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.

Censored: wearing a mask in therapy

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censoring thoughts final

Part I – Speak before you think

Mask, verb: to hide, conceal, disguise

You can conceal something in many ways – by disguising it and making it look like something else; by hiding it away and making sure it isn’t seen. A mask can be something you put on to hide your expression; your expression can be something you put on to conceal your thoughts.

We all wear a mask and conceal our thoughts – in many ways life could not proceed without it. If we told everyone everything that was on our minds, all the time, the world would be an even noisier place and we would have precious few friends left in it. We pick and choose; we filter what we say, and in that sense we present the world a partial view. That’s okay – those are the accepted conventions of social conduct.

But the conventions in therapy are different. My therapist and I had talked about ‘free association’ in the past – mainly to comment on how difficult it was. Though associated with Freud, it does not need to be done on the proverbial couch or in the context of ‘traditional’ psychoanalysis. Free association is: “the mental process by which one word or image may spontaneously suggest another without any necessary logical connection”. The idea is that the patient, quite simply – oh, if ever there was a case of ‘anything BUT’ – talks about what is on their mind, with no effort to tell a linear story or shape the thoughts that come to mind.

I’ve lost count of the number of times my therapist has encouraged me to ‘just say what’s on your mind’, when I have been sitting there in silence, or admitted to not knowing what to say next. It’s only now that I realise that I heard the words, but what I took them to mean was: ‘just choose one of the many things you had on your list to talk about before you came here’; or ‘just think of something sensible or interesting to say’.

Which is why when she eventually told me that I censor my thoughts it was simultaneously both a statement of the blindingly obvious and also a blinding revelation. Censorship is not just the enemy of free association – by definition, if I am censoring my thoughts I cannot be free associating. Censorship is about suppressing something- free association is about revealing the suppressed. I find it hard (and sobering) to believe that I have been in psychotherapy for two years and have never thought about this before, let alone realised what I was doing and how it might be impacting the therapeutic process.

This realisation came a few sessions after another, similar ‘revelation’ in which I became conscious of the fact that I spend a lot of time during session talking to my therapist, as one might expect – but a fair amount of it happens IN MY HEAD. So when there’s a silence (which happens quite often), sometimes I will be panicking about what to say next, sometimes I will be trying to reach a thought or a memory or try and figure something out. But often, I’m simply continuing the conversation I was having a moment go, but in the safety and privacy of my own brain. Since I’ve become aware of this, I keep catching myself doing it with disturbing regularity – even, on occasion, catching myself ceasing to verbalise mid-sentence.

Why? Why am I doing these things when the very reason I am supposed to be there is to talk openly about how I’m feeling and what I’m thinking? I thought I trusted my therapist to a great extent and would tell her anything – but somehow the thought of telling her things as and when they happen, downloaded straight from my brain with no filtering – feels like a very different, and a much bigger, risk. The silence is a type of filter too – it’s just one that lets nothing through, rather than showing some parts, and hiding others.

My husband recently told me that I have never really talked to him in the way that many partners communicate with each other. I don’t really talk to him (or to others) about my day, or about how I feel. I can make small-talk at parties or intellectualise if it’s called for, but when someone asks me about myself, my tendency is to answer briefly and then focus all the attention on them, by asking lots of questions in return. That way lies safety – I’m in control of the questioning and my anxiety over what to say or not say, can dissipate. Why do I find it so difficult to talk about myself? I think there are probably three key reasons.

What I say isn’t interesting: fundamentally, I don’t understand why people would be interested in what I have to say, unless it benefits them directly in some way. Why would they want to hear about my day? Or about what I thought of the news, or a  particular situation at work? It feels as though it would be boring to talk about. Why would someone want to know about the minutiae of my life?

Defence against intrusiveness: the only person who DID want to know about the minutiae of my life – my mother – felt she had a right to know. And so keeping quiet about certain things was a way both of preserving my own space and keeping complete ownership and control over certain parts of my life and my thoughts. And if my mother wanted to know the minutiae, she also made it very clear that no one else could ever love me or be there for me, in the way that she was. By extension, no one could ever be as interested in me as she was. Or perhaps interest came to me to be synonymous with intrusiveness; and if there is an absence of the latter, perhaps I also take it as an absence of the former.

What I say will be judged: sometimes I don’t feel I can start a conversation because I know I don’t have the energy to finish it. Sometimes I don’t talk because I know my view-point won’t be accepted. When I was younger, people would ask me questions and I knew what answer they wanted me to give. The answer that accorded with their own view, or at least their view of me. And we’re back again to feeling as though no one would be interested in what I have to say: if my answers are judged, then what was behind the question was not a genuine interest in me.

Judgement, lack of interest, intrusiveness. All of those past experiences make it hard to talk in therapy. But their absence in therapy makes it equally hard to talk. My therapist is not intrusive, she doesn’t judge me, and she is genuinely interested in me. But I have no idea how to operate in that environment – all I can think of, is ‘what does she want to hear, what does she want me to say?’. It’s almost impossible to believe that she doesn’t have ‘an agenda’, however benign it might be. It’s hard to get my head around the fact that she values and wants to use whatever I bring, because whatever I bring is an expression of myself, and that is what she’s interested in.

Once I became aware of my censoring, I did start to tell my therapist things I would have ordinarily chosen not to mention. Thoughts and memories that came to mind that I couldn’t see the relevance of. Phrases that I would normally have reworded to sound more innocuous. Small details of my day that I thought inconsequential. And of course, they were anything BUT. She made use of them immediately, in ways that made perfect sense. They resulted in material we’re still working on now. Perhaps it was simply luck that the first few times I tried out ‘un-censoring’, the results felt really significant.

But it doesn’t feel like luck. It feels as though this is what I was meant to have been doing all along. Or, because my therapist often tells me there is no ‘should’ in therapy – it’s what it would have been helpful for me to have been doing all along.

Free association is hard; it’s uncomfortable; and it’s risky. Why? Because it involves a complete lack of censorship – it’s a revealing, an unmasking. I’m going to try and say what’s on my mind more often; and I’m going to try and always talk to my therapist aloud, and not in my head. I don’t want her to be able to say: “Your silences remain; they are your biggest mask”*.  Instead, I want to fill those silences with whatever comes to mind. It will take courage. As the children’s film ‘Cinderella’, says: “The greatest risk any of us will ever take – [is] to be seen as we truly are”. When it comes to therapy, at least, I think that is one risk that is definitely worth taking.

Part II – think before you act

Mask, noun: A covering, worn as a disguise

Sometimes we don’t just keep thinks hidden by omitting them in some way – we put something on to act as a disguise, or at the very least to act as a barrier to make access more difficult. Sometimes the mask isn’t a lack of communication, but communication by a veiled means. Saying something, but not transparently. Saying something, but in way that involves having to peel back the layers to find what lies beneath. Saying something, but not with words.

I have my therapist to thank for this observation too, though as she correctly identified, at some level I’m just as aware as she is of how I’m communicating, even if I will not consciously admit it. It’s the clothes that I wear – particularly the really inappropriate ones when I’m feeling flirtatious or when I suspect that our conversation will move onto the subject of sex. It’s the emails I bombard her with less than twenty four hours after session and with less than twenty four hours to go until the next; none of which really requires a reply, but I write to ask for one anyway.

My therapist talks about how sometimes I substitute action with thought – which is a nice way of saying ‘think before you act’. But it’s also a way of saying that although ‘actions may speak louder than words’, that tends to apply more to consciously chosen actions, where the action evidences the words, rather than avoiding them. Unconsciously chosen actions, not preceded by thought, are communication-avoidant, and what they are evidencing is much less clear.

My emails were communicating an urgent need to let her know I still needed her, still wanted her, still missed her, after I felt I’d ‘pushed her away’ the previous weekend and in the last session. The really short shorts and bare legs – well, I’m in the middle of talking about what they might have been communicating, so forgive me if I put that one on hold for now!

I tried to apologise to my therapist for the emails and for the inappropriate clothes – but she would have none of it. As she pointed out, it is all ‘grist for the mill’ and what’s important is that we talk about it. I know no one who always thinks before they act, and rather than berating myself for putting on a disguise, I should instead try and remember: “A mask is what we wear to hide from ourselves”**. If that’s the case, paying attention to how we’re ‘clothed’, can give us some insight into what we’re afraid of; what it is that we’re hiding from. As this wonderful quote says:  “In a corner of my soul there hides a tiny frightened child, who is frightened by a corner where there lingers something wild”***.  The difficult thing about therapy, is realising that the frightened child and the ‘something wild’ can both be parts of ourselves. When we start talking about them rather than acting them out – perhaps then we can start to integrate them into our view of ourselves, and to accept them.

And perhaps then there will be no need of a mask to hide behind; at least in therapy, and to ourselves.

 

 

* Sreesha Divakaran, ‘Those Imperfect Strokes’

** Khang Kijarro Nguyen

*** Shaun Hick, ‘The Army of Five Men’

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15 thoughts on “Censored: wearing a mask in therapy

  1. We are all conditioned to have a mask on at most, if not all times. No one wants to see or hear all of us. I could not agree more with your statements in bold in part one. That is the way most people make me feel.

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    • Thank you so much for reading, and for your comment. I agree that we are all conditioned to some extent, and absolutely there is no way we could all get on if everyone saw all or perhaps even most of us! I guess it feels as though the problem comes in when we feel that no one wants to see or hear us, as we ‘really are’, at all. Interestingly, when I did a quick google search for quotes about ‘masks’, I found a couple which seemed to be making the opposite point i.e. that we are at our most real when we _are_ wearing a mask. e.g. this, by Oscar Wilde: “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth”. I am still trying to understand it, but I guess at least partly, it probably means that we feel safer to reveal some things, behind at least a partial covering of anonymity, or a veil that covers over what we are _not_ revealing. After all, everything needs a context in order to be understood properly, and perhaps if we are veiling the context, perhaps we feel we can more safely speak the truth, without giving too much away. Or maybe he meant something else entirely! Thank you again for your comment 🙂

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  2. “My husband recently told me that I have never really talked to him in the way that many partners communicate with each other. I don’t really talk to him (or to others) about my day, or about how I feel.” My husband always tells me that I don’t communicate with him either. I try to. I think I communicate pretty well. But he always tells me differently. I don’t know why. He won’t go to couples counselling with me. We went once and the therapist said that if there was any resentment in the marriage, that it wouldn’t work. My husband told me that he did resent me. He still does to this day. I wish things could be different, better.

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    • Thank you so much for your comment Joyce, and for sharing this. Like you, I was shocked by my husband’s statement as I always thought I communicated pretty well. And it’s not as though we have spent the last X years in silence! I think my husband and I probably both resent each other, particularly over certain domestic issues, and particularly over how things have been between us over the last few years. I too, wish things could be better, and I have faith that they can be. I really really hope that you (and he) can both have faith that they can be too. I have to say, I felt really really angry inside, when I read what the couples therapist said. It seems to be completely out of order, but there are probably others on here more qualified to comment on that, than I. However, it must be the case, surely, that a multitude of couples go to therapy harbouring one sort of resentment or another, and the point of therapy is try and work through that, and reach a point where things are resolved to the extent that the resentment fades away or is at least acknowledged, dealt with, and the couple can move on and learn how to address resentment in future. It’s not surprising your husband was unwilling to give it a go after the therapist in essence declared it wouldn’t work. That seems appalling, and I’m so sorry that you had that experience. In a way, I wish my husband and I did couples therapy, as I think it would really help. But I’m so focused on my own therapy, I don’t see how it could work, or even, practically speaking, how there would be enough time. I know you make time for things that are important, but….I guess I’m scared of the prospect too, and am so focused on what I’m going through with my therapist, I find it hard to make room for anything else. I really really wish all the best for you and your husband, Joyce. In the absence of a therapist, is there anyone else your husband could talk to or get support from, that would help the two of you indirectly? My husband has recently started talking to someone from church, and it’s already made a difference to how he responds to me in some situations, and therefore to how I respond to him, and to the atmosphere in the house….take care xx

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      • The only person my husband talks to is his mother. And he really needs to talk to a therapist but he won’t. He’s had some bad experiences with therapy in the past, so he’s unwilling to try again. I wish he would! 😦

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  3. Reblogged this on Alexandra Katrine and commented:
    Oh so familiar.

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  4. very interesting and thought-provoking post — thank you. i have also found that talking about day-to-day things that i didn’t plan for have been the most powerful sessions (then upsetting because it was not on my agenda!). things like seeing someone i know in the lobby has paved an uncomfortable but insightful session and one i would have never brought up otherwise. you mentioned clothing and i have certain ‘safe’ therapy clothes. one time i went in something more comfortable (like yoga pants) and i was amazed at how different the session felt (to be that physically comfortable). that is, after i apologized for being so casual : ) take care.

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    • Thank you so much for your comment, and apologies for my delay in replying. I’m glad you found the post helpful, and I completely agree that unplanned for sessions can be really powerful. I am really trying to be more relaxed about going in without an agenda, or, even if I have a list, going with the flow rather than trying to always bring the conversation back to what’s on the list. I know what you mean about ‘safe’ clothes, though I am also developing ‘attachments’ to symbols which may be clothes, or transition objects which may be clothes. I already have a jacket which acts as a transition object (and which my therapist refers to as my ‘therapy jacket’!) but I have noticed myself now also forming a ‘therapy’ attachment to a particular dress which reminds me of session and which I feel comfortable in, in session. I tend to invest things with meaning and emotional connection. But yes, what you wear can definitely impact the mood of the session, as well as things like where you sit, and how you sit…I often wonder whether my therapist notices all or at least most of this, and what she thinks about it! Thank you again for your comment, and take care…

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  5. Progress in therapy isn’t always evident immediately, but in this case it is. Ofen treatment is a bit like stirring an instant chocolate pudding. You keep stirring until the consistency changes. In any single moment it is as if nothing is happening.

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  6. Pingback: Sexual feelings for your therapist – and what they can tell you | Life in a Bind - BPD and me

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