I still remember the day I was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder (BPD) and which articles I read to help me grasp my diagnosis. Truly, it was a relief to finally have some explanation for why I had felt so intensely bad for so long and to know many people around the world were experiencing the same hell I was going through. Profoundly, my severe inner critic could no longer believe what I was going through was my fault. That day, I found many encouraging articles, different to the damning initial BPD Google searches that many report, including indelible ones from The Mighty.
Strangely it was the DSM-5 itself with its academic psychiatric lexicon that really assuaged my fears with some evidence-based language. The nine criteria were almost like having a religious awakening: lightning bolt after lightning bolt.
But there was one phrase in the longer DSM-5 chapter on BPD that really troubled me and continues to trouble me today. A seemingly harmless, stand-alone sentence screamed out condemnation:
“Their [people with BPD] occupational accomplishments are often less than their intelligence and ability warrant.”
I first read this sentence more than three years ago and it still feels like a kind of pessimistic prophecy over my life. Since then, I’ve read a number of derivations of it in other BPD literature and articles. And it still really irks me. If I am being brutally honest, I think the reason is: I often believe it as gospel truth, despite much evidence of both my intellect and gifts. I know I’m definitely not alone in the BPD community here.
So, I want to know, why do we believe our accomplishments do/will not match our talents?
For example, I am a budding writer and find the process to start writing often feels like I’ve failed before I’ve even begun. The idea of ever being published feels like something that could never be. Yes, even writing this article exposed me to such an attack from inside my psyche.
Therefore, the question really is why do we feel defeated before we even begin? I will propose five reasons, as well as some ways I think we can fight it.
1. Unstable sense of self.
It is very difficult to constantly feel you don’t know who you are, or who you are can change day to day, or even sometimes hour to hour. Very quickly, this identity vacuum and instability becomes a disturbance. If we don’t know who we are, or by extension our purpose, then that must be because we are somehow bad, pathetic, weak, defective failures who will never achieve anything. This is the schema of the punitive (self) critic. I personally am confronted with this war around my identity most days when I wake up, and especially on days when I am not working, or not connected with loved ones. Trying to fight back against this identity disturbance can feel like pushing a very heavy weight up a treacherous hill. But fight we must! Largely through doing the opposite of what we feel like and by seeking out those things and relationships that give us meaning and purpose.
Ask yourself this question: who are you? A horribly confronting question I know. But, I can usually find some solid answers: a son, a brother, an uncle, a friend, a Christian, a gay man, a borderline, a teacher, a writer, a tennis player. Now add some adjectives before your identities: a faithful son, an irreverent brother, an unforgettable and profound friend, a talented writer, a passionate teacher, a courageous BPD warrior, an enthusiastic tennis player. And now, you are no longer an empty shell of an identity and more free to work toward your professional goals.
2. The punitive self-critic with unrelenting standards.
In the first point above, I alluded to this punishing self-critic who many of us fall back on much too readily (it may even be punitive to write “too readily”). This point is linked to the first in that not having a stable identity definitely can leave us feeling vulnerable to the attack of the harsh voices inside our heads. Sometimes these voices are from our past, our upbringing or often from our traumas. But for me, these voices have been turned brutally and relentlessly against the very worth of my being. Whatever the source, it really is not fair for us to experience such an attack before we even have tried our hand at something, or to have such impossible expectations that doom us almost automatically to failure.
I don’t really have a simple solution to lessen the severity of our inner critic, or for our expectations to be more achievable and forgiving. I have just started doing schema therapy and one psychodynamic exercise in particular made an impact. My therapist invited my punitive critic into the room (terrifying), and then I spoke to it, confronted it, proved how wrong, unfair and mean it is and then emphatically told it to f-off! It hasn’t left me yet, but that really did feel good that day. In the end, perhaps the adage if we wouldn’t say it to our friend, then we must not say it to ourselves can help lessen the inner attack.
3. All-or-nothing thinking.
This common cognitive distortion is very connected to the punishing self-critic and leads directly to the impossible, unrelenting standards we can place on ourselves. To see life, the world and especially our careers, in such polarized shades of black and white can lead us to feel like we have failed soon after we’ve begun, or make us abandon our career goals before we could flourish. The inability to find the middle ground can make our professional lives very difficult, as well as all other life aspects, too.
In my last teaching job, I found the students very invalidating because they were students who were in Australia to work rather than study English. But after five months, I had personalized their situations as a rejection of my teaching. I felt like a complete professional failure. But one bad job experience doesn’t condemn us for the rest of our careers and is normal for many people. I am without a job now, but the middle ground between fame and failure here is to keep trying, keep applying and going to interviews.
4. The world is dangerous and malevolent.
View others as potentially dangerous and unpredictable. This is again directly from the DSM-5 on BPD, which reveals why many people with BPD feel such pervasive failure — largely because both the world itself and humanity appear hostile. Along with the unstable self and the punitive critic, this is another polarized belief that comes out of all-or-nothing thinking that is so seductive: the world is dangerous and malevolent. Essentially, it is all bad rather than all good. It is interesting to consider the origins of this distorted worldview, although it must be acknowledged the world is often a very bad place, even if it isn’t always so. No doubt, the traumas many of us have suffered in our lives, often in our childhoods, are largely to blame. But this is a partial answer because not everyone experiences these traumas, and our illness is also active in the present, and is multifaceted. I would further argue our heightened sensitivities, our tendency to feel so completely and deeply, as well as some other aspects of our personalities, may predispose us to feel the suffering around the world in an overwhelming way. The pain of the oppressed, the injustice of wealth distribution, the innocent suffering from war, famine and disease. Coupled with this is the selfishness, cruelty and ruthlessness of the oppressors. While we may not be suffering this personally, we may feel it in a heightened way and this could lead us to think the world is out to get us.
Furthermore, the brutal and unrelenting nature of daily living with a still disgustingly stigmatized mental illness — where we are expected to hide our illness particularly in the workplace, even when the painful emotions overwhelm — can leave us with a less than happy view of the world and people. In such workplaces, disclosure of our mental illness can lead to very bad outcomes. Here, the adverse view of the world is of course matched by our ambivalent, split views of people themselves. The end result of all of this malevolent feeling about people and the world is we are often afraid to participate in it, and we find it very difficult to do so. This is a further explanation of why we may find it difficult to realize our professional potential.
I think the antidote to this really bad feeling about people and the world is to simply try to find the middle ground again. Not all people, not all workplaces and certainly not the entire Earth is bad. The forces of goodness are there and must be amplified in our head and hearts.
5. Dependence and/or incompetence.
The final reason for why it can seem as though we don’t actualize our abilities and talents is a core belief many of us have: we are incompetent and need to depend on others. Even though we can view people with great ambivalence and even fear, there is also a great dependence on others to meet needs and even just to cope with life. This comes unsurprisingly from a fundamental belief we are incompetent and cannot survive on our own. Obviously, this is often rooted in our very poor, harsh view of ourselves and lack of an identity as already argued. I strive to be independent and hate being reliant on others, but then in some areas like anything financial or traditionally masculine activities, I can feel so silly, or like a “freak,” and therefore become dependent on someone more knowledgeable to guide me.
I feel it takes a lot of praise from others and actual tangible results for me to feel like I’ve ever really done a good job. But I have noticed the more I perform a professional task or function, the more I feel like I have contributed meaningfully. So, for me, I will keep writing irrespective of what is going on in my head, in my heart or in the place where my identity should be.
Finally, I offer a recent journal entry to demonstrate basically all of my points:
“Feeling like I’ve failed in my life and that I will always fail in my life. How can I ever make my writing publishable when I feel so unstable, with such low confidence and belief? The desire to self-harm is strong: to feel real or release the internal pain. But maybe this is what will make my writing unique: I don’t have the usual self-belief and overarching ambition, but I write because of my mental illness, not in spite of it. I’ve now realized that the self-belief will probably never come and I will always feel like someone has put poison where my identity and self esteem should be. And so the time to start is now.”