A wonderful poem by Nobel Laureate, poet and playwright Derek Walcott, who died today. Many, when despairing, have found this helpful. It is the opposite of where I’m at today, but I have to believe that I’ll feel like this one day….
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.