Life in a Bind – BPD and me

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


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Barriers to being seen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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A lesson in boldness from my child

“Depression and low self-esteem often go hand-in-hand. Low self-esteem leaves individuals vulnerable to depression. Depression batters self-esteem.” *

“With low self-esteem you also might believe that you don’t have rights or that your needs don’t matter, especially emotional needs, such as for appreciation, support, kindness, being understood, and being loved.” ** 

I felt a strange sort of pride in my eldest child the other day. It wasn’t over something he had done, but something he had said. It wasn’t because it was something clever, or something witty, or something kind. It was definitely beautiful, but that wasn’t why I was proud. And to him it was probably ordinary – but to me it was immensely brave.

My child asked me directly, in the moment, to meet an emotional need. We were discussing colours and he told me that his favourite colour was peach, because it was the colour of my skin, and that my skin was beautiful. It was a wonderful compliment and I thanked him and told him it was lovely. Then a moment later he said: “Mummy, can you say something nice about me too?”

I was awed, humbled and mortified all at the same time. I quickly responded to his question with a number of things I loved about him, and reassured him that they were true and I thought them, even if I didn’t mention them in a particular moment. But I was ashamed I hadn’t brought them up immediately, and ashamed of my reasons for not doing so. I failed to differentiate him as a separate human being – I assumed that his world-view would be the same as my own. If someone gives me a compliment in response to my own, I assume that they are doing it out of obligation; that is it not genuine. I didn’t want him to feel that way, but that was my assumption, based on my insecurities. He is a child, he does not think that way – yet. Hopefully, he never will.

I hope he also never has reason to doubt whether his needs deserve to be met. I hope his self-worth is such that he never doubts that there are innumerable positive aspects to himself. I hope he never has reason to feel staggered by something that should be so simple but which for me, is so very challenging. I find it so difficult to communicate my emotional needs – or even to acknowledge that having them is legitimate. I cannot conceive of being brave enough to ask someone to say something nice about me – particularly someone I care about.

What if they couldn’t think of anything to say? Not only that, what if they felt put out by the fact I had put them in a difficult position by asking the question? What if they felt compelled to say something nice? What if they said something and didn’t mean it? What if they thought I was self-centred and proud? What if they thought of something to say but that something felt small and insignificant? What if, what if, what if….Fear, pure fear. The question just feels too risky.

I envied my child his lack of fear. He had the confidence and the security (I hope) to ask the question without fear of rejection. It appeared as awesome courage to me – I wonder how it felt and what it meant to him? Whether or not it constituted ‘boldness’, most of all I was proud of the fact that he realised he needed something, emotionally, and then he asked for it. He wasn’t ashamed, embarrassed or scared of that need. He just asked.

The lessons that our children have to teach us can be some of the most inspiring but also some of the hardest to learn. They may involve ‘unlearning’ ways of being and thinking ingrained in us since our own childhoods; and they could involve accepting that we may have lost some vital and affirming experiences along the way. We need to be conscious not to try and ‘live through’ our children. But perhaps we could all benefit, sometimes, from trying to see the world – and in particular trying to see ourselves – through their eyes.

 

Margarita Tartakovksy, from an article published by PsychCentral called ‘8 suggestions for strengthening self-esteem when you have depression’

** Darlene Lancer, from an article published by PsychCentral called ‘Low self-esteem is learned’.


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A matter of choice – BPD and self-worth

People come to therapy with a variety of issues, and with their own individual goals. But whatever the particular difficulty, at the heart of therapy there are often twin tasks: to reveal the ways in which we really think about ourselves; and to ‘make up for’ what has been missing. Or, to put it in even more general terms, the twin tasks of therapy are concerned with content (or process) and with relationship – and both are important.

But even when it comes to content, and uncovering the nature of our thoughts and assumptions about the person we thought we knew best – that too, at heart, is about relationship. But in this case, it is the relationship we have with ourselves, that is being explored.

In my experience, and on the basis of reading numerous blogs by others with BPD, there is nothing more likely to elicit feelings of embarrassment and wanting to run away (fast), than talk of self-love and self-acceptance. And yet self-love seems to be the cornerstone of any and every therapy or process concerned with recovery, growth and personal development. A recent article in PsychCentral, says that “Learning to feel your own flow of love energy inside, without detaching or exploding, is critical to your own healing journey“. And in discussing the difficulties of communication within relationships, the same article goes further, and says: “Truly, the biggest obstacle to cultivating the authentic intimacy you desire with the special person in your life has to do with the part(s) of your self that you do not love, accept, value, and that, as a result, stays hidden, disowned, rejected out of fear, shame.

However, the challenge for many of us, before we can even begin to contemplate self-love and repairing our relationship with ourselves, it to identify those parts of ourselves that we do not love and accept. In some cases, we actually need to try and see through the protective veil of self-deception that we have created, in order to realise that we don’t, in fact, love ourselves at all. The deeper I get into therapy, the more I am starting to realise the ways in which I actually think about myself  – and it’s a big shock. It seems almost unbelievable that I can have come this far through life, without realising how radically different my actual self-perceptions are, from the way I like to think that I think of myself.

What is becoming clearer is that the way that I like to think that I think about myself – is actually a defence. What I’m seeing is a false self, but it’s so convincing that it has completely pulled the wool over my eyes. Perhaps this is an incredibly early example of the BPD tendency to adopt another’s identity, or in this case, to adopt an expected and acceptable identity – that of a confident, competent, happy and carefree person. Or perhaps this is connected to the psychoanalytic concept of a ‘false self’ in which an infant builds up a false sense of identity and false relationships, based on the overriding and encroaching importance of its carers’ expectations.

Until recently, I believed that for much of my life, I thought I was an ‘okay’ sort of person; that I didn’t dislike myself; and that I had relatively healthy levels of self-esteem. I thought that my ability to get through bullying, criticism or lack of acceptance, was to do with strength of character and not caring what others thought, rather than an expert ability to compartmentalise, to ‘put on a face’, and to suppress negative thoughts and emotions. But that circle seems impossible to square with the things I am now realising about myself.

I have a big desire to please, and an equally enormous desire not to disappoint. I hate to let people down and to be anything other than what they expect me to be or what I think I should be. I will sacrifice anything to the fear of offending, and to the need to ‘do things right’. In therapy, I am constantly putting myself down, saying that what I think or feel is ‘stupid’ or ‘silly’ or ‘nonsensical’ or ‘not important’. I expect my therapist (and others) to disapprove or think the worst.

When in conversation with my therapist, I am quick to defend others, to excuse them and to try ‘not to paint them in a bad light’, regardless of how they may have hurt me. I defend my parents’ invalidating behaviour; my husband’s hurtful comments; my friends’ insensitivity. In my head, I defend the behaviour of the school bullies and of the boyfriend who intimidated me into having sex. I try and minimise their behaviour and suggest that they had reasons for doing what they did; reasons that were understandable and that I had given them, because of the ways in which I had behaved.

Conversely, every time my therapist makes an interpretation that is sympathetic towards me and paints me in a ‘good light’, I am quick to try and show her how she has misrepresented me, and how I’m not ‘as good as she thinks’. I know that this is at least partly rooted in my desire for her to know ‘the worst of me’ and to still accept me. In my mind, ‘seeing the best’ gets conflated with ‘not accepting the worst’, and that is a big trigger for me. But all in all, whether I am defending others or belittling myself, I constantly end up as my own worst critic and invalidator of my emotions.

Even more uncomfortably, I am starting to uncover the assumptions I make about my friendships. The feelings I have of being an outsider in a group; of surprise when  someone I’d known for eight years told me I was a ‘good friend’; my sense of wonder when another friend painted my nails one afternoon – they all come down to a difficulty in accepting that I actually matter. I am slowly coming to realise that I believe that my friendships are not just the product of chance, of circumstance and of being thrown together (in terms of how the friendships started) – but that this is their ultimate basis.

Fundamentally, I do not believe that I have been chosen. In a circle of friends, I believe that others ‘put up with me’, but would not seek me out or choose me. I see no reason why it would be any other way. And in some ways, that is not surprising. My relationship with myself is clearly far from healthy. To quote another article on ‘Self-love’ from PsychCentral: “If you do not love yourself for all you are (and are not), is it reasonable to expect the other can do so?”

The difficulty with therapy bringing to light my unconscious self-beliefs, is that now the mask of self-esteem is paper thin. The gradual erosion of my compartmentalisation means that I can no longer just bury painful feelings and pretend that I don’t care. I have been going through a difficult situation in a friendship recently, and with the grip of my ‘false self’ having been loosened, it has left me feeling attacked, rejected, and completely worthless, to the point of suicidal ideation. And as was the case a couple of months ago, when I had similar feelings, the two motivators of my suicidal ideation are linked to the twin tasks of therapy. They are to do with uncovering a powerful self-belief of worthlessness and nothingness, and a belief that what I need in terms of relationship, love and acceptance, will never be realised.

The difficulty is, that I know, in theory, how to square that circle. It’s with that ‘flow of self-love’ and with a belief that only I can provide what I need, in terms of acceptance, and that that will feed into a greater sense of self-worth. But that belief still seems counter-intuitive – or at least, ‘adult-intuitive’, and I’m very much stuck in ‘child-intuitive’ mode, where the most compelling principle is “to matter is to be loved“. And to be loved not because of biology, obligation, or through chance –  but by choice.

Sometimes life feels like a throw-back to the playground. It feels like wanting to be chosen for the sports team because I have something to offer and somebody wants me on their side – and not because I am the last one left in line.