Updated: Nov 17, 2020
When I was in Japan, I visited a gaming arcade.
I sat down at a Tekken machine and inserted a dollar. Immediately I began versing a pixelated brute on the screen. I mustered all the energy in my body into my stubby fingers to mash the buttons so I could kick this dude’s ass. Just as I was close to delivering a beautiful K.O. the screen flashed and changed back to the main menu. I wasn't playing at all - I was just watching a demo movie.
Just like I thought I was controlling my Tekken avatar, we think we control our thoughts. But our thoughts come and go by themselves all the time. Mental content ebbs and flows, just like the waves of a great ocean. Anyone who has meditated for any length of time will be able to attest to this – I can’t even count the number of times I’ve sat down for a Vipassana session and started thinking about stupid ass inventions like Velcro-on toupees or about the time I tripped in front of my crush when I was 11.
This is why sayings like “you are not your thoughts” and “don’t believe everything you think” exist.
“You are not your thoughts”. Then what are you?
You are an observer.
Imagine your mind as a dark cave. You have a torch. You do not determine the contents of this cave, but you can determine what contents you want to illuminate, and see. This is called attention. Attention is the act of focusing consciousness on one area of the mind. We amplify the reality we pay attention to, and muffle the reality we don't pay attention to.
The contents of this cave is comprised of external stimuli (society, your environment) and internal stimuli (your animal brain thoughts, conditioned beliefs). Your observer self is the entity that transcends all of this. Some scramble to call it the Soul.
Whatever stimuli you choose to illuminate (that is, attach significance to) will become your reality. This is my metaphysical interpretation of the world, so that is why I call myself a solipsist, for lack of a better label.
A solipsist believes that no external reality exists beyond one’s own perception. My experience of the world arises epiphenomenally from a single substrate, call it the brain (central nervous system). I cannot be metaphysically committed to a reality beyond that – agnosticism of the external world is the truest rational approach. To be fair, I can’t even be metaphysically committed to the idea of a physical brain. This is some matrix type shit.
Those who feel helpless and powerless in life are victims to circumstance. By that, I mean that they let their thoughts (external and internal stimuli) run their reality. They can choose to illuminate their own reality, but instead let these spontaneously generating thoughts, feelings, and sensations dictate the fate of their life.
Once I understood this, I started thinking about my past. In my late teens/early 20’s I suffered from borderline personality disorder. It was pretty fucking bad. I self-harmed. I engaged in risky and impulsive behaviours. I felt the sword of Damocles hover dangerously over my head every single day.
The most curious symptom of BPD is black-and-white thinking (and subsequently the oscillation between idealisation and devaluation). Black-and-white thinking is a form of cognitive distortion in which thoughts are often polarised into “good” or “bad” with no middle ground. There is no grey area. For the black-and-white thinker, life is either amazingly great or an absolute hellhole.
In the arena of friendships and relationships, this is disastrous. BPD sufferers will idealise people in one moment, showering them with eternal love and affection, and then completely see people as demon-spawn in the next moment. I remember these episodes quite clearly. It amazes me how emotions can easily not only colour your reality, but become your reality. It makes me extremely sympathetic to assholes. They must be fighting some kind of incredible battle none of us are privy to.
Anyway, it seems like in the mind of a person with BPD, every person and situation is dichotomised into two concrete labels, GOOD & BAD. Let’s go back to the cave analogy. A neurotypical would be able to explore all grey areas of the caves at their own volition, but a borderline person would oscillate between the extremes of GOOD and BAD beyond their control. But why does this happen?
Most psychological pathologies – depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, addition, borderline, antisocial pd – is the survival response kicking in the individual to some perceived threat. This is why disorders usually manifest after some kind of life trauma. In this sense, it’s actually quite healthy. Your body is trying to help you survive by kick-starting survival mode (activating the sympathetic nervous system, limbic/animal brain starts taking over) although it might seem misguided.
Take allergies for example – allergies are the result of the immune system being a bit extra and reacting to innocuous things as if they were pathogenic. Psychological disorders can be the same way – it is the psychological immune system going haywire.
At the absolute heart of BPD is the lack of a stable identity. They have no internal barometer on how to act or think. This means sufferers often let other people or situations dictate their reality. This makes BPDers people pleasers, constantly living off external validation, because they have no stable identity to validate themselves. Consequently, they are also extremely sensitive to any negativity. They are great at internalising any negativity directed at them.
Psychologist Marsha Linehan describes this quite aptly:
“People with BPD are like people with third degree burns over 90% of their bodies. Lacking emotional skin, they feel agony at the slightest touch or movement.”
If we know all this, then how do we help people suffering from this personality disorder? And be clear of this: it is suffering.
If you look at all effective treatments of BPD, one component seems to appear as the common denominator – that is mindfulness as sourced from Buddhist practise. This is not surprising to anyone well-versed in contemporary psychological practises. Mindfulness is the holy grail.
Mindfulness is nothing but non-judgemental awareness. It is a higher level of consciousness. Through awareness, you realise that you cannot control your life. You can only control what you focus your conscious attention on. Here we go back to the dark cave of the mind – those with personality disorders often try and add or remove contents of the cave, without realising that this is an impossible feat. However, it is completely within their power to focus on the parts of the cave that are helpful to them, while diverting attention away from harmful contents.
As much as I wish someone told me this as a young lost mushroom trying to figure out the world, but I’m glad that I ultimately found this stuff out for myself.
If you're reading this as a person with borderline, just know things will change. You're riding a rollercoaster and you can scream, or you can laugh, or do both. And you will probably miss the exhilaration once you get off.