I have never had an MRI or any other brain-imaging done to verify this, but I have reason to suspect that I may have a smaller hippocampus and possibly a reduced amygdala.
Why would I suspect such a thing? Well, people who have symptoms of Borderline Personality Disorder tend to have these brain regions of reduced size, especially those with comorbid PTSD (source). People with reduced hippocampi tend to be more impulsive.
Borderlines tend to be impulsive.
Emotional management and impulsiveness are, in many ways, the hallmark of dealing with BPD. If you know a borderline, what you expect is a person who can shift moods quite quickly, and you might see a pattern of destructive behavior. For many borderlines, this takes the form of heavy drug use, unhealthy levels of promiscuity, etc. In other words, impulsive and potentially destructive behavior.
Perpetual fighting and flighting
Have you ever been suddenly scared and felt yourself become overwhelmingly alert, reactive, or anxious? Your adrenaline spikes, your fight/flight instincts kick in, and while you are more alert you may find that if you tried to apply some rational analysis to the situation you may be unable to do so. Some series of events have kicked up the parts of your brain responsible for quick decision-making, such as defending yourself or running away, but your resources towards rational thinking are temporarily compromised.
Now, imagine that this happened to you frequently, as a response to mild sources of stress or social situations. Imagine that this happened at a party or around certain (types of) people. Imagine if you grew up with this always happening to you, and so you didn’t realize this was abnormal. There are reasons I choose writing as an outlet, and tend to be quiet in person.
Living within a mind populated by fears of abandonment, chronic feelings of emptiness, and drastic mood swings (we’ll get to that in the next post) puts that mind on high alert all the time. Most of the time, I can easily manage impulses, whether they are to eat that whole container of ice cream, responding to that idiotic post or comment on the internet, or punching that douche-bag. In my life, I have eaten whole containers of ice cream, responded to idiots on the internet, and while it has been very rare (attending a Quaker school probably helped this) I have thrown a couple of punches.
But these types of impulses are not the largest concern for me. In my case, the larger concern is what I will call the potential monster lurking under the dark waters, barely seen but always present. This is the monster that interferes with rational thinking, probably due to the abnormal brain physiology consistent with BPD. You may have known me for years and never realized it was there. A few people do know it well, some of which do not speak to me any more. And yet, some both know about it and are close to me, probably because those people are amazing and awesome.
And, of course, my impulses, great and small, have led to amazing and awesome people leaving me. Hence my intense desire to understand, treat, and heal from the pain that often causes my impulses. Emotions and desires lead to impulses. Impulses can lead to both good and bad actions, but also to a wide range of radical mood shifts.
I have intentionally planned this post directly before the last in this series, wherein I will talk about radial mood shifts and emotional instability, because that instability and shifting is largely due to the presence of an aspect of my mind which sometimes terrifies me and forces me to be perpetually vigilant against an impulsiveness which is usually not a problem.
The fact that we all want to think of ourselves as good, smart, rational people means that we might lean towards self-justification in most cases, and this is also true of myself. But in my case, and I have no idea how this is true for other people, I’m almost always aware of the monster swimming under the murky surface which might, at any moment, cause me to make a poor decision, lash out suddenly and without apparent cause (there is a cause, it’s just usually buried under tons of emotions), or to spend hours or days parrying impulses towards a person who has severely hurt me. These feelings are the source of rationalization, self-justification, and cognitive biases.
When I first drafted this section, I spent some time composing examples of impulses, struggles with internal impulses to act in ways which might hurt people (because I’m being hurt by them), etc. As I kept writing, it became clear to me that the writing itself was a metaphor for itself. I was succumbing to the impulses that I was speaking of, and the tone of the section was highly aggressive, angry, and ultimately full of deep pain.
Because Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, and hate leads to suffering. After I wrote several paragraphs, I realized I was writing out of pain, anger, and I was suffering. And I wanted to redirect that suffering elsewhere. Those impulses to redirect pain (and abuse) are what has ended many of my relationships. I found myself doing that here, in writing about impulsiveness. Funny how that happens.
My writing was becoming an attack, not only upon people who have hurt me, but also upon myself. This is the largest, for me, result of my impulsivity. For me, being impulsive does not play itself out as drug abuse,gambling, or unhealthy sexual promiscuity. I don’t seek fights, stay out all night drinking, or go home with someone from a bar whom I hardly know.
Instead, my impulses lead to a frequent state of mind where the possibility for a rational or philosophical analysis are hindered. I find myself arguing between options which are all impulse-based, led by raw emotion, and I have to calm myself down to think rationally. Often anger and pain are the dominating emotions at such times, but not always. I am aware of this, most of the time, so I can catch it in order to calm myself down and re-evaluate (as I did here). As the years have gone by, this struggle and the subsequent need for re-evaluation has ended up making me too afraid to act in most cases just in case my decision might be made in a compromised state of mind.
That is, just in case my rational attributes are compromised (because if they are, I probably don’t know it) I have learned not to act, most of the time, rather than to act poorly. Of course, I do things quite often and sometimes a poor decision slips in, despite my trying to not allow poor impulses to make the decisions. The problem has become how to act wisely. How can I trust my ability to make decisions when I occasionally make really poor ones? Would trusting myself more make me more or less likely to act impulsively?
My intentions are good, the vast majority of the times (which is to say, I occasionally have impulses which don’t come from good places). I don’t want to hurt people, I want to treat people well, and I want healthy relationships. These are all trustworthy attributes, so long as I’m capable of practicing them in actual behavior (which is the vast majority of the time). I trust my ability to act morally and responsibly when I’m able to think clearly and rationally. And despite the fact that I usually act rationally and responsibly, that I make mistakes weighs heavily on my mind most of the time. I’m sure none of this is different from most of you who are reading this.
But my having a (likely) abnormal brain physiology, the skills to manage such human impulses require more honing and attention than with most people. We all can occasionally give in to an impulse, hurt someone, and then have to find a way to atone. The problem for me is that the little impulses every day lead to a habit of doing things which create day-to-day struggles for people close to me, which are often the result in tiny slippages of impulse control.
These slips can come to look like I’m a person to be afraid of, to not trust, and at it’s worst can turn into abuse. It is my most important day-to-day concerns to treat people well, anticipate their needs and triggers, and to listen and be self-critical. When things are very stressful for me, especially when I’m experiencing abuse myself, I have hurt people. I have lost relationships. I have lost trust.
I cannot take back my actions, but I can continue to be self-critical, listen to people around me, and be more aware of the causes of my behavior. And despite my mistakes, I have many people who do trust me because they know that I don’t deny responsibility for my actions, I am working to be better, and that trust is about who we are as people–if we are self-critical, if we are empathetic, and if we seek to learn from mistakes– as much as what we merely do.
And as my environment improves, I learn more about my disorder, and as I heal from traumatic experiences, my ability to manage normal levels of impulses becomes easier and I am less anxious and stressed. Where I, in unhealthy environments, had to be vigilant 24/7, now I just need to be aware of potential stressers and prepare for them when necessary.
Just like everybody else, except I probably have some abnormal brain physiology that makes it harder for me than most people. Lucky me.
Impulsiveness and relationships
What does this have to do with polyamory? Well, insofar as a person might be more impulsive in terms of pursuing sexual contact with more people, it might be a problem is some cases. Where increased drug use, gambling, etc affects relationships, it is relevant as well. It will effect communication and other aspects of interaction within relationships, but so long as that polyamorous environment is healthy, emotionally open, and everyone is aware of the issues and adjusts (to some reasonable degree, of course) to those issues, these symptoms are manageable.
Outside of the rare case where impulsiveness might lead to a decision which hurts a partner, most of my concern with impulsiveness comes from how I react to a recurring stressful situation or person. For me, the biggest concern about impulsiveness has been problems with a tendency to communicate with, react to, or act upon partners and metamours in ways, day to day, where I have not taken enough time to govern my impulses. That is, this is relevant to polyamory in the sense that it is relevant to any relationship.
Impulsiveness, and the subsequent shiftiness of moods, make communication difficult much of the time. Despite my desire for intimacy and emotional openness, because I’m managing impulses frequently this will sometimes interfere with my ability to communicate effectively. The resulting anxiety will have effects on my relationships.
I communicate my desires and needs poorly as a result of such anxieties. If I’m being hurt by someone, my ability to address this is hampered by a constant slew of impulses to say or do hurtful things in response. If I’m hurting someone, my ability to make amends is interrupted by an impulse to self-justify. If someone is walking away in frustration or fear, personally attacking me, or I’m being misunderstood or demonized then the problem is that I’m so busy fighting off the strong emotional impulses to lash out due to the fears and emptiness this brings to mind, that I am more likely to confirm any negative opinions of me than to demonstrate otherwise, if I do respond
This, unfortunately, leads to inaction where action is sometimes needed. And while I recognize that the ability to act, when appropriate, is healthier and better, sometimes it feels impossible to do so. Sometimes it may be unwise to do so, as a borderline, where for otehr people doing so would be good. Having these symptoms, I know that acting in some circumstances will expose me to overwhelming amounts of stress, anxiety, and my ability to manage impulses will probably be broken.
For people with mental health concerns such as depression, anxiety, or a personality disorder which makes speaking up, demanding right treatment, or self confidence hard, to be told that we are somehow failing because of our inaction only rubs salt into the wound, because we already know that.
Any person proceeding with comparable ease in asserting oneself and not being paralyzed by fear, anxiety, or emotional management is in a place of privilege. A place of privilege should be a place of compassion and understanding, not accusation and superiority. I’m in a place where I need understanding, encouragement, and care and not judgment, abuse, and demonization. I’m trying very hard to manage intense impulses, mood swings, and fears every day. If you are not, then making assertive decisions, requests, etc is easy.
Communication will often be hard for me until I reach the point of remission; until I am no longer diagnoseable. Until then, please remember that my disorder may not give me a free pass on my mistakes, but it also does not define me in any essential or fundamental way. Don’t allow anyone to only be defined by their mistakes, because we all make them. We all sometimes succumb to the worst impulses within us,and we all need to remember that each of us has also done good as well as bad.
My impulses, when I’m in a healthy place, are manageable and often good as well as bad. I’m hoping for more impulses to say hello, to give hugs, and to force myself to move past my fears and develop relationships of all kinds. Because some impulses should not be resisted.
Right now, I’m having an impulse to stop writing.
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