One of the psychological concepts I started to learn about as member of a Therapeutic Community for people like me, those with Personality Disorders or similar traits, is that of the “Bottom Line” .
My understanding of my Bottom Line is that it’s the way I feel about myself by default, my Bottom Line consists of my basic feelings of self worth. These feelings about how I value myself, normally reside in my subconscious, they were probably formed mainly out of early experience either before I had language or enough language to be able to think about them. Since I had never thought about my Bottom Line, I had never really been aware of it and because I’ve never been aware of it, it’s just been something that is part of me and happens to me. This might be alright, if my Bottom Line was positive, reinforcing and self validating.
Another idea I’ve learnt on my journey, is that children have some basic “Relational Needs”, there are some more obvious needs, such as having Stability and Security, then there are things like the need to show love and have it accepted and the need to feel validated. How these needs are met (or not met) in early childhood, form the basis of how we react to the world through the course of our lives.
What’s my Bottom Line?
I think that my Bottom Line goes something like “I am unacceptable”, “I am wrong”.
I’m just going to note that the moment I wrote those words, I experienced what I think is anxiety, I can even feel a physical reaction happening, I feel shaky, my hands and feet are tingling, I am on edge and I want to stop writing. I think it’s possible that just writing about my Bottom Line, is triggering my Bottom Line. My Bottom Line is pervasive.
When I started writing this blog post, I rewrote the first few lines several times, because my Bottom Line says that I am unacceptable, whatever I write is going to be unacceptable, not good enough. Even worse, I think my reaction to my Bottom Line has stopped me from having a blog at all because it’s going to be full of things I write and anything I write will be unacceptable. When I talk, I feel what I’m saying is unacceptable and often I search for validation for people around me. It’s really nice when other people tell me that I am acceptable, it makes a big difference to me but my Bottom Line is so strong it still tends to supersede any external validation that I receive. I think what’s happening here is the interaction between how I feel about myself by default and how I hold in mind my relationships with people around me. My earliest relationships, with parents and family, were disrupted and not only has that made my Bottom Line negative it has also undermined my trust in those close to me, actually, everyone, including myself. No one, not even I can be trusted. I am unacceptable and everyone else can’t be trusted because I feel they are going to abandon me. The closer I get to someone, the more I fear being rejected and all the while, my Bottom Line is telling me I am unacceptable therefore the things I do and say are going to be wrong and make people reject me. This is a frightening, vulnerable, stuck position to be in.
I’m pausing now, to be aware of my emotions, because right now I’m getting so anxious my ability to think and type has become severely disrupted. I am ok, it’ll pass. Rather than continuing to write, I’m going to take a break and ground myself before continuing.
The Foundation Of The Bottom Line
Where does my Bottom Line come from? I have mentioned about early experience and feelings of rejection but the answer is more complex. I think my Bottom Line developed initially from a very young age, if I was to pinpoint that age, I’d say it was around the age of 3. Seemingly simple things can have very profound and lasting effects on children, in my case I think there are 2 (possibly related) issues I faced as a 3 year, that have left me with the Bottom Line of feeling unacceptable.
One of those issues I’m going to highlight is my habits around eating (possibly now recognised as an eating disorder). Certainly it’s not uncommon for children to develop a disliking for certain foods, there’s a classic “eat your greens” scenario which I know many people will have experienced. When I was about 3 years old, it seems, very quickly that I started to reject certain foods, mostly vegetables. That rejection at its most extreme, meant retching at the dinner table in front of everyone and crying. The reaction to this, by young parents from a traditional working class background where money and food is scarce, was, I think, anger and aggressive communication (or even behaviour in the act of trying to physically force me to eat the food). What I don’t think I got was acknowledgement and understand of why I was like this but then, it’s difficult to do so with a 3 year old who doesn’t have the language to comprehend what’s happening to them, let alone explain it. My thoughts on this now is that if a child goes through this, the healthiest thing is to accept it’s happening, give them a comfort zone, show them love and care then introduce the foods bit by bit. In hindsight, I think the reason for my rejection of the food, initially, was simply down to smell, taste and texture, something about those foods was too intense for me. I have considered the possibility of autism here because it fits but it’s difficult to say for sure. I didn’t get comfort and care around my eating habits, I felt powerless over myself and I was in full view of everyone. The reactions of my parents, family members and others I think had the effect of making feel I was wrong, eating the food is normal, I should be able to do it, whether I like it or not I must eat, I should eat it, my parents have worked hard to provide the food that I’m refusing to eat, they may not like it either, I should eat it too, so “get it down you”.
The result of all of this trauma around food was that I feared eating meals and I felt unacceptable and wrong (my Bottom Line). Whenever I knew a meal was coming up, I became very afraid, defensive and/or withdrawn. I also felt I had no power at all, it was inevitable and of course my behaviour around eating would add to the experience being traumatic when the inevitable happened. I felt trapped by doing something fundamental to my wellbeing and by people who were responsible for me, the most important people to me who were supposed to be there to care for me but were instead trying to make me do something that traumatised me. Another result of all of this was that I would fear eating around anyone because the trauma around food would happen, for example, when I visited friends and ate there. My mum started explaining to people that I don’t eat vegetables, which made me feel worse, I was being singled out, I was a ‘freak’ who should just get over it and get on with it. The result of feeling like a freak was to withdraw even more.
Another thing that probably contributed to my Bottom Line, is that as a child, sometimes I would talk, a lot! So, me talking a lot is not in itself, a problem, but the way some people reacted to their annoyance at me talking a lot, probably was.
A specific incident around me talking a lot, one that really sticks in my mind was during a lesson at school (possibly an English lesson). It’s very simple, I was talking a lot, I’m sure it was disruptive to the class, I accept this. The issue was the reaction of the teacher, I think his name was Mr. England.
So there I was, perhaps 12 or 13, talking (but not necessarily saying anything ‘wrong’ as such), then, the teacher picked up a roll of gaffer tape, and proceeded to gag me with it by wrapping it around my head, covering my mouth so I couldn’t speak.
Rules For Living
Over the course of my childhood I think there were a few things that forged and reinforced my Bottom Line of feeling unacceptable and wrong. From a very early age, actually my most immediate reaction was not only to withdraw internally but to physically isolate myself. I remember (looking back now) that I felt lonely and depressed. When staying with my grandparents I remember spending time on my own in the old coal outhouse or shed, in a dark mood. I know my moods were something people noticed because, for example, I once overheard a grandparent talking to my Mum saying “Joe’s quite a morose child isn’t he”, this is quite something to say about a small child. Although at other times I was hyperactive and talked lots, very fast. I used to walk out of school, one time I remember most of the class chasing me down the corridor because I had felt powerless, unacceptable and running away was the only means of control I had. I used to go and hang around in the subway that was used for the local car factory, on my own, feeling lonely, isolated and unwanted but also ashamed of myself and afraid of the repercussions from my actions. By the time I was a teenager, I ate poorly and mostly on my own, I would get my dinner and then go up to my room to eat it alone. Once I started spending less time at home (from the age of 15) I simply would not eat properly, I would binge drink alcohol, walk very fast from one part of my city to another, on the way I’d stop at small shops, I’d buy chocolates and packets of biscuits and I would binge eat. I didn’t tend to make myself vomit, I just kept eating, for example, I could eat 2 whole packets of chocolate biscuits to myself, feel ill, rest then keep going. I think my metabolism must have been very active, possibly a combination of walking a lot and stress, plus just how I’m built, so I didn’t put on weight, even though I was stuffing myself with sugary products, I lost weight. I was pale, very thin and experiencing a lot of anxiety, including about how I looked. Later on in life but actually not that much later, when I was 18, I met the person who would become my girlfriend for 22 years, she introduced some new foods to me, I trusted her like I’d never trusted anyone and I began eating more healthily, although she’d often spot that I hadn’t eaten for a long time. After 22 years that relationship ended and I realised just how dependent on her I had been because I felt myself slipping back into old habits, I just don’t want to cook food for myself, I don’t want to care for myself because I am not worth it and this is not how my life is, I forget about eating unless it’s eating something quick that reminds me of a place of comfort. I have made progress though, partly as a result of being in a Therapeutic Community where once a week, 3 of us would cook for everyone. I have been on holiday to Cyprus where I decided I would try to let go and eat things I wouldn’t normally eat and it was ok, I didn’t necessarily enjoy everything but I tried and nothing bad happened, I felt safe and I felt I had power for deciding, relatively quietly, without fuss, to do it. I think I may have made so little fuss about it, that people around me have barely noticed I’ve had such a problem with food.
I think the things I’ve talked about above, the things I’ve done, such as isolating myself, are what are sometimes called “Rules For Living”. They are a reaction to the threat of my Bottom Line being triggered (AKA “Trigger Situations”). The Rules For Living that are based on a Bottom Line of “I am unacceptable” tend to be unhealthy themselves though, it’s poor risk assessment and management because 3 year olds (or even some 18 year olds) don’t have the language to develop good healthy reactions to things going wrong.
My Bottom Line still exists, it’s very strong, it’s right here now but something very profoundly different is happening and it’s happening simply because I’m aware of my Bottom Line. Instead of being ruled by my Rules For Living, I now have the language and thought to be aware of my emotions and work out how to rewrite, remove, replace or simply manage that feeling of being unacceptable. Key to this and to probably all of my psychological issues, is having compassion for myself, having compassion for that 3 year old, I was never wrong, I was never unacceptable, I am valid. The struggle here is that my Bottom Line doesn’t want me to believe any of that. I don’t know if I’ll ever be completely free from this but what I do know is that I have changed for the better and I can function better than ever.