and push boundaries, ask a question it’s unlikely she would answer, or expect something from her she is unlikely to give. Invariably, I tend to do this just before a ‘break’, whether that’s over a weekend, or a longer therapy break. This is the equivalent of ‘getting in first’ and giving myself a reason to emotionally cut myself off from her, so that I don’t have to feel either the hopelessness of loving her or the painfulness or feeling abandoned by her. It gives me a reason to feel angry with her – because my adult brain knows that it is not her fault that there is such a thing as a weekend and that everyone needs a holiday, even if the child part of me tries to deny it. In the same way, I think it’s perfectly possible that my ‘testing’ has an unconscious negative motivation. Perhaps I want people to fail the test so that I have an excuse to push them away and feel angry with them, rather than deal with the painful ramifications of closeness, and of the fact that how I want to feel cared for, isn’t necessarily how others demonstrate caring.
Just before the six week summer break, I was aware that I had unintentionally constructed two tests for my therapist. I was hoping that she would tell me that she cared about me in our last session before the break; and I was hoping that she would send me a brief email on the first anniversary of my last session with Jane, my ex-therapist. She knew how much I wanted to feel reassured that she cared about me, how anxious I was about the break, and also how difficult and painful I would find that anniversary. Surely, therefore, both of these were small and easy things that she could do, that would be enduring examples of her caring. Examples that I could recall whenever I doubted that caring in future. And surely, given that she should understand me fairly well by this point, both of those things should be fairly obvious to her, and she should know what they would mean. Or so my reasoning, and my internal justification, went.
Of course, she ‘failed’ the first test in our last session; and she failed the second a few days later. Although I expected it, I was devastated, both times. And yet I repeated the scenario again, when I realised that I was waiting to see what she would do or say on my birthday. I had already mentioned the date, and that we would have a session on the day itself, and I began to build up fantasies of what it would be like. They ranged from the ridiculously unlikely (her giving me a hug) to the fairly mundane (her giving me a card or lending me a book).
Whatever the details, the test was to see whether she would remember my birthday. And of course she did not. A friend of mine with BPD said that there were many other things she would rather her therapist remembered about her, but my own reasoning was this: why would she not commit the date to memory, and show me that she remembered, when this would be such an easy way to show me that she cared? And why would she not understand how much it would mean? My therapist and I talked about this afterwards – it was painful and challenging, but also very helpful. She was unequivocal about the fact that hugs were outside the boundary of therapy, and that my ‘testing’ succeeded only in hurting me. We have had numerous conversations, before and since, about the fact that caring can be found in ordinary things; that she cannot read my mind, but that this doesn’t mean that we aren’t connected.
And yet I can see that I’m doing it again. I made an association, a few sessions ago, between how I’ve been feeling about her in the present, and feelings from my past. I kept it to myself, mostly because it simply felt like an undercurrent, but now it has burst up to the surface in a powerful way. Even so, I found myself in the last couple of sessions deliberately staying silent on the association, waiting to see if she would mention it. If therapy is a context in which the past is replayed, why is this association all but invisible to her, when it seems like the elephant in the room to me? And it’s painful – so painful. I came back from my session and retreated to bed as soon as I could, wanting to lose myself in sleep. Feeling frustrated, not understood; parts of me feeling invisible.
But at least this time, I can challenge myself in advance of my therapist doing it for me. I know that I’m being unfair, and I can’t judge her on the basis of what she doesn’t know and what I held back from her. There were two things going on simultaneously – and she was dealing with the present, and the very obvious fears and feelings I was having about our relationship. In fact, part of the reason I held back, was that the things she was saying about that relationship and the present situation were important, helpful, and I wanted to hear them. I didn’t want to divert her from the topic, while also being frantic about the associations I was waiting for her to acknowledge.
This time, I can see that I’m hurting myself, and that it’s pointless. Only recently I told her that I’d realised how strong our relationship had become and how much conviction and trust I had in her and in her judgment. That realisation was powerful, and it can’t be undone by a fundamentally flawed test. A test that demonstrates nothing less than the fact that she is paying full attention to me in the present, and nothing more than the fact that her mind-reading powers are human, not divine.
I don’t want to test her, I want to talk to her. There is no magic to even a borderline pass in a test that is predicated on the fallacy of her being inside my head. Allowing for closeness despite a fundamental un-know-ability does not diminish us – it makes us stronger.