Monday, August 23, 2010

Whose Eggshells?

I've written so many different descriptions of Girl in Need of a Tourniquet as I prepared the manuscript and worked on publicity for the book.  I just ran across one that might be useful in sparking conversation about the dynamics between borderlines and our partners or familial attachment figures:
My mission in this memoir is to convey the strangeness and intensity of borderline personality while at the same time retracing the flawless - if dysfunctional - logic of borderline cognition.  The borderline doesn't like walking on eggshells any more than her partner or family members do.  She would never have intentionally strewn them on the floor.  She often thinks you (her partner, her mother) put them there!  You may both be putting sharp broken things in the path of your relationship without meaning to, without knowing you're doing it.  
This description isn't meant to shift blame from the borderline to the partner, but rather to foreground the fact that the touchiness captured so well by the image of walking on eggshells is produced by an interpersonal dynamic, not from the borderline in a vacuum, and, most importantly, that this interpersonal dynamic can be reconfigured through the acquisition of improved skills in communication and emotion regulation.  This is a commonplace view in imago therapy and family systems therapy, but it rarely comes up in conversations about borderlines. 

Within two months of weekly therapy sessions with a couples counselor who uses imago therapy strategies, my partner and I saw dramatic improvement in our relationship, and we still use the concepts, language, and tactics we learned there on a daily basis. 

Plus we listen to a lot of Pema Chodron.  

Just sayin' . . .

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Strengths and Resilience, Not Flaws and Damage

The label "borderline personality," like all personality disorder diagnoses, can be powerfully disheartening when you are on the receiving end.  It seems like an all-encompassing marker for a deeply flawed person.  I felt embarrassed by the term at first and was so relieved when a colleague of mine at another school suggested I research the "strengths and resilience" school of thought in Psychology (in place of the focus on assessing damage) and urged me to reframe borderline personality in terms of the gifts of empathy and other emotional strengths that come along with this personality organization.

In Jenne' Andrews' recent blog post on Loquaciously Yours - "Don't Call Me Borderline" - she writes about the destructive power of the term borderline personality disorder in her mother's life and in her own, and about the ways she and her mother both experienced a kind of eclipse of their creative strengths in the face of heavy pressure from the world of psychiatry to accept a view of themselves as terribly sick.
Please don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying I’ve never worked with people whose inner systems fit the criteria for the DSM categories of Borderline, Narcissism, and others. The difference is that I don’t use the categorical and shaming word “Personality Disorder” to describe a person’s experience and I don’t view people as fundamentally flawed. Deeply wounded, yes, powerfully protected, yes, but fundamentally and irreparably flawed, no.

I am especially drawn to the implication in her statement above that the "ugly" or "difficult" parts of borderline personality disorder are indicators of a very powerful and, I would add, often self-defeating system of defense mechanisms. I think of borderline personality disorder (or its less intense form, borderline personality organization) as a set of defense mechanisms gone haywire. Little bombs and tripwires and short fiery fuses set up in a circle around us and inside us. I definitely agree with the move to foreground trauma survival, trauma reenactment, and post-traumatic stress syndrome as the emotional musculoskeletal structure of borderline personality disorder. The idea of borderline personality as, also, a set of emotional strengths, resilience, and gifts is the very important other half of the new-and-improved story so many of us are now trying to tell about life with borderline personality organization.