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.


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Erotic transference

I first wrote about erotic transference – that is, feelings of romantic love or sexual fantasies a client has about their therapist – more than a year ago, on this blog. In my latest post for welldoing.org (counselling and psychotherapy directory and information resource), I have summarised some of the most common client responses associated with this transference that I have come across (and experienced myself), and a helpful way of understanding how the transference may come about, and why, and the ways in which it’s been useful in furthering my therapy:

https://welldoing.org/article/i-was-sexually-attracted-to-my-therapist

I really hope that this article will contribute in some small way to encouraging more clients to mention their feelings to their therapists, rather than being weighed down by the confusion, shame and fear that often prevents them from talking about the subject. And I hope it might even encourage a few more blogging therapists to say a little more about it!

 

 


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Memory Monday – “Sexual feelings for your therapist – and what they can tell you”

This week’s Memory Monday is one of my most-viewed posts, and it was also one of the hardest for me to write. I first started it nine months before I finally had the guts to finish and publish it, in August 2015.

Many people I’ve come across who are in therapy, experience a range of feelings for their therapists; but perhaps some of the hardest feelings to deal with are sexual ones, particularly if you are already in a committed relationship, or if the gender of your therapist is not the gender you are most frequently attracted to. The feelings are difficult for a number of reasons, including the sense of shame they can engender and the sense that they are ‘wrong’ and that you are ‘bad’ for having them. They can also be incredibly confusing, as often they can be juxtaposed with other feelings (such as feeling childlike or also viewing your therapist as a parent figure), and that juxtaposition in itself can lead to further shame.

What I finally realised after many months of agonising over these feelings and images, is that as with dreams and fantasies, they are multi-layered and can be incredibly revealing of one’s inner psychological state and preoccupations. And I also realised that rather than feeling ashamed or trying to shy away from the emotions, it can be very helpful to ask two key questions: what are these feelings or images trying to tell me; and why are they particularly prevalent at this time. Examining the feelings in this way can also, to a large degree, help to take the ‘sting’ out of how ‘wrong’ they feel, as other meanings are revealed. If this seems strange or unlikely, I hope that my post helps to explain how this can work, and how it has worked (and continues to work) for me:

https://lifeinabind.com/2015/08/08/sexual-feelings-for-your-therapist-and-what-they-can-tell-you/

The reason I am using this post for Memory Monday now, is that I am coming to the end of a two week therapy break, and sexual feelings for my therapist have resurfaced, after many many months of being absent. As noted in my post above, I used to find that such feelings and images used to come to the fore prior to a ‘reunion’ with my therapist, and it seemed to make sense that the sexual images of merger were anticipating that reunion and the desire never to be ‘abandoned’ again. When those feelings and images were absent for many months, I put that down to an increasing confidence and trust in my therapist; the ability to keep her more in mind during therapy breaks; and the ability to hold on to the fact that we were still connected, despite being apart – she had not abandoned me.

And so at first I found the reappearance of these feelings disturbing – as if they were a retrograde step. But when I gave myself permission to really think about them (and the accompanying images), and to let them run their course in my mind, they became much less disturbing because the puzzle pieces started to fall into place a little bit. The fantasy in my head involved me, my therapist, and one other person. Thinking about the positioning of the three ‘characters’ in this scenario, and how this changed as the story unfolded; and thinking about how I felt in each section of the ‘play’, really helped me to get a sense of what the fantasy may be about. In the end, I think the three characters are all different parts of me, and the story that plays out reveals not just how I currently think about the physical act of sex, and about emotional intimacy (I have never been able to successfully marry the two together); but it also reveals my desire for the ‘ideal’ linkage of the two aspects into a single whole, as well as the belief that I will never be able to achieve that ideal.

I would very much like to repeat the message I tried to give at the end of my post above; a message of encouragement to dare to face these feelings not just for yourself, but to dare to face them and reveal them, when you are ready, to your therapist. Realising what the sexual feelings mean is one thing, and it can be an incredibly illuminating and instructive experience; but having those feelings accepted by the person they are focused on, is another thing entirely, and it can be a feeling of powerful ‘absolution’ from any sense of shame or guilt about those experiences. It may take many months, as it did in my case – but if you can bring yourself to discuss these matters with your therapist, it could end up being one of the best decisions you make in therapy.

 


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Sexual feelings for your therapist – and what they can tell you

Tonight is the night. I have been meaning to write this post since last November – so it’s only taken me nine months!
I finally decided I had to write it because of a comment I read on an amazing post called ‘Erotic transference‘ by Attachment Girl (AG) on ‘Tales of a Boundary Ninja‘. The individual making the comment thanked AG for the post, and said that it was a “great public service for people like me to learn from“. This immediately reminded me of the start I had already made, many months ago, on this post. I began like this:

I can’t quite believe I’m writing this post. I think the only way I can convince myself to do it is if I see it as some form of ‘public service’. So often I come across forum posts or bloggers who talk about the intense feelings they have for their therapists, and how they find these feelings incredibly confusing, painful and often embarrassing. And it seems clear that one of the most difficult things about those feelings is wondering if the are ‘usual’, acceptable, and shared by others. I want to show that the answer to that question is YES.”

I like the way my answer to my own question was an emphatic ‘YES’ and yet I still hid beneath a rock for nine months and literally couldn’t write about these feelings, which are so ‘usual’ and ‘acceptable’. But I’m going to come out from under that rock because I DO still believe that these feelings are experienced by many people, and that it’s really important to talk about them. And by talk about them, I mean talk about them PARTICULARLY with your therapist. And if you think you can’t do it – read this and cringe. And cringe some more -and then, please, have that conversation….

An important thing to say is that I find it impossible to define exactly how I feel about my therapist. The nature of the feelings changes and I have lots of different types of feelings for her. I used to find that quite disturbing, but I decided, in the end, that I didn’t need to define them. I know that I love her – but I no longer feel compelled to place a label on that love, and to call it one type or another. It’s complicated – and that’s okay.

At the same time, I am also trying to accept that I may never quite be able to separate out what is ‘transference’ (that is, what is actually a feeling about, or connected with, someone else or a situation from my past or present) and what is a genuine feeling about her. What I am completely adamant about is that I DO have genuine and strong feelings about her. When I say I love her, I mean I love HER – in as much as I possibly can, and despite how relatively little I know about her. The way in which I experience that at any particular time may well be a function of the type of transference we are engaged in during our work  – and who she most represents to me at that time. But I cannot cope with the thought that what I feel for her is all just a function of therapeutic process – and I am sure that is not the case. And, from certain things she has said in session, I’m pretty sure she agrees with that assessment.

This post is primarily about the sexual aspects of the feelings I have for her – although it is not those feelings which dominate, they are the ones that can feel the most difficult and the most confusing. Particularly when placed side by side with the other (and more frequent) types of feelings I experience. Often it feels like being deeply and intensely in love; but at other times it feels as though I want desperately for her to be my mother and for me to be her child.
There are two key things  I have come to learn about sexual feelings towards one’s therapist: that it is important to try and accept them rather than criticize, deny or feel ashamed of them (much MUCH easier said than done); and that it is important to try and understand what they are telling us. Because they have a HUGE amount to say.

I find that lots of things that we experience or talk about in therapy ‘stand’ for something else, in addition to their more ‘obvious’ meaning. And so the first thing I came to understand, is that sex is a very important metaphor for emotional intimacy. As adults, the place in which we are usually most emotionally intimate with someone, is in the context of a romantic relationship, in which that love and intimacy is expressed physically. It is not at all surprising then, that in the context of a therapeutic relationship – which is incredibly intimate in a very unique way – that the ‘adult’ reaction is for that sense of intimacy to become linked with sexual feelings and a desire for physical expression. When looking for a place to ‘put’ our feelings for our therapist, this is the closest parallel we can think of.

But there is another aspect to this, which Attachment Girl talks about. As a child, intense emotional intimacy existed, or should have existed, in a very early phase when the child was essentially non-individuated from the mother. Where there was complete merger, and no separation. Part of developing and growing up is moving through this phase, into healthy separation and a sense of self, independent of the parent. When this development doesn’t fully occur, and where there are unmet needs from childhood, we may experience that childlike longing for merger with our therapist, as with a parent; but at the same time the reference point for those feelings of intimacy from the point of view of our adult self, is a sexual relationship. Which can be why what we experience for our therapist feels so confusing – we may be experiencing a childlike longing, but through adult eyes and brain.

Understanding sexual feelings as a general metaphor for an adult’s experience of emotional intimacy, and understanding how a child’s experience of intimacy can transpire alongside this, was a key step in enabling me to accept my feelings for my therapist, rather than be so troubled by them. And once I accepted them, I was more prepared to explore them, and to try and figure out what they meant. Part of that involved trying to notice when those feelings arose, and trying to understand the timing; asking the question ‘why now’? It also involved thinking about the sexual imagery itself – the nature of the fantasy – and what that might be telling me. And it also, on occasion, involved me conducting ‘thought experiments’ to see what they had to reveal. It’s not just unbidden thoughts that can be of value – but what you are prepared to imagine, and conversely, which situations you find it really hard to think yourself into.

It was around a year ago that I finally figured out the meaning behind one of my most frequent and disturbing (to me) sexual images involving therapy. But it took me well over six months before I had the courage to say anything to my therapist. I still can’t quite believe that I did. The realisation was an important one – but the way in which it had tried to communicate itself, was extremely difficult and confusing to bear, until the meaning became clear. Understanding that a fantasy about me wanting her to watch me take care of my own sexual needs in session, was actually about ultimate acceptance from her, was both a revelation and a relief. The concept of desperately wanting someone to fully accept me and to delight in me; to delight in the idea of me as a separate individual, taking care of myself, without needing me to be dependent on them to meet my needs – THAT is what all those sexual images, which had caused me so much pain, had been about.  And, as described above, those needs related directly to what I felt I hadn’t had or experienced in childhood. Since I realised that, and since feeling much more accepted in therapy, those images have largely gone away.

At around the time of last autumn’s brief therapy break, I also started to realise that my sexual feelings for my therapist appeared particularly during, and towards the end of, a therapy break. And the nature of the images was again disturbing to me, as they felt so much at odds with how gently and lovingly (though still intensely) I felt about her at other times. The emotions felt almost aggressive, and that was also the tenor of the accompanying images. I felt an enormous desire for merger, but in a way that involved me ‘taking her over’ completely. The picture in my mind was of literally pushing her up against a wall and ‘giving her the time of her life’ – and yes, I did actually say that to her…..Go on, you can say anything to your therapist after that…..

Did she blush? Did she cringe? Was she horrified? Did she laugh? No, none of the those things. She was un-phased, as she had been when I told her that I loved her and asked her if that was okay, and she said of course it was. On this occasion she simply remarked that the image was as if I wanted to give her an experience so good that it was completely irresistible. And then I realised that yes – when I was nearing the end of a therapy break, what I wanted desperately was reunion, and for her to never ever leave me again. The ‘aggressive’ element was probably connected both to suppressed anger at her ‘abandoning’ me during the break to start with, as well as to a desire to be a ‘good’ and irresistibly interesting patient, upon her return.

But that image had more to give…..I realised that all my dreams or unbidden fantasies involving sex with women, all had that same ‘aggressive’ edge to them, and I always felt like a ‘perpetrator’. The encounter was never ever pleasurable or fulfilling, either for me or for the other party involved. I have come to link this image with the feelings described in my post ‘Total impact – BPD, helplessness and power‘. I think these images may be connected both with my desire to have more power (mainly, over myself) and to feel less helpless; but also to the sense that everything I do impacts upon people, often negatively.

Sexual images and feelings are, in general, reflective of more difficult times in my therapy. Which is also something noted by Attachment Girl, who commented that an upswing in her sexual desires for her therapist tended to happen when she was moving towards a difficult realisation, and the erotic feelings were almost serving as a distraction. Whereas once a major breakthrough had been made, her feelings were centred around gratitude and safety. That is exactly my experience – to which I would add feelings of great love, but not in a way that feels sexual.

I have slowly come to see that the fact that I am even having sexual feelings about my therapist, is a positive thing, for a number of reasons. I have always had the notion that the ‘perfect and purest relationship’ is a non-sexual one. I idealised Jane, my ex-therapist, completely, and sexual images involving her were so upsetting and painful, that on occasion I deliberately brought them to mind as a form of emotional self-harm when cutting was no longer proving as effective. Recently, a friend of mine started a sexual relationship with an older woman whom she had been close friends with for a number of years. When I spoke of it with my therapist, I talked about how I’d felt disappointed that their relationship had ‘degenerated into that’. My therapist asked why this might be, and I realised that it may well stem back to the fact that my mother exalted the mother-daughter relationship above all others and believed it held a unique place. Which of course, in many ways, it does – but she emphasized it in a way that was incredibly exclusive and sought to minimize, in comparison, every other kind of relationship. I was always aware that my father was very much ‘third place’ (at most) in her affections, being ‘outranked’ by both me and by my grandmother.

My acceptance of these feelings for my therapist means, I think, that I can see her as human and imperfect rather than idealised (though I admit I still do struggle with that sometimes!). But also, as I realised quite suddenly a few months ago – she and her body are one. I don’t love some mysterious essence of her,  I love her, and that includes everything I see before me. It shouldn’t be that I see a physical expression of love as somehow inferior or impure or imperfect. Or at least, no more imperfect than the wonderful person that I am privileged to love. Somehow, although I have been in relationships all my adult life, that was a strangely new thought.

The sexual feelings have made a reappearance during this therapy break. But they are different, and I’m trying to understand what that means. When I carried out ‘thought experiments’ in the past, to see what my ‘bidden’ rather than ‘unbidden’ fantasies could show me, I discovered that the thoughts and images were very much ‘milder’ and more loving than those more aggressive pictures I had had before. But they still involved my therapist being completely submissive – immobile even – with me paying her all of the physical attention. When I tried to imagine her touching me instead, it was very very difficult. Not just difficult to imagine, but difficult to accept, emotionally. And I don’t think that was just about the forbidden nature of sexual relationships in the context of therapy. I could sense that my reluctance to have her touch me, rather than me touching her, was about making myself vulnerable and letting her get closer. I think it was connected to the realisation I had, described in my post ‘Censored: wearing a mask in therapy‘, that I was still holding back, and not giving her access to my thoughts and emotions, as they happened.

And so it’s interesting to me that this time around, it’s about wanting to feel her touch me, and not the other way around. Accepting her touch, wanting her to show me things – rather than me taking control and ‘forcing myself’ upon her. It’s not even so much about merger, this time around – there is a certain separateness still, in wanting to feel her touch upon me. I used to want so much to merge indivisibly with Jane, my ex-therapist. But it occurs to me now that if I’m swallowed up by my therapist, I cannot see her – and I really, really want to see her. And to be seen. And that’s only possible if we do not occupy the same space.

This feels like one of the hardest things I’ve ever written. And it’s not because of the sex. It’s because of what I’ve JUST written – in the paragraph above. It scares me – so much.

So if you’re having similar feelings about your therapist, but you feel far too ashamed and scared to talk about them – I sincerely hope that this post will be an encouragement to do so. I truly believe that as well as being one of the most excruciating therapy moments you might go through, it could also be one of the most beneficial and healing.

I hope that this post will be an encouragement not just because of all the things I have admitted to in therapy (and if I can, you can too!); but because the fear inherent in talking about the feelings, pales when compared to what slowly comes as a result of the talking – the fear of progress, when you realise that something might be changing.