Life in a Bind – BPD and me

My therapy journey, recovering from Borderline Personality Disorder and Generalized Anxiety Disorder. I write for , for Planet Mindful magazine, and for Muse Magazine Australia, under the name Clara Bridges. Listed in Top Ten Resources for BPD in 2016 by

Barriers to being seen


The Remarkable Impact of Being Seen’ is the first part of the title of one of Dr Stein’s recent posts. The remainder of the title is ‘More on Erotic Transference and Love’. I have written both about erotic transference and love for my therapist, but it’s not this aspect of the post that I felt compelled to write about.

When I read Dr Stein’s beautifully written (as usual) piece, I felt angry. Not at him, but at myself. I recognised the truth of what he wrote – that there can be a remarkable impact indeed in being seen, in being truly understood, listened to, and accepted. To quote from the post: “You experience less emptiness in his [the therapist’s] presence. Indeed, you might believe you have been newly minted because, for the first time in forever, someone perceives you with fresh eyes.” And then this:

When you look in his eyes you see your reflection. In a flash the disjointed world takes form. For the first time. At last.”

But I also recognised that what sounds so beautiful, so logical, so persuasive, and so inevitable, is proving so very difficult for me. I was angry at myself for ‘failing’ – or at least for not being able to manage not just the expected, but what would be healthy and healing for me. When you look in her eyes you see your reflection. In a flash the disjointed world takes form. But what if it doesn’t? And what if instead of seeing your true reflection, you continue to see as through a glass darkly?

Perhaps I am even angrier at myself because I know that sometimes, I have the ability to see clearly. But that ability does not feel mine to command; I do not know how to call it up at will. The ability to see clearly involves seeing both myself, and others, as far as possible, without distortion. It involves being open to seeing; to seeing what is there, even when it is not obvious. It involves drawing generous, more accurate conclusions about myself and others, based on memories of relationship, and on previous interactions. It involves feeling clear-headed, and on an even keel. Seeing clearly generally means seeing well, and knowing all is well – with me, with my therapist, with our relationship. Crucially, it means being open to seeing myself in a true mirror, without the distorting mirror of the past, getting in the way. It means being able to feel – and not just know – that I am delighted in. It means being able to see myself as someone else sees me, who sees me clearly – not for who they want me to be, but for who I really am. And so sometimes – in some therapy situations and with reference to certain subjects – the disjointed world takes form.

But at other times – and for the most part, over the last few weeks – I have been unable to know myself as I am known. The distorting mirror of my parents, continually gets in the way. Two related subjects have dominated my thoughts since just before Christmas – loss (particularly of the therapeutic relationship, in due course), and ‘daughterhood’ (primarily the difference between being a ‘therapy-daughter’ and a biological daughter). It feels as though my heart and mind return, with increasing frequency, to the sadness that permeates those subjects. It feels as though they return, because they do not yet feel accepted or understood. When they return, I feel bad about myself – as though if I were stronger, or more grateful, or less self-centred, I would be able to simply put the sadness to one side, and focus on the things I do have, in the here and now.

I think my therapist believes that the feelings return because I feel bad about myself. That on some level, my sadness reflects a belief that I do not deserve ongoing relationship, or a fulfilling ‘daughterhood’. I don’t know. I can’t tell whether that’s the case. When it comes to these subjects, I can’t tell very much at all, because every time I talk about them, and cry about them, I end up feeling unseen. And when I look into my therapist’s eyes I see kindness, and I see caring, and I see a desire to help, but I don’t see my reflection. And I am angry, not because there is a fault in her vision, but because there is a fault in my own.

I know that my sadness is seen, understood, and accepted. She has told me, and shown me, that that is the case. But the sadness recoils from any attempt she makes to help me understand it; it feels like rejection. It feels like not allowing the sadness to exist or be seen. The problem is that in my psyche, and because of past experience, loss and being unseen are experiences that are fundamentally bound up together. And that makes it so much more difficult for my therapist to touch my loss with her gaze.


I have realised that I am heavily invested – subconsciously – in not seeing myself in an undistorted way. I am realising more and more how right my therapist is when she talks about all of us inevitably internalising the environment and worldviews we grew up with, even if consciously we believe the opposite and want to be the very opposite. I asked her what I’m supposed to do if my brain simply isn’t wired to move from experiencing acceptance, to accepting myself. She talked about how it’s not simply exposure to acceptance that does the work – we need to unpick and undo those internalised interlopers that aren’t congruent with who we really are or want to be.

Realising the existence and power of those internal interlopers has been a real eye opener for me in therapy this past week. It has been one of those lightbulb moments that it’s easy to want to live for, and that it’s important to remember was enabled by the difficult, painful and frustrating weeks leading up to it. It was so key, that it really needs to be the subject of another post. But what it helped me to realise was that my psyche is emotionally convinced of the message my mother worked so hard to instil in me – that she was the source of all my validation and wellbeing, that she alone cared for me like no one else ever could, and that others and their feelings were only ever temporary and fleeting, whereas she would be around for always. I hate the fact that despite the minimal degree of contact that I have with her now, and despite the fact I have emotionally cut myself off from her, she is indeed still around, internally, in a real and powerful way that I didn’t truly appreciate until a few days ago.

I’ve realised that subconsciously, at a core emotional level, I believe that I have no purchase on the concept of liking myself or defining myself in terms of certain qualities. Who am I to say that I am this way, or that way? It is others who must decide, who are qualified to say what it is that they perceive. My mother sought an emotionally exclusive relationship with me, in which she minimised the role of others in my life, and I have inadvertently internalised the belief that I can only take in validation from one significant person. I have to assume that as a child, I would have believed that to be my mother, even though my conscious memories are only of needing to resist her negative perceptions of me. Later on, as a teenager, this belief manifested as a yearning for a future partner to love me unconditionally. Now, it is from my therapy mother that I would love to hear positive words to describe who I am – words that I feel I would believe, coming from her. And yet even from her, I know I would need to hear them many times before I could believe them without doubt, and without fear that they were changeable.

At the moment, I feel as though I don’t know how to change the fact that others’ views of me don’t seem to change the way I feel and think about myself. My mother has ‘done a real job on me’ – to quote my therapist. She very effectively cut me off from being able take in the regard of others, however much I might want to. I have friends I care about deeply, whose kind and lovely words I appreciate. The words enter my ears, and my head, and at some level, my heart. But they don’t settle at a deeper level or change those long-internalised emotion-beliefs that don’t belong to me, but to my mother.

I know I need to find a way to change this, but I’m not sure how. Practice, practice, practice – my friends and therapist would say. Practice needs to be intentional – and perhaps now that I’m aware of the presence of my internalised biological mother, I can truly practice in a way that I haven’t been able to before. Perhaps I can practice in a way that will ensure that my internalised therapy mother ‘wins out’ more frequently and more easily than my internalised biological mother. Ultimately, that is what needs to happen in order for me to be able to fully take in the positive experiences available to me in therapy, and also to live a more fulfilling life after therapy.

6 thoughts on “Barriers to being seen

  1. Hi Life in a Bind. Before I continue on reading your really well-written post here (you write amazingly well, by the way), I wanted to pause at what you wrote here: “And when I look into my therapist’s eyes I see kindness, and I see caring, and I see a desire to help, but I don’t see my reflection. And I am angry, not because there is a fault in her vision, but because there is a fault in my own.” I can’t imagine what it must feel like to not be able to see your own reflection. That must be terribly painful, but it is in no way your fault. I can see how that inability in seeing your reflection makes it harder to connect with others when you don’t know the slightest about what they are thinking or feeling of you, or when you assume the worst. It must become hard to trust in something that you can’t see. I am now beginning to understand the benefits (not just the risks) of “blind faith,” insofar that you learn to trust in those who have shown you over the years that they accept you, like you, value you as a person, even if you have a hard time believing them, or even if you cannot see what they see in you. Trust, then, must become hard to do – both for you trusting in others and for your allowing others to trust in you. But even if you can’t see, and even though I don’t know you, I read such incredible strength in your words. Like those who suffer from blindness, their strength comes from their attempts toward envision that which is good in the world around them, and envisioning what they look like in a mirror they can’t see their own reflection in. The strengths you have to even being able to admit all this is powerful. For me, I struggle with something quite different – when I see reflections of me, I see different parts, and sometimes some nasty parts, and I don’t want to look anymore. I want to avoid, deny, and run away from that reflection. For me, I’m still learning how to accept my own fragmented reflections – the aesthetically pleasing and the aesthetically damaged – as a whole, and as someone worthy to be engaged with, worthy to be trusted, worthy to be in the world with some level of reciprocity that exists between others and myself. Even if you cannot see what others see, consider the evidence in the strengths of your words, because even if you don’t trust yourself, your words are there, and I see them as strengths. I see you as worthy of being in the world and of it. I don’t know you at all, but I see your reflection and strengths in the words you share right here. I know it is hard to accept, believe, etc. But it is true. And even those who struggle with blindness need guides to help them walk, need reassurances to show them where they are in the world, and that they are safe. It’s okay to ask for those reassurances, and it’s okay to need them often. It’s not your fault. You are strong. You are worthy! And I see you as a beautiful person!

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  2. When you said, “She talked about how it’s not simply exposure to acceptance that does the work – we need to unpick and undo those internalised interlopers that aren’t congruent with who we really are or want to be.” Your therapist is correct. Acceptance is the first step to what I call freedom – freedom to find yourself, be yourself, reinvent yourself. I can see how hard it is to figure out who you “really are” or who you “want to be” when you can’t see your own reflection. In this moment, who you are is right where you need to be. You are accepted where you are right now, so don’t let those words present challenges to that. You are worthy and accepted right here, where you are at. But your therapist and others, including myself, see more potential in you. What we see and hear through your words is a desire to be seen, to be known, to grow. And we know you can do it. It’s the painful steps in looking at those distortions and figuring a way to take that next step, perhaps one distortion at a time. Those distortions are not you; they never were. You’re not going from a place of *being* distorted; rather, you are going from a place of *believing* the distortions, and you can change beliefs. The steps toward changing those beliefs will help you grow, will help you discover who you really are (step one) and who you really want to be (a lifelong process). Who you really want to be is constantly changing throughout life. In one stage, you want to be a rock star (LOL, but seriously, some people do), and in another stage, you want to better the world through some service, or you want to explore the world and learn to have fun in it – perhaps having fun for the first time. You find those who like the same things you do and you hang with them. When those distortions come back, you challenge them, and you trust that your inability to see reflection doesn’t mean that you aren’t being seen; you are. You focus on the fun things you are doing together, and then take the brave step in allowing others to enjoy you. You learn to enjoy them. But there is the pain of this: If I’m experiencing joy now, then that means the betrayal from what my parents did to me is all the more evident, and all the more painful. It is painful, and that is what we try to avoid. But avoiding it prevents the freedom we deserve, and the pain will subside. You have to keep telling yourself that, the pain will subside, the distortions are not true, I like what I’m doing when I’m having fun with others or with myself, and I will continue to do this. It’s hard work, but over time, it becomes less work and more play. The hardest part is those first steps. Sometimes trial and error, because some people are just not there yet (maybe they’re hurting, too, and so they can’t do it well themselves). But you will find the right people out there, and you will find small freedoms you feel within, even if you can’t see. At least that is my hope for you, though I could be wrong.

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  3. Sorry if I’m writing a book here (my flaw is that I’m verbose, and I don’t know why, but hope this helps): “Perhaps I can practice in a way that will ensure that my internalised therapy mother ‘wins out’ more frequently and more easily than my internalised biological mother. Ultimately, that is what needs to happen in order for me to be able to fully take in the positive experiences available to me in therapy, and also to live a more fulfilling life after therapy.” When you said this, my heart broke. It’s sad what your mother did to you. Your mother wasn’t a god; she’s not the only one, and she should have never put you into a position where she was the only source you went to growing up. There are many sources you can go to to connect with people intimately, though it does take practice when you haven’t learned this growing up. But I’m a late bloomer in many things, and I’m enjoying the ride. My hope for you that, with practice, you’ll enjoy the ride, too, and you’ll find that there are many people, in addition to your therapist, whom you will enjoy, and they will enjoy you. I can understand how the first step for you is to connect on some level with your therapist, or to may be have her “win” the battle your mom instigated. I don’t know if this is right or wrong, but I’m going to risk stating my opinions here, or options. Option A: You don’t need for your therapist to “win,” but rather, you can acknowledge that your therapist shows you many things you never got as a child from your mother, but in some way, you still appreciate your bio mom at the level of wishing she were there. You appreciate your bio mom because that validates your pain when she never owned up to her responsibilities. Your therapist is showing you what I have experienced from teachers and some peers and some coaches growing up when my own parents harmed me in different ways. I got those external supports, but it sounds like you never had that; you were isolated to your mother, and your mother inhumanely made you solely dependent on her, which included an incredible amount of abuse, loss, and loneliness. You never learned that there is an entire world of caring people who would love the chance to be your friend, to connect with you and you them. Even if it feels foreign, you have something to offer others, and others have something to offer to you. You can declare the battle your mother declared as inept, and your “win” is for YOU, not your therapist, not your mother, but YOU. YOU DESERVE TO WIN! And your therapist is helping you WIN FOR YOU. You already know how much more your therapist has cared for you than your own bio mom, and that is a WIN FOR YOU. Your therapist is rewarded with the progress you make, but if you must consider the battle, your therapist has already won, as evidenced by her showing the kindness you were never given by your own bio mom. Whatever memories of your bio mom surface, those are lies, as evidenced by others who show more kindness to you than your mother ever could. Option B: Your therapist has already won, per the above explanation. Acknowledging those internalizations brings to your realization of how your mother “lost,” how you are worthy of so much more than what she showed you, how you are able to find the positive experiences that she never gave you in others, and how you are learning right now how to say that you are worthy of having a multitude of support and positives in your life. It’s okay for you to win right along with your therapist – and that is the crux of Option B. You and your therapist, together, win. And you learn to live a life outside of the therapist’s office, while still in therapy, winning with other people, and then sharing those wins with your therapist. Your therapist is like the coaches and teachers and friends I had growing up who allowed me to win while I was outside my abusive home, and I learned how to win as a child, but you can learn how to win as an adult – with others. I had many wins, and I only recently am learning how to get over the guilt of that. The scary part for me is loving my mother while knowing that others outside of family are more loving in many ways. I live with the tension of that, but you don’t have to. Everyone has a choice. But in that choice, the important thing is YOU, and I believe your therapist is trying to help you win for you, or, if you need this, for both you and your therapist to win together. The winning, however, isn’t like a war; the winning, you’ll come to find, is the worth you have in this world, the strengths and talents you have that you can give to yourself and others in this world, the ways in which your mother’s distortions are her losses and no longer yours. You will realize that your mother’s placing this war in your lap was not a battle that you should have been recruited into; you deserved to live a life in peace and safety, with love. The win is really a break from the war; it’s saying that you’ve been discharged, and you can assimilate to this new world filled with fun, hope, and love. And you will learn how to do this with the help of your therapist, then with others in the world while your therapist cheers you on. I believe you can do this! And I believe you’ve already won.

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  4. “Somebody sees me, and I see myself through them. Then it’s all gone, the whole world falls apart.” Anne Sexton

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  5. Wonderfully written post 💜. Right on the money – as usual 😊 xxx

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  6. Thank you for leading with my post. You haven’t mentioned it directly here, but I wonder whether you might feel danger in “seeing yourself” in the eyes of another and believing the truth of what you see in your therapist’s eyes. Would it change all the other relationships in your life, not just with your mother? Some people – many people – don’t want to risk the emotions that would emerge if they change their life, change their perceptions. I know you’ve done lots of work in therapy and progressed enormously, so I’m not intending to undermine your belief in that. I realize this is rather vague, which it has to be since I’m not your therapist. Something to think about if you care to, no requirement in that direction.

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