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 under the name Clara Bridges.


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The paralysis of perfectionism

*WARNING – SUICIDAL IDEATION, SWEARING, AND LACK OF AN UP-BEAT ENDING*

I am in a bad place writing-wise. I have a stack of posts I want to write, but none of them are making an appearance. Not so much as a witty first line or a poetic ending – and certainly not a coherent middle. My head is swimming with thoughts, realisations, connections, important ideas and understandings from therapy, all of which I’d like to capture – for one thing, I’m very worried I will forget it all and the work will be ‘wasted’. Worse than that, if all that will eventually be left of my relationship with my therapist are the memories of our sessions, I’m absolutely terrified that I’m letting her slip away by not recording everything, and that eventually nothing will be left of what we had.

Gone seem to be the days when I used to look forward to the end of the week and ‘discovering’ what it was I wanted to write about. Sometimes the subject matter took me by surprise and it was only a few hours before writing that it became obvious what I wanted to say. Sometimes I could feel it brewing and gathering distinctness during the week, until it became a half-formed (hopefully not half-baked) idea that could start to take shape once my fingers starting working on the keys.

Writing was easier, I think, when I used to have one, rather than two, therapy sessions a week. In a way, writing was a bit like having a session – it was a way of processing thoughts, digging deep, bridging the gap between sessions, and keeping my connection with my therapist alive. On the face of it then, perhaps having a second session has simply obviated some of the need to write. What I would have processed on paper, I can process in person. But no – I think in fact the opposite has happened. Having two sessions a week means there’s now a great deal more to process than there was before. The result? Mental and physical exhaustion towards the end of the week that means sometimes I can barely keep my eyes open as I try and type; less time for a single idea to turn over in my head and to take shape before the next set of thoughts takes it over and we’re onto something else. The pace is faster; the feelings are more intense; the depth is – well, deeper.

I think this all means we’re onto something. So many of the ideas come from different directions but end up feeling connected, and that feels like a good sign, as if it’s all coming together. But it also means that when it comes to writing about it, I don’t know where to start. In a way, it’s a bit like art imitating life. I talk about something in therapy but I’m not sure, come the first silence or come the next session, how to develop it or how to take it further. I’m paralysed by the sense that there must be a ‘right way’ to proceed; I panic at not knowing what that ‘right way’ is; I change the subject because that topic now feels a little lame and as though it must have run its course. Otherwise why would I not be able to think of anything to say, or why would my therapist not be asking me more questions about it? I used to sit down and write and see where it took me. Now, unless the idea feels fully formed and structured to start with, it’s hard to get going at all. Perhaps doing something for longer breeds more performance anxiety, not less. There is the idea that ‘standards’ must at the very least stay the same, if not improve. As with many things in life, I find it hard to do something simply for the joy of it – sooner or later something inside me wants to sacrifice joy to some sort of self-defined and self-defeating sense of achievement.

A few weeks ago I turned up to therapy without a plan (yes, I was brave enough to do it again!) and we had a lovely meandering session in which we filled in  few more of the details of my past, and which felt intimate and personal and special. At least, it did until near the end when I said that next time I would make sure I came with a plan. Given the implication of my comment (that things had not gone so well without one), my therapist asked me what I thought the session had been lacking. In fact, it had been lacking nothing – it had been beautiful, just as it was. Except for the fact that I couldn’t enjoy what it had been, because I didn’t feel I had achieved something. Things can’t go to plan if there is no plan. They can just go. But that feels uncomfortable – because I have no standard with which to judge that, or my performance against it.

I want to be fucking free. Of the anxiety I feel every time I think I may have said something wrong; of the fear of pushing people away; of the hatred of making mistakes; of the inability to cope with being dreadfully and inevitably ‘let down’; of the belief that what I say doesn’t matter or isn’t interesting to others; of the absolute conviction that I need one person, just one, to be everything and everyone in the whole wide world to me.

I may be in a bad place writing-wise, but I’m in a bad place life-wise, and that worries me more. Therapy is helping me to understand a great deal about myself, about others, about the way I relate to them and to the world. It is revealing the origin of past patterns and of enduring present beliefs. It is helping me to try and figure out little bits of who I am (I recently discovered I was an introvert – who knew?). But I find that the more I understand, the less I want to live. The more I see about what motivated some of my choices in the past, the less I want to live with them. The more I feel what I missed out on and will continue to miss out in future, the less I want to inhabit that future. The more I understand about how things are, the more powerless I feel to change them. I thought things were supposed to be the other way around? Someone please send me some radical acceptance – but it better come with precise installation instructions so that I can’t get it wrong.

In the past, I coped with life by changing the things around me, rather than changing me. Now, I can’t cope with changing the things around me, and although I could try and change me, I don’t think the things around me could cope. I’ve got myself into a little life-conundrum, and my brain is looking for a way out. As I was driving along yesterday, I was convinced that I saw a sign by the side of the road that said ‘Kill yourself, not your speed’. Thank you brain – as if you don’t distort the way I see the world enough, you try and give me little ‘signs from the universe’ to urge me on my way.

I can‘t see a way out of this experience, and in a rather restrained and understated British way, it’s a little worrying. I’m not sure I feel quite safe – and that’s unsettling. Someone very wise once said to me that “it is essential to change how one goes about daily life, much more than it is important to understand anything”. But here’s what I’m not sure about – is ‘how one goes about daily life’ about the actual living, or about one’s attitude while one does the living? I’m not sure I have the means or the courage to change the former; and I still have no idea how to change the latter. So far I’m only at the stage of realising that change is necessary – but that’s a bit like seeing the prison walls for the first time, when you had no idea they were there, and feeling as though they are falling in on you. It feels as though there’s a timer running – will I be able to figure out how to dig myself out, before they crush the air out of me?

I want to go back and do it all again – differently. I want the tattoo and the belly-button piercing, the outrageously coloured hair and the courage to make my own decisions, despite the belief that my opinions did not matter, and the feeling that I was not accepted for who I was. I want to go back and do it right, damn it. Maybe the second time around, I won’t be such a fucking perfectionist. Maybe the second time around, I’ll be happy to just do okay. Or maybe to just do.

Sigh….I’ll feel a damn sight safer when I can read that last sentence without my murderous brain shouting ‘WHO ARE YOU KIDDING?’ in response…..

 

 


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Borderline, pass, fail – BPD and testing those we love

Part of the frustration of learning more about BPD and becoming more self-aware, is the sense of feeling boringly and predictably ‘textbook’. I can just hear my therapist laughing at this point, at yet another example of wanting to be ‘special’ – which in this case is manifested as annoyance at being simply pedestrian. I’m having that feeling of predictability, right now. It’s coming up to the two-week Easter break, and the mood in therapy (at least my internal one) has changed. It’s not just that I’ve suddenly entered the zone of ‘stage-fright’ – the term my therapist used to refer to the anxiety and indecision that takes over when I enter the last fifteen minutes of our one-hour sessions. It’s the fact that I strongly suspect that I am testing her again; which, as far as my own behaviour goes, is utterly predictable in the light of the upcoming break and the emotional abandonment feelings that go with it.

It is fairly common for those with BPD to test those they care about – unfortunately, it is one of the behaviours which, due to a lack of understanding of the motivations and world-view that underlie it, can lead to accusations of manipulation or game-playing. But ‘testing’ is not a game, by any interpretation of that word. Neither is it a conscious and deliberate choice. The person with BPD may be completely unaware that they are doing it, but even if they are aware, they may be unable to stop it, or the drive to continue may feel too strong to resist.  And what drives it is, quite simply, a need to feel loved, cared for and understood.

Testing is intimately linked both with the fact that many with BPD have very high expectations of those they care about, and also with the issue of ‘magical thinking’ – that others will know what I’m thinking and what I need, even without me asking. Many with BPD unconsciously link feeling cared for, to having their expectations met and to having people intuit their needs. Testing is a way of seeing whether those criteria have been met, and therefore ultimately, it is a way of finding out whether one is cared for. This may sound far from sensible, but it can feel undeniably logical to someone with BPD as well as feeling emotionally true.

The logical and emotional forces behind testing are immense. For example, if a close friend doesn’t contact me for a while, I will worry that they don’t care, but rather than getting in touch to find out if all is well, I tend to maintain my distance. You could argue that that is game-playing; trying to elicit a response using passive-aggressive withdrawal. But according to my logic, ‘forcing’ a response would be meaningless; I want my friend to freely and without prompting, think of me and get in touch. I can see that whereas I might think of this as an opportunity for her to show me that she cares, she could argue that I am restricting the way in which she can demonstrate her caring. Her demonstration has to fit my expectation.

On a conscious level, my testing is always seeking a positive outcome – that is, I desperately want the person to pass the test. As far as my conscious mind is concerned, that is why I persist in the test even when I know that it is very unlikely to succeed. I can be so desperate for that evidence of caring, that the associated risks of huge disappointment and pain, seem worth taking. However, I think it is highly likely that there are unconscious motivations at play as well, which are the complete reverse of my conscious awareness.

My therapist has said, on a number of occasions, that it looks as though I am setting up therapy to fail or to be unsatisying. I create a situation in which I am bound to feel upset or disappointed; I may try and push boundaries, ask a question it’s unlikely she would answer, or expect something from her she is unlikely to give. Invariably, I tend to do this just before a ‘break’, whether that’s over a weekend, or a longer therapy break. This is the equivalent of ‘getting in first’ and giving myself a reason to emotionally cut myself off from her, so that I don’t have to feel either the hopelessness of loving her or the painfulness or feeling abandoned by her. It gives me a reason to feel angry with her – because my adult brain knows that it is not her fault that there is such a thing as a weekend and that everyone needs a holiday, even if the child part of me tries to deny it. In the same way, I think it’s perfectly possible that my ‘testing’ has an unconscious negative motivation. Perhaps I want people to fail the test so that I have an excuse to push them away and feel angry with them, rather than deal with the painful ramifications of closeness, and of the fact that how I want to feel cared for, isn’t necessarily how others demonstrate caring.

Just before the six week summer break, I was aware that I had unintentionally constructed two tests for my therapist. I was hoping that she would tell me that she cared about me in our last session before the break; and I was hoping that she would send me a brief email on the first anniversary of my last session with Jane, my ex-therapist. She knew how much I wanted to feel reassured that she cared about me, how anxious I was about the break, and also how difficult and painful I would find that anniversary. Surely, therefore, both of these were small and easy things that she could do, that would be enduring examples of her caring. Examples that I could recall whenever I doubted that caring in future. And surely, given that she should understand me fairly well by this point, both of those things should be fairly obvious to her, and she should know what they would mean. Or so my reasoning, and my internal justification, went.

Of course, she ‘failed’ the first test in our last session; and she failed the second a few days later. Although I expected it, I was devastated, both times. And yet I repeated the scenario again, when I realised that I was waiting to see what she would do or say on my birthday. I had already mentioned the date, and that we would have a session on the day itself, and I began to build up fantasies of what it would be like. They ranged from the ridiculously unlikely (her giving me a hug) to the fairly mundane (her giving me a card or lending me a book).

Whatever the details, the test was to see whether she would remember my birthday. And of course she did not. A friend of mine with BPD said that there were many other things she would rather her therapist remembered about her, but my own reasoning was this: why would she not commit the date to memory, and show me that she remembered, when this would be such an easy way to show me that she cared? And why would she not understand how much it would mean? My therapist and I talked about this afterwards – it was painful and challenging, but also very helpful. She was unequivocal about the fact that hugs were outside the boundary of therapy, and that my ‘testing’ succeeded only in hurting me. We have had numerous conversations, before and since, about the fact that caring can be found in ordinary things; that she cannot read my mind, but that this doesn’t mean that we aren’t connected.

And yet I can see that I’m doing it again. I made an association, a few sessions ago, between how I’ve been feeling about her in the present, and feelings from my past. I kept it to myself, mostly because it simply felt like an undercurrent, but now it has burst up to the surface in a powerful way. Even so, I found myself in the last couple of sessions deliberately staying silent on the association, waiting to see if she would mention it. If therapy is a context in which the past is replayed, why is this association all but invisible to her, when it seems like the elephant in the room to me? And it’s painful – so painful. I came back from my session and retreated to bed as soon as I could, wanting to lose myself in sleep. Feeling frustrated, not understood; parts of me feeling invisible.

But at least this time, I can challenge myself in advance of my therapist doing it for me. I know that I’m being unfair, and I can’t judge her on the basis of what she doesn’t know and what I held back from her. There were two things going on simultaneously – and she was dealing with the present, and the very obvious fears and feelings I was having about our relationship. In fact, part of the reason I held back, was that the things she was saying about that relationship and the present situation were important, helpful, and I wanted to hear them. I didn’t want to divert her from the topic, while also being frantic about the associations I was waiting for her to acknowledge.

This time, I can see that I’m hurting myself, and that it’s pointless. Only recently I told her that I’d realised how strong our relationship had become and how much conviction and trust I had in her and in her judgment. That realisation was powerful, and it can’t be undone by a fundamentally flawed test. A test that demonstrates nothing less than the fact that she is paying full attention to me in the present, and nothing more than the fact that her mind-reading powers are human, not divine.

I don’t want to test her, I want to talk to her. There is no magic to even a borderline pass in a test that is predicated on the fallacy of her being inside my head. Allowing for closeness despite a fundamental un-know-ability does not diminish us –  it makes us stronger.

 


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Making all things new – BPD and idealism

Behold I make all things new“.

I am not about to launch into a sermon, though some may recognise this as a quote from Chapter 21 of the Book of Revelation. As I described in an earlier post, my Faith, though hanging on by its fingertips, has been ‘on the back burner’ for a while, and this is not a part of the Bible that I have come across either in church or elsewhere, for some time. Nevertheless, the wonders of the human mind and free association meant that for some reason it was this phrase that flew into my mind when I was trying to process my last therapy session.

It was an unexpectedly tough session. Just over three weeks ago I wrote about how disconnected I’d been feeling from my therapist since the Christmas break, and all of a sudden last week, we were right back in that same place again. The process of writing and talking about my ‘open letter to my therapist’ had helped to re-establish connection, and we had talked about how I am still connected to her, even if I cannot feel it in a particular moment. As a result, I had thought that we were back on track and that I had at least until the Easter break before I had to deal with another possible episode of disconnection!

Not only did we establish reconnection, we went further in terms of trust and intimacy than I think we ever have before. Two weeks ago we had an amazing session in which, with her help, I managed to talk about topics that had been on my mind for many months, but which I had not had the courage to broach before. It was very difficult, and very uncomfortable, but she made it possible, and more than that, she made it feel safe.

And yet last week I was back to longing for words of reassurance and acceptance, and resenting her (or, so I thought, ‘the process’), for not providing them. It turns out that I might have made intellectual peace with the idea that not receiving frequent verbal reassurance will ultimately be ‘good for me’, but that part of me is still not emotionally convinced. The moment I feel really vulnerable and alone, and my mood crashes, I start longing for that affirmation, and needing it from her. Feeling as though I’m not getting what I need, leaves me feeling closed off, and holding back.

During my last session, it was incredibly difficult to get any words out. The session was a bizarre mixture of feeling unable or unwilling to talk, and waves of mixed up emotion that I could attach no meaning to and that simply left me wondering what on earth was going on. I know that therapy is a setting in which past experiences can be re-played – and I had a definite sense that something was playing out, but I had no idea what it was. It was when I came home, completely perplexed about how and why things had turned out as they did, that the phrase “Behold, I make all things new“, came into my mind.

It seems too random, too strange to ignore. What does it mean, in this context? What resonances does it have? In the context in which the phrase appears in Revelation, it is about restoration and redemption. It’s about God creating a new and perfect heaven and earth, where separation between God and man is eliminated  (reflected in the fact that ‘there is no more sea’ between them). There’s no patching up of a broken world, or of a broken relationship – there is complete renewal, and a completely restored relationship between the earthly and the divine.

When I emailed my therapist to tell her that this phrase had suggested itself to me, she wrote back with another line from Revelation 21 – “for the former things are passed away”. I think that her interpretation would be that I’m struggling to adapt to the ‘new’ (therapy with her) and am still clinging to the ‘old’ (Jane, my ex-therapist), and am finding it difficult to let go. It reminds me of the sessions just before Christmas when I simply couldn’t choose which of two topics to talk about, and spent ages in silence, just paralysed by indecision. In that instance too, my therapist had suggested that choosing meant letting go of one option, and that I found that very difficult.

But for me, both cases feel as though they are much more about the situation I’m in, than the one that I have had to let go. The psychiatrist who diagnosed me with BPD said that I needed to let go of the notion of ‘perfect care’, because it did not exist. My difficulty, I think, is not so much with letting go, as with letting go of perfection – in all its many forms. I don’t mind putting aside a topic of conversation until another day – but I find it very difficult to deal with the idea that what we do end up talking about, might not go well. While they are still just topics up for discussion, I can imagine a situation in which they each result in emotional, productive, memorable and important sessions. What happens when I choose one is that I have to give up that perfect scenario and trade it for a reality that may fall far below ‘the ideal’.

When I was little I loved the story of Pollyanna – a little girl who always found something to be glad about, in any situation. What I didn’t realise, until I googled it just now, is that people’s interpretations of Pollyanna are divided between those who think that she saw the negative but simply chose to emphasize the positive; and those who think that she was blindly optimistic and refused to see or acknowledge the negative. I certainly ‘re-cast’ past or present difficulties in therapy, in such a way as to draw out the positive. However, I don’t think that’s by way of ‘making the best’ of a situation, because that would involve accepting that the situation does not conform to my definition of ‘ideal’ to start with. It’s about making it a ‘new’ situation, and allowing the restored present to redeem the past.

I used to worry about how I would ever reach a position of deep trust and intimacy with my therapist, when we had such a rocky and difficult start. For me, ruptured relationships have tended to stay ruptured, and very rarely have I had either the desire or the ability to restore them. But when it came to my therapist, I solved my own problem by a logical and perceptual contortion in which the ‘perfect therapy’ became defined as one that is ultimately forged in the fire of tribulation.

I think what I’ve stumbled upon is another example of an absolutely ingrained world-view related to my BPD – another example of a distorted lens through which I see the world. Back in December, I described how in my borderline mind, my fundamental desire to be perfectly understood and loved, coloured the way I saw and interpreted everything I came across. I think what I’m now realising, is that my desire for perfection in general, does the same. Perhaps my desire for perfect love and understanding is simply a sub-set of that bigger hunger. A hunger for idealism – defined as ‘an unrealistic belief in or pursuit of perfection’.

It is hard – very hard – for many people with BPD to hold two conflicting notions side by side. Hard to accept that someone or something can be both ‘good’ and ‘bad’ at the same time. That is why one of the key symptoms of BPD is ‘splitting’ or ‘black and white thinking’, in which one’s views and feelings about someone alternate between thinking they are ‘all good’ or ‘all bad’. Holding these opposite notions together is difficult because in my head, the ‘bad’ taints the ‘good’, unless I can somehow make the negative into a positive, so that the whole picture can ‘look rosy’ again, without the dark patches making it look ugly.

But there are two other implications of ‘making all things new’, and re-casting reality in a different light. It means never having to patch anything up – never having to struggle to fix anything. A ruptured relationship is ‘miraculously’ transformed, or the rupture is completely ignored. Mending feels too difficult, too ‘grown up’. I don’t have a template for adult mending – every argument I ever had with my parents was simply buried, ignored and never mentioned again. Nothing was ever properly resolved.

Making all things new also means not having to live with your mistakes – something I find it incredibly hard to do, and which makes me incredibly anxious. Sometimes it feels as though I spend my life in the avoidance of self-blame, guilt and regret over ‘bad decisions’. Having them wiped out is so much easier than having them ‘in the frame’ where I may be continually reminded of them, unable to escape the anxiety they cause me because I am unable to accept myself, and the world, as we truly are. Flawed, but fine.

Both before and after my last therapy session, I had an immense desire for reconnection and for restoration of our therapeutic relationship. I had imagined apologising for ‘having been so stupid’ in doubting my therapist again; and I imagined a free and easy conversation in which we talked about how the situation had come about. I wanted to redeem myself in her eyes, and to renew our bond. I wanted there to be no more separation between us – no more sea.

I think she would say that things were never perfect – but neither were they ruptured. That no restoration or redemption was necessary. Difficult sessions, time apart, negative feelings I may have had towards her, awkward conversations – none of that had ‘tainted’ our relationship. Our connection was still intact through all of that, even if my perception of it was not. And that was something we could work on – we could work to fix the rupture, even if it was ‘just’ perceptual. But that’s to have her viewpoint on the world, which is not yet my own.

I just wanted to make all things new – and perfect again, for a little while.

 

[I sent my therapist an earlier draft of this post before my last session, and when we discussed it, I asked her if my interpretation of the reason for her quote from Revelation, was accurate. She said that it wasn’t – that the ‘former things’ that she had in mind were things or ways of thinking from my past, and were not related to my ex-therapist. I’m not sure how I felt about ‘getting it wrong’! But the mistake was interesting in itself. I often worry that my therapist will think that I am still comparing her with my ex-therapist, Jane – but it seems I may be the only one who is still hung up on the comparison, and much more so than I had thought!]


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Selective hearing – and all that jazz

pushchair finalI think I need a new pair of ears. I’m quite attached to my current ones, and there is not a great deal wrong with them cosmetically; nor are they more than usually clogged up with wax. Nevertheless there seems to be a rather serious fault with my hearing, which I think I have been ignoring for some time.

The problem seems very much like the one my children are inflicted with. It’s called selective hearing. The selectivity can depend either on the content of the message (‘please get dressed’ versus ‘there’s cake in the kitchen’); or on the person uttering it (me versus anyone else in the universe). The selectivity may also depend on the emotional state of the child at the time. For example, feeling angry involves hearing nothing at all – although in fairness this applies to anyone within a hundred yards, given the volume at which my children voice ‘being angry’. Alternatively, feeling hungry for cake and therefore being open to bribery, entails hearing everything, even if it is only spoken once.

Lastly, the selectivity also depends on expectations. If my children are expecting me to give them cake before bedtime (if, for example, I have been foolish enough to promise them such a thing in exchange for five minutes of peace in the car on the drive home), absolutely nothing I say regarding a lack of cake will be heard at all. If I burn the buns, if there is no flour in the house, if all the supermarkets in the world are shut – none of that will matter. Instead, I will be expected to magic some cake into existence to satisfy their all-consuming need, or else I risk facing their impressive explosions of irrational rage.

A few days ago, I resumed therapy after a few weeks’ break over the summer holidays. As often happens after my sessions, I tried to remember particular parts of the conversation, or particular things that my therapist said, but struggled to do so. But in trying to remember, I did recall a couple of phrases which brought me up short and which really made me conscious for the first time, of how great my hearing problem really is.

I had challenged my therapist over a sentence which I had found upsetting, in one of her recent emails. During the course of her explanation of what she had been hoping to convey, she mentioned that I ‘used words well’ and that she had been trying to show that I was ‘held in mind’ during the break. I had clearly heard the words (in a purely auditory sense), and I had even remembered them. But at the time, they simply washed over me, neither heeded nor absorbed. They made no impact, and yet on reflection, that fact astounded me.

In my post ‘Good therapy’, I referred to the fact that fellow blogger BPD Transformation had said to me that it’s possible to train yourself to ‘look for signs’ that your therapist cares about you. My intense and all-consuming attachment to my previous therapist, Jane, meant that I didn’t really have to try ‘look for signs’ – I found them readily, in precious, remembered phrases that still serve to uphold my conviction that she did, in fact, care about me. When thinking about my current therapist’s words, it occurred to me that from Jane, those words would have been gold. I would have clung onto them, absorbed them, taken them to heart and held them. They would have been a ‘sign’ of the fact that she cared, and the fact that she thought about me and thought well of me (or at least, of my writing!).

But as described in some of my other posts on the subject of therapy, I have been struggling for some time now to feel cared for, understood and accepted by my current therapist. There has been progress on all those fronts; and I still have Hope. But I remain desperate to know and to feel that she cares about me; and I have been dying for some praise, whether that concerns my writing, or some progress or realisation I might have made in therapy. So how could those words of hers have passed me by so blithely?

When it comes to selective hearing it seems to be a case of ‘Jane versus the rest of the world’. It’s not that my hearing wasn’t selective when it came to Jane – it was that it was selective in a diametrically opposing way. My rigid determination to keep her on her pedestal ensured that my mind filtered out anything remotely negative or less than perfect, and completely ignored it. Whereas with all other people, I suffer from quite a common BPD tendency to notice the negative much more than positive, or to construe the neutral in a negative way, wherever possible. In large part, I think that’s a function of the fact that I project how I feel onto others; and also a function of assuming that everyone else sees the world through my own particular brand of borderline lens. But with my current therapist, the situation appears to be even worse – it seems to be a case not just of noticing the negative more, but of barely noticing the positive at all.

When it comes to selective hearing it seems to be a case of my feelings being either the amplifier or the attenuator of what is heard. If I am worshipping someone, I hang off their every word, and their words sustain me. If I am feeling rejected and misunderstood by someone, then it’s very difficult for anything they say to get through, and to be truly heard. Difficult, that is, unless it happens to live up to my expectations of what I think I need to hear. Difficult, unless it happens to match up to my script.

Perhaps the problem with my hearing is that it is like one of those badly designed internet search engines which will not find what you are looking for unless you happen to guess almost exactly, the correct combination of words or phrases to search for.

I’m coming to realise that, at least with those closest to me, when I’m in distress and in need of validation and reassurance, I expect it to arrive in a certain way. I expect others to reassure me using words that are part of a script that exists only in my mind. And I expect them to intuit it word perfectly, without any help or clues, or without even the knowledge that the script exists. These expectations are not necessarily conscious, and the script may not even exist until I think about what I needed ‘after the fact’. But the after-effects as described in my posts on communication and on anger – the disappointment, hurt and the rage of expectations not met – are there none-the-less.

This is ‘magical thinking’ at its worst. It doesn’t just rob me of the ability to ask for what I need; it robs me of the ability to receive what I need, unless it is delivered in ‘exactly the right way’.

My post on the relationship between BPD and expectations, and the difficulties that this results in, in terms of communication, was entitled ‘Are you receiving me?’. However, it seems to me that I am the one who needs to be receptive. I need to widen my channels of communication, and allow more than one route in. I need to scrap the script, and allow for the possibility of improvisation.

And with careless disregard for mixing my metaphors – when it comes to therapy, I need to remember that it is more like jazz, than a piano duet. I found the following wonderful words online: “Playing jazz is as much about listening as it is being able to play your instrument. In that kind of situation, a player isn’t thinking about ‘what should I play next’, but rather ‘what is the music, at this moment in time, missing that I can provide?’” .

Turning this on its head, perhaps for me, in therapy, I should be thinking not so much ‘what am I expecting to hear?’ but ‘what are the words, at this moment in time, providing for me, that I am missing?’

 

 

[‘Magical thinking’  is a phrase that my ex-therapist Jane used, to refer to my expectation and assumption that others could (and should) be able to know what I’m thinking and how I’m feeling, without me having to tell them.]


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Are you receiving me – BPD, communication and expectations

I may write blog posts and enjoy giving presentations, but in many ways, I have a BIG problem with communication. I think the difficulty is two-fold: on the one hand it stems from the desperate desire to be understood (which I described in a previous post) and the fear that communication will not result in the understanding or acceptance that I crave.

On the other hand, my difficulty with communication also stems from something which, just like fellow blogger and friend Cat Earnshaw from ‘Half of a Soul – Life with BPD’, I believe is at the core of BPD. And that is the issue of EXPECTATIONS. ‘Expectations’ writ large – the way they are inside the minds of so many with this diagnosis. We withdraw and stop communicating when we feel betrayed and disappointed because our expectations are not met; and sometimes we don’t realise we need to communicate how we think or feel, because our expectation is that the other person does, or should, already know.

Cat Earnshaw titled her post on expectations, “If you’re going to read one post I write, please let it be this one”. If you’re going to read one post on expectations, please let it be that one. (Although I admit I’d also appreciate you coming back to this post!). It’s one of those wonderful pieces of writing that, at least for me, describes a phenomenon exactly as I experience it.

So what is it, exactly, that we expect? In some cases, it is nothing short of perfection: someone who is perfect for us; a perfect relationship; perfect patience; perfect words; perfect understanding; perfect care. Someone who will always be there, who will put our needs first, and who will never let us down. I would suggest that few of these are conscious expectations – our logical brains know that perfection is unattainable and human beings are fallible. But our hearts, and our emotion-minds, and those very young parts of us that have not yet been able to grow up, think and feel very differently. They still believe that perfect care is possible – they still need it to be true.

That need gives rise, I think, to an incredibly heightened sensitivity and reactivity to others’ words and actions, to the extent that everything someone says, does, doesn’t say or doesn’t do, can become evidence of that person’s lack of caring. Much though I hate it, I know that when I’m in that frame of mind and being triggered by my expectations, regardless of what may be going on in someone’s life that influences the way they relate to me, in my mind it all becomes about how they feel about me. This leads to me being much more likely to become wary or suspicious of them; to misinterpret or read things into what they say; to feel wronged by them; to feel jealousy towards them, particularly with respect to their attention and time; and to want to test them, or more accurately, to test their caring for me. My instinctive reaction to these feelings is often to want to blame others and to ‘punish’ them for the crushing disappointment and rejection that I feel. And the greatest punishment I can inflict is the one I fear the most myself – distancing, pushing away, and withdrawing communication.

But for me, the greatest threat to communication is not withdrawing it, but assuming it. Undoubtedly one of the largest and most crippling expectations that I have, is what my ex-therapist called the expectation of ‘magical thinking’. That is, the assumption that others could (and should) be able to know what I’m thinking and how I’m feeling, without me having to tell them. ‘Half of a Soul – Life with BPD’ referred to this as someone being able to telepathically intuit my every need, for ever. The expectation of magical thinking plays havoc with communication and with relationships and its poison lies not just in its assumption of another’s knowing how I think or feel, but in the importance and meaning that is attached to that assumption.

Put simply, part of me holds this unshakable belief. That if someone really understands me and cares about me, they should know what I need without me having to ask, and they should know what I’m thinking and how I’m feeling, without me having to put it into words. And consequently, if they don’t know, they don’t really care or understand. Moreover, part of that unshakable belief is that if I have to ask for those things (for example, if I have to ask for reassurance, or ask for a hug), it diminishes their value, in two ways. Those things can no longer serve as ‘evidence’ of caring and understanding; and I can no longer be sure that they are ‘freely given’. Part of me feels that if I have to ask for something, emotionally, then it is not my due, and I do not deserve or merit it. If I have to ask for something, emotionally, I feel that the giving is in response to my coercion, and not to a genuine feeling within the other person.

It’s a fallacy. I know that it is. But it feels so incredibly logical. It feels so incredibly true.

And as with any other of these seemingly logical expectations, when they are not met, the accompanying feelings are a whirlwind of rejection, blame and hurt. I spoke about blaming and punishing others, but we also blame and punish ourselves. Just tonight, I read a post on ‘Big battles, small victories’, which I think was also, at root, about expectations (apologies to the author, if this is not the case!), and which contained the line “I want to hurt myself again”. Every time I feel crushed because my expectations are not met, I want to hurt myself again.

I suspect that for almost everyone reading this who has BPD, the phenomenon of ‘great expectations’ is a familiar one. But it’s also worth saying that it’s possible to carry on with life and with relating to people for years, without realising the powerful force that lies within, waiting to be triggered. ‘So Illuminate Me’ said, in one of her posts, “My BPD often comes out more, when I genuinely care for someone”. And so it is with BPD and the expectations we have of people. Our exceptionally high expectations, and the thoughts, feelings and behaviours that flow from those, seem to manifest mostly in relation to those we feel closest to. In my own case, they manifest in relation to those to whom I have made myself vulnerable, and those to whom I have made myself more fully known. And because I spent the majority of my life being determined never to be fully known, it’s only been in the last few years that I’ve experienced the painful phenomenon of BPD expectations on a much more regular basis.

Although I’ve made progress over the last couple of years in terms of revealing more of myself to a very small number of friends, I’m still very wary of widening that ‘inner circle’. Part of me doesn’t want to add yet another person to the list of those who trigger me in this way. I’ve tried to understand how it happens – how someone can go from being outside that circle one minute, to crossing the line into the centre of it, in an instant. I think it’s a complicated picture involving a number of factors: it’s about me sharing a great deal of myself, and my feelings and thoughts; it’s about the other person having either explicitly or implicitly given some sort of commitment to ‘be there’ for me; it’s about trust; and it’s about me testing that trust and commitment by revealing ever more ‘difficult’ things. Sometimes the very process of ‘unburdening’ myself to someone can lead to an immediate and invisible bond being forged between us, which may be very real to me, but which the other person may be completely oblivious to.

Given the fact that my expectations tend to be triggered by the factors described above, it’s unsurprising that I experience these feelings with respect to my therapists (both past and present). This is particularly true of me at the moment, and as it is such a recurring theme in my therapy, I intend to write about it separately.

In the meantime, however, I wanted to leave you with a quote from an excellent post I came across on ‘Tracing the rainbow through the rain’. Although it is mainly about BPD and ‘competence’, it describes how I experience the problem of expectations so exactly, and so completely, that I wanted to quote the relevant paragraph in full. In particular, it talks about the expectation of magical thinking, and about how it applies in the context of medical professionals and service users. I hope you came back from Cat Earnshaw’s post to this one, if only to read this paragraph:

“Paradoxically, whilst constructing a mask of competence and coping with excessive levels of stress and responsibility, I would vilify those closest to me along with medical professionals for not seeing my real needs. Effectively, I would blame everyone around me for not being mind readers. This is one of the greatest challenges to professionals trying to help those with BPD who display apparent competence. I will not openly tell you about my emotional distress, but I will hold you accountable for not seeing ‘through’ my mask of competence and I will make you ‘suffer’ as a consequence. My outward co-operation as a service user was tempered by a harsh assessment of those seeking to help me, particularly if I felt they couldn’t see through my outward competence. If anyone failed to ask the ‘right’ question, or misread my mood on any given day, then progress for that day would be painful if not halted.”

The tragedy of expectations is how self-defeating they are: we are so desperate for someone to truly ‘see’ us, that we pull down the blinds simply because they fail to ‘see through us’. We make ourselves invisible, by not accepting the inherent invisibility of our minds.

Somewhere deep down, we are still the infant who believes that she and mother are one being; we are still the toddler who believes that everyone else knows and sees what she does. These are the growing pains of BPD. 

 

 

[If you read the comments on Half of a Soul’s post ‘If you’re going to read one post I write, please let it be this one’, you may notice a strong similarity between my post above, and the comments of ‘Still Hiding’. That is because ‘Still Hiding’ was the ‘name’ I used before I started blogging and before I created ‘Life in a Bind’!]