Politics

A point of difference does not make someone your enemy. But in lockdown it can feel that way | Gill Straker and Jacqui Winship

The pandemic has led to many fractures and breakdowns in the hearts and minds of individuals, reverberating too in our social hearts and minds.

Our collective madness in response to the onset of the pandemic was first made manifest in the irrationality of the toilet paper rush we discussed in a previous article.

Happily, we now have enough toilet paper and seem less driven by the existential fears of death that characterised these early days. Nevertheless, fear still drives us and there are significant new challenges to our individual and collective mind as some cities anticipate emerging from lockdown.

This fear has led to rifts and fractures, both in us and between us, and the challenge now is to find ways to heal them.

Enforced isolation from one another has had an enormous cost in terms of widespread feelings of disconnection and loneliness. We have become estranged from one another and our ease in being with one another has been eroded.

This erosion has led to a general predisposition towards anger and demonisation of those who think differently. We have only to watch the news or scroll through our social media pages to be confronted with this. We are now far more collectively disposed to see the world in terms of enemies and allies.

This is a very characteristic state of mind associated with borderline personality disorder and the tendency to idealise people who appear sympathetic and demonise those who are seen as different. This state of mind generates difficulties in holding ambivalence and complexity such that no one person or group is viewed as all good or all bad when, for example there is disagreement over lockdowns or vaccine efficacy.

There is a difference between disagreeing with someone’s position, however strongly, and writing them off as a person. But in a borderline state of mind, it feels psychologically safer to rigidly divide the world into enemies and allies.

While borderline personality disorder is a discrete diagnostic category, under enough pressure we can all fall prey to borderline states of mind, relying on more problematic psychological defences, such as splitting.

Take Mia*, a competent young lawyer who came for therapy due to workplace stress. In most aspects of her life prior to this stress Mia held a nuanced perspective and was able to know that neither she nor others around her were either all good nor all bad.

If her boyfriend was in a grumpy mood, she could remember that he was usually loving and kind and she could also recognise that she wasn’t always easy to live with. However, after months of high stress, fearing that her job was under threat, her capacity to hold this complexity diminished and she began to see her boyfriend only as a miserable grump.

She also felt persecuted by her boss who, in her view, was now a quintessential bully and a representative of toxic masculinity. While there are certainly bosses of both genders that are bullies, Mia had not previously perceived hers in this way. Her altered perception was reflected in her changed interpretation of anything her boss said to her, including his attempts to rectify the situation, which she construed as manipulative and malign.

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Furthermore, Mia began cutting herself off from anyone she saw as taking her boss’s side. If her colleagues didn’t fully agree with Mia’s negative assessment of him, then they also became “bad” in her eyes.

In this situation there was a clear split: you were with Mia or against her. This was a challenge in therapy, as Mia wanted the therapist to ally with her in seeing her boss as “all bad” and to endorse that Mia was fully in the right. Great tact was needed to challenge this perception without being placed in the enemy camp oneself.

Mia did not suffer from borderline personality disorder, but the stress of this situation had evoked a borderline state of mind, with the associated tendency to split and, in the worst-case scenario, to attack the other with forceful words and deeds.

We all have the potential for this state of mind, both individually and collectively, as reflected for example in the collective narrative of “the axis of evil” in response to the significant existential threat posed by 9/11.

However, there is a price to be paid for splitting, and for lashing out. We lose our capacity to think and to maintain relationships. This not only harms others, but also ourselves.

Self-harm is a signature characteristic of borderline personality disorder, as is communication by impact, which involves extreme speech or actions so that the other person feels affected. Often the content of the message is lost in the intensity of the emotion evoked.

Holding complexity and forgoing certainty is challenging, even in the best of times. As we approach the uncertain waters of our post-lockdown world, it is not surprising that borderline states of mind are to the fore in our collective psyche.

Uncertainty is anxiety-provoking and simplifying issues into rigid categories of right and wrong temporarily alleviates this anxiety. However, in the longer term it diminishes wellbeing, which depends on connection and community. To heal, we need to move away from what can look like the disunited commonwealth of Australia, including splits between LGAs and regional and urban areas, albeit there is no denying that some have had it harder than others and attention to social justice is crucial.

Nevertheless, we need to reflect on the anxiety driving us so that we may return from our borderline state to the unity and community that underpins mental health and wellbeing.

Prof Gill Straker and Dr Jacqui Winship are co-authors of The Talking Cure. Gill also appears on the podcast Three Associating in which relational psychotherapists explore their blind spots

Mia is a fictitious amalgam to exemplify many similar cases. The therapist is a fictional amalgam of both authors

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