Cognitive dissonance

In music, consonance is when a chord or progression is pleasant to hear. It is harmonious; it sounds nice. On the other hand, dissonance is associated with unpleasantness and instability. Dissonance is perhaps when a pianist makes a mistake and accidentally hits the wrong notes. The sound is harsh and jarring.

Similarly, the term “cognitive dissonance” refers to the uncomfortable feeling we get when our beliefs do not align – when they are not in harmony with each other. Individuals that tend to think in extremes (black and white thinking, idealization/devaluation, etc.) may do so in order to reconcile their cognitive dissonance. In BPD this may occur in the individuals unstable sense of self or relationships.

For example, an individual who has the habitual belief that they are worthless or unimportant may experience cognitive dissonance when receiving compliments or while experiencing success. Their beliefs about themselves are being challenged and this makes them uncomfortable. One way the individual may try to dissolve this discomfort and sticking to their beliefs is to tell themself that these compliments were untrue or insincere. “They didn’t mean it, they were just being polite”. Another way that the individual may try to rationalize their beliefs is by downplaying their success. “I got lucky. It wasn’t that hard in the first place. Given my situation, I probably should have done even better than I did”.

These thoughts may temporarily dispel that cognitive dissonance, but the individual will experience the same discomfort again and again. The BPD individual who sees themself as “all-bad” will struggle to change their thought patterns that have been so deeply ingrained into them.

Another example is when an individual is in a relationship (platonic or otherwise). Individuals with BPD are likely to experience idealization/devaluation in their relationships, meaning they may switch suddenly from seeing their friend or partner as “all-good” or “all-bad”. Perhaps a friend cancelled plans or did not respond in a way that was expected. The BPD individual may turn to devaluation and perceive their friend as being a terrible person. They may believe their friend hates them or is trying to avoid them. However, there may be underlying discomfort because there are many other times where the friend has shown loyalty, trustworthiness, and love. In order to remove this incompatibility, the BPD individual may experience “tunnel vision” and block out any past positive experiences with the friend.

If experiencing cognitive dissonance as above, here are guidelines that have worked for me personally.

  1. Observe the discomfort. Write down the thoughts you are having. Acknowledge the judgements and assumptions.
  2. Look at the facts. Next, write down any factual evidence that supports or disproves your thoughts. Remember: facts are facts. Facts are not “probably’s” or “maybe’s”. Facts are not judgements or assumptions.
  3. Compare the thoughts and the facts. Do they align? If they do not, reconsider other possibilities.
  4. Express gratitude or acknowledge achievements and successes.

Further reading: How Cognitive Dissonance Relates to Relationships

The bad thoughts 

are talking to me. They’re saying you’re a psycho. You’re obsessed and sad and pathetic. You’re trying to feel better – but do you deserve to feel better?

Rip the hair out of your head but you won’t get rid of me. I’ll always be here. I’ll always be here.

You can’t rely on yourself but you can always count on me to be here. This is where you belong and deserve to live and die.

Here is home. Listen to me. I won’t leave you. You can tell me your problems and woes. I won’t make you feel better, but I’ll always be there to listen.

I will tell you what you already believe. What you want is for people to lie to you. To tell you that what you’re feeling is understandable.

I will tell you the truth. I will remind you that you are worthless and you deserve to be knocked down because frankly, you’ve been happier for much longer than you deserve.

You always get what you want. It’s time you relearn what suffering is.

So take it, stew in it, become it. Become the pain and self hatred.

Become the bad thoughts.

Become me.

I am who you are. Let me guide you.

Let me in.

Let me drive you into the ground where you belong.

Control

I need to be in control. I want to be in control. But don’t we all? We all crave a sense of control – mainly over ourselves and our lives. When that doesn’t work we may try to control other things. Like what we eat, where we hurt. Maybe even other people.

What is scarier than not having control? Imagine driving down an icy or slippery road and you temporarily lose control of the vehicle. Those few seconds are horrifying, and when you finally screech to a stop or straighten the wheel, you’re left in a panic.

What if you could lose control of your emotions this way? Like when you’re driving, you may drive slowly, and pay close attention to your surroundings. But the minute you hit a patch of pure ice, it’ll catch you by surprise.

Some people’s emotions are like driving down a highway in summer.  It’s easy to see the signs and keep track of the road. Sometimes it rains, and that’s when it’s harder to control the emotions.

Other people’s emotions are like driving down a highway in the middle of a blizzard. They can tread carefully, but there’s a higher risk of losing control. They can put on their studded winter tires and chains, they can drive slowly and turn up their high beams, but they are navigating dangerous territory. That moment of fear and loss of control happens so often that they are stuck in a constant state of fear. Or maybe they have felt it so much they shut it out, feeling nothing at all, not caring if their car spins out of control.

These people may feel awful, comparing themselves to the summer drivers. Wondering why they get into so many more accidents and sustain so many more injuries. What they don’t realize is that the two are simply not comparable.

You won’t like me – I’ll make sure of it 

Every time I bring up an issue with my therapist, the root always comes back to my self esteem and self worth. This is especially true when it comes to relationships. Here’s the issue:

I think I’m a bad person. When people first meet me, I feel like they only like the person I pretend to be. I feel like I can be loved as a friend, but only superficially and especially not romantically.  I believe I am hard to love. So when I become close with someone intimately, I constantly feel like I am peeling back the layers of paint, leading them closer to my rotting core.

You may have told me I was beautiful and funny and charming – but that was before you saw who I really am. Do you still think those things about me? How about now? I need reassurance. I need constant updates. I keep fucking up and I know one day you’ll change your mind about me.

The problem is, people often assume that others see the world as they do. My immediate perceptions are black and white extremes. After I cling, obsess, or wear a person down, I believe that their perception of me switches from idealization to devaluation.

I believe that anyone I am with will eventually see me for the horrible person I really am. I believe that they will come to despise me as much as I despise myself. So I subconsciously push their limits and test them until I have created my own self fulfilling prophecy.

Once they lose their temper or give up on me, it feeds into that belief that I’m inherently undeserving of love. It’s a vicious cycle that is so hard to break, especially when I’ve lived this way for years. So unfortunately, until I start liking myself a little more I’m going to wreck any resemblance of a relationship I have. I can’t expect anyone else but me to fix my sense of self worth.

Reconciling identity disturbances

Before yesterday, I hadn’t written in almsot a month. Partially because I have no internet at home, but also because I’m typing out long posts and then deleting them when the perfectionist in my head starts pointing out every single flaw. I’m frustrated because I can’t seem to find the words to convey my thoughts when normally it comes very easily to me. Writing was my thing – I always thought I was a good writer, but recently I’ve been really struggling to communicate my ideas.

When I first moved, I made sure to take care of my health. Being physically active was very important to me, so I was at the gym almost every day. My friend here remarked how fit and active I was (jokes on her!). Last week I was bouldering and found myself so fatigued I couldn’t even make it halfway up the wall. And it suddenly wasn’t fun anymore.  I also had a cough that lasted for about two weeks, so I would also be coughing so much I couldn’t properly breathe at times.

I am studying nutrition, so I recognize the importance of good eating, but I also feel the need to fill the role of a “nutritionist” sometimes. I cooked homemade meals every day, I packed healthy snacks, and I made sure I ate at least three meals nicely spaced out throughout the day. Recently I’ve been so busy, I’ve barely had enough time to buy groceries or cook. I’m so tired I’m scrambling to feed myself, and as a result I am grumpy and sluggish.

These areas that I identifed with are currently damaged. How can I be “fit” or “healthy” or “a writer” if I am unable to do any of these now? An unstable sense of self or identity disturbance is considered a core characteristic of BPD. In general, I don’t feel like this is a characteristic that applies to me, but I do struggle sometimes with identity. One way that my therapist suggested I reconcile these difficulties is by identifying with traits, rather than roles.

Many of us, BPD or not, often define ourselves by our roles. This is why relationships can be so dangerous. My identity becomes “so-and-so’s girlfriend”. This is why I know I can’t be in a relationship right now, because I get sucked into that illusion of an identity. What happens when we break up? Who am I then?

I am proud to call myself a student and also a teacher. I am also compelled to define myself as a student and a teacher. Those are roles, though – they are not who I am. What happens when I graduate? What happens if I am no longer offered a teaching position? Who am I then? Instead, it is better to think of the traits that led me to be so successful in these roles.

I carry the role of being a friend, a sister, a person to lean on. But that is not who I am. I am empathetic (too much, sometimes), I am loving, I am protective and I am loyal.

I carry the role of being a teacher and a student, but that is not who I am. I am curious, I am creative, I am a problem solver.

I carry the role of being a writer, musician and someone who tries to be physically active and healthy (not always the case). But sometimes I sink and don’t have the energy to bring myself back up. Sometimes I can’t be a good writer. Sometimes I can’t get out of bed, never mind going to the gym for a good workout. Sometimes I don’t have the will to leave my house to get groceries to cook something healthy.

The thing is, I don’t write, cook, and workout because those roles have to define me. There’s a reason why I write, play music, stay active, and eat well – I want to recover.

I am determined.  I am strong. I am resilient.

Vulnerability factors

I am doing research abroad for half a year and I can honestly say I’ve never been happier. I left all the bad memories and baggage at home and have started over. I know this is only temporary and I will return, but I do think that I will be more at peace when I return home.

Since I arrived here, I have been happy and there has been no need for me to practice my DBT skills. After a few bumps in the road including a misunderstanding with a friend, I had some reality slapped back into me. Even when I am doing well, I still need to practice those skills. Even when I feel like I am at peace and I am “cured”, I still need to have those coping mechanisms in my back pocket.

Now I’m getting very busy with my project, and I need to take care of those pesky vulnerability factors again. For me, I need to focus on 1) eating; 2) sleeping; 3) moderate caffeine consumption; and 4) staying hydrated. Sometimes it is not possible to eat regularly with the nature of my work, and at the end of the day I feel really awful and hopeless. But all I need to do is have a good meal.

BPD is almost embarrassing in that way. Not only do I react enormously to the smallest social interactions, but I also am very sensitive to things like hunger and sleep deprivation. I joke about how “hangry” I get, but it’s something that I actually feel quite embarrassed about. Like most things regarding my emotions, the difference in my affect is like night and day.

This is something I need to be very careful of. I don’t always feel an intense urge to hurt myself, but there are little things. I don’t care about my well-being. It’s a slippery slope.

Good things happen (in pairs and in threes)

Two nights in a row, I went out with friends, despite that looming negative voice telling me that nobody liked me, that I should hide, that I am worthless.
Two nights in a row I threw a huge middle finger up to that voice and dressed up, did my makeup, and attempted to have a good time.
Two nights in a row, I felt a wave of hopelessness and emptiness that I couldn’t quite shake, that made me want to hide, that convinced me people would be better off without me.

Two nights in a row I was given a helping hand from a friend, who listened and stayed with me until the feelings passed.
Two nights in a row I overcame the hopeless thoughts and fractured self-image and ended up having a good time anyway.
After two nights in a row, I saw a pattern emerge.

I had always known that I had sudden, intense mood changes – but I also knew that these passed relatively quickly. In the past I would just leave, letting the changed mood ruin my night.

Now I see that I can overcome these difficult moments, especially with the help of friends and family.
Now I see that I can weather the storm.

Psychosis 

Possible trigger warning – painful imagery, descriptions of injury

I was riding in the car with my family on our way to a Sunday lunch. As far as I can recall everything was fine. That’s when it hit me. I had never felt so ashamed and abnormal. I felt like a freak.

A thought crossed my mind, completely randomly. You know the feeling of having a papercut? I can’t describe it because that means I need to think about it – but I’m sure everyone’s experienced one. I thought about a papercut, but across my eyes. I winced and closed my eyes.

It was like intrusive thoughts on steroids. It kept attacking me. In mindfulness, we are told to accept these thoughts and let them pass, but these thoughts were different. I could actually feel it. I could sense the pain and felt the recoil and response a body would have to being cut.

The thought of cutting my face and small cuts against my eyes kept appearing in my brain and I felt every single sensation. When I closed my eyes, I felt something pierce through my eyelids into my eyes.

My dad stopped the car, and my mom took my sisters into the restaurant. I was sobbing and screaming, “make it stop, make them go away!” When the thoughts passed for a while, my dad and I joined the rest of my family. The thought would come in and I would shudder and wince very obviously. I must have looked insane. I felt insane. I was insane.

I ran back to the car early so I could curl into a ball. I screamed and yelled but it wouldn’t stop. How do you make something go away that is in your head? How do you get away? You can’t.

This went on for 3 days. That’s not very long, but it felt like an eternity. Was I ever going to be normal again? My parents didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know what to do. I just kept clutching and scratching at my face, trying to get the sensation of blades running across my face off. When my hands went to close to my face, I felt the sharp burning across my hands, so I recoiled. I was banging my head against walls. I was pacing in circles squeezing and hitting my head with my hands. I was humming loudly so my brain would register another sense besides pain.

All those horrible depictions of mental illness and psychosis you see on tv was my reality for those few days. You see people screaming and hitting themselves and scratching away at their face and it’s horrifying. You think it’s horrifying to watch? It’s even more horrifying to experience.

It hasn’t happened again since, but now I have a wider understanding of what others may go through. I can’t imagine going through that every single day. I don’t think anyone could.

I always say this: people with mental illnesses are having normal reactions to an abnormal situation. If any “normal” person was hearing voices, feeling sensations that weren’t there, or having visual hallucinations, I don’t think they’d fare too well either.

Where I went wrong/ A girl on fire

Where I went wrong:

  1. I wasn’t open and honest because I was happy and didn’t want to risk losing anything. I knew there was a really good chance it would blow up in my face, but I opted to deal with the consequences later. I forgot that I don’t quietly implode. I’m a ticking time bomb and everyone around me is hit by the shrapnel. That’s really the main thing.

If Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD)  was a person, I would say they are extremely clever and cunning. Really, everything just works out perfectly in their favor. (Note: I am not blaming my actions on BPD. They are still my actions. But my emotions and thought processes are due to some fucked up circuitry in my brain, and I still haven’t quite figured out how to handle them.)

I have real, valid, understandable worries and fears that are amplified beyond comprehension to others. Does anyone watch Community? There’s this one scene where Troy is brought into a secret initiation into Air Conditioning Repair school. The room includes ridiculous figures such as an astronaut cooking paninis in one corner and “black Hitler” in the other corner. This is to ensure the potential recruits don’t tell anyone about the school, and even if they did, it would be too ridiculous to believe anyway.

That’s what I feel happens to my emotions. At the seemingly smallest events, I react enormously, to the point where others think I am being childish or purposely difficult. And then the emotion dies and I’m 100% reasonable and calm. Absolutely ridiculous.

I have talked about stigma that we carry, including being ‘crazy’, ‘manipulative’, and abusive. I don’t intend to do so, but I do come across as being all those things. I hope you all don’t think that I think I’m a perfect shining example of recovery and strength. I certainly have moments of great improvement, but I’m far from perfect.

You say I’m self-centered, manipulative, controlling but I’m really not. Well, no, I suppose I technically am self-centered because I am so extremely preoccupied with my issues that I forget that people around me have problems too. Though, when we think of a self-centered person, we think of someone who doesn’t care about others and who thinks they are entitled to all your time and attention.

I hope you know in your heart that that is not me. I am not dramatically weeping and wondering why you aren’t paying attention to me like some diva. Rather, I am running around like a chicken with its head cut off because my kitchen spontaneously erupted in flames, but as I’m trying to put out the fire, my room erupts in flames, but then I realize I’ve actually been on fire the whole time.

This is why I believe it’s better to talk over the phone rather than texting: it is easy to detach yourself from the person on the other side of the screen, so their demeanor and intentions are all up for interpretation. I get the sense that you might think I’m sitting around pouting and rolling my eyes, when the reality is I’m in sheer panic mode. I am very worried about what you might say next.

It is not malicious and calculated. It is panicked and out-of-control. That doesn’t make it any more okay, I know that, but I think it’s good to understand the nature of the beast.

We can talk about mental illness and how tough it is for the people struggling, but that’s really not the whole picture. That really doesn’t fully capture the devastation that mental illness leaves in its path. I wrote a piece called Termites, in which I expressed my fear of spreading my “disease” around to my loved ones. Honestly, it is not a completely unfounded fear.

I am a girl on fire. I know that I burn everyone I come in contact with; some more severely than others. I cannot expect my loved ones to hurt just because I’m hurting. When the fire temporarily dies down, I’m left aching and raw, and as the smoke clears from my vision, I can see the damage I’ve caused. I’m sorry I burnt you, I really am. But please don’t forget that I was hurting too.

You might think I’m a manipulative, cruel, monster, but the reality is that I’m a good person who is struggling and in immense pain. The reality is I’m still hurting you, another genuinely good person, and pulling you down with me just because you cared enough to lend a helping hand. I get a sense of burning guilt and helplessness as I watch the situation unfold. I can’t ask you to stay with me or change in any way. In the end it is my struggle to deal with.

I am hurting and hurting others, but people still stick with me. This is a bittersweet realization. Thank you for burning a little bit with me. Thank you for telling me you need space. Thank you, and I’m also very sorry. This is advice I know you’d give me, so I’m going to give it back to you. Please don’t stress over me; first and foremost, take care of yourself.

We set the wrong course
and headed due North
That’s where we went wrong

923580

Idealization/devaluation

This post is dedicated to you. Not the post you probably even wanted, but it has the explanation you deserve.

In my last post I explored my tendency to resort to all-or-nothing thinking. I am aware that this is a huge problem I have and am usually hyper-vigilant about it. The problem is, I will either drift off into either extreme (which is still better than racing there full speed) or I will become overwhelmed at times, thus reducing my ability to regulate my tendency to split.

Here is a recent example of this. Idealization and devaluation are common defense mechanisms in individuals with BPD.

From the day we met, I was very careful not to let myself fall into this cycle with you. And I was doing a great job, considering you consistently challenged everything I had previously known. There are countless instances where I braced myself for the worst and nothing happened. So really, your biggest character flaws here are:

  1. Not being so insecure that you have to put me down
  2. Not being so insecure that you feel entitled to have control or power over me
  3. Not playing games and
  4. Not taking me for granted.

In other words you were a decent human being. How dare you.

I was really worried I would start idealizing you while you were here, but I can honestly say I didn’t. I will give myself props for staying level-headed. Whenever you proved another fear wrong, I truly appreciated it, and tucked it away to create new positive memories I could look back on. This whole situation was so encouraging because it showed me that all my hard work I have put in for years was paying off. It also showed me that good people do exist and that I should never accept anything less ever again. 

Then you left. No matter who it is, I always take goodbyes very hard. This goodbye was definitely extra difficult, though. After you left, stress started piling up slowly but steadily with school, other friends, people reappearing from the past, and my health. 

I had also been preparing to move overseas (which will be in less than a week). It will be the first time I will live away from home, my family, my support system. Sure, I’m only gone for 6 months, but understand that that is a really long time to go without therapy and support. I relapsed and overdosed last week, and this made my stress about moving skyrocket even more. I’ve been given this opportunity that will be amazing for my career, something that I’ve dreamed since the start of my graduate studies. I didn’t even think it was a possibility until after my PhD, and even then I was doubtful. But here I am, in my first year of being a PhD student, being given my very own project with this lab I admire so much as part of my dissertation. Despite all of this, I sometimes seriously consider backing out and not going because I don’t know if I will be able to make it.

Before, your validation was like a little treat. I didn’t need it, but getting it was always nice. When I began drifting back into a depression, I clung to anything that could lift my mood. 

I started thinking of you as the most amazing person who could fix everything and anything. I’m not trying to downplay how much you have supported me, my point is I was starting to rely on you too much, which is something you had noticed and pointed out too. Talking to you made me feel better, getting a message or one of your stupid snaps made my day and distracted me from the other stresses. All that hard work I had put into trying to prevent idealizing you was out the window.

My expectations of you had become too much by this point. I relied on you too much. And then things that never would have bothered me before became overwhelming. If you didn’t respond in a way I expected or didn’t respond at all, I was thrown right into devaluation – and I did not land gracefully at all. That’s it, he hates me, he’s horrible, he doesn’t care about me, I never want to talk to him again. This would happen multiple times in the span of a couple days. Sometimes you would be my favorite person ever in the morning and by night I was convinced I was through with you forever. 

The last straw was the day that I stumbled across the fact that you were connected to a painful piece of my past. What are the odds? My handle on the idealization/devaluation scale felt shakier and a lot more out of my control.

After this, everything became more confusing and tiring. My emotions became so big and out of my control, I felt like I was being whipped around incessantly. With each flip, I was hit harder and harder. It’s tough for me to know what to do when I feel such extreme emotions on both sides of the spectrum. It’s difficult to know how to weather the storm once I’m already caught up in the middle of it.

Eventually the painful moments overshadowed the good and I decided I had had enough. I cut our connections and told you I didn’t want to be your friend. My perception of our relationship was skewed because I was so overwhelmed, so tired, and I just wanted the pain to stop. I said a lot of things that were true but worded harsher than they needed to be. I said some things that echoed how I was feeling at the time, but definitely not throughout the majority of our time knowing each other. Honestly, I believed I would never talk to you again and after distancing myself I felt better. Then 12 hours passed and I realized that was not what I really wanted.

I considered everything we talked about and realized I had done that thing where I drifted off and started subconsciously splitting. I reevaluated and changed my expectations back to where they were initially. In the previous link, see the list of words that indicate splitting:

  • Always
  • Never
  • Impossible
  • Awful
  • Perfect
  • Ruined
  • Terrible

I think I said ‘I don’t think we were ever on the same page’, which is essentially another way of saying ‘never’. Other than that I think I did an alright job of not using too many dramatic words.

I think you’ll understand that I’m not asking you to condone my behavior – I want you to understand what was happening behind the scenes. I want you to know that I’m grateful for friends like you, who call me out and make me realize when I’m being unreasonable. These are the people who push me to become better.

Before, I was rambling and asking why you’d want to be my friend. Asking, ‘what have I ever done for you?’ I intermittently have these moments where I feel completely indebted to my friends because it feels like they are saving me and making such a big impact on my life, whereas I feel I do little to nothing for them.

In the end, I know that other people can’t save me or fix me. Any progress is my own doing; a result of my own hard work and resilience. And out of big moments of crisis and pain like this one, emerges a smarter, wiser, more determined version of myself. I am doing my best to build myself back up. There are people who love and care for me, and when I am in a healthy state of mind I definitely do not forget this. This has been a particularly large bump in the road, but I’m getting back on track. I will not make the same mistakes again. I would like things to go back to the way they were, and this time I’ll know how to diffuse the situation if things go south. However, I’m afraid that the damage has been done, so I will take a deep breath, back away, and give you (and I) some space.