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.