Borderline Personality Disorder and Mirroring

I wrote this post, The Male Borderline Waif, a year ago, and it gets a lot of daily traffic.  For as much research that’s been accomplished over the decades around borderline personality disorder (BPD), there are still few answers to be had particularly for men who may be on the borderline spectrum.  Mental health and healing should not be pie in sky for any of us regardless of our diagnosis.

What do we do?

There is also a great deal of stigma for those who carry a personality disorder diagnosis particularly borderline.  The psychopath CEO or even pastor is let off far more easily than the borderline woman (TIME).

Let me be clear.  I’m not a personality disorder apologist.  I don’t, however, feel that anyone should withhold empathy from a population of people simply because there is little true understanding  around the etiology and ultimate course of their condition.  In the case of personality disorders, there are working theories.  That’s it.

Both my parents have personality disorders, and both my parents are dangerous people.  For years, I suspected something was going on with my ex-husband, but I could not pin it down.

Yesterday, I did.

How?

Firstly, my ex-husband was very resistant to any kind of treatment.  He refused to go to the doctor for anything.  He refused to seek mental health treatment as well–even when an ultimatum was on the table.  When I asked him why, he would tell me that he knew more than any doctor.  Was my ex-husband a physician? No.  Did he believe that he knew more? Yes, I think he did.  Is there a name for what he was expressing? Yes, there is.

Grandiosity.

Secondly, over the years I noticed that my husband had different personalities depending upon the situation, and sometimes they were wildly different.  He was a chameleon, and I wouldn’t even recognize him as the same person particularly at work functions.  What was creepier is that he had borrowed my self-image in terms of how he talked about life in general.  He used my language and knowledge base as if they were his own.  This is called mirroring.

What is mirroring?

Definition:

Mirroring – Imitating or copying another person’s characteristics, behaviors or traits.

Borrowing a Self-Image

Mirroring occurs when people with Personality Disorders have a vacant or distorted self-image, which can manifest itself as an imitation of another person’s speech, mannerisms, behaviors, dress style, purchase preferences or daily habits.

In more extreme manifestations of this behavior, the person doing the mirroring might begin to believe they actually are the other person, to the extent they might call themselves by their name, claim to be them or ‘borrow’ elements of the other person’s life such as relationships, past experiences, career or family history and claim these as their own.

Mirroring can be a form of Dissociation, where a person’s strong feelings create “facts” which are less than true.

A dramatic case of mirroring is portrayed in the movieSingle White Female, in which the character Hedra Carlson (played by Jennifer Jason Leigh) begins to imitate her new room-mate Allie in the way she looks, dresses and behaves, imitating her haircut, wearing her clothes and ultimately seducing Allie’s boyfriend. (Out of the Fog)

What it Looks Like

  • A man switches accents to mimic a colleague.
  • A woman wears identical clothing to her friend.
  • A mother wears her daughter’s clothing.
  • A teenager makes phone calls in which she pretends to be her sibling or parent.
  • A secretary wears her boss’s wife’s perfume in an attempt to seduce him.
  • A man writes letters in which he forges his boss’s signature. (Out of the Fog)

My mother mirrored me frequently.  It was obvious.  It wasn’t as obvious when my ex-husband was doing it until he started therapy.

He came home after his intake appointment and told me that his new therapist saw no reason for him to be there.  I was shocked, but I played along.

“Why does your therapist think that you don’t need therapy?” I casually asked.

“I told him that I was looking to create more ’emotional mindfulness’ in my life, and he was really impressed with that.  He had never heard that term before, and he really liked it.  Anyone who would even come into his office and use such a term probably didn’t need much therapy,” he said smugly.

STOP!!!!!! That’s MY term!! I used that term! That is what I was trying to create in MY life! 

He mirrored my therapeutic process in his first therapy session to get out of therapy! What kind of person does that?!

That is a very good question.  What kind of person indeed!

I kept this behavior in mind as I proceeded, and this weekend’s antics with my daughter settled it for me.

Between his mirroring, chameleon-like behavior, grandiosity, entitlement, apparent lack of a solid sense of self as well as his belief that others do not have a sense of self that requires fencing in (boundaries), protecting, and respecting, displays of rage and violence, and consistent need to be the victim in our relationship when he was actually participating in victimization, and his reported self-loathing, I am going to go with my initial assessment of borderline personality disorder with narcissistic tendencies.

I know that pathologizing people isn’t necessarily the way to go, but it helps me get a proper handle on how to adjust my expectations and behaviors.  It helps me think in terms of what I can expect from someone in terms of personal safety, too.

Mirroring behaviors are not discussed enough in the context of personality disorders particularly if you are in a relationship with someone who is engaging in them.  You may feel “creeped out” by them, and that’s legitimate.  It is a bit alarming.    Why is this even a thing? I found a very brave blog post written by a woman with borderline personality disorder who explains why she engages in mirroring behaviors:

“One of the biggest and most challenging aspects of Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) is often ‘The Chameleon Effect’ – or ‘mirroring’. This is the constant, unconscious change in the person’s ‘self’, as they struggle to fit in with their environment, or the people around them. It is, essentially, a fluctuating identity. It is the manifestation of a basic inability or difficulty in establishing a stable sense of self.

The presence of The Chameleon is often one of the main obstacles to effective initial treatment and diagnosis of BPD, as it affects the interaction between patient and doctor, and can mask the disorder itself. It also effects and masks the way in which BPD intersects with other disorders that may have developed in connection with it – creating a complex web of behaviours that can be hard to untangle. The irony is that, without diagnosis and treatment, most are unaware of The Chameleon, and it is only through awareness that The Chameleon can be managed.” (Borderline Personality Disorder and the Chameleon Effect)

She goes on to explain very succinctly what the mirroring is all about:

“Now that I am acknowledging the presence of my Chameleon, I am beginning to wonder if this is actually the key to everything. The whole kit and caboodle. The crux of the issue. From what I can see, everything stems from this lack of a stable self. Borderlines instinctively ‘mirror’ to fit in, because without that behaviour, we have no idea what will happen. We have little or no sense of our own identity, so we can’t know if that will be acceptable to others. Without acceptance by others, we risk abandonment, which is often an intense fear for Borderlines. Why do we have this intense fear of abandonment? Because if we are abandoned, we have nobody to ‘mirror’. The fear of abandonment is a fear of being alone. It is terrifying to be left alone with yourself, when you don’t know who yourself is.” (Borderline Personality Disorder and the Chameleon Effect)

This is such a courageous thing to write, and it explains the inner movements of the emotional life of people who struggle with borderline personality disorder in a way that is very understandable.

My ex-husband and mother refused to confront themselves or their highly abusive behaviors.  There was no happy ending, but perhaps we can all gain better insight into the vast spectrum of human experience through the depth of our own.

Further Reading:

Borderline Personality Disorder and ‘The Chameleon Effect’

Entitlement and Domestic Abuse

I am going to record this for a very specific reason.

Sometimes people give something away in the moment, and that’s the moment that things crystalize.  That’s the insight that you needed to confirm your hypothesis.  That’s when you know that you were right.

That happened for me yesterday.

For readers new to my blog, I will explain that I am going through a divorce.  I have been separated for almost a year, and the process arriving at this point was very difficult.  I documented that process on this blog very intentionally so that men and women experiencing domestic violence could see what the therapeutic process looked like.  I just finished editing my entire blog, and I was a bit astounded at some of the raw content.  I really was in denial for a long time.  I made some of my posts private because I didn’t want them out there for public consumption any longer.  I stayed in the marriage too long.  I couldn’t wrap my head around what was happening to me.

When you are married to your abuser, it doesn’t feel real.  You keep hoping that s/he will change.  You knew them when they were different.  Why won’t they go back to how they used to be? It’s magical thinking.

I caught myself wondering if he was really that bad the other day.  Not in a nostalgic sort of way.  I don’t miss him at all, but I have a buffet of memories.  They aren’t 100% bad.  Two of my daughters still see him.  I just wondered if he would ever choose a better way for himself, and I don’t know why I even started down that road.  This is the man who raped me.  This is the man who hurt my hip so badly that I needed a labral repair surgery.  This is the man that caused a pelvic floor herniation so severe that I needed corrective surgery.  I haven’t even mentioned the emotional abuse that went along with the aforementioned physical abuse.

So, what happened yesterday?

My daughter spent the afternoon with him.  When she returned, she was angry.  She stomped into the house and declared loudly, “Well, that was horrible! We got into a fight!”

It should be noted that my ex-husband and I never fought.  He was very passive.  He was very covert in the expression of his hostility.  It isn’t easy to explain.  He would lash out quickly and then calm down.  You wouldn’t know what hit you.  And then he would deny everything.  Literally!

“I never did that.  That did not happen.”

It was gaslighting all the time.

“Then why am I having surgery? Why have I been limping for three months?”

“I don’t know.  I didn’t do that.  That never happened.”

Reality did not line up with his self-assessment so reality had to be denied.

My daughter told me that her father, my ex, insisted on taking her picture yesterday while they were out.  This is something he has been trying to do for months.  She asks him to stop, but, when he thinks that she is not looking, he tries to do it clandestinely.  She always reiterates her wish, and he makes a point to openly sulk.  Yesterday, she finally stood her ground more assertively:

“You need to stop this.  I have told you many times to stop trying to take my picture.  I don’t like it.  I don’t like having my picture taken.  Please respect my boundaries.”

“My parental position supersedes your boundaries and right to say no.”

Did you catch that? He actually told her that he didn’t have to respect her as a person with rights or respect her consent because he is her parent.  I was shocked and livid.

This is a very nefarious form of entitlement in action, and I’m very familiar with it.  I saw glimpses of it during my marriage, but I could never pin it down.  Now? He actually said it out loud:

“I have a right to do what I want to you because of my position over you.”

I don’t know that any therapist or program can fix or heal someone who actually believes this or lives according to this belief.

The following information was taken from New York State’s Office for the Prevention of Domestic Violence:

Understanding Domestic Abusers

Why Would Anyone Abuse Their Partner?

Coercive control gives abusers many unearned benefits, large and small, at the expense of their partner and children.16,17  Gaining access to those benefits is abusers’ goal.18   Those benefits include:

  • Being able to do as they please.
  • Getting their partner to comply with their demands, cater to them, and let them have their way.
  • Gaining unlimited access to partner’s money, time, attention, caretaking, labor and sexuality.
  • Stopping their partner from:
    • Hurting, betraying, or cheating on them.
    • Arguing with them; trying to have a voice in decisions, or expecting them to compromise.
    • Making demands on them (e.g., to do household chores).
    • Disclosing their abuse to others.
  • Keeping their partner’s life centered around them.
  • Having a safe outlet for anger and other feelings.

People often speak of domestic abuse  as “a choice” but, in reality, abusers make many choices over a long period of time – choices that stem from the belief that abusive behavior is a legitimate way to create and maintain their “rightful” position of power and privilege within their family19 – i.e., that they are entitled to act as they do.  (Domestic abusers who have non-domestic criminal histories also often think using violence is legitimate in other contexts.) At its root, domestic abuse  is motivated by the desire to gain and keep control,20 and the individual makes hundreds of small choices about how to continue controlling his/her partner. (One reason more men than women abuse their partners may be that men more often have power over a partner that they see as worth defending, but the feeling of entitlement is also influenced by other attitudes, values, perceptions and feelings, and by what the individual learned while growing up.)

Implications for intervention

Because domestic abuse is largely driven by attitudes and social inequality, therapeutic efforts to stop it are largely unsuccessful.  Mental health and substance abuse treatment cannot effectively address either abusers’ belief that they have the right to use violence to get what they want or the social inequality that supports those beliefs.  Yet abusers, especially those who also have mental health problems, are often sent to some sort of mental health treatment, either individually or in a batterer program.

In addition, the subjects that mental health treatment is likely to address often have little or no relationship to domestic abuse:

  • Factors the abuser can’t control that “cause” the abusive behavior.
  • The individual’s feelings and needs.
  • Conflict in the relationship.
  • The victim’s partner’s faults, problems or provocative behavior.
  • Incidents of physical violence – rather than the pattern of control.
  • Coping skills and communication.

Many of the social underpinnings of domestic abuse, such as male dominance, can’t be “treated” at all, as they are not the sort of individual problems that clinicians work on. For instance, you can’t “treat:”

  • A man’s belief that he owns his partner and is entitled to run her life.
  • The fact that someone sees their partner as an object.
  • A man’s belief that his partner is “less than” he is.

Entitlement attitudes are very hard to change – especially ones that are longstanding and culturally supported, and that benefit the individual who holds them. Treatment providers can, and should, challenge these beliefs, but they are not just matters of individual motivation or pathology. (OPDV)

Entitlement attitudes are very hard to change.  Did you read that?

Yes.  They are.  I tried.  For 19 years.  Nothing changed but me.  If you are in a relationship with an entitled person, think about why you are in that relationship.  What are you getting out of it? Do you believe that it’s possible to experience something better?

Lundy Bancroft, author of Should I Stay or Should I Go, wrote this:

We believe there are basics that all relationships need to have, indispensable elements such as:

  • love, affection, and kindness
  • mutual respect
  • freedom of both partners to express their true opinions and feelings
  • safe, loving physical intimacy
  • equality
  • making each other a high priority (though not necessarily the only priority)
  • accepting responsibility for one’s own actions
  • each partner caring about how his or her actions affect the other person

Nothing on this list is pie-in-the-sky. If your relationship is missing any of these elements, you have good reason to want that gap to be attended to— and to insist on it.

Entitlement is not on this list.  Funnily enough, neither is abuse.  Of any kind.

I was really upset yesterday about what my ex said to my daughter, but, at the same time, I was validated.  We are divorcing for many reasons.  All the right ones apparently.

Aim high.  Don’t settle for lesser loves.  You deserve the life you’ve always hoped for.

Further reading:

Should I Stay or Should I Go?

The Persona Paradigm

I’ve been editing old posts.  It’s been a much bigger process than I expected what with over 200 posts and six years worth of material.  I came across this post written in 2014, and it dovetailed so nicely with my latest post.  

Why is therapy an endeavor worth taking? This.  This is exactly why we seek out the therapeutic process.  I hope you find it helpful:

Breaking The Mold

 

I have never contacted an author for any reason.  Never because I’ve liked their material.  Never to complain.  Never because I was fan-girling over their latest novel or having a fit over how they wrote a character out of a storyline.  I am an introvert and, admittedly, a lurker.  Lurkers skulk around on the Internet.  I don’t contact authors.  Ever.  That changed for me recently, however, when I was reading the material of a certain writer.  He’s a non-fiction writer and speaker.  I’ve heard him speak numerous times.  I really like his material.  I’ve recommended it to many people who are looking for a different take on God, faith, and the problem of suffering.  His material is very empowering.  I recall sitting at my dining room table reading one of his shorter books.  I came across a statement that confused me.  I reread it.  It was still confusing.  I read it yet again.  Nope.  It made no sense to me.  It made no sense because of a certain word.  The word was ‘persona’.  The author said that God will only interact with our persona.  Huh.  I stopped and thought about it.  That didn’t make any sense to me.  That couldn’t be correct.

I have to explain something about myself.  I’m a word nerd.  I’ve always been like this.  I studied Latin for four years.  I went on to study Russian in college.  I grew bored with it so I decided to study French.  I devoted eight years of my life to that language and even moved to France to attend university there.  I got sick of French whilst living there so I started studying German just to shake things up a bit.  I can only order a beer and a piece of cake in German now, but my French really improved thanks to attempting to learn German while only speaking French.  On top of it, I’m a synesthete.  Certain spoken words cause me to feel a physical sensation.  Synesthesia is actually a sign of faulty wiring in the brain.  I know someone who tastes ear wax when she hears a certain word spoken aloud.  My primary form of synesthesia is seeing words as they are spoken.  When people speak, I see a stream of words pass before my eyes much like an LED stock ticker displaying the latest stock information.  My synesthesia combined with my logophilia are probably what contributed to my stumbling over the improper use of the word ‘persona’ in the book I was reading.  I can be quite rigid about words and their use.  I know this about myself.  I work hard to be flexible and non-judgmental when it comes to others and their journey with grammar, language, and writing.  This author and his use of the word ‘persona’ in his chosen context, however, got under my skin! So, I emailed his publishing house.  I really respect this author so I felt some fear in doing this, but I wanted some clarification.  My logophilia and need for clarification in his writing overrode my need to be liked. I never thought I would get a response, but I did.

The author himself emailed me and explained his word choice.  He stood his ground, linguistically speaking, and he was very kind and gracious about it.  I was surprised and grateful for the response although I stubbornly held my own view.  I still disagree with him.  ‘Persona’ is the wrong word.  I have to stop here and explain what a persona is.  The word ‘persona’ comes from the Latin for ‘theatre mask’.  In fact, the word itself has not evolved at all.  ‘Persona’ is itself a Latin word.  In Latin, ‘persona’ means ‘mask’ or ‘character played by an actor’.  We derive the word ‘personality’ from it.  Why does this matter? It matters because of this author’s statement that God only interacts with our persona.  What he intended to say, I think, is that God only interacts with our identity.  NOT our many personae.  BIG DIFFERENCE.

What happened next is altogether strange and wonderful.  For three days after I received his email response, I saw my life pass before me as if I were watching a movie.  It was as if all the events and experiences both inner and outer were reorganizing according to a new paradigm–persona vs. identity.  This is something I’ve been exploring for years except that I never called it a persona.  I always called it a ‘false self’.  M. Basil Pennington, a Trappist monk, wrote a book called True Self/False Self: Unmasking The Spirit Within, and I read that book cover to cover years ago hoping to make some connections I intuitively knew existed..  What are these so-called connections?

I’ll explain it by asking another question.  Why do we go to therapy? Why do we read self-help books? Why do we seek out the truth regarding our life experiences? We do these things because we are looking to define ourselves in terms of what is really true about us vs. what is not true.  Let me break it down into something very familiar–social roles.

When I go to book club, I behave differently amongst the women there than I would were I going to see my gynecologist.  When I am spending time with my husband I behave differently with him than I do when I’m with him at one of his work functions.  I speak to my cousins differently than I speak to a close friend.  We all wear masks that serve us because we have to move along a social register.  It’s an expectation.  What’s more, we’ve probably all encountered someone who doesn’t know that they are required to wear a mask, or persona, that suits the occasion.  I’ve been at social functions wherein a man has spoken to me in an overly familiar manner that caused me to feel very uncomfortable.  He crossed boundaries through physical touch and language.  He spoke to me as if I were his girlfriend when, in fact, I was a complete stranger to him! We had only just met.  In part, I could explain this by saying that he was not wearing an appropriate persona.  He was disinhibited most likely due to alcohol consumption.  People take off their masks for all sorts of reasons, but alcohol is often a primary reason.

Our many personae, however, do not necessarily define us in whole or even in part.  Sometimes we put on a persona that feels like it isn’t us at all.  It’s just habitual because it’s expected.  We put on the persona to get through an experience.  When we leave the experience we feel exhausted, drained, and almost confused.  We ask ourselves why we even bother getting together with those individuals if we always leave feeling so psychically exsanguinated.  In my opinion, these are all rather normal experiences.  As we grow, we find that we’ve outgrown certain roles.  We outgrow certain relationships and can’t be ourselves within certain groups.  The more exhausted we are when we leave a gathering, the more we realize that there is a lack of congruency between our persona and our identity within that group.  Are we free to be ourselves? Are we spending more time hiding our true selves and overcompensating? Why? To me, this is all very fascinating and even healthy.  This, however, is not the most interesting part of what I saw during the three days of watching my life experiences play before me.

There are personae that we carry and choose to put on and take off.  We go to work, parent, have friendships and romantic attachments.  We don’t make love wearing a parent persona.  That would never work unless you have a certain fetish, but I’m going to stay within the bell curve for the sake of discussion.  There are, however, many personae, I would argue, that we carry that we did not choose.  They are applied to us by others, and we wear them perhaps often or even all the time–maybe even unknowingly.  These applied personae affect everything that we do and even how we think about ourselves.  The tragic consequence about these outwardly applied personae is that we often internalized these personae as our identities, and, when we do this, our lives change.

Why? Our behavior and choices follow what we believe about ourselves.  It’s really that simple.  If you believe yourself to be completely worthwhile, intelligent, capable, and lovable, then you will make good decisions.  You will choose healthy people as friends and potential mates.  You will have good boundaries.  You will have a sense that you have a good future ahead of you so you will make plans.  You will not fear failure so you will learn from your mistakes rather than practice avoidance behavior.  What if you don’t value yourself? What if you are functioning in life with toxic internalized personae that are masquerading as identity statements? How did they get there, and what might that look like?

Frankly, I could write a novel about this, but here is an example.  I’ve written about theNo-Good Child in another post.  The No-Good Child is a term given to children raised by a caregiver with Borderline Personality Disorder.  The child is personified in the family as 100% evil.  No matter what the child does to earn the parent’s love, affection, and acceptance, they are rejected, abused, and typically outcast because the parent only perceives them as bad.  This is the definition of a persona.  A borderline parent perceives a child through a filter.  This filter causes the parent to see a particular child as bad in every way.  Due to this perception, the borderline parent then feels justified in their abusive behavior.  The child has two choices before them.  They can reject the beliefs of the borderline parent; this belief that they are all bad is the applied persona.  Or, they can believe that they are, in fact, all bad and, thusly, deserving of all the abuse.  Why would their own parent abuse and hate them if they didn’t deserve it? This belief that they are all bad is the internalizing of the applied persona.  Essentially, they are exchanging their own identity for their parent’s belief.

They are making a persona their identity.

They are taking on their parent’s hatred and making it their own.  Their identity becomes one founded upon self-loathing which was originally the loathing of a parent, and a new borderline is created.  It all began with an exchange.  The child gave up their identity, which was still forming, for a persona that didn’t even belong to them.  It was a persona that was forced upon them by a very influential adult.

I have come to believe that this is often what happens to us in life as we are developing and growing into adulthood.  It’s usually not as extreme as the aforementioned situation, but it’s common nonetheless.  What are the roles of our mothers and fathers? They are present in our lives for so many obvious reasons.  One role that they play is in the area of self-actualization.  Parents see who we are and who we are becoming.  They are there to call forth the beauty, strength, and gifts that are merely kernels within us when we are children.  They are there to connect us with resources and mentors so that these kernels are fertilized and cultivated.  They are also there to protect us from those that would seek to cut us off from experiences that would expand us.  Parents are in our lives to help us make sense of the experiences we go through as we grow up so that we do not internalize any falsely applied personae.

Think about things that were said to you in middle school and high school? Those statements that you just can’t forget? For example, I’m 6 feet tall.  I was teased relentlessly for years.  My mother commented on my height.  My father teased me.  I left high school feeling like an unfeminine oaf due to all the comments I heard.  It took me over ten years to be comfortable in my own skin, and there are days I still remember the words of my best friend in ninth grade–“Who would ever want to date a string bean?” I went home and cried.  “I’m a string bean.”  That persona statement became my identity.  “I’m too tall.  I’m unattractive.  No one would ever want to date me.”  But, those were not my words.  Those were the words of other people, and no one ever told me that I didn’t have to accept them.  I just did.

What about the words of abusive parents or even cruel teachers who were using shame to force compliance? What about religious teachers or pastors who were trying to motivate congregants?

  • “You’re so lazy! Why don’t you clean your room! What makes you think you’ll ever get a good job or amount to anything? You won’t even make your bed!”
  • “You are so worthless.”
  • “You didn’t turn in your confirmation homework again? God helps those who help themselves.  Clearly, you won’t help yourself.  Don’t expect to get any of your prayers answered.  Sloth is not rewarded.”
  • “How’s the weather up there? By the way, nice tits…”
  • “You are stupid.  You will never get anywhere without me.  No one would ever want you.  Who could put up with you and your sniveling? Do you see what I have to deal with? Crying again? Again? You are so selfish.”

Many people grow up in environments, familial, educational, and religious, wherein statements like these are declared.  Individuals with more resiliency tend to fare better than those who lack resiliency.  Studies have shown that resiliency originates in a conviction that one is lovable, worthy of love, or already loved.  If an individual has experienced love from just one person, then they will be more resilient even if they are subjected to long-term abuse.  So, what kind of persona might be formed from statements such as this?

“I am a lazy, worthless person.  God will not help me if I’m not productive all the time.  No one is interested in my feelings.  Never show anyone weakness.  They will leave you.  I’m an object.  Needing anything means that I’m selfish.  Being tired and needing to rest means that I’m lazy and slothful.  Never ask for help.  I can’t ever need help.”

This statement used to be a part of my identity statement, and I know many people who have tied their identity and worth to a persona that was applied to them through a religious organization, an academic institution, or their family of origin.  They change their behavior like a chameleon by wearing different personae depending upon the context.  If you were to ask them who they really are, they don’t know.  What they do know for certain is that they hate who they are when they are with certain people.  They do know that it’s just not them.  They know that, for example, their family is wrong about them, but they don’t know another way to behave.  It’s been this way for too long.  How do they break out of the mold?

How indeed?

In my experience, the best way to begin separating personae from identity is by building a true identity.  Some false persona statements are so integrated and internalized that they honestly feel like truth.  Life experiences have only ratified and reinforced what has been declared by influential people.  When a person is abused as a child and then raped as an adolescent only to be assaulted in a relationship later on, for example, the thought that one truly is worthless feels absolutely true.  Hasn’t life experience proved that?

What are our options then? After reorganizing my life experiences according to this paradigm, I think that no matter who you are or what you’ve been through, we have a lot of options.  Stepping back and looking at this from a persona paradigm is one way to untangle this and get traction to move forward.

Preparing to Transform

I have been attending therapy faithfully.  I look forward to the day when I don’t require it any longer.  At the same time, I encourage people to go.  For some people, therapy is like an engine overhaul.  For others, it’s like going in for a tune-up and alignment.  After you live life for a while, you need, at a minimum, an oil change.  Most of us take better care of our cars than our psyches.

I’ve heard many arguments around why therapy isn’t necessary, but I bring one valid reason to the table on why it is–you need new data to overwrite old, obsolete, bad data.  Sure, you can walk the self-help road for a while, but there comes a time when even the best of us need to be challenged directly by someone who simply knows more or who is better trained at spotting false beliefs and poorly developed premises.  We require accountability by someone who won’t become offended by our being offended when we are “seen”.  What do I mean by that?

Well, do you know that feeling when you’ve been caught? Caught doing something not right or good for you? Really good therapists are good at catching us doing things that don’t benefit us.  The people closest to us probably see us do these things, too, but they lack the third-party credibility that gives a therapist the necessary gravitas to push a point home.  Plus, we are paying a therapist which means that we are somewhat invested in the time we spend in The Chair, or, at least, we should be.  We don’t pay partners and friends to observe and comment on our habits, thoughts, and patterns of behaviors.  In fact, that might feel really weird if a friend, for example, psychoanalyzed your emotional eating or double standards.  Would you feel safe in the relationship after being exposed in such a way?

But, in your therapist’s office? It’s a safe space to explore the darker side of yourself.  In fact, that’s why you’re there.  To shine a light on your personal darkness so that your darkness diminishes.

If you’ve never been to therapy, then I encourage you to think about it.  It’s not scary at all.  If you haven’t been for a while, then ask yourself if it’s time for a tune-up.  Are you feeling stuck in your life? Are there issues that you’ve been trying to tackle on your own that just don’t want to go away? Why not do it with someone? You’ll gain momentum and move through this season faster with the company of another person than by yourself.

It’s something to think about as you develop enthusiasm over your personal transformation.

Living in Color…Again

I wrote this post six years ago on this very blog.  I woke up this morning and thought that it might be worth re-posting just in case someone needed to read it:

It is no secret that the past few weeks have been difficult.  Moving forward seems to require looking back sometimes, even going back.  Unresolved memories of past trauma surfaced recently, and I have been required to revisit old places.  It feels like touring an old battleground or an ancient ruin.  There was blood shed to be sure, and there was ruin.  There was a great fight, and something died there.  Good and evil were at work, and a life was at stake.  I’m not, however, visiting the site of another’s battle or ruin; I’m visiting mine.  I have, therefore, felt vulnerable, shaky, and a little needy as I have set forth on the healing journey once again.

I do not like to feel vulnerable and needy.  I do have some trusted allies; nonetheless, I prefer self-reliance even though that opposes my own creed and approach to community and friendship.  How can I process what I am going through with a trusted friend if I lock myself in my house? So, I ventured forth in spite of my own fears, and I had two distinct experiences.  My first experience thwarted me by only reaffirming my fears of vulnerability.  I allowed myself to be transparent with someone and came away feeling distinctly “broken”.  I cannot think of another word to describe my deep feelings of shame and regret.  Nothing was said overtly, but sometimes it isn’t what is said–it is what is not said.  It’s body language, a small criticism, an attitude, a look, a lack of empathy, a sigh.  At the end of the day, I regretted leaving the house.  I remember driving home, and I was talking to myself as I made my way home.  Actually, I was talking to God.  I said, “You know, I’m sick of feeling this way.  Broken.  Damaged.  I’m so tired of being “that woman”.  That woman with the problem.”  It isn’t often that God talks back to me.  Oh, I’m a big believer in God speaking to us through nature, other people, even bumper stickers, but when you hear that still, small voice so distinctly answer back in your mind (and you know undoubtedly that it’s not you answering back), it is very important to stop talking and listen.  This is what I heard–“You are not broken.  You are awesomely and wonderfully made.  I made you.  How could you break?”

Let me back up here for a moment.  I took a hiatus from the American church experience about five years ago for myriad reasons.  I left the church, but I did not leave my belief behind.  At the time of my exit, the use of the word “broken” was very popular among Christian Evangelicals.  To speak Christianese fluently, one had to use “broken” often.  It might look something like this: “Oh God, we want to be broken before you.” or “We bring our brokenness to you as an offering.” or “We are broken and weary people.”  You get the idea.  At times it seemed that the more “broken” a person felt, the holier and more sanctified he was.  What does it mean to be “broken”? Google.com has searched many online dictionaries for me, and this is a list of definitions for the adjective “broken”:

  • physically and forcibly separated into pieces or cracked or split
  • subdued or brought low in condition or status
  • (especially of promises or contracts) having been violated or disregarded
  • Sundered by divorce, separation, or desertion of a parent or parents
  • Intermittently stopping and starting; discontinuous
  • Incomplete
  • Weakened and infirm
  • Crushed by grief
  • Financially ruined; bankrupt
  • Not functioning; out of order

Obviously, there are a few definitions that apply to the spiritual life of a human being.  The church at large does not necessarily have it wrong.  We certainly want to bring crushing grief, financial ruin, spiritual lowliness, infirmities, broken promises, and physical brokenness to God.  We do not, however, want to wallow or label ourselves or others as “broken”.  When I said I felt “broken”, however, I meant the last definition on the list.  After all my life experiences, sometimes I just feel like I don’t work anymore.  Like I’m kaput.  What’s more, sometimes I have a feeling that other people think the same thing.  I feel this way when well-meaning people say things like, “How can you have been through so much and still be so normal?” To me, they are really saying, “You must be really screwed-up underneath your veneer of normalcy.”  Should I just have ‘Out of Order” tattooed on my forehead and call it a day? Can a person just go throughtoo much? So, when I heard that still, small voice tell me that I am awesomely and wonderfully made, I was forced to reconsider my own opinions.

Psalm 139:14 tells us that we are awesomely and wonderfully made.  I did not just fabricate that.  As I meditated on this new idea that I was not a broken person, but I was, on the contrary, a whole and working person, I began to wonder what that might mean.  This is what I’ve come up with, and I’m going to use images to explain it.

Look at the image above.  You can probably discern the subject.  Can you find the two bees? Can you see the complexity of patterns? Can you discern color? I have filtered this image, removed color, altered exposure, saturation, temperature, and contrast.  I have faded the image on the edges.  This image is a metaphor for how we view ourselves.  Our life experiences act as filters for how we view ourselves.  What might a stinging remark from your mother before prom night alter in your self-image? What about an absent father? What about a rape or an incestuous relationship? Think about my abduction experience? Think about any kind of sexual violence or trauma? Could they remove all color from your self-image leaving you with only a black and white picture of yourself? It’s very possible.  If we have been exposed to terrible events or events that left us feeling out of control and terrible about ourselves, then how might we “look” to ourselves? Overexposed, colorless, shadowed, and faded? It explains why I feel broken sometimes.  Even being in a fallen world has activated our filters.  We are surrounded by all forms of death, destruction, poverty, illness, and suffering.  If we are able to live in the world without deactivating our empathy, then we will no doubt have learned to view the world through filters.  We must if we are to survive.  It is often too painful otherwise.

This is the same image filtered differently.  I’ve filtered out the color red.  This image looks very different from the other.  The bees stand out, but the petals do not.  The complexity of the seeds have become more visible, and the play of the shadows is more interesting.  Your life with more color, more pattern, less filtering.  Some trauma has been resolved.  Forgiveness has been at work here.  Forward progress.  There is more balance between light and dark.  Less extremes.  More vulnerability means more safety.  Better boundaries and more peace.

This is the image in full color with very little filtering.  I took this photograph yesterday evening in my backyard.  This is the flower of the Russian Mammoth Sunflower.  Look at the complexity of the seeds in the fruiting body and their colors.  Do you see all the details and the shadows in the petals? Do you see how the light reflects off the bees’ wings? These details were impossible to see in the other images due to the effects of the filters.  It does not mean that these details were not there.  The nature of the flower existed.  The bees were doing their work.  They existed.  This flower is standing majestically at about 12 feet in my backyard at this very moment tracking the sun as it moves across the sky, but you could not know this because of how I filtered the two previous images.  You knew that you were looking at a flower.  You did not know the color.  You may not have known the genus or species.  You noted the bees, but you could not notice their gossamer wings or their black and yellow thoraces.  You only knew what was allowed to pass through the filters.

In the unseen or invisible world, the eternal world which will never pass away but surrounds us yet, in God’s heart and mind, we are much like this sunflower.  We exist in full color in rich complexity.  Remember–Thank you for making me so wonderfully complex! Your workmanship is marvelous—how well I know it. (Psalm 139:14) We are not broken, out of order, lowly, violated, emotionally bankrupt, incomplete, separated, or crushed.  Our journey in the physical or visible world is to learn to bring forth, if you will, bit by bit the invisible reality of who we really are into the visible.  Essentially, step by step, we learn to see ourselves in full color and complexity rather than black and white, overexposed, and shadowy because that is who we really are regardless of what has happened to us or how we feel about ourselves. This process takes time, the help from very trustworthy allies, and an unwavering belief that you are so much more that what you currently see.  You are strong, beautiful, powerful, gifted, majestic, capable, talented, complex, and so valuable.

At the end of the famous 1 Corinthians 13 there is this verse:

For now we are looking in a mirror that gives only a dim (blurred) reflection [of reality as in a riddle or enigma], but then [when perfection comes] we shall see in reality and face to face! Now I know in part (imperfectly), but then I shall know and understand fully and clearly, even in the same manner as I have been fully and clearly known and understood [by God].

This verse comes at the end of a chapter entirely devoted to the nature of God’s love.  That is the perspective you must take when you read 1 Corinthians 13.  This chapter is often read at weddings because we want to be able to love each other with the love that is described in this beloved chapter of the New Testament.  What is profound is that God loves us like this.  This chapter could end in any number of ways, but it comes to a close with the announcement that what we see is only a blurry and dim reflection, a cracked and tarnished image, of what exists in the perfect reality.  What’s more, as we are today, sometimes lost in the haze of an imperfect self-image often rooted in deep psychic pain, we are “fully and clearly known and understood by God”.  This statement was made after an entire chapter devoted to the nature of God’s ability to love us.  Human beings are never asked to do something which God Himself does not.  This chapter is all about the nature of God’s love towards us.  So, you see, we may not see ourselves clearly, but God does, and He loves us completely, entirely, thoroughly regardless of everything and with everything.  And, He understands you.  You are understood.  That means that you are not alone.

That is what I learned last week.  When I feel the temptation to feel “broken” or ashamed, I must think again.  This is not an easy choice, but the question comes down to ‘who am I going to believe?’  Am I going to believe my father, my mother, my perpetrator, or even my wounded self? Well, I’m not going to believe my father, my mother, or my perpetrator.  Hell, no.  And, my wounded self is…well, wounded.

It’s something worth pondering as we continue to heal.

Practicing Joy

I have been writing about personal transformation referring to Alan Morinis’ book about the Mussar tradition, Every Day, Holy Day: 365 Days of Teachings and Practices from the Jewish Tradition of Mussar .  According to the Mussar tradition, we have to fuel our own personal transformation with enthusiasm.  It must come from us since we are the ones doing the work of transforming.  I’ve been writing this blog for about six years.  I agree with Morinis and the tradition.  My blog’s content would probably back this up.

But…how? How do we fuel our own transformation? It all sounds so nice when someone says it.  I read the words and think, “Yeah! That! Fuel my own transformation with personal enthusiasm!”  And then I look at my pile of laundry and instantly feel deflated and tired.  And that’s just laundry! I haven’t even looked at my budget or my schedule or my kids’ list of needs or…or…or…

And then there’s this whole divorce thing going on.  That will really suck the enthusiasm right out of you.

It just goes to show you that we are all occupying a space on the battlefield.  So, I ask, once again, how? How do we create and then maintain enthusiasm about our lives so that we can cultivate some forward momentum? This feels like a key component of success to me.

Do I have an answer? Maybe.  Oddly, I found it in San Francisco.

I have been to San Francisco a lot during the past year.  During one of my visits, I was walking in Golden Gate Park and came upon an outdoor roller rink known to the locals as The Skatin’ Place.  There was an amp blasting old school funk and people of every age skating and dancing.  Frankly, it was amazing.  I sat on the grass and watched people from every walk of life skate, dance, fool around, and socialize.  There were roller derby girls, men in skirts, girls in hot pants, men in hot pants, girls and guys with ridiculous skills on Rollerblades, and even little kids in the mix who could probably get down on their skates better than most of the adults.  What I later found out was that this was a Sunday afternoon tradition at Golden Gate Park.

What really affected me about this Sunday afternoon gathering was the feeling of joy that permeated the entire group.  People didn’t just look happy.  They looked positively joyful.  Almost like they lived to get to Sunday so that they could go skating.  With that joy came freedom.  Just being present in the midst of it, listening to the music, talking to the people there, made me feel exuberant.

And then I read this today:

MOMENTS COME when the heart dances in the light. So much more than the experience of fun or even happiness, joy erupts when the inner sphere scintillates in its completeness. An experience touches us to the depths of our souls, and in that moment we are graced with a vision—if only fleetingly—of the flawless wholeness and perfection of it all. Then the heart fills and flows over, even amid the brokenness of this world.

Light is sown for the righteous, and for the upright of heart, joy! —PSALMS 97:11

PHRASE   Mouth filled with laughter, lips with shouts of joy.

PRACTICE   Step away from your busyness and savor several moments every day; feel the joy that is available to you.

Morinis, Alan. Every Day, Holy Day: 365 Days of Teachings and Practices from the Jewish Tradition of Mussar (p. 15).

Learning to practice joy–to really make it intentional–seems to me to be one of the keys to developing enthusiasm over your own process of transformation.  Why? Well, happiness is worthwhile, but it’s situationally dependent.  We are happy when things are going well for us.  As soon as circumstances become unfavorable, we no longer feel happy.  Joy, however, is different.  Where happiness exerts its influence from the outside in, joy exerts its influence from the inside out.  Joy almost conjures itself internally and springs forth even in the midst of difficulty.  Happiness seems to derive itself from favorable events and situations.  So, it’s possible to be joyful and yet unhappy at the same time.  An odd notion to be sure.  It almost feels like an oxymoron–joyfully unhappy or unhappily joyful.  Weird.

Just because it’s weird or foreign in concept doesn’t make it false.  So, the thing to focus on then is what might practicing joy look like? How do we do this? Well, for the folks enjoying skating today in San Francisco, it looks like that.  They dedicate time to something that inspires joy in their lives.  It’s intentional.  This is key.  Being intentional.  In fact, intention is the key to just about everything when it comes to progressing in life and making your life your own.

Developing a joyful practice.  It’s something to consider as you make your way.

6thAvenue.jpg

credit for the photo given to the Godfather of Sk8

Option D

This is from Alan Morinis’ Every Day, Holy Day:

MAN IS BY NATURE very “weighed down” by an earthiness and coarse materiality. That is why he does not want to exert or burden himself. But if you want to merit to divine service, you have to fight this nature and be self-motivated and enthusiastic. For if you abandon yourself to this heaviness, you will not succeed in your quest.

—RABBI MOSHE CHAIM LUZZATTO (1707–1746)

PHRASE   If not now, when?

PRACTICE   Every day, tackle one of the things that has been languishing at the bottom of your to-do list.

(Every Day, Holy Day: 365 Days of Teachings and Practices from the Jewish Tradition of Mussar (p. 14). )

I have to agree with Rabbi Luzzatto.  For the most part, humans are by nature weighed down.  We tend towards inertia.  Some more than others, but I can imagine that everyone knows what this feels like.  That sense of “I really should get up and do X, but I just want to sit here and do Y.”  Y being the thing that will not move you in the direction of accomplishing anything meaningful, and X being the thing that will.

Why is this? Luzzatto observed this in the 18th century.  Morinis writes, “It is reported that when Rabbi Simcha Zissel Ziv (1824–1898), the founder of Kelm Mussar, awoke in the morning, he would immediately spring out of his bed in great haste, as if a highwayman was standing behind him threatening to kill him—in order to overcome laziness and implant in himself the trait of enthusiasm.” (Every Day, Holy Day: 365 Days of Teachings and Practices from the Jewish Tradition of Mussar (p. 12))

I find that habit amusing and somewhat extreme, but it’s telling.  This reminds me of a mind game I played with myself when I ran and swam.  When I ran, I would pretend that I was being chased by a serial killer and had to run to get away from him.  I can tell you that I did run faster.  When I was doing laps, I would pretend that a shark was in the water.  I had to swim to shore to avoid being eaten.  It certainly was a way to “instill enthusiasm” into my workouts.

How do we find a way to instill enthusiasm into our lives and growth process then? Pretending that there is a killer standing behind me threatening to take me out every morning doesn’t sound appealing.  I already consume enough coffee to cause my cortisol levels to spike.

The only answer I can find right now is hope.  We must have hope.  We must come to the conclusion that there is a valid reason to get out of bed in the first place.  We have to give ourselves permission to fantasize.  To dream.  To ask the question, “What is possible for me?”  And the answer cannot be, “Nothing.”  Something must be possible for us.  Just because we haven’t thought of it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist.

A few years ago, I was working on a project with two very interesting and very intelligent people–two mathematical savants.  I wasn’t sure what I could contribute, but they said I was needed.  I just sat there.  The intellectual third wheel.  Listening to them problem solve was fascinating.  They couldn’t solve the problem, but David was not to be thwarted.  I heard him say, “It’s either Option A, Option B, Option C, or…Option D.”

I had been listening to them try to figure out the problem all night.  I knew what the possible solutions were, but I had no idea what Option D was.

“What’s Option D? You haven’t mentioned that yet,” I asked.

David grinned at me and answered, “Option D is something I haven’t thought of yet.”

That is a genius approach to problem solving.  Option D.  Always leaving room for possibilities and positive uncertainties.  Option D represents our hope that we will come up with a better solution.  At some point.  We just don’t know it.  Yet.

Option D takes the pressure off, too.  Why? Because it leaves space for creative thinking, risk taking, and going off the map.  Option D is out there.  We can only see so far.  Option D, the right answer for our problem, might be right over the horizon.  Or, we might meet a person who has the answer, and we have the question.  Put the two of us together, and, suddenly, magic has been created.  History has a plethora of examples of Option D couplings–those creative partnerships that change the landscape of their part of the world.  Think of John Lennon and Paul McCartney, the Warner Brothers, the Wright Brothers or even William H. Masters and Virginia E. Johnson.

In any case, part of instilling enthusiasm into our lives is leaving room for Option D.  We might be feeling pretty defeated and anything but enthusiastic, but when we consider that something else is possible hope is kindled.

Option D is an idea worth looking at.  So, if you are in a situation that feels binding and impossible, then consider applying a new filter–a reframe if you will.  Go through all your options.  Problem solve until you can’t problem solve anymore.  And then, add on Option D–“Something I haven’t yet thought of.”  Pay attention to any shifts that occur inside you.  Give it time.  If you have been entrenched in circular thinking and panic, then be mindful of yourself now.

Removing limitations on possibilities allows for more creative flow, calms down the limbic system, and actually allows us to problem solve more effectively.  Option D acknowledges that we do not know what will happen while acknowledging that we know something good just might.  We are allowing ourselves to plan for goodness rather than catastrophe.  It subverts the automatic negative thoughts (ANTs) so common to anxiety-provoking uncertainties which are common to life.

If you want to try to cultivate enthusiasm for your life which will fuel your own transformation, then I suggest taking a look at the Option D Approach.  Suddenly, a lot more becomes possible when you remove your own mental limitations.