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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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’!]

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Constant craving – BPD and the need to feel understood

Wanting to be understood is part of the human condition. For someone with BPD, that can be a craving so strong that it eclipses almost everything else, save what I’m coming to see two sides of the same coin – wanting to be loved.

Wanting to be understood can be the force that drives us so strongly to connect with another individual that it tries to push all boundaries, physical and emotional, out of the way. I remember vividly, when in the grips of an obsessive attachment, the sense of wanting to be ‘in another person’s head’ and ‘under their skin’, or, conversely, the sense of wanting to be ‘taken over’ and ‘subsumed within another’s identity’. I’ve heard it described as ‘the urge to merge’, and I think it has its source in the desire for a perfect connection, a perfect understanding. A union so metaphysically powerful there is no need for words in order to convey meaning.

However, wanting to be understood can also be the force that drives us to put up barriers and build barricades behind which we hide ourselves. The desire is so strong, that when it is not met, or met ‘imperfectly’, the inevitable result is devastating pain and disappointment. We dare not take the risk of making ourselves vulnerable, or trying to explain how we feel, because we could not bear the pain of being misunderstood, particularly by those we most yearn to be close to. It’s the reason my husband still knows virtually nothing of what has been going on in my head for the last few years, and why my marriage is essentially in crisis. I cannot bear the thought of opening up, and not being understood. It’s the reason why I’m contemplating leaving my current therapist – because I have opened up, and because I don’t feel understood, and that has been a source of great distress, on a number of occasions.

Wanting to be understood is part of the human condition, but that doesn’t mean that we all experience it in the same way. Many individuals with BPD are acutely sensitive to any sense of being invalidated, and being told that everyone has these feelings and reactions, but perhaps not quite to the same extent, can feel like a minimisation of their difficulties. On the other hand, it is also hugely painful and isolating to feel as though your thoughts and feelings are so out of kilter with society’s ‘norms’, that you may as well be inhabiting a different planet to everyone else. I remember a mild dissociative episode in which I felt as if life was going on on another train, while I was stuck alone on my express train to ‘who-knows-where’, my reality frame-shifted onto a parallel, un-intersecting track.

I think I’m coming to realise that both of the above positions can be true. That the borderline’s experience can be a more intense and perhaps a more ‘extreme’ version of a standard, human reaction, without this being invalidating; but that those experiences can take place within the context of a BPD worldview that does not just frame-shift the way that ‘most people’ see things (if I may make a gross generalisation), but completely turns it on its head.

Feeling as though my therapist and I are worlds apart, is not normally a positive experience. However during my last session, I came up against the stark realisation that parts of my world-view that I do not question and assumptions which I assume that everyone makes, are far from universal – and it was a breath-takingly powerful experience. According to my therapist, ‘most people’ go around feeling understood ‘most of the time’, and don’t find it difficult to trust in that understanding, even when it is not being made explicit. That may sound like an obvious point, but it was genuinely news to me. As was the realisation that my default position is precisely the opposite – why would I assume, let alone trust, that I was understood by anybody? It seems like an utterly bizarre way to approach life, and other people.

And yet, why so bizarre? It makes perfect sense that those who have grown up feeling understood and accepted, not only come to expect or assume understanding and acceptance from others, but also feel they have little need to hide who they are, and are therefore open to giving others the opportunity to understand them. But the experience of so many with BPD is one of growing up in an invalidating environment in which understanding and acceptance were in short supply. And those who experience pain over not being understood or accepted for who they are, very quickly learn to close themselves off and present only a version of themselves to others, which they feel will be acceptable. My assumption of a lack of understanding is therefore based on a worldview created through my earliest lived experiences. However, it is also reinforced by the fact that I am not giving others the opportunity to understand me, because I am not allowing myself to be truly ‘seen’.

Sitting diagonally across from each other, in our small therapy room, the obvious disconnect in worldviews was palpable, almost comical. My therapist said I found it hard to trust and believe that I was understood. To her, the significant and profound realisation was the fact that I do not assume that I am understood. To me, the significant and profound realisation was the fact that other people do.  Thus demonstrating that in fact,  she had not really understood me at all. Alanis Morissette, take note – there’s something that’s actually ironic.