Life in a Bind – BPD and me

Borderline Personality Disorder, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, and my therapy journey. Listed in Top Ten Resources for BPD in 2016 by goodtherapy.org. I write for welldoing.org under the name Clara Bridges.

Borderline, pass, fail – BPD and testing those we love

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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.

 

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18 thoughts on “Borderline, pass, fail – BPD and testing those we love

  1. Thank you very much for posting this! I can relate very strongly to it. 🙂

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  2. An excellent analysis and very well expressed. As usual!

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    • Thank you so much for your kind words – again! 🙂 By the way I realised I never emailed you about Dropbox and your kind of suggestion of passing on some information/research about BPD? Are you still happy to share that (and if so I will send you a quick message over the next few days?).

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  3. Reblogged this on Marci, Mental Health, & More and commented:
    Most times I am not out right trying to be manipulative but it does come across that way. And sometimes I’ve even been ashamed of behavior that could have been classified as manipulative after the fact especially when “testing” others.

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  4. All too familiar my dear 😦 x

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    • I’m so sorry you experience this too, but at the same time it’s good to be able to share this with others who can relate, and for us to offer support to each other. I hope that it will become easier, over time, and at least with some people, for us to try and identify when we are falling into these patterns, and to find a constructive and helpful way out of them….. x

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  5. Omg yes yes and yes… I think the whole “testing people” thing might be the hardest BPD habit for me to break (I definitely haven’t broken it yet – not even close). Why is it so hard to simply trust that people really do care and mean well? Why does it feel so terrifying to let go of that “NO, if they REALLY cared, they would do x, y and z” mentality? The only remotely useful skill I’ve developed surrounding it so far is that ability (sort of… sometimes…) to explain what I’m doing/likely to do when I’m NOT right in the midst of doing it. Particularly after an episode, I’ll be like, “OK see what just happened there? This is what I was talking about, and why I do it.” I try to prepare a lot for special events, because they seem to be the most triggering for this way of thinking. I get very clear pictures in my head of what The Perfect Christmas or The Perfect Birthday would look like, and woe betide anyone who doesn’t help fulfil the dream…. Karen’s advice was always, “Well why don’t you just give yourself the perfect birthday and not rely on others to make it so?” But I’m with you: the important part is that those behaviours would clarify how close I am to the people I care about. Without them, the whole day just feels like a painful disappointment, even if I bought myself I trip to Tahiti! (side note I would have been totally devastated too if my therapist didn’t remember my birthday! Second side note: when is your birthday? 🙂 hehe) xxxxxxx

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  6. Pingback: The 5 Worst Things to Say to Someone with BPD | Half of a Soul - Life with BPD

  7. One of the reasons I don’t read much about diagnosis is a fear of becoming text book, although this does have its drawbacks whenever I am trying to understand a particular trait and usually just blame it all on my selfishness or miserableness!

    I also test loved ones and most fail miserably, but I guess that it a sign that I link being cared for with having my expectations met….mmmm…sounds familiar!

    I think the Therapist is maybe right about setting up therapy to be unsatisfying and then it’s easier to be away from her during break time and then I wondered if I should challenge that theory further by asking if this is what you do in day-to-day relationships? Deliberately set it up to fail?

    When I was reading this, I just kept thinking about that Dr Gerald post where he talks about them not being mind readers and your perception of what’s important, is more than likely different to them.

    When I was reading about your T not picking up on key dates, I wondered if she was ultra-nice and did actually remember. I might find it all rather boring and we wouldn’t have the opportunity to work through the stuff “forgetfulness” invokes.

    Your posts always make me think. It might be time to learn a little more about my diagnosis’, maybe I might understand things better and maybe even put some things in place to work through the “symptoms”

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  8. As we become more confident in ourselves, we generally care less about testing and the implied question the other person’s dedication to us, whether one is BPD or not. The confidence of which I’m writing involves both an increased internal certainty of our own value, and a measure of indifference to the opinion of others. Some amount of that indifference is essential to equanimity.

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    • Thank you so much for your comment, which is thought-provoking and which I really appreciate! I mentioned it in my last session, as I thought it was interesting that your viewpoint gave a different slant on the situation, and I wondered whether your comments reflects ‘the final destination’ whereas I have reached an intermediate point? The post signified a big moment of progress for me, but at this point, I think that progress was about accepting my therapist can’t read my mind but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t care about me, and I was able to maintain a consistent view of her ‘goodness’ as opposed to trying to push her away for not understanding me. I completely agree that eventually, I need to develop a sense of my own value and a measure of indifference to others’ opinions – I still feel that these are very much lacking, but it feels like progress to be able to maintain a continuous sense of the value that someone else places on me. When it comes to my therapist, I care hugely what she thinks, but I guess that eventually, perhaps even that will diminish (however impossible that seems now?!). Thank you again 🙂

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