It has been nearly a week since my last therapy session. It was a particularly enlightening session, and I had so much to write about, but a combination of being busy and a reluctance (manifested in procrastination) to actually sit down and write has led me to this frustrating situation where I’ve forgotten most of what I wanted to record.
It’s a bit ironic that I’m so frustrated, because one of the things I wanted to write about was patience.
Okay, I’ll start with one memory and see if I can find a thread to follow. I know that whatever I write today won’t be what I meant to write last Thursday, but perhaps it will have value (to me!) anyway.
Getting off the line and taking a look.
During the session last week, I stood up at one point to show Cyrene what I mean when I say “get off the line.” It’s a concept from aikido, of course, but here I mean it as a metaphor for giving myself time to avoid inappropriate reactions.
One of the things you want to do in a fight (read: stressful situation) is find time to really see what’s in front of you, what’s really happening. You can’t make skillful decisions about how to respond to aggression (stressful input) if you have misinterpreted what’s happening.
Sensei’s favorite example of this is: you’re in a crowd, and feel someone grab your shoulder. You react in a well-honed, blindingly fast move, flattening the ‘assailant.’ Then you discover that the guy had seen you drop your wallet, and was returning it to you. Not a great reaction; even though you did everything ‘right’ in terms of your training, it wasn’t appropriate to the real situation. Your intentions, your misunderstanding; none of that will mean much if you’re arrested and end up in court.
So, in terms of BPD, getting off the line is similar to the old idea of counting to 10. The point of counting to 10 isn’t to allow me to rest and gather my rage before losing my temper. It’s to give me time to make a better decision.
In my usual way of ‘dealing’ (not so well) with the world, here are two typical reaction patterns:
- Something happens that triggers me. I get really upset and (depending on the input) I either cry, start yelling, or get ready to start hitting things or people.
- Something happens that triggers me. I get really upset, but realize that any of the above behaviors have really bad downsides, so I nearly instantly suppress my reactions. I go dead-faced and nearly stop breathing. I get so locked down that I almost lose track of what’s going on around me. The pain continues internally, but I don’t express it.
Now, imagine that I can ‘get off the line’ successfully. What might that look like?
- Something happens.
- I react by retreating to a safe distance (this doesn’t always mean a great distance; sometimes all you have to do is just not be where the blow lands!).
- I allow myself to recognize that something alarming has happened, and I’m likely feeling fear. In any case, I’m starting to experience distress.
- I take a breath or three.
- I take advantage of the moment of respite to do a quick evaluation of the situation. Is there really something triggering happening, or is there a chance that I am not interpreting the situation accurately? (One of the benefits of not being in an actual physical altercation is that pausing to evaluate things isn’t likely to actually increase your danger. Emotional hazards tend not to be as physically dangerous as other hazards! So, taking a moment is almost always possible.)
- If, on second glance, I realize that my first fears were unfounded, and I’ve misunderstood what’s going on, then I can relax from my internal defensive posture and resume the conversation (or perhaps decide that this is a good time to find something else to do for a few minutes).
- Perhaps, on reflection, I recognize that my perceptions were correct. This person in the other car has cut me off in an act of aggression, not just made a bad decision or was rushed, or just was distracted and didn’t realize what they were doing.
- Whatever is actually happening, interestingly enough, it turns out that ending the encounter by opening up space is almost certainly the right response here, too, as it was with the version of the scenario where I was mistaken in my first interpretation.
- In any case, having given myself room and time, I can perhaps make a different decision than I may have made in the past.
Note that making a different decision is very different from suppressing the reaction, which was my former go-to response if I didn’t, in fact, have a meltdown. Externally, they may look similar, in that I don’t obviously react to the stressful input, but internally, they’re very different because I’ve not invalidated my feelings. My feelings are real, even if they’re based on inaccurate perceptions. Being real, however, doesn’t imply that I need to take them seriously or do anything with them.
One of the things we discussed in my last session was how I get into trouble during ‘overly good’ times, too. What Cyrene called my ‘euphoric’ times.
It seems that this new reaction pattern will work for avoiding trouble in euphoria as well as in periods of fear, frustration, or rage.
This fits Sensei’s teaching that we not over-complicate things. I don’t have to learn one pattern for euphoric times, and another for dysphoric times.
The idea of having patience in the face of stressful input is a fairly subtle concept. Or, at least, it’s a hard thing for me to learn and put into practice.
Take juggling three balls as a metaphor here.
A person who doesn’t know how to juggle three balls might see someone else juggling and see it as a huge mess. It looks almost like a magic trick that anyone can keep three balls in the air at once. But the juggler doesn’t see it that way. For one thing, she knows that there are almost never three balls in the air at once. Frequently, in fact, the juggler has two of the balls in her hands. At most, there are two balls up. While the non-juggler sees an activity of overwhelming complexity, the juggler is catching one ball and throwing another slightly later, then waiting for a moment while the first ball completes its arc and it’s time to catch it.
Patience is incredibly important in juggling, because getting to either the catching location or the throwing location early is almost as bad as getting to either location late. *
Rushing ruins juggling.
I suspect that rushing messes up many activities in life, and I’ll be trying to watch for evidence to support or undermine this hypothesis!
Idea: there’s almost never a need to rush. At times, you may have to move very quickly, but rushing is not the same as moving quickly while under some control.
We may think of someone who is patient and imagine someone sitting still. But sometimes waiting is a matter of split seconds. The key to patience isn’t slowness, it’s appropriateness.
Here’s a me-specific example. Road rage. I get really upset when I drive. I can go from having a quiet conversation with my wife to the point of physical violence in a few seconds. It’s not a great quality to have. I don’t get better driving skills when I’m enraged. I probably look like a loon. I have probably done things that would have resulted in non-consensual interactions with police officers if they’d been around to see me losing my temper. Finding ways to reduce my road rage has very real benefits. This is not a theoretical situation.
Here are some practical things I’ve done to reduce my rage: I’ve worked from home on days when I knew I’d encounter above-normal traffic (this is a luxury, I know; however, this isn’t an article of practical advice for others; this is me problem-solving for me). I’ve increased following distance. Not just by a few yards, but my many car lengths. Other cars then cut into the gap. I just open up more space! It’s like a miracle. My tension drops noticeably when I’ve got 16 car lengths between me and the driver ahead of me. I’ve taken the next exit and found another route. I’ve pulled over and sat quietly until my stress level has dropped. I’ve planned trips around rush hours in various places. Each of these techniques is simple, but each has proven effective for me.
When I first started therapy, I brought up road rage, because it’s one of the most visible ways my BPD symptoms express themselves. I was very frustrated with myself at the time, because I thought that I should just be able to ‘will’ myself to not get angry when I’m driving. I thought that I was somehow failing if I had to use those ‘tricks’ I describe above.
But as my sensei likes to point out, a fight that doesn’t happen is the best kind of fight. There’s no aftermath to deal with. No guilt. No police interviews. No lawsuits. No injuries. No bills.
Similarly, if a case of road rage, there’s no winner if I escalate to full-on rage. The upsides are nil, and the downsides are substantial.
So this is not an article about theoretical concepts. This is about solving real problems I have.
Check out this list:
- Keep weight underside.
- Get off the line.
- Extend ki.
- Relax completely.
These are concepts that my aikido teacher sometimes asks us to recite. This is one version of a list that’s sometimes given the grand title of ‘The Four Principles of Aikido.’
I list them here as an example of an attempt to reduce mind-boggling complexity to simple concepts.
Recently, it occurred to me that I’ve been trying to live based on complex and extensive sets of rules. This has caused me no end of trouble, because one of the problems with rules is that they are inflexible. I end up breaking my own rules, and then I feel terrible. And since one of my rules is that I’m not supposed to treat myself badly, I then realize that by feeling terrible about myself, I’ve in turn broken another rule, and so my self-recrimination loop kicks in. In my last therapy session, I was trying to describe this process to my therapist, and coined the term ‘recursive recrimination’ to label this loop.
When I recognized that I have been living by rules, it dawned on me that the issue is at least partly due to the nature of rules, not my ability or inability to follow those rules.
What if a better approach is to establish a set of basic principles to guide me? Throw out the rules, and let the flexible principles take over.
Here’s an example. A rule might be “Don’t lose your temper in traffic.” A principle might be “Give yourself plenty of space while paying attention to what’s going on around you.”
If I’m living by the rule, and I lose my temper anyway, then I’ve not only lost my temper but I’ve disappointed myself by breaking a rule.
If I’m living by the principle, and realize I’ve been distracted and am too close to the car in front, I can just open up some space and gently refocus on traffic. The rule leads to rigidity, while the principle leads to relaxation and flow.
So, anyway, I’m going to try to start jotting down ideas toward establishing a list of First Principles (with a hat tip to Hannibal Lector for bringing the concept of first principles to my attention many years ago).
This all feels very doable.
Something else that came up in that therapy session is much newer for me, and is going to take a lot more work, so I won’t have much to say about it right now, but I hope to write more as I get further insight.
It’s the idea of… other people.
Other People Exist (what a concept)
During my last session, I described to my therapist how I’d made a small mess of my relationship with an important person at work by sending an email while I was feeling really great about them. It wasn’t the most well thought-out email in history, and it’s a good thing that the person I sent it to is a smart and forgiving human who didn’t hold it against me.
Describing this situation out loud helped me recognize an angle that I missed during the first flush of embarrassment after I sent the email and realized it was inappropriate.
It’s the fact that when I was writing the note, I was thinking only about how I felt, not about the recipient’s situation. She’s currently dealing with a very harrowing personal issue in her family. Even if what I sent to her hadn’t been inappropriate, the timing was! I wasn’t really thinking about her at all. This is one of the problems with the FP (favorite person) in BPD. You can get so obsessed with your image of the person that the real person is obscured in your mind.
As it happens, I’m reaching the point in my aikido practice where I know the basic movements well enough that I am now trying to pay more attention to my partner than I am to memorization, so I can practice this new-to-me art of seeing the other person accurately in a more or less controlled environment of the dojo, not the wilds of office email.
This past Monday, I did something pretty far outside my comfort zone: I took an introductory class in Argentine Tango. The instructor said something to the effect of “This version of tango isn’t for contests or for showing off. It’s a social activity, so it’s not about how good you are, it’s about how much you’re paying attention to your partner.”
Apparently, it’s time for me to learn to pay attention to my partner, whoever that is at any given moment.
*(As an aside; learning to juggle better is almost entirely a case of learning to throw the balls more accurately.)