Seeing is Believing: The Teleological Mode and BPD
Why the sense of an ending seems so important to recovery in Borderline Personality Disorder.
The Teleological mode is a way of understanding action only in terms of observable outcome. This primitive pre-mentalising way of interpreting behaviour by its results, emerges in childhood as a natural corollary of secure attachment. However if attachment is weak or disorganised to begin with, teleological thinking persists into adulthood, and soon turns a crisis into a cataclysm. It is particularly prevalent in BPD.
Wrong Turns and Dead Ends
Lets start with an example: After a blazing row, your loved one walks out claiming to need space. Feeling abandoned, betrayed and broken, you veer onto a path of self-destruction. Substance-abuse soon turns to self-harm, and finally a trip to the emergency room. Refusing all help things only calm down when your partner returns, hugs you, and takes you home.
1. Expectations are constrained to the physical
In the above scenario, the person with BPD stuck in teleological mode observes their partner walking out and has no choice but to interpret it as an act of abandonment. Expectations are constrained to what’s concrete and visible; In this case, we see the person we love leaving, and assume the worst.
2. Only physical action can change minds
The person with BPD now believes the only way to communicate suffering is by showing it; in other words via visual representation. Self-harm becomes a physical imprint pain on the body. Labouring under a false belief that only actions which are observable, witnessed and grounded in the physical world can influence others, action becomes louder than words.
3. Physical outcome is more valid than the psychological one
The individual with BPD ignores mental consequences of behaviour; and emphasis is given to the physical outcome. In this case it is only when the partner visits the hospital, and takes their loved-one home that matters. If it’s not observed or if it doesn’t have a clear sequence preceding it, it’s unreal or meaningless. This means the psychological aftereffects of any behaviour including emotions of fear, anger, disgust, guilt, shame or sadness are forgotten about or deemed unimportant.
Mentalise for Mental Health
Teleological thinking is part of wider failure of Mentalisation. A word used to describe our ability to infer mental states: the thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and motives of self and others — especially in reference to behaviour. It is a skill those with Borderline Personality Disorder are often lacking.
Call it a case of arrested development, but those with the condition, especially in times of crisis, interpret action much like a one year old; assuming behaviour is always purposeful and goal-directed. Furthermore it is only meaningful if it physically impacts the environment.
A more skilful interpretation of events would seek to uncover what’s hidden; that which can’t necessarily be seen, but at least inferred – your own mind and mind of others, as both a cause and consequence of behaviour. Look closer.
1. Align expectations to what’s invisible
Perhaps your loved-one left the house because he or she felt, upset, fearful, angry or distressed, and simply needed to calm down. There are multiple reasons for a person storming out; even the most unskillful behaviour has a reason.
2. Change minds naturally
Maybe there were other ways to communicate distress besides substance-abuse and self-harm. Talking proves effective, and remember people usually sense when someone’s in pain; you don’t need a bold behaviour to prove it.
3. Examine the psychological outcome in detail
Maybe your loved-one returned home feeling angry, resentful, guilty or ashamed. While you are physically reunited, you’re psychologically detached. Don’t assume things are back to normal just because you’re back together; instead look at the hidden consequences of behaviour. After work to repair the relationship
The teleological trap
It’s worth noting, it’s not only those of us with BPD who can fall into the trap of seeing all behaviour as goal-directed. In fact all adults display a teleological bias. It’s the reason the accusation he or she is “just doing it for attention” or “being manipulative” is so prevalent. After all, some behaviour, particularly para-suicidal behaviour is so blunt, people impute a motive which isn’t necessarily there.
Confronted by what’s confusing or contradictory we all attempt to fill in the gaps. We revert to the simplest explanation, disregarding more complex interpretative feats in exchange for what we see; the only difference is, those with BPD struggle more than most. Because we’ve spent our lives locked out of other people’s minds, we see the world through frosted glass. Recovery begins by learning how to Mentalise; to see life is complicated, and actions and outcomes aren’t always rational or obvious.
Ultimately the teleological mode leads us to split actions into all-good or all-bad depending on their most concrete outcome. In doing so, we invent angels and villains out of thin-air. If you have Borderline Personality Disorder, it’s as if other people have question marks hovering above their heads: We struggle to understand ourselves and others, and so inevitably create fantasies to account for behaviour. However, all of us, rather than having no inner-life, are actually rich with complexity. There’s always more than meets the eye.
Teleology is the study of purpose, and all purpose-driven behaviour assumes an ending. However, in BPD sometimes recovery starts by going back to the beginning. What’s the cause? When we can see the mindset of another person, their thoughts, feelings and motivations, we disregard the teleological mode, and start, looking at people not as a means to an end, but as an end in and of themselves.
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