The skills I offer in this book are counter-intuitive. They go against many of the things that we have been taught to believe about relationships.
What holds us back before we start
I often see on my support list “newbies” who are not teachable. They arrive at the list seemingly willing to listen to the experienced members, yet in reality they subconsciously feel they have it all figured out. The experience of the “old timers” is extraordinarily valuable. In fact, that experience is the greatest asset available on the list. It is why I decided to revise this book to reflect the teaching from the sharing of that experience. Many newcomers to the list are unwilling to listen to guidance from the experienced members. When someone is unable or unwilling to listen to wise advice, this person usually has one of the next few approaches as a hindrance to progress.
Willfulness is the opposite of willingness. If you have an open mind, you have the willingness. You’re teachable. Yet, if your mind is closed and unwilling to listen to suggestions, things will not change. I’ve heard it said that insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. To me, that’s a willful, close-minded approach to the Non/BPD relationship.
The skills I offer in this book are counterintuitive. They go against many of the things that we have been taught to believe about relationships. If a concept is alien to your current way of thinking, if you do believe that it will work, only willingness will provide the key to open the closed mind. Without a willingness to listen, to reflect and to experiment with concepts that you may think will never work, nothing will change.
I’ve also heard it said: nothing changes if nothing changes. Nothing changes without willingness and an open mind.
I have a mother on my email support list who told me that it was in a single interaction when he mind opened and her willingness began to flower. She had made a statement about the meaning of a particular behavior of her daughter with BPD. I responded to her interpretation of the behavior with the words: “That may or may not be the case.” I suggested another interpretation of the motivation behind the behavior.
These words immediately opened the mind of the mother. She never before considered that her interpretation of her daughter’s motivations and behaviors was inaccurate. She was approaching the interaction with her daughter knowing (actually assuming that she knew) the answer before the question was even posed. She was unwilling to hear another interpretation of the behavior. She was closed-minded and willful. Once I suggested another possible interpretation of the motivation of the behavior, her mind immediately opened (even if just a crack) to the possibility of an alternative meaning. Willingness is a key that opens the closed mind.
Many of us have a picture in our minds of what life should be like – what is “normal” in a relationship. These shoulds are expectations of how our partner or child ought to behave. They are based on our up-bringing, our values and our expectations of what’s “normal” or expected/deserved in a given time. For example, when you’ve been married for five years, you should own a home or you should have a child. Or when your child is eighteen years old, she should graduate from high school and go to college.
Unfortunately, these shoulds lead to a great deal of suffering for both you and the other person in the relationship. Steven Stosny, a psychologist and blogger for Psychology Today, has a blog called “anger in the age of entitlement.” In my mind, that title encapsulates the “shoulds.”
We feel as though we deserve to be treated a particular way. We feel we deserve certain things in life. Things should be different. Our partner should cook dinner more. Our adult child should have a better job (or a job at all). Things shouldn’t be like they are!
In many ways, we are still being willful when we concentrate on shoulds. We want to remake the world in our image – the image of what we believe is normal. I’ll talk more about how to get out of the shoulds in the next few chapters. I wanted to mention the shoulds here because they are one of the biggest stumbling blocks to achieving effectiveness with our loved ones.
When I attended the dialectical behavior therapy family skills training ten years ago, the leader of the group said to me: “You’re very controlling.” I was taken aback. I thought: “The nerve of this woman! To say I’m controlling! I’m here because I love my wife! I don’t want to control her!”
Upon reflection, I have to admit, the group leader was right. I was very controlling. What was more embarrassing about that quality of my nature was that I was completely blind to the fact. I was controlling without even realizing it. I thought I was actually helping my wife with her behavior, because I knew better.
Clearly, what she was doing at the time – doctor shopping, drunk driving, spending sprees – was not the best behavior in the world. I was so afraid of the consequences (some of which actually came to pass) that I thought I could save her from herself. It wasn’t until the group leader told me I was controlling that I could see that she was right.
I was controlling because I was afraid. I was afraid that my wife would get arrested (she did) or that she would accidentally kill herself (she didn’t). What I didn’t realize was that I couldn’t live her life for her. I couldn’t save her from herself.
My problem was that I was trying to control her behavior, rather than focusing on my own. I see people approaching their relationship with a loved one with BPD doing this just about every day. This area is where the misapplication of boundaries looms large. If you don’t understand where what you can control (you and your behavior) ends and what you can’t control (your loved one and her behavior) begins, you are the person that has a problem with boundaries, not your loved one.
My approach to this issue is: you can only control yourself, your approach, and your behavior. You can only control you.
I speak with many loved ones of people with BPD who are very put upon. The world has not treated them right. Their loved one has emotionally abused them most horribly.
While it is true that many of these people have been treated rather poorly by their loved one with BPD, the idea that there’s nothing that can be done about it, that it is their lot in life, is just inaccurate. If your destined to be a victim for the rest of your life, that it is BPD’s fault that you’re suffering, why bother to read this (or any other) book?
The reality is that if you believe you’re the victim and have no role or efficacy when it comes to your relationship, you’re going to end up suffering much more than you’re suffering now. That’s because you’re experiencing the learned helplessness that I spoke about earlier in this chapter.
I’ve heard it said that if it’s someone else’s problem, you have no solution. Meaning, if the fault lies outside of yourself, there’s no way for you to work on the problem. I believe that in each interaction with our loved ones, we contribute to either effectiveness or ineffectiveness. When we contribute to ineffectiveness, everyone suffers.
While I don’t believe in walking on eggshells around our loved ones with BPD, I do believe that an effective approach that takes into consideration the facts about the real world (not the way we wished the world to be) opens the trap of victimhood. Yet, you have to take responsibility for your own words and actions – you have to recognize how you might be pouring gasoline onto a raging fire, rather than water to extinguish it.
If you’re burned, you might feel like a victim; I will teach you in the next few chapters how to recognize your contribution to the interactions and how to make this contribution as effective as possible. You just have to be willing to accept your role and change your approach and stop playing the victim.
The skills in the next few chapters will empower you out of the victim role. I will teach you what you can control and what you can’t. I will teach you how to get out of the shoulds.
I will teach you what to do and how to do it.