Tag: sitting with uncertainty

Mixed up

It’s a night of confusing feelings. It felt like a strange day from the start as group therapy was cancelled. Tonight I keep nearly crying for no reason. My chest hurts. Feels like there’s a weight under my ribs. Anxiety? I don’t know. I just want a hug.

It wasn’t all bad today. Actually there was a lot of good. I met my friend for coffee. She has a beautiful baby girl, six months old. Baby was in the mood for cuddles, despite not having seen me for a couple of months, and giggled away in my arms. Being loved and trusted by her just made me really happy. With a little baby there’s no room for the second guessing and doubting that comes into all my other relationships (like the voices telling me they can’t stand me really even if they pretend to like me and finding proof all too easily of how bad I’m sure they think I am). With a baby it’s open emotion that I don’t doubt.

It was good to talk to my friend and I realised how much I miss her. She’s special, very astute and empathic and reflective. She is really supportive to me and still so through the fulness of her own life as a mum when she has do many demands and many people might understandably lose touch or be less “present” for friends.

We talked some about how I feel really unhappy with the hospital at the moment. On the way to meet her I’d had another upsetting phonecall with the hospital which I won’t bore you with detailing right now. Talking helped at the time for a little while and stopped me losing it but soon after the crashing guilt hit me, that I shouldn’t have said anything and shouldn’t moan and it’s my fault anyway and that I took up her time and took over the conversation; although I really tried not to and tried to turn the conversation back to her quickly, I worry what if it did. I’m trying to trust she meant it when she said she enjoyed meeting.

Through the afternoon spikes of anger kept hitting me about the phonecall. I kept actively choosing to do things other than self-harm, which did have the one positive effect that I cleaned my flat as distraction!

This evening I made a card for my colleague B’s golden wedding anniversary. Tomorrow evening B and her husband are having a party and she’s kindly invited us from work. I’m very happy for her and it’s very generous of her indeed to include us. At the same time I’m anxious already. I’m getting a lift with another colleague as it’s not really on a bus route, which means I don’t have control over when I can leave if I don’t feel good. I worry about spoiling things for other people. There’ll be lots of people, it’ll be busy, it’s in the evening, I don’t know the venue and it’s the first socialising I’ve done with colleagues outside work (apart from one coffee with someone). All challenges for me right now. I’m trying to just focus on being happy for B. and being warm towards new people I meet. I don’t want to waste all the good of the lovely celebration with my anxieties.

I’m missing N. and feeling very upset with how I left things with her. I’m determined to do something, go to see her, to tell her meaningfully I’m sorry and try to sort it all out but I’m not sure how she’ll feel about me approaching her or if it’s better for her that I leave things be now and don’t try to get in touch if I’d only cause more hurt.

Anyhow. It’s a lot of feelings to sit with tonight. I’m tired and I need to try to be still. Thanks be for tea and hot water bottles!

Goodnight. I’m praying for you.

Ginny xxx

Sitting with uncertainty – Part 2

Sitting with uncertainty – Part 2

I apologise for not writing this Part 2 yesterday as hoped.  I had a weekend away for a very dear friend’s 80th birthday. It was special and lovely but I was very drained when I got home and I did not manage to write. I’m sorry.

***

I am starting to realise that it is terribly difficult for me when I realise that my thoughts or emotions are different from someone else’s about a certain situation or matter.  It could be about a particular situation or experience we are both sharing in right now, or a memory of something that happened before, or a matter of belief (religious belief, a principle, that kind of thing), or any case of sensing someone’s strong emotion. It was my therapist and someone else in a therapy group I’m part of who identified this first, then went on to identify that this difference of emotion/thought between individuals is another instance of uncertainty we must learn to sit with.

I sense other people’s emotions more strongly than my own. I find it hard to identify and name my own emotions. When I do feel them they can be very frightening and overwhelming; I may feel them so strongly that they block out anything else, becoming to me everything that there is, frightening me about what will happen and what it means about who I am. They can feel as if they physically pain me. I may feel physically utterly drained or consumingly panicked and driven, unable to sit still, pacing constantly for hours (compulsively, despite the physical pain this causes by aggravating my joint conditions). Times of overwhelming emotion are times I often self-harm.

Other times, I may feel numb and nothing at all. I may be painfully conscious that the other people I’m interacting with feel very strongly but I feel unable to reach out, to come to any connection with them. I may want to say something and know I should and know I should and want to empathise, but feel frozen and unable to respond, and know that by this I am hurting the other person still further.

Or, despite not knowing at all what I feel, I may feel the other person’s emotion (especially sadness, anxiety or anger) so strongly that beyond what I think would be described as empathy, I actually feel their emotion myself to a level that I cannot stand it. It can happen very fast and I do not make any conscious decision or any particularly strong attempt to pick up the emotion. It just happens. Sometimes, I have as little as passed people on the street, sat beside someone on the bus or had a minimal “meeting and greeting” interaction on the reception at work, and this wave or wall of emotion will hit me and stop me in my tracks. I passed someone on the street the other day and was suddenly hit by a wall of such strong anger and hurt that I stopped walking. It was like a physical presence around me and in my lower chest and I gasped and this was swiftly joined by extreme fear. The person had done nothing to me, not even noticed me nor interacted in any way.

A couple of people who share my religious faith have told me that it is a particular gift to be able to empathise to a particularly great extent – it could allow me to help someone, be there for them, pray for them, understand their needs, know if they are in danger, and so on. I think perhaps it can be a gift and could be something from which good can come. Not that I think I have any particular ability, certainly not any power, but it is a sensitivity that could lead to good.

The problem is the intensity is so great it is frightening – as frightening as my own emotions can me. It can be there to such an extent that I can no longer continue to be with the person / people, and withdraw completely in exhaustion and confusion and fear and feeling huge guilt that I cannot resolve what is happening to the person and can’t be sure – there’s the uncertainty again! – is it my fault they feel this way and how should I respond? Then I end up back in the numb place of then not knowing how to respond and not being able to give anything at all.

Whichever of these happens, I’m left unable to interact socially. I haven’t yet unpicked quite why sitting with the uncertainty of the differences and unpredictability of emotions between people is so very frightening and overwhelming to me.  However it does seem to be shared by several people I know who suffer with personality disorder.

A particular problem where thoughts, emotions, intentions and communication are involved is that you can never check enough. You can never get to be completely sure what the truth is and what is right or wrong and if you are good or bad.

In Part 1 of this post, I gave some examples of other kinds of anxieties in situations of uncertainty. All of these are around things that are more concrete, if that is the right word, where eventually you will find out some answer.  For example, to go back to the same examples I gave: tomorrow will come and I will find out what will happen, I can ask my friend which colour she prefers and be sure to choose the mug that colour, and in time I will eventually find out the interviewer’s opinion of me and whether I get the job or don’t. If I’m trying to overcome an obsessional activity or belief, for example, if I don’t wash my hands 10 times before I speak to my friend she will get sick because of me, it is possible to test out this belief in the concrete world – it will be extremely distressing to me at first and cause a huge amount of anxiety, but I can if I dare to, not wash my hands 10 times the next time I speak to my friend and see what happens. If she does not get sick, and if I dare to keep testing this out, eventually perhaps I may be able to see that I do not need to keep doing this ritual to keep my friend safe and I will be able to stop washing my hands so much. I have suffered and still do suffer to some extent with this kind of obsessional checking and in the past, CBT therapy I’ve tried has focussed on changing behaviour and seeing that the awful things I fear do not come to pass.

But where the internal world of thoughts and feelings are concerned, I find it is not possible to check or “see what happens” in the same way and I never find peace.

For example, in the above instance I can see at least to a large extent without doubt that my friend does not get sick physically. But if I am fearing that I have hurt someone emotionally, how can I be sure? If I ask them, how can I be sure they are not just saying something to reassure me? If I think that someone is having a particular thought or a particular emotion, can I be sure that I got it right? Often it’s harder to ask in these situations (and I suppose I feel that it would be socially inappropriate to do so in many situations – I don’t want to inconvenience other people with my own obsessions and fears). If I say something, can I be sure that the other person understood it the way I meant it?

Often, if I have said something that I intend as encouraging, helpful, etc, I worry afterwards that I have communicated a message that I did not intend, which is bad and that is going to be terribly hurtful and upsetting to the other person because they will get that message rather than the one I intended. Then I worry that I actually, unbeknown to myself, subconsciously intended and thought the bad interpretation, and that’s why I said what I did. This must show that I’m actually evil and nasty and need to punish and hurt myself to make sure I don’t hurt anyone else. Then I will self-punish or self-harm. For example, a friend was worried about her baby girl who could not be with her during her medical appointment, and was instead with a babysitter in the waiting room outside. I said to her something like, “It looks like she is with someone who’s looking after her very well,” intending to reassure my friend that her baby was well. Immediately I’d said it, I panicked that this sentence could have implied “she’s with someone who’s looking after her well, because you don’t” and that my friend would think I was saying that she didn’t look after her baby properly. And my mind spiralled out of control thinking that although I didn’t know it, I was really being nasty to my friend and judging her as a bad mother and my intention, although I thought that I wanted to encourage my friend, was actually to upset her because I’m such a bad person inside. I wanted to check with my friend and say, oh no no I didn’t mean this, I meant… etc, etc, but I didn’t dare to, in case that would only make it worse, because if she had not seen the bad interpretation, it would only make it even worse to mention it. I felt the desperate urge to self-harm immediately to punish myself for being so bad inside.

In these kind of instances, nothing whatever will ever reassure me as to what my intention or thoughts really were (whereas, in the earlier example about obsessional hand-washing, I could obtain the concrete proof that my friend did not get sick). There is no way to check for certain what my real intention was, that it is not unconsciously something terrible which I’m not aware of and can’t control. There is no way to check for certain what effect emotionally I’ve had on someone else, or what they have understood from something I have said.

So I don’t know what the way out is.

For some reason, self-harm does seem to be the only (maladaptive) way that I do cope with this kind of uncertainty. When I can’t check enough that I’m not actually doing bad, or intending bad, then I have to hurt myself. The one thing that does seem sure is that if I’m doing something to hurt myself, it will somehow keep other people safe, because I can make sure I’m hurting myself, not other people. I can make sure I’m punishing the evil greedy part inside me so that it doesn’t burst out.

I don’t know how to begin to deal with these kinds of uncertainty. In time I think I am going to give this a Part 3, to look at ways of trying to sit with uncertainty in communicating with people. I’ve a feeling that it’s going to be an important part of my therapy as so much of my interpersonal problems, and perhaps for others with personality disorders too, are connected to these themes.

Thank you for reading, as ever.  I would love to hear your thoughts and experiences and what you find good, or difficult, in interactions with others and in communicating about emotions.

Also, an important note: I know that in this article, I have contrasted examples of anxieties and obsessional thoughts surrounding what I have referred to as things I can check in the concrete, external world, with obsessional thoughts and fears about what is going on in one’s head / emotionally / internally. I say that it is harder for me to find the way out of the latter obsessional thoughts and fears. Please note that in no way do I wish to belittle or minimise the distress experienced by those who are struggling with OCD thoughts and actions and fears relating to the external world, for example checking doors or switches, or cleaning. I know from my own experience and from hearing loved ones’ experiences, that these struggles are deeply distressing and the thoughts just as consuming. I empathise very much with what you are going through. All I wished to do here is draw a distinction which I have come to in my own mind and to suggest that the way out of the two sides of these obsessional thoughts may perhaps be different. As I’ve said from the start, I am neither a clinician nor medically trained, and these are just my own thoughts.

Ginny xx

Sitting with uncertainty

“Sitting with uncertainty” is a phrase I first heard one of the psychologists for whom I used to work use.  The department that we worked in was going through a lot of change at the time and I think we were all anxious about what was to come – changes to our jobs, changes to service users’ treatment plans, worries over how we would continue to give good care and whether or not the changes would bring good.

As we talked, it struck me it is a challenge and a skill valuable to acquire across so many fields of life, particularly therapy and social interaction. It is a theme coming out prominently in my therapy at the moment.

I like the phrase “sitting with”, in particular, as it describes living in/with and encountering uncertainty without judging or supposing a particular response.  We might more commonly think of “resolving” uncertainty, “dealing with” uncertainty and so on.  However, sometimes it simply is not possible to do this. We cannot find a definitive answer, we may not be in a position to change (at least certain aspects of) our situation, or we may not yet, or even never, be able to be “sure”. Especially in interpersonal sharing of values and thoughts and emotions. Then, we might also commonly talk about having to “accept” uncertainty and say we have to learn to do this as part of growing up.  However, can we always do this? Perhaps often we feel that we cannot truly accept it, for instance, because it may be intensely uncomfortable, or something we really wish was not there, or something we feel frantically, painfully driven to eliminate. Hence, I like the words “sitting with”, because it describes the situation and at the same time acknowledges there may not be a resolution and attaches no judgement or obligation to either resolution/removal or acceptance.

In the language of the MBT therapy I am participating in at the moment, perhaps we would say it describes the situation and allows us to explore or be curious about the existence of the uncertainty.

I’m starting to be more alert at identifying uncertainty, and it’s effects on me.  It’s clear there is uncertainty about events that have not yet happened (I can’t be certain what will happen tomorrow), or that we do not know about (I can’t be certain if my friend would prefer me to buy the pink or the red mug for her birthday because I don’t know which is her favourite colour), or that are for now out of our control (if I have just had an interview and I know I did my best, but it’s now with the interviewer to make their decision, I can’t be sure if I will get the job or not).  And so on.  These are just some categories that sprung quickly to my mind which I think we might recognise are particularly difficult for someone who suffers a lot of eg anxiety or depression. For example, if we have a sense of dread something awful is going to happen, we might be terrified about what will happen the next day.  If we are socially anxious we might worry a lot about doing or saying the wrong thing or upsetting someone or being thought stupid because we do the wrong thing. If we are desperately seeking a job and have had lots of rejections we might feel very low waiting for the outcome of an interview and frightened about what will happen if the interviewer thinks we are rubbish and we don’t get the job.

It took me longer to consciously recognise how much uncertainty is going on all the time, particularly interpersonally, and how much – even though I did not recognise it – this affects me.  This kind of uncertainty seems to me to be a difficulty often encountered by people with personality disorders like me, and no doubt, many sufferers of anxiety or other conditions as well.

There is just so much that it is not possible to be certain of. This can be a frightening thing to me.

If we are speaking to someone, can we really be sure that the meaning they have understood is exactly the same as the one we intended? Probably not – every person expresses him/herself differently, and words hold different connotations for all of us in different situations. Could there be implications in what we have said that we did not intend, but that the other person infers? Probably. Could this hurt or offend the other person? Possibly. (For example, if I come home after work and my sister is sitting in the living room reading a book. I say, “Oh dear, this room is a bit of a mess.” I could be thinking that I really left it in a tip that morning because I rushed out to work late, and I shouldn’t have done that. If my sister were already feeling guilty that she had intended to tidy up that afternoon but had not been able to because she hadn’t felt well, she might make the interpretation that I had been intending to imply, “Why haven’t you tidied up, you’ve been at home all day whilst I was out at work?” It would not have been my intention, but she might have taken that understanding, and so without intending it I could have upset her. And if I then realised that, I would feel bad that I should have chosen my words more carefully or not said anything at all.

If we have an emotional reaction to a comment, an event, a situation and so on, can we be sure whether we should communicate it? What effect communicating it , or not, may have on another person? Can we be sure what their emotional reaction really is, and whether they are being open about how they feel? What if we feel something very different from what they do? Does that make us wrong? Or stupid, or bad, or… the list goes on. How do we respond, what do we do, when our emotional reaction or our thoughts are very different from everyone else’s? Does that mean there is something wrong with us?

And the ever, unanswerable, uncheckable, frightening question – have I done something to hurt someone? Am I really evil inside? Have I done any good, even though I think I want to, have I done good or have I done bad? Have I done something awful without knowing? Does everyone know I’m bad really and I just fool myself if I ever think I do good? Is there a terrible evil thing in me that I can’t control? We don’t always know even what we ourselves think or feel or intend – do we? Can we ever be sure enough that we are good not bad?

It is much, much harder to ever definitively answer these questions than it is to answer some of the other kinds of obsessional thoughts or anxieties which have a more “external” or “practical” element.

In part 2 of this post, coming soon (tomorrow, I hope!) I will continue with this thought to describe some of the thought processes and actions that this then triggers off in my personality disorder, and to think about how to learn to sit with these kinds of uncertainties.

…..More soon!….

Ginny xx