Reviewing the archive: “The Beast Within”

“Alice laughed. “There’s no use trying,” she said: “one can’t believe impossible things.”
“I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”.”

~ Lewis Carrol, Alice in Wonderland 

It’s amazing to reflect now, that when I started therapy, I genuinely believed that this image (originally posted July 2015) accurately represented “me”. I believed that if I was anything at all underneath the mask, it was a truly wretched thing that was entirely bad.

(continued below)

What is truly amazing to me is that I no longer believe this about myself.

And yet, when I drew this, and for almost of my life, it did not even occur to me that my self-evaluation (bad, flawed, broken) was a belief at all. It did not occur to me that it was simply one point of view, and perhaps a skewed one at that. As far as I was concerned, it was the truth. The absolute truth. And anyone who said otherwise, I assumed, was simply fooled by my (excellent but exhausting) facade. I even believed that all of the good things I did, had ever done and would ever do were to compensate for my “badness”.

So even my “goodness” was tainted.

I started therapy, as I think a lot of us with BPD/CPTSD do, firm in the belief that the therapeutic work I would be embarking on would be to change this “bad” self. In fact, I remember that, when asked my “goals”, that all I could think of to say was “I want to learn how to be a person”. And when asked “are you not a person?” I emphatically replied that I was not. At the time I could not articulate this any more clearly because I didn’t really understand it myself, but I do remember thinking that it was a stupid question, and instantly doubting the ability of this person sat in front of me to help me at all, because aren’t therapists supposed to be insightful and intuitive and to understand things about people? And could he seriously not see what (I believed) must be obvious to anyone at a cursory glance (and certainly after a few minutes of talking to me) that I most certainly was not a person. Not at all!

I was so entrenched in this way of thinking (often described by psychological theory as a ‘core belief about the self’) that I could never in a million years have predicted that it was not my “self” that would change through therapy, but my thoughts and beliefs and judgments about that self. Yet now, even in my darkest hours, I know that it is not the absolute essence of “me” that is flawed or faulty or bad or broken. It is only my perception of me that is at fault.

I realise this may come across to you as mere semantic manipulation, but in me, it describes a seismic cognitive, emotional and perceptual shift that encapsulates so much more. Because in order to change my self-perception, I first had to get my head around the concept of having a “self” at all. Because without this knowledge it was impossible for me to understand that I could have beliefs about that self, and that my beliefs could, therefore, be amenable to change.

Six months into my therapy (June 2016) I wrote “Taming the Beast Within“, a transitional piece that I now realise gives a snapshot view of the beginnings of this perceptual shift as it happened. The wording I chose clearly demonstrates that I was still very much wedded to the notion that inside of me was an elemental force that was wild, dangerous and destructive and that my task was to tame it, to reign it in and control it. But the last few lines also give glimpses of a tentative shift toward a much more compassionate understanding of myself, my emotions, my internal world and my behaviour.

And now, with the benefit of hindsight and with another 18 months of therapy under my belt, I know that understanding, acceptance and compassion were what these “raging” parts of myself needed (and still need), and they are not and never were “bad”, rather they were hurt and scared. And it’s true that they lashed out and they attacked, but they only ever did so in a misguided attempt to protect me. And as I started to understand them, soothe them and listen to them, I learned that they were not monsters at all. They were little, lost children, child parts of my fragmented self. And in understanding them, and looking at myself in this way, I began to develop a new capacity for self-compassion and emotion regulation that slowly replaced my negative and highly polarised way of seeing myself (and by extension, the world).

This change required massive cognitive and emotional growth which, of course, took a lot of time, hard work, perseverance and support. It’s a journey I am still on, but looking at this drawing makes me realise how very far I have come, and how very far I may still be able to go. And this is very helpful for me today as I have been thinking about my current therapeutic work. As I embark on yet another ‘new phase’ of my development, I am revisiting the notion of setting recovery (and life) goals. I am encouraged to think big. Not to focus on what I think is possible (or allowed or available to me), but instead to name things that I really want, no matter how far fetched I may judge them to be. And so, at this point in time, reflecting on this art journal entry is a profound reminder for me that I can do impossible things.

[In case you were wondering, these have progressed beyond my initial aim of “being a person.” I do accept that I may in fact already be a person]