Nightmare worlds: psychic equivalence and BPD
Why having borderline personality disorder is a living nightmare
For those struggling with personality disorder life can take on a nightmare-like quality. Trapped in a dark malaise of mental illness, nothing afoot nor ahead — it’s as if you are always one step away from being engulfed.
This all too common perception doesn’t have to be the result of trauma, nor the outcome of intolerable distress; instead it could simply be down to a little cognitive trick (or trap) we fall into. A way of looking at the world based entirely on our own perceptions; what researchers call psychic equivalence
Monsters in the mind
As a child we may have been afraid of the dark. When the lights go out we assume a monster’s going to appear from the crevices of a cupboard.
Children have active imaginations, and through fear, monsters in the mind can suddenly turn inside out: What was once clothing and coat-hangers, soon becomes a clawing apparition made real.
Such monsters exist in the adult mind too; in a nocturnal dark world of paranoia and superstition, trivial innocuous events suddenly become infused with the mind’s own darkness.
Perhaps we see our partner texting someone covertly, and just know their cheating on us. What could be an innocent WhatsApp message suddenly become a sinister harbinger of a potential breakup.
In both examples the content of the mind becomes equivalent to what’s happening in the external world.
Psychic equivalence, is a primitive defence mechanism we revert to in the absence of adequate mentalisation. This is a word used by scientists to describe our ability to understand behaviour in reference to inferred mental states: Thoughts, feelings, beliefs and desires. In other words it refers to our ability “to walk in someone else’s shoes”; to see how and why people act the way they do. In this case it also applies to ourselves.
Mentalisation is a developmental milestone born out of secure attachment. When a baby’s facial expressions are matched by their mother’s in a process called mirroring, they learn to regulate emotions, and, by “reading” minds develop a stable sense of self. On the other hand, individuals who grow up with an insecure attachment, with non-responsive caregivers it’s a milestone which never arrives.
Psychic equivalence is the mechanism which takes its place. As a compensatory measure for poor mentalisation it creates a set of destructive assumptions used to navigate a world of misunderstanding and perceived malfeasance. However rather than being helpful they actually reinforce this sense of being locked out. They insist “what’s true for me, must be true for everyone else” creating some adverse implications.
- You have a thought “I’m a bad person” It’s felt with such intensity, you know everyone else thinks the same.
- Physical intimacy triggers a flashback to a memory of sexual assault; the past event becomes the present reality.
- If your parents or partner call the police due to your behaviour they must hate you, or want you to be punished; because that’s how you feel about yourself.
- Your consultant psychiatrist refuses discharge you therefore they want to keep your prisoner — locked up in this inpatient ward that’s exactly how you feel.
- A spouse is not talking over a fight you had a few days ago; you accuse them of plotting to leave you, because you feel abandoned.
These are all examples of psychic equivalence. A combination of faulty mind-reading and an adamant refusal to entertain any alternative views save your own, creates an inside-out upside down living nightmare: What you see in your mind becomes equivocal to what you see in your environment.
Dreaming with intent
The analogy to closet-monsters wasn’t accidental. Psychic equivalence is a pre-mentalising method of interpretation picked up in infancy. When we become proficient in understanding the mind of others, we discard it for more sophisticated methods of interpretation. However if Mentalisation fails as it does in individuals who go on to acquire BPD, psychic equivalence persists long into adulthood.
It appears for those with personality disorder, mentalisation is a skill which was never acquired. It’s absence, predicated on an insecure attachment, itself a product of poor-mother infant bonding, creates a deficit in understanding of self and others which makes us believe what is true for us must be true for everyone else; and what is in the mind is equal in status to what’s outside of it. The real multi-sided contextual truth on the other hand is lost. We live on in a state of mental isolation creating a mind-world equivalence which resembles a nightmare.
Overcoming psychic equivalence rests upon recovering mentalisation, that is to say inferring or imagining the mindset of others; what drives their behaviour? What conditions make them to act? All of us revert to pre-Mentalisation methods of interpretation in times of crisis, in fact there’s a bias to believe ones own opinion is the right one; however most will recognise it is after all only opinion. Those with true psychic equivalence won’t recognise alternatives, the truth is only a projection of the mind’s opinion. It’s why when afraid we see threats everywhere, or when angry everyone’s an enemy.
The question we should be asking is “am I sure?” Is there another explanation? Is there more than one perspective?
The inability to mentalise is like being in a dark room. Turn on the lights: you’ll see the monster in the closet isn’t so scary after all – just some worn clothes you can throw away with all together. Start mentalising you’ll begin to see with clarity. Likewise in the nightmare world of psychic equivalence, the dark apparitions born of doubt and paranoia can be exorcised all together. Monsters in the mind are reinforced when they find their reflection in the world – break the crazy mirror and daydream to a better life.
be sure to visit my website www.rightresilience.com for tips, tricks and tools for recovery.