I See Myself In Them

Last week at work, I was sitting in my office attempting to be productive when I heard the teacher from across the hall enter my colleagues side of the room. She came over to talk about one of our third grade students, who has been having a hard time behaviorally as of late and the teacher is concerned. Or rather, she’s frustrated.

I mean she’s in our behavior disability room, so one would think this ebb and flow in behavior would be expected, but whatever.

Our office is separated by a foldable wall, so unless I fire up my noise machine I can pretty much hear everything that’s being said. Which, on that morning, was a real shame for me, considering they were talking about borderline personality disorder.

My colleague made mention that this third grade student has borderline traits. She talked a little bit about what that meant, using lovely words like “manipulative”, and painting a grim picture of the student’s future. Her tone wasn’t malicious. She was just stating her beliefs based on experience of working with borderline parents in the past.

If they were even diagnosed. Maybe she just assumed they were borderline, since we were also happy to casually lob a very significant term that carries ample stigma in the direction of a 9 year old who can’t even be diagnosed with the disorder because she is in fact only 9.

I’m sure she didn’t intend her information to come across as stigmatizing as it did. I’m sure no one else even realized how stigmatizing what she said was. You know, since the disorder is just a term for them, and not a reality.

When I heard this, all I could think of was this teacher going home and looking up BPD. She’d read the diagnostic criteria maybe, but likely what she’d end up seeing would be the media-targeted misrepresentation and gruesome statistics associated with my disordered world.

Which of course wouldn’t help her perception of that third grade girl.

Before I could think better of it, I jumped to my feet and walked over to insert myself into the conversation. I explained what BPD can feel like using less pejorative language, talking about the emotions and the experience of the person.

I don’t know why I even bothered, honestly. But I was frustrated. My colleague was making it seem like this was a purely genetic disorder that would swallow our student whole and I wanted the teacher to understand 1. The lens our student is probably seeing these situations through and 2. BPD is also incredibly environmental and not necessarily prescriptive of a terrible future.

Again, if the student even has that. She is 9, after all. Have I mentioned that?

“It all sounds very selfish,” the teacher said and I could have facepalmed right then and there. (When I told this to L, she scoffed. “Yes, it’s very selfish to be living in angst all the time as you try not to upset other people.” Thank you, L.)

I also happen to think it’s selfish to frame your student as a manipulative and devious young girl as a way to fit the narrative you’re already telling yourself instead of actually trying to see her as a sweet and clever kid who is separate from her ineffective behaviors that are rooted pretty logically in a difficult upbringing, but whatever.

I could go on, but I think you see the point.

I ended up going back to my side of the office in defeat. For a little while, I sat there listening to the conversation go on, paralyzed from doing anything else. Knowing what they were saying, as painful as it was, was better than not knowing. Or at least this is what I told myself.

What would they think if they knew I had BPD too? Would they be surprised? Would they think differently of me? Would it shut their mouths about this girl?

Of course, I did not and would never share my diagnosis with them. That’s a recipe for disaster. The point is, the ignorance of people, especially those in the mental health field, astounds me. You may remember I had a similar experience like this last year. I thought I’d escaped from that in this district, but here we are.

It’s always from people that I feel like should know better. People, like my colleague, who are smart and caring and empathetic. This woman knows so much about how to help people, and she’s so good with the damn kids. Still, she’s got misperceptions of what it means to exist in my world. Her skewed belief and very stereotypic description of BPD reminds me why so many of us keep quiet. This is what they think of us.

I just don’t know how it was helpful to use the term at all. I really don’t. It saddens me. We are a school, we are not a mental health facility. Talk about the behaviors. Talk about her symptoms. Treat her by addressing those things. Don’t assign her a label of a disorder that fits her more like an oversized mitten than a glove, obscuring her unique strengths and situation.

Ugh.

They went on for awhile longer, while I stewed on the other side of the room, about ready to jump out of my own skin. In a frenzy, I texted J and asked for advice. I was desperate and alone in my pain, I just needed an ally in the battle.

She texted back awhile later. “That’s so hard. Though hearing those terms are hurtful, it may be helpful to remind yourself, first, that they are not talking about you, and second, that you have been growing your awareness of your own feelings, thoughts, and actions for a long time now. This wouldn’t bother you at all if you didn’t have the awareness you do! Advocate for your students and just take of yourself. Take plenty of breaks today.”

It was a completely well thought out response that made me feel heard, accepted, and cared for. For all my doubts about J, she can really come through when I need her.

I returned to that text repeatedly throughout the day and have discussed it with her since. Because as painful as that experience was in isolation, it also drove home another series of doubts I’ve been dealing with.

I work with kids that have various needs. I am not a trained counselor, but I have ended up in a role that involves service delivery through lunch groups and individual counseling sessions. It’s a role I take very seriously, as I try to build me repertoire of interventions so that I can be effective in helping them.

The issue I keep coming back to is that I see a lot of myself in my students. I have a young boy who struggles so deeply with high emotionality that impacts his ability to make friends. There’s a young girl with similar issues, who can leave a situation so confused as to how it went wrong. I have another student who has a harsh internal narrative that ranks up with mine in terms of cruelty. His work refusal and difficulty socially is rooted in a belief he has that he is not good enough.

Sound familiar?

These kids come to me unable to identify their emotions, unable to select tools to regulate to a calm emotional state. They struggle to see other people’s perspectives. They struggle to resolve conflicts with friends. Some of them struggle even to build those friendships.

When I see them, I remember the sensitive kid I was and the sullen teenager I became, and it’s a future I don’t wish for any of them. I want so badly to make the difference for them that an adult in school could have made for me if given the opportunity. I feel the pressure of being good enough for them.

Then I question, how can I help these kids if I can’t even help myself? Worse, I wonder if my continued struggles despite years of hard work with an actual trained professional signify that the situation is in fact hopeless for them, since I haven’t grown either. These are the thoughts that send me into a tailspin of defeatedness and darkness.

J and I delved into this during my last session. She reminded me that me helping them and me helping me are separated by an important thing: objectivity. The lens through which we view own situations is muddied by our personal biases, whereas with my students I can see their problems from a clearer viewpoint.

Plus, I have an advantage of time. Kids at their age view most things in a concrete, egocentric sense; it’s hard for them to pick apart their struggle with a friend and see the underlying intentions of a peer or how their environment intercedes. I am older, and I see the abstract pieces the way they might not be able to without a little support.

This whole time, I’ve assumed my diagnoses were working against my ability to help these kids. And in some ways, it is. The anxiety that makes me freeze up in the moment, forgetting where I should go next in the conversation. The self-doubt that makes me question whether my response to their problem is the right one. The trouble with boundary-setting, which can impact my group management. The shame that tells me bad counselor, you need to step from them and instead you are a failure.

But.

Yes, there’s another side to it too, and it’s coming into view.

My diagnoses make me empathetic. Whereas I’ve noticed others are so quick to dismiss another student’s problems, to call them manipulative or dramatic or stubborn, I have an easier time reading their pain. I see the anxiety, inability to communicate, the sadness, the frustration, that’s fueling their challenging behavior. I see it clearly, even if I don’t know what to do with it in the moment.

For that reason, I always validate their experience. I think that’s so important as someone who often felt my feelings were dismissed because they didn’t fit how they should be in the situation. I will always say something to the tune of I know that’s frustrating. I understand you don’t want to do this. I see why you’d like it to be another way.

We may then have to talk about the fact that things won’t be the way they want, that they may still be hard, but I always try to give them a moment to know that I’ve truly seen their perspective. Empathy. It’s helpful not to feel alone. I am their ally.

I also want to believe while I do see some of myself in the struggles of these kids, I also also see  myself in their persistence and their silliness. It helps give me hope for how they can grow.

And while obviously the interventions that I’m learning as an adult won’t mirror what I teach them, and our situations are identical, perhaps there’s value in examining some of my own experiences as I try to relate to them in a way that’s meaningful.

For example, for my young boy with the friendship troubles, I can consider what I might have found it most helpful to hear as I’ve strived to build my own relationships. What skills have I needed to learn? Perhaps I can begin there.

Or for that third grade girl. What does she need most? She needs to see that others withstand her storm. She needs to learn how to cultivate her own healthy sense of connection with others while also enhancing her ability to be there for herself. She needs a new way to categorize her experiences in the world beyond just black or white.

For me, this has meant learning to tolerate the things I don’t like. It’s about identifying my emotion emotions. It has included systematically deconstructing my negative beliefs and trying to replace it with an accumulation of positive thoughts and supportive measures. This has meant learning how to look at things from a bigger picture, to play the role of detective finding evidence to refute my beliefs that a situation was all good or all bad.

Maybe these are things that could help our girl? This could be the time to advocate. Despite my bias, my view my have it’s own type of clarity here.

If I am going to chide this teacher and my colleague for talking about my student in a way that just disadvantages her by focusing too much on the same, perhaps I should also chide me for doing the same with myself because of my own diagnosis.

BPD in the work world. It’s a challenge, every damn day, but maybe it instills me with a type of empathy and ability to connect that could end up being the foundation of a good counselor with some time and patience.

Maybe.

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Shame and Vulnerability

At the beginning of the school year, a continuing education magazine ended up in my mailbox at work. In it was a coupon to view an hour long talk of Brené Brown’s online for free. I cut it out and let it sit in my desk for almost two months. But it was about to expire, so I decided (finally) that today was the day to watch it.

I’ve heard the name Brené Brown before, mostly from other bloggers who talk about her books. Her work had always intrigued me, but I hadn’t delved into any of it until today. After I watched this first course, I ended up watching her two TED talks.

Might I say, she’s quite the game changer.

I have written repeatedly about this distinct feeling I have that I am fundamentally flawed, destined for nothing beyond being alone and a failure. I call it a core belief, because it is. That feeling dominates me on my darkest days, and it has for some time. I’ve always thought this feelings was a figment of my BPD, which I guess is kind of circular logic.

Turns out, I have a different monster to blame.

According to Brené Brown, that feeling I have? It’s shame. Shame is the experience that we are unworthy of love and belonging. It calls into question our ability to make connections. Shame disconnects us from the world.

Shame, I learned, is different from guilt. Guilt is a focus on behavior. It’s the recognition that “I did something bad.” Shame is a focus on self. It’s what is for me a very common feeling that “I am bad.” In her words, it drives the tirade of “I am not good enough” that has played like a broken record in my head for over a decade.

When Brené Brown described shame, she used the word gremlin to describe it, which is as close of a description as I could ever imagine to something I’ve been describing in my blog for months.

I see it now very clearly. The minions.

The minions in my head are operated by shame.  Every time I take a risk, reach out for help, try to make a connection, the voices that come to the surface do so in a way that remind me I am undeserving. Undeserving of success. Undeserving of friendship. Undeserving of compassion.

By far my favorite part of Brené’s talk was when she described her own experience with this phenomenon. She’d been devastated when her husband didn’t make a big deal of her birthday, when he knew birthdays were important to her.

The outcome of that story was that when she went to couples therapy a few days later and relayed her pain to her therapist, the therapist asked her if she’d asked him to make a big deal?

No, she hadn’t. But he knew what it meant to her, she reasoned to the therapist. If she asked, it wouldn’t have been as special, it wouldn’t have been worth it.

As she told her story, I nodded along with it, fully on her side.

Her therapist’s response? “Maybe you don’t think you’re worth it if you can’t ask him”

Well, fuck.

I often believe if I have to ask for something from someone, it diminishes the value of what I’ve asked for. If I have to ask for reassurance, it doesn’t count. If I have to ask for someone to show they care, to validate, it’s not worth it. It’s pathetic. I’m pathetic. 

There I sit and wait for validation that’s been offered spontaneously without me manipulating it because I assume the other person being willing to volunteer it is an indicator of my worth. I’m trying to use other’s actions to manufacture something that’s supposed to be generated from within myself.

I don’t believe in my own worth enough, so I can’t ask for validation or care or reassurance without a hell of a lot of discomfort following.

I think on some level I knew this, but to hear it described that way was very enlightening.

For example, I’m literally sitting in therapy half the time thinking that I’m not even worth her time or mine. I shouldn’t bother her with my stuff. That’s shame talking. Shame is inhibiting my ability to participate in therapy, to improve my life, because I don’t even feel like I can ask for help from a person whose entire job centers on helping people. I don’t feel like I’m worthy of support or capable of growth.

Maybe this is part of the reason I’m feeling so stuck?

As a follow up thought, I’m now wondering if the circle of shame is also what causes my sense of connection to slip away so quickly in someone’s absence. We might connect in the moment, but I know deep down that I’m unlovable and that I’m not worthy of their sustained connection, so I don’t trust it. I can’t imagine a universe in which I would be continuously deserving of someone’s love or care.

I also think this is really important because we’ve discussed in therapy lately that socialization needs to be a big priority. We’ve discussed that I generally feel empty right now and want to make some more meaningful connections.

The title of the first talk I watched was called Shame Shields. Brené stated that we deal with shame by using one of three shields: We move away, hiding our shame with secrets and withdrawing. We move towards by trying to please others as a way to squash shame. Or we move against shame by using anger to spark more shame in others.

I’m partial to one of the first two. Either burying myself in my shame through self-punishing methods or trying to build the other person up in a manner of getting them to overlook my shameful self. To overlook that I’m a bad friend or bad colleague or bad client.

If I want to make connections, real connections, hiding behind those shields is not going to be particularly useful for the cause.

So what will?

Brené went on to state that the way to combat shame is with vulnerability. In her research, she found that people who felt worthiness were not only willing to embrace vulnerability, they felt it necessary. They told the stories of themselves to the world, warts and all.

Shit. I wanted to stop listening right there. I like guarantees. I like being prepared and knowing exactly how things are going to work out. I thrive on it. Vulnerability is the exactly opposite of that. It’s flinging yourself into relationships and situations not knowing how it’s going to end. That sounds terrible. It sounds excruciating.

So yeah, I wanted to just turn it off and pretend that what she had to say was a falsehood. Tell me how to make connections without having to feel so damn exposed all the time.

But then she said that we humans have a tendency to numb vulnerability. We numb those painful feelings by eating and spending and whatever other vices we have.

Wow. I feel called out.

Considering I feel everything at the maximum level of intensity, of course I’ve been suppressing the negative feelings. They fucking suck.

Plus, you wouldn’t think that the answer to how to get in control of your life would be to accept that feeling out of control is necessary sometimes.

Brown argues that we can’t numb the pain without numbing the joy. I can’t suppress the imperfect parts of me without suppressing the good parts too. Part of me learning to interact with and build strong relationships with people will be discovering this “authentic” self of mine and communicating it freely to others instead of hiding behind those shields, hoping that they don’t see my shame.

“Vulnerability is the birthplace of worthiness, love, belonging. It’s the birthplace of creativity and change.”

I want to feel worthy. I want to have a sense of belonging and love in my life. I still have these fleeting hopes of a life with a husband and kids, a set of close friends and me being a functional part of my community.

Which means that…maybe I’m going to have to learn to start taking more risks and investing in relationships with people while simultaneously tolerating and even respecting my imperfections?

There was another quote of hers that really stuck with me.“It’s seductive to stand outside the arena and think, I’m going to go in there and kick some ass when I’m bulletproof and perfect.”

We’ve always been working for this, but it’s almost like I’ve still been using therapy as a method of completely eliminating my imperfections. It hasn’t worked, no surprise. She’s been telling me since day 1 that you can’t be perfect, but I’m only ever half entertaining that notion. Part of me is always still pushing, because if I’m perfect, I don’t have to be vulnerable.

But no, I have to start making these changes now and practicing vulnerability in relationships, learning to tolerate the unknown. I can’t keep putting it off, waiting until I reach a certain threshold of “good” or “healed” before I feel ready. Because I’ll never feel ready.

Vulnerability means maybe we need to talk more about my shame and it’s origins? Naming the feeling as it occurs, dissecting the thoughts, identifying their triggers. Talking about that in the context of social interactions and normalizing the feelings.

I’ve already asked for repeated encouragement and assurance from her in helping me be more vulnerable, which may not be the point, but it seems like lately the second I try to say anything vulnerable, I end up diverting to safer topics before I can stop myself. Brené Brown did say those who don’t about shame have the most of it, and that’s certainly true here.

I wonder if maybe using this language will help support that journey. I wonder if I can truly let go and let myself embrace vulnerability

I’m afraid of this because being honest about the same means letting out more of the crazy and she’s seen more than enough of that.

I’m afraid of this, because I’m afraid of shame consuming me. Brené spoke about these shame conversations being like an exploration into some great swamplands. The purpose isn’t to go there and set up camp, it’s to explore, become more familiar with the territory, and then return home. Talking about shame is like quicksand and I’ve found once I enter that territory it’s hard to escape. You’ll find on our exploration that I’ve got a whole freaking village set up with the time I’ve spent there.

Shame has had a place in my life for so long now, what would it mean to give in to vulnerability? To let it exist? Would I see that increased connection that Brené Brown promised? Or would it just be too painful to tolerate?

I’m not sure which one is more terrifying.

 

The BPD in Me

How often do those of you with Borderline Personality Disorder (or any other disorder!) use the actual phrase in conversation with real people in your lives?

As often as I tackle the topic of BPD on my blog, I am generally not very open about it with those I interact with face-to-face. I’ve used the actual diagnosis in conversation with my parents and a few friends, but I discuss it seldom. As it passes my lips, it leaves a bad taste in my mouth, the bitterness of words that are so stigmatized in our society. I often cringe immediately once I’ve said it, because I know what other people believe about BPD and I fear judgment.

On the rare occasion I have discussed it, it was often because I was trying to explain its meaning in my life. I was trying to take that demonized diagnosis and paint a picture of how it has colored my thoughts, my feelings, my actions. I was trying to put it in perspective for another person who was bewildered by my extreme mood, trying to educate a friend, or trying to quell someone’s anger after a regretful action on my part.

The problem is, I struggle to articulate further what it means beyond reading the DSM criteria verbatim. When I first started blogging, I published a number of posts that reflected upon how each of the nine borderline personality disorder criteria applied to me. I did this during a time where I was still learning about which parts of my identity were mine alone and which parts perhaps that of my disorder. It was useful, but those posts were expansive, and I haven’t looked at them in many months.

I’m very much in a phase of making everything “comprehensive” right now. Organizing the information in a way that communicates it most effectively. This is what I want to do with my disorder. I want to to highlight where the BPD exists within me, so that the next time I try to explain it someone maybe I can do it in a way that really gives justice to my experience.

The BPD in me comes out through intense emotions that cycle up and down at the drop of a hat, from the highest of high to the lowest of low. I feel my feelings at the extreme, even the positive ones. When I feel well, I am excitable, motivated, and have hope for my future. I feel productive and proud of myself for the work that I am doing. I can look back at the past and feel empathy for myself and the mistakes I’ve made, and even begin towards acceptance.

Unfortunately, I am triggered easily, by very trivial matters that wouldn’t upset other people: a small mistake at work, a perceived slight from a friend, or anything that might disrupt my routine. When that happens, my world plummets. I’ve seen the feelings described this way “grief instead of sadness, humiliation instead of embarrassment, rage instead of annoyance and panic instead of nervousness.” That is the truth. I don’t get just a dose of the feeling, I get it all, turned up to full volume.

The BPD in me takes those emotions and projects them into my perceptions of myself and others. The same way my feelings are extreme, so are my thoughts. If I’m not careful, I will paint my whole world into black and white, a series of all or nothing.

Usually, I’m at the negative end of the extreme, because the voice in my head is so harsh and so cruel. It calls me names and refuses to give me any credit for my success. I’m unlovable. I’m a loser. I’m “less than” everyone else. I’m a failure. I deserve to be punished. The good things are external, specific, and unstable; I see them, but I assume they are a short-lived manifestation of luck. The negative is internal, global, and stable. That is, it’s my fault, it will be my fault for every situation, and this will never change. I treat myself worse than anyone could ever treat me.

Because of of the BPD in me, sometimes I’m not sure what is the truth and what is not. So I tend to stick to the negative assumptions, so that if they end up being true, I’m not disappointed.

I know this is a fallacy, but it feels safer.

My BPD causes me to have trouble trusting anyone. In truth, the only people I trust not to leave are my parents. Everyone else? I assume you are going to leave and I assume it’s because of me. My flaws. My wrongdoings. My insecurities. You need to remember that I’ve had many friendships end before you, and I played a large role in it. So when you’re trying to tell me things are fine, I’m remembering the pain of those losses instead of listening to you. I’m not hearing your reassurance, especially not at first. You may need to reassure me, over and over, that you aren’t going anywhere. Eventually, maybe it will stick.

Of course, I hate to ask you directly for your reassurance. If I have to ask, then how do I know you really wanted to give it and didn’t just do so out of obligation? No, the BPD in me can’t accept your validation of our relationship unless you offer it freely, so that I can be sure it’s genuine. The BPD in me expects you to be attuned to that need at all times, to magically know when I need your reassurance. The voice is there, telling me that if you cared, you’d know and you’d ask.

Even when you do reassure me, even when you do so wonderfully, I’ll think I’m a burden for needing your support. In general, the BPD in me makes me hate myself for having needs at all. I don’t know how to prioritize myself and set appropriate boundaries because I’m so busy worrying about everyone else liking me.

The thought of someone not liking me feels personal. It feels like a strike against me as a person. Nevermind the fact that no one in the world is universally liked, I’ll still push to break that barrier. I’ll eviscerate the emotional and physical boundaries I’ve set for myself to please as many as I can. No one has asked me to do this. It’s a choice I’ve made for myself to try to maintain my own sanity.

When people do overstep a boundary, I let them right on in. Even though I should kindly lock the door, tell them to come back later, I’m too worried about appearing selfish and instigating feelings of anger.

The BPD in me shines through my recurrent thoughts that I am a burden to others and doomed to ruin every relationship, platonic or romantic, that I enter. Because of this, I struggle to maintain a connection with others when we are not together. We could have a fabulous time one day, laughing and forming a tight connection, but the second you are out of my sight I will begin to doubt the relationship. I may fear you are upset or angry with me based on the way you respond to a text message.

This is more about me than it is about you. It’s not about negative opinions I have of you; it’s about the negative tirade that’s happening in my head. I’m trying to hold onto the sense of trust and connection between us, but sometimes it slips right through my fingers and gets lost in the chaos.

You might notice that I shy away from disagreement, and will say things like “it’s fine” or “it doesn’t matter” the second I start to feel opposition from you or any sort of tension and anger on your part. I will invalidate my own needs and values, stomp them into dust myself, if I think that’s what you want to hear.

Or, more likely, I’ll just stay quiet and say nothing at all. Because if I speak in opposition of what you believe, I’m worried you will think I’m criticizing your opinions. I’m worried you will be upset with me. I assume if we disagree, it will lead to conflict, and that conflict will be the end of our relationship.

The world is full of disagreements and that’s scary to me. Remember that thing I said about not knowing what’s the truth? Well, how can I fight for something if I’m not sure my truth is the real truth? Or worse, if there’s no right opinion? Navigating all of that is fiercely confusing. Being around groups of people exacerbates these fears, because there’s a greater chance of differing opinions. The BPD in me makes me want to hide away from it all. When you see me withdrawing, it’s usually because nothing feels like the right thing to say, everything too risky.

You might notice that I apologize, repeatedly, for very small infractions. It might be something small that barely even bothered you, and here I am holding onto it with numerous apologies even once you’ve told me it’s fine. I know it’s probably annoying but I literally cannot help myself. Even the smallest of mistakes feels fatal to me, so I do everything I can to compensate for it. Everything I can to keep you with me.

The BPD in me makes me a perfectionist. I want to do everything right, to say everything right, be everything right for everyone. If I do all that, then I am in control, and I need to feel in control of my life. The expectations I’ve set for myself are beyond what anyone could ever reach, and yet I tell myself I need to aim for it anyway. I tell myself if I just try hard enough, be good enough, I can do it.

I know that it makes me look a little frazzled sometimes, when I’m obsessing about getting it all right. I’m aware that it’s frustrating for others when I’m going on and on about everything on my plate. This is why. That voice in my head, telling me I have to handle it all perfectly. That voice in my head, telling me I’m a failure each time I don’t. I get stuck in that space, trying desperately to find ways to feel like I’ve fulfilled my expectations for myself .

The BPD in me makes me impulsive. My intense emotions can feel overwhelming and I’m not always so good at sitting with them, Usually, it’s because I feel wronged and am putting pressure on myself to communicate my pain with others.  I may make assumptions about what others are thinking. I may say or do something in a flurry of feelings based purely off of my misguided belief. In those moments, I’ve forgotten to lay situations out and look at the evidence against the emotions and assumptions. I’ve forgotten to consider the consequences of my actions.

BPD has told me to act now and get it all out before it’s too late, so I do. Unfortunately, that usually hurts someone. Afterwards,  I see all that much more clearly, and I regret it immensely. It’s a pattern I’m still digging my way out of. When I’m impulsive, it may hurt you. I’m sorry for that.

My impulsivity takes other forms. I’m notorious for eating more calories than one person needs and asking you not to judge me for it. Mozzarella sticks, pizza, macaroni and cheese, ice cream, candy. These are my weaknesses, because they are a comfort, at least in the moment, and I’m often looking to soothe sad feelings.

Then there’s the financial impulsively. I will buy something frivolous: new clothes, a figurine from Amazon, Packer’s tickets. I’ll tell myself I deserve it. I’ll tell myself I need it. These are rationales used to cover the unhealthiness of my decision. The truth is, I’m trying to fill a void, because the BPD in me makes me feel empty too.

I’m grieving over absences, things I wish I’d had that were never there and never will be. Accepting that loss feels dismissive. I yearn to find ways to compensate for the things I was missing, but how can I ever make up for what was lost? Living with that knowledge just spurs resentment at others.

I resent my parents for not teaching me the skills I needed to identify, verbalize, and regulate my emotions or to build and maintain appropriate relationships that include disagreement; for instead teaching me how to get angry, to yell, and to bury everything else. I resent my friends for having the skills that I don’t, for knowing how to cultivate friendships and not missing out on those positive experiences in high school and college. I resent people with confidence, people know who know who they are. I resent people who have the life experiences I want to have: travel, weddings, families.

I feel ashamed of my resentment, a difficulty tolerating that my parents could have tried their best but still didn’t give me enough of what I needed. I feel ashamed at the way I compare myself to others. Still, the feelings continue.

At the core of me, I feel like my life has no meaning, like I’m not connected intricately enough to anyone to make a difference. In a way, I lift right out. I wish that my relationship with my parents was more solid. I wish I had siblings. I wish I had a boyfriend. I wish I had a friendship group where I was the first pick to go out on holidays, birthdays, and other occasions, instead of being the afterthought or backup. I don’t have these things.

I know that it is on me to overcome the emptiness. It’s on me to take the steps to overcoming all of this. I’m trying to fight the BPD in me, I really am. I’m no longer sure if it’s part of me or another entity, but I know that is causes distress. So I’m trying. I have to repeat that as an attempt to convince myself because I don’t believe that I’m trying hard enough.

Again, I need the reassurance.

Taking care of myself requires herculean effort sometimes. The depression makes me dread waking up in the morning. It breeds hopelessness. The anxiety has me fretting over every interaction in my path. Sometimes, the most I can manage is to light a candle, take a shower, or read a book. Usually, I just sleep.

I feel all the negative feelings and it culminates in self-harm or suicidal thoughts. Sometimes even suicidal plans. I can’t remember that last time I went longer than a day or two without at least considering suicide. I truly believe this will be how I meet my end one day, even if it’s not today.

Then perfectionism swoops in and blasts me for not being better, working harder. The BPD in me reminds me I’ve learned the skills and should be able to use them more effectively by now. I should have some of the things I so desperately want, and I’m not making progress quickly enough. Then I’m back in the space of feeling fundamentally flawed again.

This is how I’ve been for a long time. I ask myself again and again why I’m like this, and this is what the research has told me: The emotions may be out of my control, but I cling to the negative judgements and the poor coping responses because it’s what I know. It seemingly serves me to protect me from being hurt, even though it really doesn’t. It’s seemingly comfortable because it’s familiar, even though it’s also miserable.

As soon as things start to get better, the BPD in me has a tendency to jump in and self-sabotage. The truth is, I never feel at ease. I am always on guard, ready for things to implode. I am expecting that they will, because they always have.

I wrote this elsewhere before:  My mind refuses to accept that the other shoe won’t drop, refuses to acknowledge that things might just maybe be verging on okay. It’s like driving around with my check engine light on constantly. I keep checking the engine only to discover that nothing is wrong. The car is running fine. But the light stays on just in case. Just in case something really is wrong with the engine and it’s about to blow.

This is the BPD in me. It’s something I work hard against daily. It’s something that sometimes gets the best of me. It’s something I hate and wish would go away, because it makes everything more difficult.

I wish that people could understand better the totality of my experience, but I can recognize why putting yourself in my shoes wouldn’t be easy or desirable. Maybe this piece at least did a fair job of explaining the unique combination of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that are common to the borderline world.

I hope I can break free of the BPD in me, but for now, I’m just working on getting through.

Emotions Are Part of the Package

Acceptance. I’m continuously talking about it. I’m continuously working towards it. Acceptance of past mistakes. Acceptance of things I can never have in my life. Acceptance of just so many things pertaining to therapy.

This post isn’t about those. It’s about a different, and maybe even more difficult, kind of acceptance.

I describe myself as being on a path to healing and I have all sorts of ideas what being ‘healed’ might look like. As such, I judge my progress in therapy based on the frequency and intensity of my low moods, assuming that I’ll be healed when they taper off consistently. When I’m ‘happy’, whatever that means, I’ll be better.

The truth is, I think that my greatest fantasies on what being healed will look like may be slightly off base.

My intense emotions aren’t going to just go away.

Maybe later there will be a reduction in intensity. Over the course of a few years or hopefully at least by the time I’m into middle adulthood. Right now though, my disorder is still very active and intense emotional experiences are one of the biggest pieces of BPD. Add to that all the transition and changes I’ve been taking on (new job, trying to date, thinking about trying to move out, etc.) and it only makes sense that I’ve been so prone to sudden and extreme mood shifts.

That isn’t something that just lifts right out of my life.

As a consequence, therapy isn’t aimed at completely vanquishing my negative moods. It’s aimed at helping me tolerate them. The intention is to enhance the process of identifying the emotions, sitting with them, refraining from judgment, and self-soothing so that they pass faster.

Let me tell you something, each time I remember this it’s like being sucker punched.

You know why? Because realizing this means realizing that for me to reach a place where I can tolerate pain, I’m going to have to endure that pain. I think this realization also involves reframing my idea of what helpful therapy is for me.  Therapy needs to mean discussion of the topics that will ultimately trigger these emotions so that I can practice coping with them. It needs to be a little be difficult and there needs to be vulnerability, otherwise the emotions stay concealed and then definitely no progress is made.

Worse, living my life means engaging with the emotions all the time all by myself! That’s what we’re working for, which I’ve known all along but feels so much more isolating when I remember that supporting myself means supporting myself not just through minor bumps in the road, but through deep pain.

Even when the intensity ultimately fades, I’m still going to have periods of sadness, anger, fear, shame, etc. Humans have emotions, I can’t just get rid of them.

Which sucks, because those feelings are really uncomfortable for me. I’ve been associating having them with doing something wrong, with not doing enough hard work, and avoiding them at all costs. Especially in therapy, I’m been projecting this image of myself as fine and getting stuck behind a barrier for fear of what talking about what is really bothering me will stir up.

So when a really challenging topic came front and center last night and I was in a sea of my own scary and intense emotions, I wanted the ground to swallow me up.

Sometimes after nights like that, the minions come out with their routine doubts of J. She doesn’t care. Obviously, she doesn’t care because if she did she wouldn’t leave me to deal with all these emotions by myself.  These are the same doubts I’ve had about friends time and time again when I’m in a bad place. How could they leave me to handle this by myself? Why aren’t they trying to help?

But really, we can only experience emotions on our own. Others may be present, but the experience is ours alone. J can’t erase the emotions. My friends can’t erase them. They can support me within the boundaries of their respective roles, but beyond that it’s a waiting game for me that can only be supplemented by my own self-care.

That’s the biggest radical acceptance part. That therapy is going to draw out the demons and I will have to slay them on my own after I walk out the door. That this is going to keep happening as we discuss the trigger topics. That this is perfectly normal and isn’t indicative that J doesn’t care or that I’m doing therapy incorrectly.

It’s just part of the battle. Hopefully, accepting this and participating with the emotions will help them subside more quickly and maybe not even hurt so badly one day.

I know this means I have to talk to her about all the other stuff that’s eating at me, even though it’s almost definitely going to feel like utter hell.

In my fantasy world, being healed meant that nothing ever bothered me. Unfortunately, that is not reality. I think I need to work on accepting that negative emotions will be part of my life sometimes instead of striving for longer and longer stretches of positivity. Feeling well isn’t a reflection of progress, being able to cope with feeling unwell is.

Emotions are part of the package. Not just for someone with mental illnesses, but for everyone! It is not shameful to feel negative emotions. It is not a failure. It is not wrong to let them exist and sit in them for a little while.

Fighting them only gives them power. I can’t go around them, I have to go through them.

 

Problem Solving for Envy

In therapy tonight, J and I spend a good deal of time analyzing the behavior analysis worksheet that I had filled out yesterday. It’s a single page task with the intention of analyzing what thoughts, feelings, and emotions lead to problematic emotions.

My problematic emotion was envy and its accompanying emptiness. It was triggered by me asking my friend if she’d like to go with me to a nearby hot air balloon festival that I am usually able to get free tickets for from a family member. She was unable to go, cue disappointment. Of course she can’t come. She always has plans.

At this point, I reached out to another four friends, none of whom were able to go either. One friend was going to Florida, another two to the beach, and another to their lake house. My disappointment morphed into rejection and embarrassment over having no one to go with. I never have any plans. Why would they even want to go with me? I’m just the backup friend. 

I texted my uncle and told him not to bother with the tickets. Anger and frustration flared within me. I should not have even bothered. Why do they all get to be happy and I don’t? Then, although they were still texting, I promptly stopped answering. They all seemed so excited, and were liking my friends’ text about her Florida plan. I want nothing to do with their joy, since my life is so empty. I’d like to be happy for her too, and a little part of me is, but the envy is much stronger within me. So I check out of that conversation. I feel guilt and shame for that, like I’m not being a good friend.

This whole event has my emotions in overdrive. My envy and emptiness are dizzying. I want to cut badly. Speaking of which, we never do talk about the self-harm urges during this session, because I chicken out and don’t bring them up. Oops. Maybe next time.

It’s probably better off that way, because our session is emotion-laden enough as it is and by the end of it I am breathing hard trying to push away both the impulse to panic and my imminent tears. We don’t talk about anything too deep, but breaking down my emotions so finely is enough that participating in this process has me uncomfortable for much of the time.

J and I work on the problem solving part of the analysis together, brainstorming alternative responses to the situation. Something that might have helped me tolerate my emotions more effectively and bounce back with greater ease. We come up with coping statements that can be used should a similar situation happen again.

“Of course she can’t come. She always has plans” becomes “It’s disappointing that she can’t do this activity with me, but we can plan something in the future.” I can handle disappointment, although it is not fun. We define this reframe as recognizing which emotions are more tolerable and validating them. 

“I never have any plans. Why would they even want to go with me? I’m just the backup friend” is not reframed into different statement. Instead, I’m instructed to try to catch the thoughts as they turn inward and remind myself that “I’m hurting myself by the things I’m saying right now.” This isn’t helpful, it’s destructive. We decide that when social situations don’t go the way I plan, I need to recognize when I begin self-blaming. 

Finally,  “I should not have even bothered. Why do they all get to be happy and I don’t?” becomes “This situation didn’t work out, but others have in the past and it doesn’t mean others won’t in the future.” It’s an understanding that this experience doesn’t generalize to every experience with my friends. This reframe is used to help me recognize when I’m using absolutes or black-and-white thinking to justify my emotions. 

J shifts focus to behaviors. Deciding to text other friends at first was a healthy coping response. Texting my uncle to tell him I didn’t need tickets was done in haste, and we both agree I could have waited a little longer. J wants to focus on the behavior of ignoring my friends’ texts. Withdrawing, which I am so very prone to doing when I’m upset.

She wants to know what I could have done differently. Well, of course, I could have not withdrawn, I tell her. Opposite action. Move towards instead of away. She agrees. What could I have said? Something to validate my friend’s excitement about going to Florida. Even as simple as just liking the same text everyone else was.

The solution is to choose to validate others’ joy when I am feeling envious.

J believes that if I can do something like that in the future, it might quell even just a little of my envy. Disappointment and excitement for a friend can co-exist. I know this unconsciously, even when it is hard to remember in the moment. I’m allowed to feel disappointed and wish I was getting to experience travel and a vacation. I’m allowed to feel the sting of not having those plans. But if I give in to the desire to withdraw every time, it breeds more intense and prolonged negative feelings.

Instead, if I find small ways to engage with my friend, then I’ll feel confident in myself as being a good friend. I’ll also reap feelings of accomplishment for doing something that was difficult for me, reinforcement to do it again the next time.

We decide that I can check in with her when she returns to ask her how her trip was. Find out her favorite part. See if she wants to share pictures. Experience in her joy with her.

The next step of problem solving is to select from all of our brainstormed alternatives and choose a couple to implement in the future. I choose recognizing when I have gotten trapped in a cycle of self-blaming and finding ways to validate others’ joy even amidst envy. These seem like things I can do. J thinks they are worthy choices.

Finally, we discuss how I will commit to implementing them. Each time a social situation begins to feel like it is turning out in a way that feels uncomfortable or upsetting, I need to be on alert to the urge to criticize myself and the urge to withdraw. When this happens, I can use the new statements that I developed tonight and I can find ways to engage with my friends about the things I’m jealous of. Focus on the little bit of happiness I have for them, even though the envy is so much larger. This is what is effective and this is what is kind. Hopefully, this also diminishes the intense pain cause by envy.

Envy is still a prominent problematic emotion. I know that it will continue as long as I am not able to go forward and get the experiences I want, whether it be going to the beach or to Florida. The summer makes it especially difficult, as this is the time everyone is out vacationing and living their life.

I can find ways to validate their positive experiences and tolerate my own challenging emotions until the day where I can have those experience too. I can. If I just keep trying.

Confusion and Frustration with DBT

For almost four months now, J and I have been reading from a Dialectical Behavior Therapy skills workbook. I bought the book after seeing that there was a research base supporting the effectiveness of DBT in alleviating symptoms of Borderline Personality Disorder. Since I can’t quite afford (money-wise or time-wise) to invest in attending an actual group just yet, it seemed like a great place to start.

I’ve completed the worksheets, developing a safety plan and looking at the big picture with my emotions. We’ve done some of the meditations in session together. I’ve written notecard after notecard with radical acceptance statements and coping thoughts and self-affirmations.

We’ve slowly been combing through each chapter and discussing ways to infuse those skills into my life. At this point, we’re just about done with the emotion regulation unit.

Can I tell you guys something? IT’S SO MUCH STUFF!

I mentioned the notecards. I have made probably about 20 of them. A notecard with a Relaxation Plan. A notecard on Effective Communication. A notecard on Opposite Action.  I’m trying so hard to take all this material and jam it into my brain. To make it fit in a way that I’ll be able to recall it. The notecards have become almost like a study strategy, and I’ve always been good at schoolwork.

When I’m well, it’s easy for me to go through and organize the material. I find that the information between units connects more naturally in my mind; I can see the skills holistically. Plus the rationale of DBT makes more sense to me; I feel invested in the skills because I believe in the outcome.

But when I’m not well, when BPD creeps in, it’s like I’m standing over a toolbox without a single clue of which tool to grab for. I have so many questions. Do I need a distress tolerance or a mindfulness tool? I might know I need to use an emotion regulation skill, but am I identifying emotions or am I problem solving? Or maybe both? If I choose wrong, will it be like trying to screw in a nail with a hammer?

The units overlap. We aim to identify our emotions and the urges they evoke as one part of the process in regulating them, which requires using distress tolerance skills to cool the emotion’s intensity by distraction or relaxation. To do any of this, can’t be judging ourselves. We need to accept our current emotions and ground ourselves through mindfulness. By tolerating distress and focusing on the present moment, we aim to see that we can behave more effectively in coping with the emotions, instead of making destructive choices.

I’m sure interpersonal effectiveness will tie in there too, when I get there.

Because all the skills play off of one another, I think that doing something would better than tapping out when the emotions intensify. But that also complicates things for me. If I’m spinning out in a frenzy of emptiness and guilt, do I need to use a distraction plan strategy to shift my focus or do I need to use emotion exposure to sit in the feelings?

Like I said, there’s so much information. So often when I actually need to use the skills, I’m overwhelmed to the point of paralysis. I use none of them and then I’m angry with myself and think that I’m not making any progress at all. I’ve said to J so many times in the last couple months: I just never know where to start.

I wish they had a little flow chart or something.

J reminds me that it’s okay, that if all of this stuff came easily then I’d be doing it already. Even she thinks that it’s a lot to learn.

Now I understand why people in DBT will run through the units multiple times before graduating from the program. It takes long for this overflow of information to sink in!

Speaking of which, I’m sure it doesn’t help that J is not trained in DBT. It’s not like she’s teaching me these skills. We’re both reading a book and discussing them, determining how to generalize them into my life. So obviously there’s a bit of a knowledge gap there. I look forward to the time that I can really immerse myself in it a verified DBT group.

The confusion is just one part. I mentioned that when I’m in a good place, I truly believe in the skills. When I’m not, when my disorder is running me ragged, that perspective changes.

It’s not that I stop believing that DBT could work, but I resent the skills. Radical acceptance feels like invalidation; like I’m just supposed to move on and ignore my pain. Effective Communication feels much the same way Tit feels like I’m expected to sweep my emotions and problems under the rug just for the good of the order. It even tells says in the book that effective communication isn’t “selling out” or “caving in” to other people; but sometimes, in the moment, all I can focus on is that I have to suppress my feelings to keep a relationship strong.

It’s super frustrating.

I see the reasoning behind it. Radical acceptance limits suffering and effective communication is used to remove the blame and accusations from peer interaction so you can reach your goals. Totally makes sense.

Same with meditation. Mindfulness makes sense too, and I think it can be helpful in observing and letting go of thoughts. However, sometimes when I’m most escalated I just want to scream that it’s not that simple, that sitting quietly and focusing on my breathing for five or ten minutes doesn’t eliminate all the feelings that have overhauled my body!

The skills are good, and their intentions are great, but they don’t adequately take into consideration how intense the highest points of the tidal wave can be.  How complex. It makes me feel like I’m just another borderline that they’re trying to fit into a box of “normal” without really paying attention to my unique neuroses.

So I resent DBT for existing, because it feels isolating that I’m supposed to figure it all out myself, to contain it. Like my problems don’t deserve to exist for the eyes others and need to be squared away quickly and quietly. It feels invalidating. Like I’m not allowed to lose it sometimes.

The voices of the minions in my head tell me these things. Of BPD. I want the pain to go away, but I struggle with the idea of being told to take it away. I want to be able to manage it, but I want to be cared for and supported by others.

Then I resent myself for needing skills. More voices, perfectionist ones with impossible expectations. Of course the minions fight back, they always will. They want to remain, even as I’m trying to kick them out the door.

This is the struggle. Knowing which skills to use and wanting to use them. And it is a struggle for me.

Yet, I’m very thankful that I have undertaken this self-help project. Even when I want to fight back against DBT, I’m happy that I’ve found it. Because it’s something. It’s hopeful. While I don’t always know which tool to use, or even remember all the tools at my disposal, I am learning. Storing away resources for when I’m ready to use them.

I’ll continue to work with the skills, to push through feeling indignant, defeated and confused. Hopefully, there will be payout. Hopefully, the path to follow becomes easier to see even in the middle of a storm.

I can handle each challenge that comes my way. I will focus on what I can change. 

“How Are You?”

Something that I’ve learned about myself in the last few months is that when I start to go into crisis mode, dropping from a high to a low, something that is strangely comforting to me is to go online and read about the experiences of others with Borderline Personality Disorder.

I like my diagnosis. I don’t like that I have it, and I don’t like the pain that it saddles me with or the stigma surrounding the label, but I like that there is a name for what I experience. Something that acts as a reminder that my brain isn’t the only one that’s invented these issues I deal with. Other people have stories too, and they often write them with words that echo pieces of my own life.

Since I’ve struggled on and off lately, I’ve been doing a lot of reading. I like themighty.com, and I follow the BPD topic. It’s a connecting experience.

Today I read a piece that I really liked, because it highlighted a very small but common part of the day that my disorder compounds: Responding when people ask me how I’m doing.

We live in a culture that defines certain phrases, questions or traits as the baseline for politeness and human interaction. Perhaps the most common of these is the question we all ask some version of several times a day: How are you? How’re things? How’s life? It often seems this question is asked more out of a sense of tradition or obligation than genuine care.

When someone asks this question, a mathematical equation to deduce the “right” answer immediately takes place in my head. Can I trust this person with my honesty? Do they really care or are they just making conversation? Will my answer burden them? And the most challenging aspect of this question: How can I possibly respond to this with any measure of accuracy?

I think about this all the time. It is truly commonplace to ask that question more as an extension of a greeting than an act of probing for an honest response. At work, teachers say it to me in passing. At the grocery store, the cashier asks as her attention is divided scanning my items. Rarely does anyone really get out of their own head to really ask and listen for the answer. 

I always say the same thing to these people. “Good.” “Fine.” “I’m doing all right.” It doesn’t really matter, because often they’ve tuned out the second the question left their lips. And that’s okay, I suppose. I wouldn’t really feel comfortable spilling to an acquaintance or stranger that I’m having a bad day or feeling emotionally overwhelmed.

Although, wouldn’t it be nice if we could? Society expects us to have it together all the time. When you don’t, when you fall apart and show negative emotions in front of others, it makes them uncomfortable or even panicky. They’re upset, what do I do?! It’s regarded as going against the norm and we’re quietly taught to avoid it,

So we lie. A kindness to others. Conforming to the ideal. Still, that’s hard for me, to feel like I have to stuff my feelings into a box and hide it away.

I don’t need to tell anyone my life story, but I’d love to not have to don a happy mask and play it off like life is grand when my BPD has sent my emotions to through the roof. I’d love to be able to say, “Today’s a tough one” or “I’m actually a little sad right now” and have the other person respond in a brief but validating way before I moved on with my day.

Then there’s the other side of the coin. Friends and family.

Like the original poster stated, I’m often caught in a rock and a hard place when someone asks me that type of question. How are you? or How was your day? All of those considerations she listed apply so well. Do they really want to know? Or was it just out of obligation?

There’s no way to know that answer for sure, either.

On one hand, part of me is always itching to be truthful because part of me desperately wants to be cared for. So there’s always this little force urging me towards honesty when I’m in a bad place, with the expectation that maybe the other person will respond in the exact way that I need from them. Which will prove that they care and that I deserve support. It’s like what happened after I found out I didn’t get that job a few weeks ago. I wanted her to see I was upset and ask if I was okay because I wanted to be held and soothed.

If I do choose to be honest, there’s always a boundary for how honest I can be, a line I won’t cross. Seldom will I admit to feeling so low that I am suicidal and I almost never mention self-harm. More often I use words like struggling and difficult days. I’ll say that I’m stressed or maybe that my emotions have been back and forth. Not giving away too much.

I used to try to describe exactly how I was feeling, in the past. If you’re a long-time reader, you know that high school version of me let it all my feelings spill out to whomever asked me how I was doing, with a yearning that someone would just magically understand.

Expectations are killer in that way.

Now I know better. I know this isn’t effective, and I know that BPD and mental health in itself is very difficult to understand if you haven’t weathered the storm. People have their own opinions, and I’m reticent to be so vulnerable only to be hit with anything that feels rejecting or invalidating. If I’m not completely sure that you’ll be able to support me, forget it.

Plus, the truth is that those words, that knowledge, it scares my friends. Knowing that I’m feeling that way or have hurt myself just quiets them, because they want to help but are unsure how and fear making it worse. Usually they offer some meager messages of support and I end up having to reassure them that no I’m not actually going to kill myself and I’m getting help.

For these reasons, I rarely admit anymore when I’m in a bad place, even if it might be obvious to other people. If asked, I may give indications that I’m not well by saying a curt “okay” or “just a little stressed” but I’m less likely be direct. More often than not, I’ll just say that I’m tired. That’s almost always a code that I’m in deep pain.

Sometimes I will cop to it later, when I’ve come back into a stable place and my expectations of the other person are rational or at least more tolerable. For example, I’ll tell someone I was in a bad place for a few days, and I may give more detail on what that meant, but I quickly wave it away by saying I’ve moved past it and I’m better now.

No matter what, when I say something, I feel like a burden. I always feel like I should have said nothing at all.

How are you is a scary question in a way, because I feel like I’m weighing between an honesty that could sour a relationship and a falsity that ignores my feelings but ensures things are good between me and the other person.

Yup, all of this from one simple question.

J and I have talked at length about this. I think she really wants me to reach out during those difficult times and be as honest as I can be. To not even wait for the “how are you” question, but to just find support. We’re always going back and forth about my expectations of others and the knowledge that sometimes no persons response will meet the high bar my BPD sets. Sometimes I just have to accept whatever type of support they have and find comfort in the fact that the intentions were good.

Which sucks. Radical acceptance again.

Anyway, we’re way off track here, The point is, it is interesting, isn’t it? So much goes in to even just responding to one small question, a question which I hear many many times a day. You can break it down into a bunch of different concerns to consider.

That’s BPD, my friends. Nothing is ever simple, not even basic conversation.