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Section 10
Track #10 - Using 'Confirmation vs. Assumption' to Counteract
Ambiguous Gestures

Question 10 | Test | Table of Contents | Borderline
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On the last track, we discussed trigger escalation and techniques to avoid it with BPD clients.  These techniques included  finding a pattern; self time out; and self-inquiry

As we discussed on track 6, some BPD clients will often mind-read when another person expresses a gesture that is ambiguous. This can be extremely frustrating for BPD clients, as you know, because they already experience a great deal of confusion about their own self.  This new ambiguity will often send them into an episodic outburst when he or she makes an assumption about the other person’s reaction. 

On this track, we will examine the characteristics of assuming behavior. These characteristics include ambiguous gestures; parataxic distortion; and warning signs.

Three Characteristics of Assuming Behavior

Characteristic #1 - Ambiguous Gestures
First, we will discuss ambiguous gestures. As you already know, a BPD client is most often sensitive to changes in behavior in other people. He or she is quick to interpret the other person’s actions according to his or her paranoid tendencies. A simple shrug or eye roll may be quickly read as a threat or judgment on the client’s actions rather than on extraneous circumstances. 

Often, these assumptions turn out to be wrong, but the client has already become defensive and refuses to hear the other person’s side of the story. This will usually result in an altercation. Todd was a 25 year old BPD client. One day, when he came home from work, his wife, Samantha, looked up at the ceiling, sighed and said, "Your work called. They want you to go to a conference this Saturday." However, her voice held no trace of anger or frustration. 

Todd stated, "Well, I was confused as to what she was sighing about.  She only does that when something is bothering her, so I assumed that she was upset I was going to be abandoning her that Saturday. So I said, a little pissed, ‘What do you want? It’s my job.’" Samantha then became annoyed at Todd’s tone, and denied the idea that she was upset about his job. Todd took this defensive posture as a confirmation of his assumption, and the small altercation escalated into a larger, and more aggressive conflict. 

In fact, Samantha’s sigh resulted from her exhaustion at work, and not from Todd’s own work responsibilities. However, because Todd took an immediate defensive stance, the real motive was never discovered. 

Technique: Confirmation Versus Assumption
I asked Todd to try the "Confirmation versus Assumption" exercise the next time he was misinterpreting Samantha’s gestures. I asked Todd that the next time he was confused about what Samantha was feeling or expressing to use the following formula. I asked him to state, "I observe this gesture and I imagine this feeling."  I then asked Samantha to respond in a like formula with "Yes, I am doing this gesture, but I’m thinking or feeling this."

For example, for their small argument, Todd could have said, "I observe that you’re sighing in an annoyed way and I imagine that you’re mad I have to leave Saturday." Then, Samantha would have responded, "Yes, I am sighing in frustration, but I’m really feeling tired and frustrated with my own work." As you can see, by confirming Samantha’s feelings in a direct way, Todd would not assume that the gesture was directed at him. 

Think of your Todd. Could he or she benefit from the "Confirmation Versus Assumption" exercise?

Characteristic #2 - Parataxic Distortion
Second, we will discuss parataxic distortion. As you have probably observed, parataxic distortion occurs when the BPD client unknowingly superimposes past experiences onto other people during present conflicts. When the client sees an ambiguous gesture or behavior, such as Samantha’s sigh, he or she will quickly sort through his or her own past experiences with other people who expressed the same gesture. The client will then impose what the past person felt onto the present. I asked Todd to think about his childhood and to recall any authority figure who used to sigh in the same fashion as Samantha. 

Todd stated, "My mom used to sigh like that, mostly when she was disappointed in one of us kids.  My father left me and my sister when we were little, and she had to raise us by ourselves.  We got used to her being constantly tired and with a short patience, but when she sighed, we knew we were in for the worst. One year, I failed Algebra, and I was going to have to take it over again the next semester. My mom did the whole sighing thing and she grounded me for the next two months because she said I wasn’t doing my homework. That was such bullshit too, because I did do the work, I just didn’t understand the stuff. I would have if she had helped me, but she didn’t." 

As you can see, Todd associated a frustrated sigh with an unfair judgment on himself due to his feelings of injustice regarding his mother.  Think of your Todd.  Could he or she be suffering from parataxic distortion?

Characteristic #3 - Warning Signs
In addition to ambiguous gestures and parataxic distortion, we will now discuss warning signs to watch for when a BPD client seems to be overreacting to certain gestures.To help Todd resist his parataxic distortion, I gave him a list of warning signs that will tell him when he is superimposing past experiences to present circumstances. These warning signs include the following.

  1. Responses with a fast reaction time.  If your anger is suddenly elevated by a single tone or gesture, this could indicate a habitual knee-jerk reaction closely linked to past situations.
  2. Black and white thinking.  If you’re immediately labeling someone as "for or against me", this is another sign that you’re responding to more than just what the other person is feeling, but rather the gesture itself.
  3. A familiar physical feeling.  If you remember having a lump in your stomach or a tight chest as a commonly recurring theme when you get angry, this might indicate that this somatic complaint is related to something else.  For example, if your head always starts to hurt when someone criticizes you, you may have experienced the same reaction when someone from your past criticized you.

I ask my clients to look for these signs when they become angry for no seemingly apparent reason, and to write about the incident in their journals.  I ask them to pay close attention to what the other person did and what they did personally in reaction to the gesture.  I ask them to notice any feelings of losing control or feeling devalued

I have found this technique extremely beneficial when deciding whether or not a client is experiencing parataxic distortion. Think of your BPD client.  Could he or she benefit from having a list of warning signs?

On this track, we discussed the characteristics of assuming behavior in BPD clients. These characteristics include  ambiguous gestures; parataxic distortion; and warning signs.

On the next track, we will discuss several coping strategies for BPD clients that utilize self-talk slogans.  We will categorize lists of self-talk slogans into stages of anger arousal. These stages are reassurance; triggering; physiological tension; and digressing.

Peer-Reviewed Journal Article References:
Hepp, J., Lane, S. P., Wycoff, A. M., Carpenter, R. W., & Trull, T. J. (2018). Interpersonal stressors and negative affect in individuals with borderline personality disorder and community adults in daily life: A replication and extension. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 127(2), 183–189.

Huprich, S. K., Nelson, S. M., Paggeot, A., Lengu, K., & Albright, J. (2017). Object relations predicts borderline personality disorder symptoms beyond emotional dysregulation, negative affect, and impulsivity. Personality Disorders: Theory, Research, and Treatment, 8(1), 46–53.

Nisenbaum, R., Links, P. S., Eynan, R., & Heisel, M. J. (2010). Variability and predictors of negative mood intensity in patients with borderline personality disorder and recurrent suicidal behavior: Multilevel analyses applied to experience sampling methodology. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 119(2), 433–439.

What are three characteristics of assuming behavior in BPD clients? To select and enter your answer go to Test.

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