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 and for Muse Magazine Australia, under the name Clara Bridges.

Staying connected to my therapist – and trying to be kind to myself

20 Comments

I drove past the house of Jane (my ex-therapist) again last week. It was only a very short detour this time, as I happened to be in the neighbourhood. It was the first time I had driven past since writing ‘Have you googled your therapist?’ and the difference, on this occasion, was that it was the first time I didn’t feel shame or fear at doing so. I didn’t feel I was doing something wrong – and although I think I was still nervous that she might see me, the thought didn’t worry me quite so much.

This happened only a couple of days after I received an email from someone who had read my blog and was wondering whether to tell her therapist about how attached she felt to him, and of how she ‘stalked him online’ (her words). Her email resonated so much with the feelings of guilt I used to experience over such ‘stalking’, and it brought home to me how much had changed over the last few months, in how I view this subject. And that change is due entirely to the way in my therapist has responded, and the conversations we have had about it.

On every occasion on which I have mentioned trying to get close to her outside of session (whether online, or in terms of physical distance), her response has surprised and amazed me. Take a couple of weeks ago, for example, when I told her that in the middle of our summer therapy break, on the day that I knew she was going on holiday, I happened to drive very close to her house and had an enormous urge to turn off the main road and drive right past it. But I didn’t. And instead of saying ‘well done for resisting the urge and not driving past’ (which was the sort of response I was expecting), she implied that it would have been fine, and perfectly reasonable, had I done so. I was completely taken aback and wasn’t sure what to say, until ‘you’re amazing’ slipped out, because that was exactly how I felt.

She had responded in a very similar way when I told her, as few months ago, that I had spent the day with my children in the playground and by the river near her house. I walked them to within fifty metres or so of her house, and then turned back. Her response was to call me ‘creative’ – I had found a way not just of spending special time with the kids, but of bridging the gap between sessions and continuing to feel connected to her. Far from commenting on or being displeased about how close I’d come to her house, she remarked on the fact that I hadn’t closed the gap all the way and walked right past her front door. In her mind, it showed that I was learning to tolerate some distance and I was becoming more able to bridge that gap myself, while still keeping her real.

Her understanding and her tolerance might seem extraordinary (they certainly did to me), but I think it’s easy to forget that not only have our therapists worked with many clients (who no doubt have had similar feelings), they have also been clients themselves. They may well have experienced the same feelings, and acted in similar ways. And so perhaps they don’t feel threatened by our behaviour (as we imagine they may do) and perhaps they understand it better than we think. Although she didn’t tell me of her own experiences, my therapist did mention that she had once had a colleague (another therapist) who took a certain route to get to town in order to drive past her own counsellor’s house on a regular basis. It was a huge relief to hear that – and suddenly I felt as if my behaviour was not so unusual or so unacceptable after all.

Having been clients themselves, our therapists hopefully also understand the process by which dependence and attachment and a need for the therapist’s physical presence, turn, over time, into greater independence and the ability to ‘internalise’ the therapist and carry them within, even when they are not present. This, as I understand it, is where my therapy will eventually lead me; up to the point where I have internalised my therapist and the process sufficiently, that I will be equipped to manage on my own. However, she has pointed out that until this happens, therapy (and the therapist) are strongly tied to the tangible factors that surround them. And so we ‘place’ the therapist in a particular location in which they exist powerfully, with their reality diminishing the further we get from that point. We associate therapy with the room in which it happens; with the objects in that room, the colour of the walls, or the view outside the window. And if any of those things changes it can be incredibly unsettling, even if our therapist is still there, because the person and the process are so bound up in our minds with one particular set of co-ordinates in three-dimensional space. And so it’s natural, when wanting to feel close to our therapists, that we seek out the place where they feel most real.

I found that hearing it explained in this way, went a long way towards enabling my feelings of guilt and shame to melt away. And I think very similar arguments can be applied to trying to stay connected to one’s therapist via ‘virtual’ means as well. In the months after I stopped seeing Jane, I used to find that googling her and seeing her name in print was immensely important in keeping her alive in my mind, in what I had originally assumed was a gap of few months until I could return to therapy with her again.

“But” – you might respond – “there is a big difference between something being understandable and it being right. It feels wrong to violate someone’s privacy in that way – whether that happens in the ‘real world’ or online”. It’s why my discussions with my therapist on this topic have felt so much like ‘confessions’ – I felt I had ‘morally transgressed’; that I had ‘sinned against her’. But in response to this, my therapist made a very valuable observation which really struck home and provided a great deal of food for thought. She said that it was almost as though I was placing something ‘out of bounds’ – even though it wasn’t – in order to recreate an old dynamic in which I wanted desperately to reach out for something that was inaccessible or forbidden. By making something forbidden that was not in fact so, I was guaranteeing that if I did reach out for it, I would be hurt by the burden of guilt and self-reproach that I would then feel.

This made immediate sense – but why would I recreate such a situation, and why would I invent a moral imperative for myself that I then felt bound to transgress? I realised that the guilt and shame I felt was not so much about driving past my therapist’s house, or googling her; but about the overwhelming desire to be close, which itself led to those behaviours. In many ways, it is easier to deal with punishing ourselves for violating someone else’s boundary (as we see it) than to deal with the neediness, dependence and desire for connection that we may feel for our therapists. Perhaps there is even a sense in which that neediness feels self-violating – it impinges on our solitariness and the sense that we should manage life alone, without the fear of being hurt. It seems easier to try and replace that sense of self-violation (which we may feel we have no defences against, or any idea how to handle) with the more familiar sense of ‘doing the wrong thing’. It makes the problem an external one – we have defined the line that has been crossed; and there is a difficult but obvious solution – confession and the hoped for absolution.

I don’t fully understand this yet – and I’m not sure what exactly the dynamic is that I am recreating from my past. However, this is one area in which I am incredibly grateful to my therapist for helping me to see things in a way which enables me to be kinder to myself. The challenge for me now, I think, is to apply this to other areas of my life. I suspect that there are a number of ways in which I needlessly place things ‘out of bounds’ or in some sort of ‘moral category’, which just enables me to criticize or punish myself if I ‘reach for things I shouldn’t’ or act in ways I perceive as ‘wrong’. I also suspect there are a number of circumstances in which my feelings (for example, shame or anger) relate to the underlying motivations driving my actions, rather than to the actions themselves. But if there is one thing that continues to inspire me to try and be kind to myself, it is her own kindness to me, and her openness to the ways in which I express my needs and my desire to stay connected. And for that, I will always be grateful.

 

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20 thoughts on “Staying connected to my therapist – and trying to be kind to myself

  1. It’s really brave to talk about this and thank you for doing so, I suspect it will help many people. I’m so glad your therapist responded in this way and really understood all the facets of why the need is there. Does her acceptance of it, diminish the need any do you think?

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    • Hi Sirena, thank you for commenting and sorry it’s taken me a while to reply! I hope you’re right that the post will help 🙂 I think you’re right – her acceptance and understanding does diminish the need to google etc. For example, if I feel the need I can remember her caring and her attitude towards it and reassure myself that way, and I guess that’s one way of keeping her real without needing to look online or physically near. Also, her acceptance means I would be braver to try and ask her a question if there was something I really needed to know. I think her attitude makes me more determined to take that risk and ask a question knowing that she might not answer but she still cares, and the lack of an answer wouldn’t be because she is deliberately trying to exclude me, but is trying to keep the environment safe and open to our work, and also she won’t worry that my question is an attempt to intrude….does that make sense? xx

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  2. This was very encouraging to read and I am so glad that you have a therapist that can be so thoughtful and supportive of you. That was not my experience and I’m afraid that it has damaged me in regards to really being open with any other therapy I may have. My ex-therapist accused me of trying to compete with her family and would pull away when I tried to talk about how I felt about her. I had read that we you are experiencing feelings like that you are supposed to talk about them with your therapist. When I did I was made to feel guilt and shame at having those feelings and even told that I wasn’t working on myself and just trying to focus on the relationship. I am so glad to know that it is not the norm and that perhaps there are some good therapists still out there.

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    • Thank you so much for reading and commenting and I’m so sorry that your experience was not positive in the way mine has been, and even more sorry that it has damaged you in terms of how you approach other therapy. Please don’t worry if you’d rather not mention anything else, but what type of therapy were you in? My understanding was that attachment and the relationship are a fundamental part of work in psychotherapy, but of course even if that is the case, that is not to say that every therapist, unfortunately, is sufficiently well trained, supervised or supported in order to be able to handle this work appropriately. Like you, I have read in many many places that psychotherapists expect to have these conversations with their clients, and indeed they can be some of the most fertile ground for change. I can’t imagine how hard it must have been to have taken the risk of opening up but then feeling guilt and shame at having done so. I think that when a strong attachment is formed, particularly when it has a ‘parental’ aspect, one is bound to compare yourself to your therapist’s family and to think about them, and to have certain feelings towards them. I am very lucky in that I have talked about this with my therapist as well, and again, she has been extremely understanding. In fact, I think it was her that coined the phrase ‘therapy daughter’ in relation to me, and sometimes refers to other clients as ‘therapy siblings’. Again, seeing your therapist as a parent figure should be, from what I’ve read, a very usual part of the work that happens. If that can be embraced, while boundaries are still maintained (and the client remains clear, with encouragement from the therapist, that the therapist _cannot_ make up for what has happened in the past, and cannot be a mother-figure indefinitely or really fulfill that need in the client’s life), then I think that acceptance is also beneficial to the work. Of course, she cannot reassure me of a place I do not have – I am _not_ a part of her family – however, it was helpful to hear her say that she cannot be a therapist to her family i.e. I see and receive a part of her that they cannot, however close they are to her.
      I think that it would be possible to focus exclusively on the relationship to the detriment of the work which actually enables the relationship to grow – however, I think that one would need to have spent quite a long time talking and focusing on the relationship before one could say this was happening, and it certainly doesn’t sound as though this is what happened with you! From what you have described, it sounds as though your therapist was uncomfortable talking about this from the start…Again, I’m so sorry your experience wasn’t positive, but there are definitely many good therapists out there, and I hope this doesn’t put you off trying to build a trusting relationship with another therapist.
      If I may, and just in case you’re interesting, can I give you a couple of links to other posts I wrote which your comment has reminded me of? I hope they’re useful….Take care….
      https://lifeinabind.com/2015/05/02/my-therapy-family/
      https://lifeinabind.com/2014/10/31/let-it-grow/

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      • Thank you so much for taking the time to reply! I agree that something of this nature should be discussed in therapy. I had the feelings for awhile before I had even shared it with my therapist and only did because, like you, I had read that it would be good for the process to discuss and work through it with my therapist. I know I was in a very clingy and needy place at the time but I think working through it would have opened me up to so much more a lot faster. I like the phrase ‘therapy daughter’ and I wish more therapist would look at it from that standpoint. My students call me their ‘teacher mom’ and I think the same logic applies. The type of therapy was typical CBT – talk therapy. My one therapist was more experiential in her approach bringing other therapies into the dynamic but she was the one who pushed back the hardest. I do like my current therapist but I’m not sure how attached I’ll become to her. I know myself and I know that attachment for me equals trust and I know that I’m holding back. I just don’t trust the process anymore. Hopefully I can move past that but we will see. Everything I read and hear encourages me to share my heart fully with my therapist but every experience I’ve had doing that just shows me getting bit in the butt!

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      • Thank you so much for this! Your comment made me realise that I have written a lot about therapy, but have rarely mentioned exactly what type of therapy I’m having, or how it might differ from other kinds, and I think the differences, particularly in this area of attachment and the relationship, can be significant. Although I think, from what you told me before, that your therapist did not use the best approach with regards to your feelings, and you should not have come away feeling ashamed for those feelings, I can understand that as a CBT therapist, she perhaps would not have wanted to take the therapy down that particular road. It may be something to do with her training (but that would be speculation), but it could also be to do with the time available. Working through this type of attachment and making full use of it, can take a long time, and in my experience, CBT is fairly time-limited. It would be very difficult indeed to start this type of work but not have the time to fully explore it or work through it – that could cause a lot more pain than it would bring benefits. If that was the reason, I think your therapist should have explained that, and shown an understanding of how difficult it was for you to express those feelings. I am by no means an expert on the different types of therapy, and I hope to be corrected by any therapist reading this, if I don’t get things right! But my understanding is that although more ‘traditional’ psychotherapists (e.g. psychodynamic, psychoanalytic etc) who work on an open-ended long-term basis are trained to deal with these questions of deep attachment, and expect to be dealing with them and with all the transference that comes with them; this sort of work is not typical of short-term talking therapy (which I understand CBT to be), which often concentrates on present issues in a client’s life and giving them skills to deal with those situations. I accept that that is all quite a broad generalisation, but hopefully it might partly explain the disappointment you felt with this kind of therapy, if you were expecting a different sort of process. Is this something you can explore with your current therapist? Is she a CBT therapist as well? I think it might be helpful to be able to have a conversation with her about the type of work they expect to do, and where their focus will be, and how they perceive exploring these issues of attachment. So you’re not talking about your own feelings per se, but you’re finding out more about how might deal with this type of work and whether she thinks it would be right in this context, and hopefully that is a safer approach in the first instance. I really hope this is helpful and that it perhaps gives you hope that not all therapy is the same, and that different types work in different ways, for reasons which are there to benefit and protect the client (though as I said earlier, I don’t think that excuses any particular therapist from acting in a way which does not clarify things for the client, or shames them in some way). I hope this encourages you to trust the process (once it’s clear what the particular type of process involves!) . Thank you again for your comments and thoughts – it’s really good to hear from you, and keep in touch!
        I completely idealized my ex-therapist, Jane, and formed an incredibly strong attachment to her.

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      • You know, I never knew that about CBT…I’m not sure that it was the only therapy she used so she should have been able to handle the situation but I’m unsure. My current therapist is a DBT therapist so I am learning skills. I’m no sure what would happen if I even became attached to her…currently I’m still struggling with the break up from my other therapist so the trust is not there. I’m so disillusioned with therapy and just all of this stuff. We will see…

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      • It would be good to hear how you’re finding the DBT -I have heard so many fantastic things about it from those with BPD. Personally I wonder how I would do in a more ‘skills-focused’ environment, but that’s a personal prejudice I think, connected to how invested I am in a model that puts the therapeutic relationship at the centre! As far as I know the research for DBT effectiveness is persuasive and it’s great you have access to that, as I get the impression that its availability is fairly limited in some places. I can completely understand you being disillusioned and finding it difficult to trust, given your previous experiences. I am really thinking of you, and hoping that your therapy experience turns out to be what you really need and what works for you – whether or not you find yourself becoming attached to this particular therapist. And if you do, I hope that it becomes a positive in your relationship and something that helps you, rather than hinders you. Take care…

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      • I think it’s completely understandable to be disillusioned and struggling right now, given what you have been through – big hugs xx As you say, there is time, and you can see how things unfold, both with what you uncover in therapy, and with the relationship itself…take care!

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  3. I’m glad you shared this, because I think almost all of us experience that longing for more connection with our therapists as well as the shame of that longing. I never talked about this when I felt it most (the first time I was in therapy) but it would have helped me so much to hear the message your therapist provided.

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    • Thank you so much for your comment, and I’m so glad you felt the post was helpful. I had read many blog posts by others who like us felt shame at that longing, I really wanted to share the things my therapist had helped me to see and the way that this has changed those feelings. Take care x

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  4. Such an important conversation and I love the way she responded to you. I spent a lot of time googling Zooey or looking at her website and Psychology Today profile after she terminated. I just needed to feel close to her in the only way I knew how. And for the first three months of seeing my current therapist, I had to walk past Zooey’s office to get there. I think I needed that – to be back in that physical space and to feel connected to my time with her. The therapeutic relationship is so unique. It’s incredibly intimate and close but without the actual intimacy leaving that confines of the work. Those parameters are of course what allows the work to be safe, but I think it’s only natural to want to feel closer and connected to our therapists between sessions. I find it unbearable if I can’t figure out a way to hold onto my therapist in some way before I see her again.

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    • Thank you so much for commenting Andi – I relate to all of this and as you say, I think it’s only natural to want to feel close, and there’s lots of different ways to do that. The therapeutic relationship is definitely unique, and very frustratingly so sometimes! 🙂 Though as you also point out, it’s all in the name of safety and enabling the work to actually take place… xx

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  5. This is very thought-provoking, especially the idea of creating a moral obstacle to being close to your therapist, and the idea that the objection is more to your own needs, than to an impingement of your therapist’s physical boundaries in actuality. At the risk of stating an obvious psychodynamic theory, I have, for some time, assumed that my fear, as well as guilt and shame, around needing my therapist, as well as others I have put on a pedestal in some way, is because my mother couldn’t cope with my early needs as a child, and conveyed the idea that I was overly burdensome for having them (I believe that, in my case, this is the origin of the idea that we should manage life alone, without fear of being hurt–The need to connect with others, albeit, perhaps, not so dependently as I have previously attempted (!), is a very human one, and fear that others will hurt us as a result of expressing vulnerability seems likely to be pronounced in those who were not able to trust their primary caregiver to provide a stable sense of safety, and accept them completely as vulnerable infants.); Thus, I project this anticipation onto relationships with others I see in a parental light. I feel like your points have more subtleties than this though, and that I can’t quite make sense of them. It’s wonderfully intriguing.

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    • YES! And more YES. And again YES. 🙂 Absolutely – I don’t think it’s obvious but I definitely think it needs saying, so thank you. I absolutely relate to all of that and think that you are right about the origin of our fears. My mother is incredibly anxious and definitely couldn’t have coped with my emotional needs without it engaging hers at the same time and thus leaving me in a position of having to carry both of us. And not having vulnerability validated very quickly led to being determined never to express it at all. To this day I think my mother believes I am quite a ‘cold’ person – but I dare not show any emotion – even happiness – for fear it will get impinged on/affected/have an effect in some way. As for my points having more subtleties – I think you are too kind 🙂 Or else they’re so subtle I’m unaware of them myself 🙂 Thank you once again for your lovely words and wonderful insight xx

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  6. “In many ways, it is easier to deal with punishing ourselves for violating someone else’s boundary (as we see it) than to deal with the neediness, dependence and desire for connection that we may feel for our therapists.” I think most therapists are not troubled or injured by a patient’s (or ex-patients) attempt to “follow” them online. Of greater concern is the possibility that this way of relating so occupies the person’s life as to permanently squeeze out his effort to find satisfying relationships in the non-virtual world. Put differently, we can think of the “virtual” therapist as a kind of transitional object. One holds a security blanket to manage the time until the mom (or therapist) returns from time away, for example. It is in the client’s best interest, however, that he understand the transitional object is supposed to be transitional (temporary). Real life holds more potential satisfactions (and more potential injuries) than can be found in the digital world, but it is what we call “living.”

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    • Thank you so much – there are a number of great points here, and you draw out the wider implications/thoughts 🙂 I think many of us spend too much time online – and I was recently saddened when I pondered for the first time, a blindingly obvious fact: other than an old school friend who lives some distance away, I know _no one_ in ‘real life’ with the same diagnosis as me. I hugely value this online community and interacting with other bloggers, but I would love to actually meet another human being ‘in the flesh’ as it were, who also has BPD. I know they would be ‘just another person’ on many levels – but I would love to be able to have these sorts of conversations and interactions with someone who understands, over coffee as well as online. I am not saying relationships with those who don’t share my ‘difficulties’ are not valued- they are, immensely so, but again, for me, the vast majority of those close relationships are with people who live some distance away and so inevitably we correspond mostly ‘virtually’. As for the ‘virtual therapist’ – I agree that too much of them can interfere with the actual ‘live’ therapist interaction – particularly if the virtual aspects don’t form part of the conversation but are an unspoken element of guilt that clouds the interactions. Then of course there are the implications as laid out in your latest post Ccomment on that to come soon – I am fending off reminders by my husband that I should go to bed and get some sleep 😉 ). As a final note – I reminded of one of the comments on your latest post, from someone who expressed difficulties/fears about applying the lessons she had learned about the therapy relationship, to other relationships. The therapist is accepting; has unconditional positive regard; is non-judgmental etc etc. It is hard to take those lessons and to really ‘live them’ in what feels like a much less safe environment. But I know that that environment is also about learning to relate to ourselves and not just our therapist, in such a way that relationships with others will not hurt as much (even if they are more ‘risky’) because of the value we place on ourselves, and the acceptance we are able to self-bestow….Thank you again for your very helpful thoughts 🙂

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