I have Borderline Personality Disorder. I feel emotions to a level that is off the scale, and I react intensely to those experiences. One of my biggest triggers is feeling like I have hurt someone inadvertently. When I let someone down or evoke even the tiniest amount of negative affect in someone I care about, I fall into a spiral of guilt and self-hatred that totally consumes me.
This means that I am hard on myself to the point that one mistake can lead me to feel as extreme as suicidal. If I accidentally hurt someone even just for a fleeting moment, I can become so self-hating and fearful that I truly believe the world would be better off without me.
Even though I never intend to upset anyone, and even when the person I upset forgives me or even forgets about the situation completely, I find it near impossible to forgive myself. I cannot seem to return to an emotional baseline for far longer than is reasonable. I just cannot let myself off the hook; it feels like too much of a threat to let go.
When I do anything that is the opposite of pleasing others, it feels like the end of the world. It feels like the walls around me come crashing down with such force that nothing can keep things upright. No matter how seemingly small or insignificant the incident, the only thing that helps soothe my distress is the constant reassurance of the person I have ‘wronged’. And even then, often that isn’t good enough to bring me back down.
The other day I sent a funny photo of my sister with food spilled down her top to her boyfriend. He had been staying with us during the previous days – and this was not the first time my sister had spilled food on herself, nor the first time we had laughed about it together! I was trying to be playful and develop our friendship further, by joking around and acting like I would with any other friend or family member. Because they are at a stage in their relationship where they are totally comfortable in each other’s company, and have seen one another in every state, I didn’t think it would be a problem. (It’s not like they have just starting dating or anything – I am not that clueless!) I wanted my sister to think I was putting effort in, to show her that I care about that part of her life. I thought we would all have a giggle. My intentions were only positive.
However, she responded in a way that was totally the opposite to what I had intended. She was angry with me and started speaking to me in a tone and manner pierced with disdain and disgust towards me. I felt like what I had done was the worst thing in the world for the fact I had caused a negative reaction in her, however big or small. As a result, she was acting cold and bitter towards me, and the light, jokey dynamic of the past hour had disappeared completely. Although when I apologised she said that she forgave me, I could feel that she did not.
I was officially The Worst Person In The World for causing her the negative emotions she was feeling. My own distress was heightened by the fact that my only positives intentions had entirely backfired. The “I can’t do anything right even when I try my utmost” core-belief was activated at top strength.
I went into my bedroom feeling totally and utterly defeated. I (literally) burst into the tears that I had been trying to hide from my sister, and spent a good half hour crying into my teddy bear, feeling like I deserved only to die. Every time I started calming down, the reality of just how Awful A Person I was hit me yet again, and I would collapse back into the old self-hatred and pit of desperation.
After about an hour I texted my sister (who was in her bedroom 10 metres away) telling her how sorry I was. She said it was fine and asked me not to do it again, but that she had forgiven me and that it really was not a ‘thing’ any more. I wasn’t convinced so texted her back asking for reassurance (surprise surprise!). Eventually I went into her bedroom – still sobbing, eyes bloodshot, face red and puffy – and started apologising profusely.
She started laughing at me (in an endearing way) and telling me to “stop being such a cry-baby” because she was “totally over” the situation and it was “all fine”. I climbed into bed next to her and begged her for her forgiveness, over-justifying and explaining and apologising all the more. She let me sob into her shoulder whilst she reassured me that it was okay, that I wasn’t so awful after all and that I had her permission to move on 100%. The reassurance continued for a good while until I had calmed down enough to start taking back a little control.
I felt guilty not just because I had initially upset her, but also because from that point on the entire situation became about my distress and inability to regulate my guilt. Something so ‘small’ had become such a palaver in my head, which meant it all became about me when my intentions were totally the opposite to that. It really highlighted just how extreme my relationship with making mistakes is – and how hard I am on myself.
I am understanding more and more that these reactions come from my early interactions as a child, where one step out of line really was a threat. As a kid it made sense that any mistakes I made should feel like the end of the world. That was adaptive back then and it’s what moulded me to become the perfectionistic people-pleaser I am today. But it often goes too far, and when that happens it just causes havoc to my life and is more of a nuisance than anything else.
My therapist says trauma therapy is about equipping me with a choice. I hope that one day I am able to have more of a choice around these things. I hope to have more of a choice about the extent to which my past continues to dictate my present.