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.