Validation, Perception, Interpretation, Binary Thinking, and the Weedy Garden

Footprints indented deeply in soft sand on the shore

I’ve been wanting to write a new blog post for a few weeks, but haven’t been able to find a ‘hook’ that will let me get started. My writing output is intermittent because I generally only write when I get angry, or have had an insight of some sort. Even then, I have to get started right away, while I’m wound up about the topic, or the urge to write fades away, or I forget my topic. It’s a good thing that I don’t write for a living. πŸ™‚

Today, I haven’t been able to find a hook, so I’m just writing, and hoping that whatever comes out is somewhat coherent in the end.

We are vacationing on the South Carolina shore this week, and I was walking on the beach yesterday, not long after sunrise. Several other people had walked on the sand ahead of me.

The sun was still at a low-enough angle that it was casting strong shadows on the left edge of the deeper footprints.

Photo shows the imprints of many shoes in the sand in bright morning light. There are strong shadows cast by the left edges of most of the footprints.
Footprints in the sand

As I walked, I became aware that I was experiencing an intermittent optical illusion. When I wasn’t looking directly at the footprints, they sometimes seemed to be sticking up from the sand, rather than being indentations in the sand.

As I tried to figure out the illusion, I noticed that the ‘upraised’ versions of the footprints made me feel vaguely threatened, as if they were evidence of someone stomping at my face from another place. I don’t want to overstate this. It wasn’t a strong hallucination or anything really alarming, but it was enough that it got me thinking about validation and inaccurate perception or inaccurate interpretation of what’s going on in my life (I originally typed ‘our lives’ there, but I’m trying to follow my therapist’s urging to use ‘me’ language rather than writing in an abstract third-person manner, so I changed it to ‘my life’).

Looking at the situation rationally, I know that there were no upraised footprints in the ‘relief‘ style. But my perception was that they were raised. Rationally, I know that there was no implied threat from footprints. But my interpretation was that there was. If I had been dealing with a situation that was less unambiguous than this, I might not have been able (at least in the heat of the moment) to see that my perception and interpretation were inaccurate.

In online spaces we see people saying β€œdon’t invalidate my feelings,” or β€œhe made me feel invalidated.” We know how bad invalidation is. It’s something that we don’t want to happen to us, and I hope that we don’t want to invalidate others. I need to be particularly careful not to invalidate myself, and I have seen others with BPD say the same.

Sometimes, though, what we see on social media looks more like the term ‘invalidation’ means β€œno one should call me out on my bad behavior,” or β€œhow dare anyone disagree with me?”

How can we square the need to validate emotions with the need to fight inaccurate thinking?

Here’s my best understanding as of today:

If I say β€œI feel threatened,” invalidation would be something like me saying to myself β€œyou’re acting like a loser and a wimp for feeling threatened.” Validation would be more like β€œI recognize that I am feeling threatened. I am frightened and am experiencing distress.”

After that validation, though, I think that it is not only fair, but very important, to ask if that feeling is based on an accurate perception & interpretation of the world around me. If my thinking is inaccurate, then I may be suffering needlessly.

Thanks to therapy, I’ve noticed that I sometimes perceive and think inaccurately, particularly under emotional stress. For instance, I’ve figured out that if I make a potentially embarrassing mistake, I’ll likely have a feeling of panic about other people discovering my mistake. If I’m overly happy (I hesitate to say ‘manic,’ but perhaps my ‘up’ moods can be accurately described as ‘manic-ish’? (ahh, I just looked it up, and the word I am looking for seems to be ‘hypomania.’)) I can also make really bad choices.

Part of my pattern is that if I’m under time stress (if I’m rushed or startled), my thinking gets rockier.

As I’ve become more aware of these patterns, I’ve been trying to find ways to interrupt my reactions, on the theory that if I can remove some of the time stress, if I can damp down the reactivity, I can give myself time to make different decisions that are more appropriate to the situation, and which cause fewer downstream difficulties.

I was watching a video by Dr. Daniel Fox this morning, and he was describing ‘mind reading’ in people diagnosed with Borderline. He describes a pattern among Borderline folks of anticipating rejection (due to them misinterpreting others’ emotional states) and taking ill-considered action. This isn’t a concept I’d been aware of before today, but it feels accurate for me, so it’s yet another pattern I’m going to have to learn to be aware of.

Here’s my old pattern:

Something happens (or I think something is about to happen). My BPD habit sees the incident as either threatening or as thrilling. My ingrained response is to panic or to think something wonderful has just happened. Finally, I take some action that I realize later was ill-considered. Over hours, days, weeks, or months, there’s fallout from this action.

Here’s the pattern I hope to put in place:

Something happens (or I think something is about to happen). My awareness of my old pattern alerts me to take a moment to hold the event at arm’s reach. To stop. To think, and not react. To sit with the fear or elation. To breathe. In the highly unlikely case of actual danger, taking a second to evaluate the situation is very likely to result in a better decision. In the far more likely situation of my being in an old reaction pattern, a delay stops me from taking action on my feelings of fear, elation, rage, or panic. Acknowledging the reality of the emotion (validating my emotion), respects the fact of my history of trauma without engaging in a sequence that I know has – in the past – caused further harm to myself and those around me. Taking time instead of reacting may allow me to eventually see some of the roots of these ingrained reaction patterns, and that knowledge may (over a very long time) lead to healing.

Facing up to the fact that I can’t always trust my thinking has been one of the hardest things for me.

Who wants to distrust themselves?

To add to the problem, I’m not even sure where the limits of my error lie. I’ve been aware of my Big Switch thinking for years, but not aware that I have a tendency to default to black and white thinking in smaller issues as well.

Further, my social conditioning fights against my desire to be compassionate to myself. Here’s an example: Recently, I woke up with the thought circling around my mind that Borderline Personality Disorder isn’t even real, and it’s just a label someone came up with as a polite replacement for telling us we’re huge jerks. I think this was an attempt by my mind to find a way to give up, to quit therapy (which is hard work and not fun sometimes), to fall in line with years of being told that therapy is a sort of mental masturbation for weak people, or for rich people; that it’s not manly.

I entertained the idea all day. β€œI’m just a jerk.”

What I came up with as a response is that it doesn’t matter in the end. If BPD isn’t real, and it’s just a name for ‘jerk,’ well… so what? I can either give up life (not happening), or I can give up on improving my life and my relationships with other people and just embrace being a jerk (also not happening), or I can fight against my jerk-hood.

Think of it as a pragmatic rather than rose-colored-glasses way of looking at my recovery. The truth is, there’s no fast way to change ways of thinking that I adopted when I was 4, or 14, or 24. Pretending that positive thinking is going to save the day is just trying to fool myself. I might not succeed. If this is going to happen, it will happen because I work at it.

Over the last year I’ve pictured my potential recovery in various ways. I’ve imagined it as tending an overgrown garden. You don’t bring back a garden by burning it to the roots, or bulldozing it (my Big Switch thinking of course goes to those extreme images). Rather, you look at every piece of the garden, you pull a few weeds every day. You prune a hedge one week, trim the broken branches off a tree another week. I’ve imagined myself standing on a dock, trying to move a large steel boat. Hitting the boat will not move it. But slow and steady pressure will.

I want to take the extreme option. To quit my job. To move into a Buddhist monastery. To sell my material goods and give the money away. To swim into the ocean and never come back. I’ve done things that extreme before. You know what? I’m still there. Not there, but here, in my head. The extreme option always works on an assumption that the problem is with my environment, but if I change my environment and the same problems keep appearing, it’s probably safe to assume that the problem is not external to my head.

Another way to say ‘pragmatic’ is to say ‘do the thing that actually works.’

Perhaps the best way to discover what works is to try something, look at the result as clearly as you can, and then trying the next thing.

Sometimes it means trusting the people who have done this hard work before you and trying what they’ve proven works. I’m reading a book on Buddhist insight meditation right now.1 The author describes a process of introspection that takes decades, and in fact is never completely finished.

Healing from trauma, learning to change the symptoms of Borderline Personality Disorder, is the boat you have to push, the insight you find by following your breath for 20 years, the garden you tend in the face of weeds, and storms, and drought, and insects, and deer.

There’s no end to it, but that doesn’t mean there are no rewards. I need to adjust my dial back from overload setting to 2 or 3 on the dial. To stop trying to turn it up to 11.

While I was writing this last sentence, I was listening to Won’t Get Fooled Again by The Who. Great song, but terrible philosophic advice for me. So much of my life has been ruled by rule-based, rigid sets of expectations that I or other people have put around my life. My humanity has been encased in brittle walls, and of course when those frail, brittle barriers fail, I end up injured by the shards.

It’s time to find a new way to guide myself forward, one that encompasses failure, that takes into account being fooled again and again, and again, and then sleeping and getting up the next day to go out to the damned garden to weed, and prune, and plant.

1 Breath by Breath: The Liberating Practice of Insight Meditation (Shambhala Classics) by Larry Rosenberg

4 thoughts on “Validation, Perception, Interpretation, Binary Thinking, and the Weedy Garden

  1. Footprints in the Sand blog indie full and interesting. Thank you for continuing to share your therapeutic experiences and Buddhist musings

  2. I loved this post so much. I love when you write…And could really empathise with what you are going through. I totally get the thinking patterns, and wanting to go to extremes, and the whenever you can slow things down, it’s much better for you. The validation aspects and I also watched the same video by Dr Fox. Yes we do tend to “mind read”.
    I think I love your writing so much because it is like talking/hearing myself. I do and think similar things. Obviously we have differences but I swear the same things you think and percieve, I also think and percieve too. I also think that maybe BPD is not real. I only thought this yesterday and I gave myself a hard time for it all day. Telling myself I’m just weak and pathetic.
    I guess I just wanted you to know that you are not alone in your constant analysing and battling, and tending to that garden.
    I am and continue to do the same.
    It’s not easy, and I respect you because I know how difficult it is.

    Have you found Dr Fox’s new book to be helpful? I wanted to ask how you been getting on with it. You are the only person I know who has/is also going through it. I’m about a third of the way through now…


    1. I keep starting to read Dr. Fox’s workbook, then getting distracted. I have it here next to me, and I’m certain that I’ll get through it eventually. I don’t want to just read it, I want to do the work with it.

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