I’ve realised that I’m very nervous about sharing my most recent post (‘Seeking reassurance – when the story in your own head changes’) with my therapist. Not because of what she might think – on the contrary, the people-pleasing side of me that wants to do well and seeks praise, is hoping that I’ve written and realised something that she will ‘approve of’. But I am worried that what I have written will change how she behaves towards me. She already withholds reassurance on a number of occasions, for the reasons I described in my post. And although in writing the post I really felt I understood the benefits of her approach – at the same time I am scared that she will with-hold any and all reassurance in future. That she will take my new-found understanding as licence to never give me what I sometimes desperately feel I want and need.
Standing back from that fear and from those thoughts going around in my head, I was struck by the extent to which I believe my words and actions impact upon her. Not just on this occasion, but almost all of the time. I worry frequently that what I say or do will lead her to withdraw from me, or change the way she responds during session, or will motivate her to discontinue email contact. I also project my own insecurities and ways of thinking, onto her – I assume that she will react adversely towards me, because that is how I would react in a similar situation.
But it suddenly occurred to me a couple of days ago, that there is a bizarre kind of tension in all of this. When I am worrying about the impact I am having, I feel anxious and helpless – she will change how she behaves, and there’s nothing I can do about it. But there’s an almost narcissistic quality to the view that my every word and action impacts her in that way. My anxiety implies a hidden belief that my words and actions have power over her – to the extent that I make no conceptual room for the fact that she has her own thoughts and beliefs, and for the possibility that they may be unaffected by my actions. I am never conscious of this hidden belief – in fact, I find the idea abhorrent. All I’m conscious of is a helplessness in the face of the possibility that she will change, and a desperate desire to make it better and to find a way to ensure that her reaction does not end up being the one I fear.
I remember many months ago, being caught completely by surprise by both my therapists’ words and the strength of my reaction against them. I cannot remember the exact context, but she had said something along the lines of me feeling powerful or wanting to exercise power in the context of my family dynamics when growing up. I was almost trembling with tears of protest at the suggestion that I might want to control or have power over somebody. It felt like an insult and completely anathema to who I was. But there’s no smoke without a fire, and where there’s vehement denial, there’s probably something deeper to understand.
I find the desire for control and power over others, ugly. I hate to think that that desire might be a part of me. I find it hard to believe it could lurk within me, particularly given how sensitive I am to being controlled. The idea of me being the perpetrator of what I hate, sickens me. I see myself as a ‘live and let live’ sort of person. I feel as though I have no interest in controlling others. Not only that, but part of the violence of my reaction against the thought of me wanting to exert power over others, is a strongly held belief that forced words or actions are meaningless. I have written before about how difficult it is for me to ask for what I want or need, because I feel that if I have to ask, the other person doesn’t really want to give, and the gesture is invalidated.
And yet….I would like my needs to be met – but without me having to ask. And I do hate the sense that my plans are being frustrated. If there’s something I really want to do or have put together a plan or proposal I really believe in – I hate it when someone else puts an obstacle in the way, or points out reasons why the plan may not be the best idea. It’s not that I want to ride rough-shod over someone else’s desires, but I do desperately want to be ‘allowed’ to do the things I really want to do. Is that trying to exercise power or control over someone else? I don’t know…..
And in so far as I want others’ views of me to remain positive, and in so far as I fear the impact I may have on others’ actions – I suppose you could say there is a sense in which I want to control those adverse reactions and mitigate against them. But it seems to me that many with BPD, myself included, are caught in two different power-struggles, neither of which they have chosen. Those power struggles may have their origins in childhood, but they continue to play out in all sorts of adult relationships, until they can be explored and hopefully resolved through therapy.
I think that as a child, I had a power I didn’t want (over others) but not the power I wanted (over myself). I didn’t choose either situation, and in that sense, felt helpless in both. My parents were strict, and my mother very intrusive; I felt that my views were not respected or taken seriously. I didn’t feel free to believe what I wanted, or to be who I wanted. At the same time, I was aware that I was the centre of my mother’s universe and that everything I did or said affected her. If I fell over and hurt myself, she panicked. If I expressed sadness, I made her sad. If I didn’t listen to her, I made her angry. If I expressed a very different viewpoint to her own, I disappointed her. She needed me to be happy: she needed me in order to feel happy; and she needed me to be happy so that she was too. I didn’t want – still don’t want – to be at the centre of her universe. I hate the responsibility (and yes, the implied power) that comes with that.
A number of those with BPD have experienced relationships with care-givers who wanted to maintain early enmeshment, and to resist the child individuating and finding their own sense of self, which could be very different to that of the care-giver. This may be one of the reasons for the unstable sense of self that is one of the diagnostic criteria for BPD in the DSM IV. It may also be a reason for the blurring of boundaries between oneself and others, or oneself and the world. It’s easy, in that context, to see why many with BPD project their own fears and worldview onto other people; and also to see why they may unconsciously believe that everything they do impacts (usually negatively) upon others and upon their environment.
This may come across as people with BPD being self-centred, arrogant or un-empathetic. As if they believe that everything in the world is to do with them. But a child’s world is very small – and someone with BPD may have been unable to ‘outgrow’ the very real sense that everything in their own world was to do with them. I was an extension of my mother – and she didn’t just absorb everything I said and did, she reflected it back at me. If I disappointed her, she might use emotional blackmail to obtain compliance. If I expressed sadness she might ask for reassurance that everything was okay. What I did had an effect; the effect was negative; and I had to try and make up for it in some way. Either that, or give up interacting at all.
I don’t want to be responsible for everything that someone else feels or does. I don’t want that sort of power, and I really wish I didn’t feel or act as if I had it. There is no safety in being with someone who is as changeable and susceptible to my emotions, as I am. Even though I am afraid of not impinging upon someone else – because how will I know if I matter, if nothing I do affects others? – I want the other to be robust and separate enough to hold my emotions without either absorbing them completely or giving them back to me in a way that makes me feel responsible for both of us.
I do want power over myself – whoever that may be – and to feel acceptance when that self is expressed. Next time I worry over the impact I may have had upon my therapist, I need to remember that she encourages that self-expression – and accepts it, rather than reacts to it. Accepts me. Acceptance is empowering – and that is the only kind of power I truly want or need.
July 19, 2015 at 1:48 am
There is no life without responsibility. The more a person allows himself to take — “take” — responsibility, the more one becomes comfortable with it, in general. Many children and adults fear the disapproval that can come with it. The alternative is to be timid and ineffective, at the mercy of the others who will take responsibility. Nietzsche is worth reading here. No free lunch, quite literally: you will “take” the food or you will starve. You will take charge or charge of you will be taken. And your taking it will often impact others. Remember, for all our attempts to disguise where we live, it is not far removed from a jungle.
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July 19, 2015 at 7:56 am
Thank you 🙂 but I must admit to being confused 😉 I think that confusion is at least partly stemming from my desire to ‘correctly understand’ and to ‘get things right’. Or perhaps from the sense that I did not feel that happy with the post when I published it – maybe I sensed there was some gap in understanding, and is this it? An article I read by A J Mahari talked a lot about responsibility, but it was more around not projecting onto others, I think. Have I fallen into my usual ‘all or nothing’ approach? Wanting to go from the sense that someone else is constantly reacting to me, to in effect giving up responsibility for any impact I do have? I know the latter is undesirable, not least because it feels like a short step from ‘no impact’ to feeling like one doesn’t matter or doesn’t exist. But I’m still struggling to understand – for all my paranoia and assumptions that peoples motives towards me are not positive, your final sentence feels disturbing. I’m really not sure I understand myself here. I’m very competitive but I don’t like the idea of seizing anything – and yet in exercising that competitive spirit I must do it in at least minor ways, all the time. I’m not sure what this means for where the boundaries are between what I should and shouldn’t feel responsible for, as far as other people’s reactions to…..or perhaps this is just my discomfort with uncertainty and ‘not knowing’ coming out. Perhaps it’s all just on a case by case basis and I have to figure out what’s appropriate in each situation. Hhmmm….lots to think about and I’m waffling. But I still feel like I’m missing something! Thank you again for reading and commenting 🙂
July 19, 2015 at 11:56 am
In lots of situation there is no clear “right.” We see that in the opposed opinions about politics and religion. We create rules not only for our individual lives but so that we can have a somewhat orderly world, not the world Hobbes feared we would have if left to our own devices. In the end, having been thoughtful (you are already), we create our own sense of what is proper to make our lives manageable and live with ourselves and others. Your search for what is “right” is admirable, but I have come to the conclusion (for my own life) that too much time can be spent on second-guessing, to the point of not being able to take a step that might be “wrong,” do injury to someone else, not have the proper “permissions,” etc. One must LIVE. No matter what one does, there will almost always be room for second-guessing. There is nothing necessarily wrong with “seizing.” In daily existence there is lots of room to take initiative, act, and fill up space. The action often defines what is “right.” That is, having done the thing — “taken” — the action, the behavior becomes an accomplished fact and has “become” right. Sit back, wait for someone else to fill the space with his own action, and his act becomes “right” and your own desires have been preempted. This is not the only way to think of life, only one way. But, I have found it useful. It doesn’t mean one shouldn’t be respectful and kind. I don’t think others would think of me as a bully. It does mean, however, that I can act assertively. And, I find my life is more satisfying because of it.
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July 19, 2015 at 7:35 pm
I can see why, with such an intrusive mother, you would be looking for acceptance. If she took all your emotions personally, where was the room for you to be yourself, apart from her? I’d think, like you, a good relationship would entail the other person being able to accept your emotions/views/ actions, without taking them on. Your emotions should not threaten the other person. Like the relationship you seem to have with your therapist – that’s comfortable and lets you be yourself.
July 19, 2015 at 8:19 pm
Thank you so much for your comment, and for the validation. I feel guilty, as if I have been disloyal writing about all of this, but it’s all part of trying to better understand how certain feelings and thoughts have come to be. And thank you for your comment about my therapist – you are right, she lets me be myself, and I am so grateful for that 🙂
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July 19, 2015 at 9:47 pm
Not sure what to say but I love this post (and the one you link to with the Rothfuss quote) and find both incredibly relatable. I hope you do share or talk about this with your therapist.
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July 31, 2015 at 10:06 pm
Hi Andi, Thank you so much for reading and for your comment -I’m so glad you liked the post 🙂 I’ve just noticed the date on your comment – so sorry my reply is so late 😦 I did discuss this (eventually) with my therapist. But not before I inadvertently constructed a ‘test’ for her to see if she would reassure me about something, and to see whether my post had indeed had an impact. It was a good discussion, and it was helpful to think about the difference between the level of responsibility for ‘impact’ that it might be appropriate for an adult to bear, versus what might or might not be appropriate for a child…..thank you again for commenting x
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