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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Uncensored: jumbled thoughts, post-therapy pain

[Usually, I like my posts to have a structure – a beginning, middle and an end. This post is a departure. It has a great many beginnings, some middles and no real end. It’s mostly failed beginnings, as I tried to start over and over and over again. At some point I gave up and simply started writing down thoughts as they came to mind. Paragraphs. Single sentences. At another point I started writing aborted beginnings again. There is no logical structure – and a fair amount of repetition.

It was a few days ago – and three hours after my last therapy session. I was hurting and I was very confused. For the last few sessions as well as dealing with the ‘content of therapy’, we kept coming back to the ‘process of therapy’ itself, which for me, was rapidly becoming a major part of the content. It felt as though almost every thought, feeling or conversation I was having, was coming up against a way in which I was wanting therapy or my therapist to be something other than what they were. I was finding it difficult to accept them, and therefore to be open to what they could give me. 

I know there is no ‘route map’ for therapy. That some of the most renowned therapists have no idea how the process actually works – they just know that it does. And so I have always tried to accept the uncertainty of not really knowing how therapy was going to unfold or what my precise destination was. But recently, and particularly at my last session, I felt completely lost, with absolutely no sense of what I was meant to be doing, of how I should behave, or of what might constitute progress; while at the same time feeling that those thoughts were ‘wrong’ because there was no ‘right way’ of proceeding in these matters.

So these, for what they’re worth, are my jumbled thoughts and feelings, as they were at the time. I share them not because they are particularly helpful or insightful, or explanatory – but only in case someone else may be feeling exactly the same way, and may want to know that they have company in those feelings, and that some of them, at least, may be short-lived. I no longer wish to undo what I have been doing; I don’t regret trusting (to whatever extent I may have done that), taking risks, loving. But I’m still confused – about many things. And I’m still not sure how to ‘do therapy’ – if not ‘better’, then at least in a way that is more helpful to me. But, as my therapist said, the more I can simply experience it rather than analyse how I’m doing it, the more we can work on together. Including what that ‘togetherness’ actually means.]

I feel horribly confused. Nothing makes sense. I feel diminished. Hopelessly diminished. Or hopeless and diminished, or both.

***

Maybe I should try and see her as my doctor. As just a professional who’s there to help me. But that is what she is, isn’t she? And maybe not constantly reminding myself of that is the biggest part of the problem.

***

I feel as though I want to undo everything that I have done or that has happened since I entered therapy. All the progress I thought I’d made, all the things I thought I’d realised. The way I thought I’d trusted and opened myself up. The acceptance I thought I’d felt. It all feels like a lie or a massive self-deception.

***

I feel numb with a dense ball of pain inside my chest. Squeezed up so tight, so that the rest of me can just be unfeeling and still, while a little part sits still and hurts.

***

If this is all just material for therapy, how does therapy work? I can emotionally disengage from the emotion – that’s fine. I can treat it as ‘material’ – but that involves even greater compartmentalisation, not less.

***

The world was safer before therapy. I may have been dysfunctional but I understood my dysfunction. It worked, it kept me safe. I knew what the end goal was – protection and survival. Now I have no idea what I’m striving for.

***

I feel diminished. As if everything I thought I’d understood was a lie or a convenient piece of self-deception. As if every time I felt a sense of acceptance it was based on an error. My error. It feels as though I can never get it right.

***

I don’t want to be a bother. All I ever wanted to do was the right thing.

***

I feel as though everything I thought I’d understood or achieved over the last two years was a make-believe story – a convenient piece of self-deception. Every little piece of ‘acceptance’ feels empty, illusory, based on a misunderstanding or misapprehension about what was going on. I feel diminished. Utterly diminished.

***

So the goal of therapy is to understand where these feelings come from. But who’s going to pay attention to the experience of the feelings themselves? What do I do with them? How do they go away? Are they even real? Or am I simply my own interpreter? Who experiences me? Are the feelings only the instrument of understanding?

***

I can’t write and it’s driving me crazy. I feel gagged, bound up, trussed by an inability to express myself to myself.

***

I feel diminished. I don’t understand. I feel like there is nothing of me left, except the edifice that I knocked down and that now needs to be built up again. I wish I’d never trusted. I wish I’d never let myself feel.

***

I feel as though nothing I say, do or feel is right. I’m not even right to think and feel that there is a right way to think and feel. I am caught up in vicious circles that it seems impossible to escape. I’m trying to step outside my worldview to put it right, but just like stepping outside of language, that’s impossible. It’s a task that can only happen from within – but I have no idea where to start.

***

“Who knows? Who hopes? Who troubles? Let it pass!
He sleeps. He sleeps less tremulous, less cold,
Than we who wake, and waking say Alas! “ *

***

Therapy means always thinking about what the feelings mean and what they’re telling me. If I’m missing her it has to be because of ‘this’ or ‘that’ or because she’s representing ‘so-and-so’ or ‘a.n. other’. Is there no room for me just missing her? Is there no room for the experience being meaningful and not just its interpretation? I can bring the feeling to therapy and we can talk about it. But who deals with the feeling in the moment? What deals with it? Do I just file it away for future reference? As I have always filed feelings away? Oh look, I miss her. Isn’t that interesting. Let’s talk about it in two days time. Won’t that be nice. The fact is I miss her and it’s visceral and it’s real and the only antidote feels like some comfort, a sense of her presence or some simple words.

***

Is she only ever a representation? Not real within herself? At least, not to me? Only ever a projection?

***

I need to get my head around the fact that she shouldn’t mean this much to me. That she should be like a doctor or a colleague. Someone there to help me with a problem but not to get emotionally invested in.

***

I dreamed that I had a building made of white lego, with a white terrace at the top with lots of tables and chairs on it. I dreamed that I started to dismantle the lego and take the supporting bricks out from under the terrace. In the end, it was like a letter ‘U’ laying on its side. A bottom, and a top, with nothing in between. It looked and felt fragile, with no underpinning. What would happen to that terrace?

***

I feel like that lego structure. I feel diminished. As if everything I thought I’d understood and felt in connection with therapy, has been dismantled. Over the last two years I thought I was building something – but now I realise it’s all just air.

***

I felt accepted at least partly due to a sense of freedom to express myself and make myself and my needs known, in the moment, rather than being held back always by politeness, or fear, or propriety, or wanting to protect her from myself. Spontaneity and freedom as opposed to constant questioning, over-thinking, rumination, self-doubt, anxiety. And all without judgment. But that was a mistake.

***

I don’t want to be any trouble. All I ever wanted to do was the right thing.

***

Maybe it would work better if I saw her just as a professional who is there to help me with something. But that is exactly what she is. And perhaps that is the heart of the matter.

***

She is just a professional there to help me. Repeat after me. Endless times, please. Until I can believe it. Until I can act on it.

***

But for me professional means unemotional and unattached. No connectedness. If she is just a professional there to help me I should be able to go in, talk about how I’m feeling, have a conversation, leave, feel better or perhaps not feel better. But not think about her. Not dream about her. Not want to be close to her. Not miss her. Not want to share everything with her. I wouldn’t feel that way about my doctor – so why should I feel that way about her? It feels like I’m trying to talk myself into something and I don’t even know if it makes any sense.

[* quote from ‘Asleep’ by Wilfred Owen]

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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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Trust: The High Hurdle of Therapy

I believe that for me, this is one of the most important blog posts I am ever likely to read. The topic is trust – trust in therapy, but also trust in other relationships as well. It is a large part of what can make any relationship sometimes therapeutic, and sometimes not (to use Dr Stein’s phraseology).
I don’t want to say too much about this post -it speaks volumes, about an immensely difficult and often painful topic. One of the things that makes it so extraordinary is that a number of metaphors are used to convey the nature of trust and how it is built up. The metaphors are both extremely illuminating, and incredibly beautiful.
It’s a wonderful piece of writing; it’s an intellectually interesting and effective way of conveying a complex concept and revealing its core. But most importantly (and effectively) for me, it’s utterly emotionally convicting, and goes straight to the matter of my heart.

Dr. Gerald Stein

512px-Spinsel_op_het_weiland

All relationships are either therapeutic or non-therapeutic. Or perhaps I should say, sometimes therapeutic and sometimes not. A relationship with a counselor is not exempt from this complication. Bloggers in treatment suggest that no other topic so unsettles the soul.

The heart is easily torn. A therapist tries to get inside a patient in a way more intimate than most sexual encounters. The client is expected to strip down before the healer in a metaphorical sense. Remember, our custom of shaking hands derives from the need of two souls to prove they are unarmed — that to be near is not to risk injury. Even without weapons, however, danger is there.

Partners in friendship, love, and therapy make assumptions. Sometimes these unstated beliefs undermine the possibility of understanding and trust. Trust is like a garment made out of words and expressions; actions and expectations. In the space of less than…

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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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Swallowing up the storm – BPD and anger

“I am angry enough to die”. The words jumped out at me from the page whilst I was skim-reading the chapter, and they brought me up short and made me pause. It’s perhaps a strange thing to say – why should anger make one want to die? But I connected with the familiarity of the emotion straight away. Not just familiar to me, but familiar from the writings of other BPD bloggers as well. Only a few days before I had been reading a blog post by ‘Big Battles, Small Victories‘, where the author spoke of immense hurt and anger at being disappointed, and wrote “I want to not live”.

“I’m hurt and angry…..I want to not live”. “I am angry enough to die”.

Those words seem so connected. But they are separated in time, if not in emotion, by more than 2,400 years.

I read those words, from the last part of the Old Testament Book of Jonah, while I was sitting in church a few Sundays ago listening to a talk on the earlier part of the book. I confess, I was not paying as much attention as perhaps I should have been, and I also wanted to turn to the end and see what was in store.

For those with faith (of whatever persuasion), or those with none – I should say straight away, as I’ve noted in a recent post, that my own faith is ‘on the rocks’; this is not a sermon and this post is not about Jonah. You don’t need to know or believe anything about him, in order to, I hope, find something helpful in it. This post is about BPD and anger: the reference to Jonah provides only the context for a look at that subject, and it does so only because it was helpful to me personally, in starting off a chain of thought on this issue that touches the lives of so many with BPD. If the context seems irrelevant or makes you uncomfortable, I can only apologise – that is certainly not my intention. Equally, if you have sympathy with the context, but are uncomfortable with some of the interpretations towards the end of this post, I must also apologise. It is not my intention to be irreverent in any way. I am not ‘taking scripture lightly’ – perhaps I am, however, allowing myself to give in to the temptation that we sometimes have, to project our ‘difficulties’ outside ourselves, and to see them everywhere. In the lyrics of a song, behind the story of a film, in the pages of a book. And in the person of someone that we meet (or read about).

The first part of the DSM-IV Criterion 8 for BPD reads: “Inappropriate, intense anger, or difficulty controlling anger.”  Until a couple of years ago, I always thought of myself as someone who never got angry, and as with a number of the DSM-IV criteria, it took me a while to really understand how this one applied to me. And I have realised that the reason for that, is that I have been defining the criteria in very particular ways.

I defined abandonment purely in terms of physical abandonment, rather than emotional abandonment and being left to cope on my own with what I was feeling. I defined ‘black and white’ thinking purely in intellectual terms and the ability (or lack of) to appreciate all sides of an argument, and the grey areas in between. It took me a long time to realise that ‘black and white’ thinking is in some ways much more about ‘black and white’ feeling, and is fundamentally emotion-centred, rather than being about intellectual flexibility. And anger? I defined anger in terms of physical or verbal manifestations – being physically violent or verbally abusive. I didn’t do those things. I was never angry. How wrong I was.

I remember one instance of ‘feeling angry’ (as I originally defined it) when I was growing up. That instance stands out because it was unique. It was the time, when I was around seventeen, when I became convinced my mother had read my diary. Although my memory of the event is patchy, I think I shouted. I think I told her that I hated her.

You might argue that that is a relatively common thing for a teenager to tell her parents. But not for a teenager who grew up with a whole suite of things she was not supposed to say or feel. Some of those things brought disapproval or dismissiveness; others brought emotional suffocation. Feeling or expressing anger; needing or expressing a wish for privacy of thought and emotion; being depressed or admitting to depression – those were all among the former. Fear, sadness, pain, loss – those were all among the latter. They were emotions which, should I ever have admitted to them, would have led to similar emotions in my mother, which she would then have allowed to flood over me.

So I expressed neither the things that would have been disapproved of or dismissed, nor the things that would have been too difficult, emotionally, for others to bear. And so I always thought of myself as someone who was never angry, and passed, incredibly successfully, for someone who was never sad. And yet for years, I was both sad and angry, and didn’t realise quite how much. For years, my mind was filled with imaginary conversations and scenarios between me and the one or two people at those times in my life, who I jokingly thought of as those I ‘loved to hate’. People who I now understand that I had ‘split’ into ‘all good’ or ‘all bad’, and was at that time devaluing. Hateful and vengeful thoughts and words – how could I have been so oblivious to the fact that what lay behind them was anger, pure and simple?

Over the last few years I have been more conscious of the emotion of anger within me – particularly as it relates to how I feel about my parents – and the vehemence of it  sometimes takes me by surprise. Nevertheless, as I never gave it expression, I still thought of myself as someone who ‘did not get angry’. I have even been conscious of the inappropriate nature of it, set off sometimes by the smallest disappointment or hint of criticism or control – and yet I have still, somehow, managed to sideline it and failed to appreciate it as a part of myself.  Perhaps it is because I always have, and still do, find anger and confrontation very scary. I hate them. I feel battered by them. They feel like an assault on me and on my emotions. They drive me emotionally underground and behind a barricade. Perhaps it’s unsurprising then, that I find it difficult to acknowledge that anger may have a seat within me.

As well as being more conscious of the emotion of anger within me, I am also becoming more conscious of where it comes from, and how it affects my behaviour and my sense of self. And as with many an emotion within the BPD landscape, I have come to the conclusion that at least for me, anger too, is intimately connected with the issue of expectations. I talked about BPD and expectations in a recent post, in which I said that I agreed with blogger Cat Earnshaw (‘Half of a Soul – Life with BPD’), that ‘great expectations’ were at the core of BPD. They seem to me to form the hub from which hang the rusty and twisted spokes of abandonment, depression, disappointment, hurt, and anger, amongst others. What makes BPD anger ‘inappropriate’ is not just the degree of its intensity, but also the nature of the ‘expectations not met’ that underlie it, and the impact it has upon the sense of who we are.

And that is precisely what struck me about those two stories, more than 2,000 years apart, that I came across within the space of a few days. “I’m hurt and angry…..I want to not live”. “I am angry enough to die”. I may feel ‘battered’ by another’s anger – but my own anger assaults me too. Occasionally, it makes me want to die. But often it makes me want to hurt myself. Is it because I’m so ‘conditioned’ not to turn it outwards? Is it because I always saw anger as a ‘bad thing’ to feel? Does part of me feel that I have to punish myself for it?

I always thought that the reason I persisted, when I was a child, in winding up my mother when she was cross, to the point at which she became so angry that she smacked me, was because I saw it as a ‘victory’ to push her to a point where she acted in a way she did not like. That belief (though ‘retrospective’) has allowed me to retain the sense that I was in control of the situation, and that I was punishing her – (or was that her thought, rather than mine?) – but I’ve recently started to wonder if there was something else going on. Awareness of the self-destructiveness in me now, makes me wonder how long it might have been there for, and how much it might have been responsible for. If I was arguing with my mother, was I angry? And if I was angry, was I, even if I did not realise it at the time, so angry that I needed it to hurt?

I think that Jonah needed it to hurt. Jonah was angry because God hadn’t acted in the way that he had expected him to act. It seems to me that Jonah’s expectations were at the root both of his anger, and of his original decision to run away from God. He knew that God would disappoint his (one might say ‘unreasonable’) expectations – and he would rather run than face that disappointment and despair. When he was faced with it, he wanted to die. He went out into the desert in what feels like an incredibly familiar attempt to both test the one who had disappointed him, and to inflict further pain on himself. It’s clear that the scorching desert sun was wearing him down, but it was the blazing heat of his anger that continued to consume him.

We’re not told how the story ends. And, much though I would like to, I’m afraid I don’t have ‘an ending’ either. I wish I had some wise words to say about anger, some advice to give, some ways of dealing with it or working through it. When it comes to trying to understand anger, I’m right at the beginning of my own story. It’s a story in which I hope that, contrary to usual belief, anger will be redemptive (and I don’t mean that in a religious sense). I hope that by acknowledging and accepting my anger, and even (though I shudder to think about it) by giving it some sort of appropriate expression, I can build a healthier relationship both with myself and with those closest to me.

Being able to say ‘I feel angry’ would be a good start. Maybe I will try it on my therapist – goodness knows it’s often very apt. But that’s the subject of another story…..


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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’!]