[In this post I do not mean in any way to disparage the idea or value of self-help books or of giving advice or suggestions on how to improve wellbeing and mental health. Clearly, there are numerous occasions and circumstances in which this is helpful – I benefit just as much as anyone from trying to remember things for which I am grateful, or from doing breathing exercises when I am anxious (for example). However, I think that there are circumstances, life-stories, and also mental health disorders (personality disorders being a good example), that are complex and long-standing and give rise to difficulties that can be particularly entrenched and challenging to overcome. I believe that they can be overcome, and that therapy is a huge part of how that happens. In that context, I think that ‘solutions’ that are aimed at alleviating a symptom rather than addressing its root cause, are often sticking plasters, allowing a wound to to be covered over for a while, but leaving it ripe for re-opening when a new and different challenge comes along. Sometimes it’s not just a case of trying to feel better (which is of course very important), but of trying to be different. That, fundamentally, is what I am focusing on in this post.]
A few weeks ago, ‘BPD Pieces of Me’ published a link to my post ‘Waiting to fall – BPD and obsessive attachments’ on Facebook. There were a number of comments on the post, one of which made the following statement: “But what it doesn’t say is how to stop doing this”.
The comment reminded me of one of my own worries, in my first few months of blogging. I realised I was writing a great deal about my own experiences and my own understanding of what I was going through, but I was offering no ‘solutions’ to those in similar predicaments. Indeed, I had no solutions to offer – at that stage I was on a quest to understand, but understanding in and of itself was not necessarily bringing about a change in my feelings or behaviour. I didn’t even see how my growing self-awareness was going to bring about such change – how ‘head knowledge’ would somehow turn itself into ‘heart knowledge’ and become firmly lodged in the core of my being so that I felt it to be true.
I used to wonder if those who read my posts felt a little cheated – in today’s culture of self-help books and internet articles giving you hints or tips on how to achieve x, y or z , it felt somehow inadequate to present my understanding of a problem but not offer up at least a couple of ways of dealing with it. (Gone are the days when people used to aim for ‘tidy’ numbers of ‘tips’, like 5 or 10 – these days if one can think of 13 or 29, that’s what goes in the title!).
But the longer I have been writing and the longer I have been in therapy, the more I am coming to believe that I am not cheating anyone of an answer, and that what I am doing may have value, in and of itself. Furthermore, I don’t think it’s possible to give ‘an answer’ to the questions or difficulties that are described in my posts; to the many painful behaviours associated with BPD, or to the many conundrums of therapy.
The reason is that the answers will be as individual as we are, and not just that; they will be as individual as we and our circumstances are now, and as we and our circumstances were in the past. They will be as individual as the song that happened to be playing on the radio when you were thinking about your last therapy session and suddenly the words seemed particularly pertinent and helped to open up a whole new angle that you hadn’t seen before. They will be as individual as that moment of pure joy when you were seven and you opened up a Christmas present of a pack of colouring pencils; so simple, but a feeling you’ve been chasing ever since. And they will be as individual as every single moment that makes up each of our lives, the power or ordinariness of which is unknown to any of us, before it happens.
I can’t give you an answer – the most that I can do is try and describe to you, as best I can, what my own answer is – once I have found one – and part of how I arrived at it. But there will always be an element of that answer that I myself will never understand, and therefore cannot convey. It will not be possible to subject my answer to scientific or logical proof – and what I can never either describe or demonstrate to you is why my answer is persuasive to me in a way that lodges itself in my being and changes me from the inside out.
Because that, surely, is the type of answer that the questioner who commented on my post, was talking about. Frustrated (I presume) by a repeated pattern of behaving in a particular way, she wanted to know how she could put an end to that pattern, once and for all. Hints and tips are well and good, but if one tries to apply them indiscriminately with no attempt at self-discovery and working through the problem, and therefore no understanding of if or why those tips might work, any success is equivalent to putting on a garment which may fit more or less well, but which may not stand the test of time or the elements. Only a new skin will do, to hold us together, and it is a painful process growing into it, and shedding the old one.
Finding an answer implies making a discovery – acquiring a piece of knowledge that you did not possess before. And yet when it comes to ‘solving’ many of the difficulties that we struggle with, particularly when it comes to BPD, that is often not the sort of answer we need. The point is made beautifully in these two quotes:
This ‘knowledge’ is not new, though we may be ‘seeing things anew’. Very often, an answer consists in viewing the place where we stand, differently. There are no shortcuts to this vista – you cannot just put on a new pair of glasses. You have to travel somewhere, you must go through something, in order to get back to where you started and to see and feel something different, to what you saw and felt before. That is another reason why my answer cannot be your answer – only you can occupy the place where you stand, at any point in time. We can have a mutual appreciation of your journey, by standing very close together (as your therapist may do) – I don’t mean to imply a belief in solipsism, in which your experience would be utterly unknowable to anyone else (should they even exist). But the patch of grass under your feet is not the same at each interval of time as the grass under mine – it may tickle less, or more – and that can make all the difference.
Arriving where we started after such a process of exploration is not a wasted journey – it is the trip of a lifetime. So many journeys in our lives are repeated – the school run, the long drive to go on holiday, the trip to see the parents-in-law. They may achieve an aim but they may not teach us very much, and they have to be repeated. Things that happen on those journeys happen to us; they don’t happen in us. Whereas when you arrive at where you started after such a process of exploration, the ‘answer’ that you find has grown within you and has become a part of you.
In time, you will find that though you no longer remember exactly how you got back to where you started, or the details of the journey that were so persuasive, the ‘answer’ is as deeply rooted in you as ever. That’s not to say you won’t continue sometimes to have real struggles or doubts, or that there is nothing further to learn or ‘see’ about that particular subject. But you will not need to take that same trip again; you can remind yourself that you took it – and the ground on which you stand will be discernibly firm beneath your feet, even if you find yourself on a rockier patch than before.
A few weeks ago I told my therapist that I was thinking of buying a book containing stories of psychotherapy clients and their difficulties with intimacy. On occasion she herself suggests books I might find helpful, but this time she seemed hesitant to give encouragement. She said that these were other people’s stories, and there was nothing wrong in reading about them; but she wondered whether I was trying either to find someone else’s ‘answer’ to my own story, or divert myself from the painful work of thinking about my own difficulties. I think she was asking me – rightly – to be on guard against the possibility of trying to seek certainty and an answer, even if it was a short-cut and a quick fix.
And yet – I wanted to end by coming back to my starting point with this post, and the legitimacy and value (or otherwise) of what I offer in this blog. A reader was kind enough to comment on my most recent post, that my “essays often do a great service to those who wish to find more fulfilment in their lives. They are an act of kindness.” That is a wonderful compliment, but also, I think, a helpful way of looking at what I write. I offer a kindness – take from it what you will. But only you have the answer to your dilemma, and I wish you safe travels, should you wish to find it….