Sunday, July 11, 2010

The Annihilation Speech

The Curse – Shame

If you remember the story of Sleeping Beauty you will recall that Carabosse, the evil sorceress, offended at not being invited to the christening of the baby princess cast a spell on her. She declared that before the princess would reach her fifteenth birthday she would prick her finger on a spinning wheel and die. This is the earliest example of the annihilation speech in story form that most children ever hear. To little boys and girls the idea of an innocent baby being sentenced to death is horrifying. They know that not long ago they themselves were babies and most likely they too have not yet reached the age of fifteen. What an awful thought — to die so young before even having lived one's life.

Does it not remind you of a political or social annihilation? As adults we are aware of evil leaders throughout history who have proclaimed the annihilation of one or another person or group, and some who have even carried out their threats.  Hitler, Stalin & Mao right down to Mugabe; these are names of evil doers that readily spring to mind, but what about our own everyday lives? Would you recognise the annihilation speech from your own mother? Or a friend? A classmate? A priest or a teacher? In my life I have heard the speech from all of these people and many more. It was my mind and my heart they wanted to bury, not my body. Victims of hate crimes, abuse and neglect may be physically harmed, threatened with death and even killed. Some victims will complete the job themselves and commit suicide.


For most children the annihilation speech leads to depression, anger and a lifetime of acting out. As adults we can still be shocked and hurt by it. The aim of the speech is simple, it is to instill deep and lasting fear and shame.


Fear is a natural reaction to the absence of safety or protection in the presence of danger. In the fairy story Carabosse created the danger and thus the fear, since the King and Queen were incapable of protecting their daughter.


Importantly, the danger would be accidental or random in nature so it's timing would be unpredictable. This is the terror principle in terrorism. Are you sensing a little of the dread that such children and adults must live with? Shame is the sense that you yourself are the source of the evil. This is a trick used by the powerful to absolve themselves. They cast blame together with their threats so as to appear blameless. Do you know someone who does this? This is the classic abuser.




Have you been abused? Are you depressed? When you are given the annihilation speech enough times you begin to believe it. You know you are destined to die without dying. Your heart and mind begin to shut down or to function in limited or immature ways. You think your software is broken or that your life is going off track. Events in your life can have unexpected consequences so you long to escape and complete your isolation. You may feel loss of control or else you may attempt to maintain control by restricting the variables and controlling to the point of total lockdown.


What happens next? You become numb. You lose the ability to feel, or to be able to tell one feeling from another. A permanent grey cloud descends on you so that all your decisions and choices are made in a fog. Other people seem far away and out of reach. You begin to feel invisible when you aren't being abused. You try to avoid responsibility to minimise blame. You become expert at disguising your emotions and intentions. Other people find you hard to read and hard to get close to despite mostly being likable. You read situations and people in terms of threat analysis. You are simply on a survival mission. The aim is to get through another day without being abused again.


Nothing to do with people is easy, so rather than cultivate friendships you begin to enjoy achievements, habits, machines, toys, addictions or obsessions, but mostly escape. Carabosse's spell is slowly weaving it's way around you. Like Sleeping Beauty, you are slowly dying inside.


If you are like me, there will be a moment of intense and terrifying clarity before you reach your fifteenth birthday when you realize suddenly and with crushing certainty that you are alone, absolutely and totally alone in an entire universe cut off from every form of life. You have nothing to protect you but your remoteness. You must begin to build defenses of your own to ensure your isolation from your abusers. No one will ever find you again because you have silenced the real you forever. You begin the task of building a fake self to shield your empty universe.


The task is too much to ask even of an adult, let alone a child, but over the next several years you manage to do it anyway. The energy and concentration that this takes is enormous. The sophistication of your fake personality would astound psychology professors.


Your adult life begins and you are pleased with it. It's a wonderful fake. To quote a line said about Holly Golightly from Breakfast at Tiffany's, "She's a phony but she's a real phony."


The only problem is you have no real feelings left and you have completely forgotten who you are. There is no you at the centre of you. There is no there there. At the centre of you is a huge hole and out of this hole comes nothing but hot fiery pain. This has to be covered up at all costs. The process of keeping this pain at bay is known as Acting Out.




One day about 35 years after my fifteenth birthday while sitting in a psychiatrists office I realized that I had been acting out my entire life. This accomplishment both amused and horrified me.


About this time I had determined that to go on living, I needed to find out who I was. This was a rather tall order since I had been abandoned by myself and my family at a very young age, so I had to break the task down to more manageable waypoints.


The first job was to learn how to feel. To feel anything other than the pain coming from the hole at the core of me was an unlearned skill. I had taught myself very expertly how not to feel. If you want to feel you have to learn how to relax first.


One of your tasks that you will learn in therapy is to catch yourself acting out. If you have a good friend or a truly caring partner they may help you do this by gently reminding you to pause for a moment of mindfulness, to reflect on the state of your feelings when you are about to act out again. Are you feeling angry, depressed, ashamed, rejected, abandoned, bored, alone? If you can pause your behaviour long enough you might get a chance to recognise one or more of these feelings the instant your need is strongest to act out.


Acting out could be having a drink, buying something you can't afford, gambling, hurting someone, having selfish or abusive sex, fighting, running away, hurting or cutting yourself, screaming at someone who loves you...


It's not wrong to feel like you do. It's wrong to ignore it. Monitor your breathing; try to slow down for a few minutes; look at the sky, the sea, the trees; take a bath; go for a jog; cry; lie down; laugh at yourself; most of all try to find the trigger for that feeling of shame, fear or anger.


Relax. Approach this trigger slowly and cautiously, it is not what it seems right now, it is really something from your past, or even your childhood masquerading as a problem in the present. It is here to taunt you, to haunt you, to defeat you. Don't allow it. You are stronger than that, you have survived all these years, take control, just this one time.


Anxiety often accompanies depression. To begin to open up the brain pathways for feelings, you need to find a fairly safe place to reduce the anxiety and focus on the now. Stop the brain whirring and use some relaxation techniques to consciously train yourself to quiet your mind. This can take months or even years but once you can proudly say “Yes, I'm relaxed,” you may then begin to carefully and quietly listen for some feelings. I've found that feelings are formless and flighty, hard to identify and hard to pin down. They're more like a cat than a dog. They'll stay away unless you are prepared to pay them due regard. Relax, be patient, a feeling may come to you. It may surprise you but try not to push it away without becoming familiar enough with it to identify it's breed, so you won't be so surprised next time. See if you can recognize what in the world elicited or "caused" the feeling. Try to remember what that was, so you can be sensitive to it next time.


It is pointless to label feelings as either good or bad. There are no good feelings nor bad feelings because a feeling is just a message from another part of your brain such as your memory or your animal brain or your subconscious or your dream state.


The most obvious and basic feeling is pain. It conveys the message "Help!". Another obvious feeling is fear. It conveys the message "Warning." These feelings are clearly hardwired survival tools carried with us from our earliest evolutionary state to keep us alive. All the more complex and differentiated feelings similarly have a message and a purpose.


Your fake self will intercept and try to rationalize or explain away any feelings, as it has been created to do.  At this point take notice of your body and how it feels. Your muscles, your stomach, your heart and your head are repositories of these blocked or stored feelings. In the process of relaxing you will notice points of pain or stress in various body parts. Imagine that you are releasing the stress by concentrating on letting the tension out of that particular muscle. Don't be surprised if the muscle suddenly spasms. This quick reflex jerk releases the tension and happens automatically to some people as they are falling asleep. Different people store their tension in different parts of their body. You may find that once you have learned to relax, that the body begins to release this tension automatically without you trying or even being aware of it happening.


With each involuntary relaxation you should notice a thought or a feeling that is released at the same time. What is it? Take notice of these thought bubbles as they float to the surface of your consciousness. By intercepting them consciously as they surface you can become aware of them before your fake self has a chance to banish them or rationalize them away.


It is very important at this moment not to judge or explain or worry about the feelings that arise. Let them rise to the surface spontaneously and disappear into the air like bubbles in a glass of Champaign. It is more important to notice that you are feeling something than to understand why. This is the technique known as mindfulness that originated in Buddhist teaching and is practiced in meditation and yoga today.


Occasionally you may be inspired by new revelations. Your mind may achieve clarity as never before. This is good, as it is a sign that you are moving forward out of the fog of depression toward clarity.


Massage and meditation are both good relaxation techniques that will help in this process. It may be good for you to set aside a regular time each day when you will be undisturbed for 20 minutes so that you can more quickly and easily enter this relaxed state and allow your feelings to surface. Some people may find that they can achieve this empty state or mind when they are doing some simple repetitive physical activity such as walking or jogging. Do what works for you, but do not make the mistake of choosing an activity that is one you do when you want to escape from the world because that is acting out. You cannot achieve conscious feeling and mindfulness when you are acting out because this is what you do to avoid pain and pain is your primary emotion. If you are doing something to block it, you will also be blocking all your other feelings. Some people shed tears or shudder the first time they achieve deep relaxation and conscious feeling. Pain is to be expected, even encouraged, because releasing it will feel good afterward. You will feel lighter, literally relieved!


Do not expect to be able to stay open to your feelings like this all the time. Doing so would be disruptive to your life and those around you who depend on you. You have created a fake person and have built a life around that person so others have built up a set of expectations based on your past behavior. If you destroy these assumptions all at once, you will need to have a plan ready so that you can support yourself if these people were to abandon you. You may need to practice being the real you in limited safe contexts with people you can trust.


Many people in reevaluating themselves may find that they have no safe place and nobody they can really trust with their true feelings. This may come as a shock and a disappointment. I would suggest that such people should engage a mental health professional to accompany them on their journey to clear the path ahead and provide a safe place to do the emotional work required.


An important part of psychotherapy is the setting up of a regular schedule of sessions. Even if you don't engage a therapist you should be disciplined about continuing the work required to reawaken the real you, to achieve authenticity. A schedule, a project or a series of tasks is a good way to maintain the discipline required to do this work. It is work because it is a hard road to travel.

Sunday, July 4, 2010


Pain is a part of life. More so for some people than others of course. It seems that some people have the resources or strength or luck or skills to work through their pain and come out the other side unscathed, almost as if they hardly felt a thing.

We comfort ourselves with the thought that such people are thick skinned or stupid or less sensitive than we who feel every slight, every sting to our wounded pride, every curse, every slur, every failure more deeply. For we secretly know ourselves to be failures; useless, hopeless and helpless in the face of defeat.

At such moments we reward ourselves to numb the pain. We act out with our favourite addiction, indulgence or fantasy. We sharpen our tongues and go on the attack at the least sign of a threat to our false pride. We let others know that they have no idea how much we have had to put up with and it’s about time they shared in some of the hurt. We laugh at their uncomprehending stares as we spin on our heels and march off wrapping ourselves in our own self-pity.

Are you really a loser? This kind of behaviour is the expression of damage, it is associated with depression. It is conducive to further failure in our relations with others and reduces the chances of our achieving our goals.

Who are those successful people who can turn defeat into triumph? Who can turn an obvious flaw into a source of pride? Who seem to have everything worked out without having worked very hard for it? Winners.

Yes, as obvious as it sounds, it also remains quite shocking to me that life is made up of winners and losers! How grossly simplistic! How Darwinian! How crude! Most of all, how cruel!

That is not to say that fate has determined the outcome for us. Winners can still become losers. A winner who is only ever seriously tested once in his or her life can lose his faith, his will to live, his hold on reality or his love for those around him, simply because he had not faced many tough challenges up to that point.

Likewise a loser can become a winner by sheer force of will, determined to learn what it takes to overcome life’s challenges and persevering long enough, working hard enough to change the outcome.

Resilience is what separates winners and losers. Good parenting, a secure childhood home, caring teachers and faithful friends nurture in a child the resilience to work beyond initial failure to eventual mastery.

Resilience is not the same as success. Success or excellence depends not only on mastery but opportunity and intentionality. One must have the firm intention to take advantage of every opportunity presented and one must have the knowledge and perception to identify when an opportunity is presented. In other words, successful people have goals, take risks, are persistent and work hard at what they wish to achieve. Why? Most say because they love it! Life becomes its own reward, a virtuous circle.

The unspoken gift shared by successful people is resilience. It is on this trait that their success depends; not on luck or good fortune, not on opportunity alone, or talent or greed. There is no long lasting success without risk, and since risk implies the threat of pain and failure, a winner knows that he can rebound, even from the worst case scenario. He possesses the secret of resilience, his key to mastery and eventual success. We commonly refer to this trait as confidence, although resilience has a deeper and more specific meaning.

The phrase “Failure is not an option” is untrue. Failure is always a possibility and therefore an option. It is perhaps more familiar to very successful people because they take more risks and with sometimes higher stakes. However for winners, “Not rebounding after a failure is not an option.”

Depressed people are damaged. The actual nature of the damage can vary from person to person, but one of the most significant results of the damage is a lack of resilience. This deficit is what keeps us in a downward spiral, a vicious circle. Without resilience our failures play back for us on a continuous loop. Nothing seems to work. We can’t break the cycle. We get exhausted. We lose optimism and confidence. We lack “drive” and are fearful of taking risks.

I believe that this serious damage usually takes place in childhood or early childhood making the person vulnerable to depression and “failure” later in life. That is not to blame the parents for every episode of depression, because the wider world can be a cruel and destructive place too, but those closest to us when we are in our formative stages have the most power to bestow or deprive us of our resilience.

The task of re-parenting ourselves is the task of developing our own resilience. To be aware of this is to be aware of the enormous responsibility the task entails and the huge amount of work it demands.

I said earlier that our progress through life is a series of challenges. Resilience is what allows us to attempt these challenges and to accept the next one when we have mastered each in turn.

Resilience is our fuel, our hidden resource, our suit of armor, our magic spell. It exists even in tiny doses inside each one of us. We have now to summon it and put it to good use. It is important to understand the honesty required of us in order not to confuse true resilience with self-deception or delusion. Resilience is not just wishful thinking. It requires a rigorous self assessment and admission of our weaknesses as well as our strengths. This is the quest I spoke of earlier. We must enter into a period of preparation that will help us map out the challenges ahead and the risks we face as well as the goals we hope to achieve.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Emotional Sensitivity

Some of the writing about Borderline Personality Disorder by therapists and health care professionals seems to almost disparage the emotional sensitivity of sufferers who are characterized as experiencing widely varying emotional responses that can swing from anger to delight in a moment. Some portray BPD sufferers a having multiple personalities. This is not strictly true.

We do not imagine ourselves to be multiple personalities in the way schizophrenics were once perceived in the popular imagination. I believe BPD sufferers have multiple emotional responses, at the same time, to the same stimulus. We only appear to be shifting rapidly from one emotion to another. A wide range of conflicting emotions are probably present to a greater or lesser degree all at once. One is either paralysed by the opposing forces and appears emotionally blocked or one bounces rapidly between the expression of each of them.

In fear of the resulting confusion and rejection, some people mask this turmoil by behaving with a false air of equanimity. Such people are anxious to be liked, but may appear distant or insincere. They may appear calm but they are exerting great strength of will to manage their internal tensions. Feelings come to be associated with pain. Perhaps you don't know what to feel because you feel different things at once. I don't so much feel ambivalence, I feel like a pinball, rebounding from one thought to another, bouncing through the flashing, vibrating pinball machine in my head until I slip past the bumpers and, my run spent, roll down into the hole at the bottom of the machine.

I don't know anyone with whom I can share this disordered emotional chaos, except my therapist, so I have dissociated from it. I have created splits. These are not so much fully formed split personalities, but containers for the split-off emotions; it is my way to manage the chaos. By linking these splits to certain people and places, I can appear consistent and emotionally concordant (literally: being of one mind), to outside observers, so long as I maintain the role continuously in their presence. This is difficult to maintain over long periods or in painful or emotionally demanding situations. That is why people like me, despite our hunger for intimacy, feel more comfortable with either superficial attachments to others, or short-term intimacies with virtual strangers.

It seems too simplistic to characterize these symptoms as emotional sensitivity, but it is clear that such a syndrome would impact upon one's ability to form significant attachments with others. This is ironic, because I believe the emotional chaos is a result of pain experienced in infancy, the pain of an insecure, unstable or disorganized attachment to the mother or primary carer.

John Bowlby was the first researcher to develop a major study of human attachment and loss in his work "Attachment and Loss", a trilogy, the first volume of which, "Attachment" was published in 1969, and revized in 1982 incorporating newer research. The Trilogy was re-printed in a new edition in 1997 by which time his attachment theory had attained much wider acceptance.


Infants become attached to adults who are sensitive and responsive in social interactions with the infant, and who remain as consistent caregivers for some months during the period from about 6 months to two years of age. Parental responses lead to the development of patterns of attachment which in turn lead to 'internal working models' which will guide the individual's feelings, thoughts, and expectations in later relationships. In Bowlby's approach, the human infant is considered to have a need for a secure relationship with adult caregivers, without which normal social and emotional development will not occur.


Quoting from the entry for John Bowlby in Wikipedia.

I propose that in some people the particular emotional sensitivity we are discussing is a result of an insecure or "disorganized" attachment to the mother or primary carer as an infant, privation or the loss of the mother at this time or the experience of trauma or abuse whereby the mother or carer failed in her protective duty toward the child.

Some years ago BPD was not accepted as a diagnosis since some in the mental health profession described it as a manifestation of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I've been given this diagnosis myself, but I don't think it is accurate. A young person or adult with BPD is experiencing a transaction or interaction between an abusive or invalidating environment and his or her own emotional sensitivity. The symptoms such as splitting and other primitive defenses, lack of identity (identity diffusion), fears of abandonment, and a sense of unreality (lapses in reality testing) are adaptations to a toxic environment and/or a toxic history.

Many BPD sufferers exhibit impulsivity (spending, promiscuity), anger, suicidal tendencies, intense, discomforting feelings and close relationships in which the other person is either idealized or despised, though it hardly seems fair to characterize these as faults. Rather they are expressions of alarm, though probably much delayed, that have evolved to protect human offspring. Evolutionary psychology has influenced attachment theory so that it is commonly believed that the formation of attachments between infant and carer has the evolutionary benefit of protecting the immature young. This alarm system is built in to us to alert the carer and to protect the child.

Unfortunately, as grown children or adults, not enough has been done to help us in response to these alarm bells. The individual consequences and social costs are serious and they manifest in unacceptable rates of crime, suicide, depression, drug abuse, addiction, relationship breakdown and violence; all the social costs of a poorly functioning mental health system.