Thursday, 13 February 2014

The Long Road to Self Compassion

When most of your life has been about trying and failing to earn parental validation then internal expectations can become exceptionally distorted. From the outside I look fairly successful, I have completed three degree courses, am fully qualified and experienced as a Teacher and a Probation Officer, from an early age I was a successful athlete, swimming for my school and regional teams of elite swimmers. I am considered to be an effective communicator and have managed to write and perform comedy sketches in a range of contexts. Yet, yet, yet...I consider my life at best to have been a triumph of mediocrity and at worst to have been a complete failure.

I am writing this post at the end of an exceptionally stormy week when I have perceived myself to have failed utterly in my attempts to manage the symptoms of my BPD. What has prompted this castigation of yourself? You ask. I lost my temper in a DBT group and (in my mind) caused a scene by storming out of the room. Suddenly, after months of managing to regulate my emotional life and remain relatively balanced in my perception of the world and people around me, I found my emotions spiralling out of control. So much so, that after the group finished I had to wait nearly an hour before my emotions were stable enough for me to feel safe enough to drive home. That was actually progress because in the past I wouldn't have been able to use wise mind about the risks of driving while dysregulated.

This in itself has not been the greatest battle I've faced this week, such escalation in emotional intensity is common for those with BPD. What I have battled with has been in 'giving myself a break'. First of all, in response to my initial reaction of ending my participation in the DBT Graduate group, my therapist pointed out to me that my outburst was neither out of proportion, nor unexpected. Secondly, most of my anger was not related to the incident in the group, but was directed entirely towards myself for 'losing it'. Again, my therapist pointed out that I was wrong to assume that my emotional outburst had 'ruined' the whole group. She also pointed out that the statements I was making were not based on fact but on judgement - primarily of myself, for being a failure.

I know the DBT skills I need to use: wise mind, mindfulness focusing on my feelings in this moment, thought diffusion and emotional regulation skills to return me to balance in my responses. I could maybe try a 'loving kindness' meditation (UCLA Website: But I have struggled with one massive obstacle - suddenly the old default to self punishment has reignited and I am finding it very difficult to find reasons to be compassionate towards myself.

The heart of the problem is the problem of my heart towards myself. Suddenly, my assumptions about myself are challenged by the time I've spent in treatment, by the stable relationships and friendships I have been learning to accept. Where do I begin to find validation? I am no longer capable of returning to the old failed ways of coping with extreme emotion and am on a long road towards new ways. Trouble is I'm not there yet, so I am having to take slow, baby steps that focus my mind on what compassion in general feels like and then, in turn, seeking to get used to what compassion for myself feels like. I am a work in progress:

1) Peeling off the 'protective skin': I am now aware of the protective covering which has prevented me from truly feeling the warmth and acceptance of true friends. It is for me to practice accepting their love, without anticipating rejection or abandonment - in a sense I am unlearning 'mind reading' which, in reality, I was never particularly good at. I am learning a new skill and that is taking people at face value - if someone is kind, it doesn't mean that there has to be a sting in the tail. The people in the here and now are not the same people who have hurt me in the past and they should not be punished for the wrongs of others. The song Innocent Man by Billy Joel comes to mind. If I can learn to risk myself in friendships in small steps and learn that now is not then, maybe I can allow the protective 'skin' to be removed.

2) The Child inside Me deserves some Compassion:I need to learn that the child who was so hurt and whose fears and pain still surface from time to time, doesn't deserve punishment, but actually requires some compassion from me. I am the adult who gives voice to the pain of that child and therefore, I need to be able to acknowledge that we are one and the same. If it were any other child, I would weep. If it were any other adult I would understand the struggles and seek to help. That's my challenge.

3) The Adult Survivor deserves some Credit: At some point I have to give myself credit for getting this far in life. Despite the pain of my childhood, in spite of my BPD, I have achieved a lot. Most of all, I have lived through real suffering and trauma. Too often I am looking at myself through the critical eyes of the abusive parent and I owe it to myself to accept that I am one strong woman simply by virtue of the fact that I am still here. Anything else is a bonus and credit to the skills and character that drive me on to be the voice of the child I was and to become the person who has taken every twist and turn of my life and used it as a stepping stone to a better quality of life, than I have known previously.

4) Healing and Recovery take Time: Time is not a luxury but a necessary gift to myself as I move towards healing. It took me well over thirty years of breakdown and rebuilding to get to where I am. Healing will take time and I won't always get it right - skills can be learned quickly but take a lifetime to master. DBT skills can help me to manage my BPD, but they will have to become an intrinsic part of my life if I am to manage my condition effectively, long term. In addition, sometimes I will still need to find time and space in which to recover - and that's ok, because surely taking 'time out' has got to be better than self destructing as a response to difficult days.

If you are like me, someone who is a perfectionist, someone who has exceptionally high expectations of yourself, try to open your heart to yourself, in the same way as you open your heart to others. You know how to be compassionate, just try turning it on to yourself.

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