Life in a Bind – BPD and me

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


Do you love the inner child?

Over the last few years I’ve been very much aware of the fact that my marriage has been ‘parental’ in nature. Even before our relationship started to deteriorate and I began to react to my husband in the way that I often react to my mother, I used to feel that he was the ‘strong one’ who I couldn’t do without, and I was the weaker, less competent, and more dependent party. It is no co-incidence that the Panic Disorder which set in with a vengeance when I left home to go to university, disappeared after we got together as mysteriously as it had first appeared. At the time, I interpreted it as a good sign which demonstrated the security I felt with him – it was only years later that what should have been the obvious parental parallel, hit home.

In the language of Transactional Analysis, which I have been reading about lately in Thomas Harris’s book ‘I’m okay, you’re okay, my husband tends to inhabit his Parent in our interactions, and I tend to inhabit my Child. Though of course there is also an element of my Child invoking his Parent, and vice versa – we each play the roles that we are used to, and they encourage and sustain each other. I sometimes wonder whether my realisation that I had chosen a marriage that in some ways replicated my parental home environment, in itself led to me more actively ‘seeing my husband as my mother’, and reacting accordingly. It’s hard to know whether I’m simply more aware of how triggering I find some of his words and actions; or whether I find them so triggering because of the realisation I have come to and the now almost automatic tendency to interpret his behaviour as parental.

There was a particular section in ‘I’m okay, you’re okay’, that took me surprise and gave me pause for thought. It did so because that section took its own truth completely for granted, and yet it didn’t feel like something that was true for me. To quote from that section: “We fear the Parent in others; their Child we can love. One helpful practice in a difficult transaction is to see the little boy, or the little girl in another person….”. I had a similar experience of bafflement around a year ago, when I watched a drama series on DVD in which the female protagonist was asked by her therapist to imagine talking to her younger self. The idea was that by being aware of the compassion that she had for her ‘child self’, and by identifying with that part of her, it would be easier to show herself compassion in the present.

In both cases, the assumption that one would feel care and compassion for either one’s own or another’s ‘inner child’ (in the way that one might feel compassion for an actual child) was unquestioned. And yet I feel unable to relate to that sentiment, in either case. Thinking about my husband’s inner child does not make me love that child, and it is not helpful in trying to relate to him. His inner child may not feel as crushing as his ‘parent’, but it still feels threatening. I feel like running away and shouting: “Keep your child to yourself, I want nothing to do with it, take it away. I don’t want to be burdened with your child, I don’t want to be taken over by your child, I don’t want to be suffocated by it or intruded upon, or violated by it. You deal with it – don’t make me do it. I can’t carry your child for you – you do it. I want absolutely nothing to do with it”.

I want to run away from other people’s ‘Child’ selves – they frighten me. By contrast, my own Child does not frighten me – but I frighten myself when I think about how I feel about her. I am not a violent person, either in thought or in action. And yet, when I visualise my ‘inner child’ I don’t feel compassion – I feel a need to do her damage, of a very permanent kind. The words that go through my head are horrible, as are the accompanying images. The only reason it doesn’t feel more horrific to think those thoughts is that as they’re fundamentally about me and not about someone else, they feel justified. When I think of what I want to do to her, it feels as though she deserves it – that things would be better if she wasn’t around. When I try and imagine her, I feel angry; I blame her for not protecting me – the me that I am now. I somehow feel as though if she had done a better job, I would have ‘turned out better’. She failed, she was weak. She didn’t stand up for me – the person I was meant to become. She let me down – and maybe if she was simply wiped out, all her mistakes would be wiped out too.

My therapist asked me where all these words and thoughts are coming from – whose voice it is that is actually running riot in my head. In the language of Transactional Analysis, it is my own Parent, coming down in judgment upon my Child. It feels not so much like an actual replay of particular situations experienced or sentences heard; but an agglomeration of disparate ‘parent data’ picked up in different contexts and at different times, patched together to make an ugly weapon of words.

I have a better sense of where my feelings about other people’s ‘inner children’ comes from. My mother is a highly anxious person with little control over her emotions. If she feels it, she shows it. If she thinks it, she speaks it. And she seeks reassurance, constantly. She inhabits her Child – and that Child is both unable to hold others’ emotions, and unable to hold its own. These days I have put up such barriers between us and hold her so much at arms’ length, that if she tells me she is anxious about something, my response is to tell her that it is her problem, not mine. But I didn’t always have those barriers up; and even if I can’t remember much about the past, I can more than imagine that when I was younger, the torrent of her emotions would have felt like an invasion – like a force that threatened to suffocate and take me over. It was best not to call up that force at all – and so I learned to keep things to myself, and to deal with my emotions on my own.

And so when I think of someone else’s ‘inner child’, all I can think is that I don’t want another adult to burden my Child with their Child. I feel guilty for saying that – because it feels hard, cold, and not at all compassionate. And it’s not as though I have an aversion to ever dealing with anyone’s emotions. I really want to be there for those I care about and I hope my friends would be able to attest to the fact that I have supported them through distress and pain, without feeling burdened or overwhelmed. But those were adult to adult interactions – and I wasn’t with them day in, day out. But ask me to try and deal with the Child part of those closest to me – for example, my husband – and it triggers an immediate desire to back away.

It’s a good thing my husband can often cope with my ‘Child’, even if I cannot cope with his. When he ‘brought his adult’ and offered a compromise after an argument the other day, I would have loved to have been able to react in a similarly adult way, and to thank him graciously for the compromise, and move on. Instead, it felt as though the only possible reactions in my repertoire were to huffily accept while continuing to feel angry and thwarted, or to dissolve in tears of frustration and a need to be comforted. In a split-second I gave in to vulnerability and chose the latter; it was the better option, but still a far cry from the mature response of an equal partner in control of their emotions. Somehow I have a feeling that the more I am able to react in an adult way, the more compassion I might be able to have for my ‘child’; and the more compassion I can have for my own, perhaps the more I can have for others’ too. It’s a theory still untested, but an experiment I definitely need to do.




“I’m okay, you’re okay” – book review

As mentioned in my previous post – Memory Monday- “Inner child and past child” – I have been spending a fair amount of time recently, thinking about my ‘inner child’ and the ways in which my thoughts, feelings and behaviour are influenced by that part of myself.

This has been part of a lengthy stretch in therapy (since Christmas) of focusing on my marriage and the substantial difficulties in my relationship with my husband. In particular, the renewed attention I have paid to my ‘inner child’ has been in large measure the result of the book I am currently reading, recommended by my therapist, called ‘I’m okay, you’re okay’, by Thomas Harris.

If you can resist the urge to throw it out of the window for its incredibly dated language and examples (feminist friends, take note!), I can heartily recommend it as both a comprehensible guide to Transactional Analysis, and also an immensely powerful book for anyone looking to understand their own patterns of behaviour, and looking for hope that there is a real possibility for change in ourselves and in others.

Transactional Analysis (TA) has its roots in psychoanalysis, but split off from traditional psychoanalysis in the sense that rather than looking at internal psychological dynamics, it focuses on the dynamics contained in people’s interactions (or transactions). The ‘cure’ to emotional difficulties is thus framed in terms of understanding and changing these transactions, rather than uncovering the content of unconsciously held ideas.

TA also postulates three ‘ego states’, of the Parent, Child and Adult, with individuals’ emotional states being created out of an ‘internal dialogue’ between these states. By way of an incredibly brief and simplistic analysis, the ‘parent state’ is essentially the individual’s ‘collection of data’ or ‘internal recordings’ provided by their parents or parental figures/objects in the first few years of life. This data is comprised of everything a child saw and heard his parents do or say, and includes everything from admonitions, rules and laws to praise and positive reinforcement. Parent data, in itself, is unreflective and unexamined. To quote from the book: “Any external situation in which the little person feels himself to be dependent to the extent that he is not free to question or to explore produces data which is stored in the Parent”.

The ‘Child’ state is the recording of the ‘internal events’ that accompanied the external situations recorded in the ‘Parent’ – they are the child’s feelings, his or her emotional responses to what he sees and hears. As with Parent data, this can cover a whole spectrum ranging from frustration, anger and rejection, to curiosity, joy and excitement. By contrast to both the Parent and Child states, the Adult state grows out of self-awareness and original thought; it arises “as a result of the child’s ability to find out for himself what is different about life from the ‘taught concept’ of life in his Parent and the ‘felt concept’ of life in his Child”. The Adult uses both Parent and Child data to make decisions about what views to accept and what choices to make in the present, as well as what behaviours are appropriate and constitute a response to the present situation rather than to ‘Parent data’ and the past. The goal is not to eliminate or suppress the Parent and Child, but to be aware of them, to be able to separate them out in order to consider them, and to make them available for the Adult to use, rather than being used and controlled by them.

TA also postulates that there are four ‘life positions’ that individuals can adopt, which profoundly influences how they go about their lives and interact with people. These are: ‘I’m okay, you’re not okay’; ‘I’m not okay, you’re okay’; ‘I’m not okay, you’re not okay’; and ‘I’m okay, you’re okay’. The healthiest position to adopt is the latter, but an important part of the book is the ‘revelation’ that the ‘natural situation of childhood’ leads to everyone having a ‘not OK Child’. Even the children of the most loving and nurturing parents go through the difficult and frustrating process of individuating and learning about boundaries (amongst other things), and the inevitable unhappy feelings that this process engenders, leads (according to TA) to every child carrying a ‘not OK’ burden. As with the Parent, this ‘not OK Child’ can manifest at any time during a person’s interactions with others (transactions), whatever age or stage of life they are at.

The Amazon review of the book says: “Hundreds of thousands of people have found this phenomenal breakthrough in psychotherapy a turning point in their lives. In sensible, non-technical language Thomas A Harris explains how to gain control of yourself, your relationships and your future – no matter what happened in the past.” It’s hard to ignore an endorsement like that, even taking into account the old-fashioned language! And though there will undoubtedly be many people to whom this book does not appeal and for whom it doesn’t seem to work; and although you may not be convinced that these three states really do exist in everyone – I think the model does offer up some helpful ways of thinking about ourselves and how we relate to others.

For me, the chapter on marriage was particularly helpful, and highlighted the extent to which my ‘Child’ is almost permanently being triggered and in control, in my interactions with my husband. To quote from a few places in that chapter: “It is the nature of the Child to mistake disappointment for disaster….this is what happens when marriages break. The Child takes over in one of both partners, and the whole marriage is shattered when imperfections begin to appear……the average marriage contract is made by the Child, which understands love as something you feel and not something you do, and which sees happiness as something you pursue rather than a by-product of working towards the happiness of someone other than yourself…..

I believe that there is a ‘right time’ to read every book – and now is the right time for me and this book. I think we know when the ‘right time’ has come, because we feel drawn to read something that may have been recommended to us for a while, or may have sat on our shelves for years. For me, this book builds on a number of other books I have read recently, but which all examine similar questions in different ways. These include: “The seven principles for making marriage work” by John Gottman and Nan Silver; “The 5 love languages” by Gary Chapman; and “Barefoot disciple – walking the way of passionate humility” by Stephen Cherry, a Christian book but with wide-ranging and broad appeal in the way that C.S. Lewis’s writings have broad relevance and appeal. All of these books have challenged me to look beyond the ways in which I am held captive by the experiences and feelings of my childhood, and to recognise that it is possible to do things differently and to respond differently in my relationships. It will take courage, self-awareness, a great effort of will, vulnerability, openness and patience; but all of these books lead me to believe that it is possible and that the rewards can be immense.

As mentioned in my recent post ‘Transferentially yours – an email to my therapist, unsent’, therapy has been turbulent recently not just because of the painfulness of delving into my marriage difficulties, but also because of what felt like a major rupture with my therapist over the issue of ‘resistance’ in therapy, and whether I was willing to make changes in my life. This arose after I impulsively wrote my therapist a note stating that though I could change my behaviour and even perhaps the way I thought about others, it just didn’t feel possible for me to change the way I thought about myself. Just a few days later, and in the midst of these discussions, I read the following in ‘I’m okay, you’re okay’: “There is also the type of patient who, although suffering from disabling symptoms, still does not really want to change. His treatment contract read, ‘I’ll promise to let you help me if I don’t have to get well’. This negative attitude changes, however, as the patient begins to see that there is indeed another way to live. A working knowledge of P-A-C [Parent – Adult – Child] makes it possible for the Adult to explore new and exciting frontiers of life, a desire which has been there all along but has been buried under the burden of the NOT OK”.

My impulsive note was ‘of the moment’ and reflected a feeling of depression and hopelessness – it was not a rational and decisive view on what was possible. But it’s true to say that a part of me is resistant to change and sometimes believes it is impossible – and this book has been invaluable in helping me to identify that part and not be buried underneath it. Feminists – read this book at your peril due to the language! But we all read this book at our peril in the sense that we are all afraid of change – and this book is certainly a major challenge and incentive to do just that….