I didn’t know why, at the time, it was so comforting to see clothes strewn about in imperfect piles in her suitcase. I think it was her tolerance for messiness combined with her love and attunement that brought a sense of peace and safety to my soul. I was not a messy kid. I spent inordinate amounts of time organizing toys, making sure each item was in its place, and scanning rooms to be certain everything was “just so.” To be honest, as a kid, this was comforting. As I grew older, though, the number of obsessions I accumulated became a little overwhelming. I tried to perfect my handwriting, my diet, my weight, the cleaning routine, the exercise routine, etc. There were always more things to make more rules about.
Desperately searching for order, I made plans. If only I could make a perfect plan for each day – and follow it – I could guarantee some sort of success. I asked a lot of questions about the things I cared about. I thought that if I really understood things, I could prevent failure. I became great at math. Ballet was attractive to me because ballet has structure & rules. I remember thinking at times that ballet wasn’t clear enough for me… when I asked an alignment question, my teachers didn’t always have a good answer. I remember finding this disturbing! I wanted certainty, clarity, and a clear goal to pursue. Looking back, I realize I had little tolerance for ambiguity and nuance; I just wanted to do it right. Sometimes, I asked questions like a five year old who’s trying hard to understand a new concept. I often missed the point — that beauty involves imperfection, that everything is not black or white or the same way all of the time.
Growing up, my world was chaotic, dependent mostly on my mom’s moods. Black would turn white and life was whatever color my mom wanted it to be. I know that my desire for order came out of a desire to protect myself from the unpredictable nature of a narcissist. As I became an adult, I tried to make rules about the interactions I’d have with my mom. I read many books, and even wrote notecards for myself to reference before a phone call. I went through phases of walking on eggshells and phases of “just being myself.” Nothing prevented disaster. No amount of order and planning can ensure peace when another person wants chaos (or, as they might say, a “real” conversation).
I still struggle with desiring order and perfection. In many ways, I think that’s a good thing. “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up” is a favorite book of mine. Clean, tidy spaces do spark joy for me. Sometimes, though, a messy suitcase does as well. There is a sweetness that comes from having structure and then allowing the structure to bend a little, a schedule in which things can sometimes shift around, and a tolerance for messiness that allows space for creativity.
When I watch my daughter play, I smile because she thinks outside the box. Animals from one set move into another scene… flowers from outside become headbands for horses. I’m slowing coming around. My desire for order is morphing into a desire for serendipity, creativity, and positivity. I know I’ll never be able to make fail-safe rules for getting along with my mom, and that’s okay. I don’t need them. I’ve learned that I can morph into a new way of being. I can allow her mess to exist and keep my own sense of calm.
Some things I’m trying to remember:
- moment-to-moment self-care really matters, especially in the moments that are hard, when self-harm feels attractive (this is good not only for oneself — it also models to the borderline how to live in a healthy, non-destructive way). For example, getting a glass of water, remembering to eat meals, going to bed when exhausted/tapped out — all of that is okay to do, even if there is conflict.
- the borderline person craves conflict. it’s probably not “what you said” exactly that set the person off. say less/say more… it doesn’t make too much of a difference. be kind, but don’t stress.
- it’s okay to want to be around people who treat you well. go back to these people whenever possible, and become that person to yourself!