Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Thoughts on Identity and Borderline Personality Disorder

Identity is a funny thing. 

We make such a fuss about Who Am I? Who Are You?

It’s almost something that’s only important for other people.

When you’re alone it doesn’t matter who you are. You are who you are. You’re you and you don’t need to be anyone at all. It’s only when other people are around that it matters.

Maybe I’m wrong because I’ve spent so much of my life without a sense of THIS IS ME RIGHT HERE THIS IS WHO I AM that I feel this way.

I also know that identity changes. Who we are is constantly changing. It’s constantly evolving. Of course this isn’t what we mean when we talk about identity disturbance. That’s the big voids, the gross inconsistencies, and the major disruptions it causes in our lives.

I don’t know. I’m so many things. The Hollowness, the Emptiness, the Boredom, these things are painful for me. They go to my core some days and I feel like I’m nothing at all. No one. What makes a person? What composes a person’s identity?   

I know the things I like when I’m on my own and the things that I’m good at. I’m a PC gamer; specifically fantasy RPGs. I LOVE reading (my bookshelves are overflowing). I love to sew and costume. I like scary movies especially bad b-horror.  I’m a grade a science nerd. I’m exceptional at my job as an engineer. I’m a writer/Blogger. I cook and bake on a gourmet level. I dance. I snuggle my cat. 

Is this my identity?

I know the things I love to do for others. I’m a very outspoken advocate for women’s rights, GLBTQ rights, civil rights, equality, the environment, animals, the underprivileged, and of course mental health. For as dysfunctional as I am I do love to take care of people. Often to the exclusion of my own needs.  But even just in small ways. Cooking and baking for friends. Hosting all our gatherings. Nothing crazing. Being the one people can talk to. The one that listens. The person that has a couch they can crash one. That will be there in the middle of the night. That will pick up the phone. That remembers the birthdays and special events and throws the surprise parties and makes a big deal so they know they feel special. I like to do these things for people. I want the people in my life to know that they’re cared for.

Thanks to my therapy I can see where a lot of this comes from. I think I’ve just had so much pain in my life I don’t want the people around me to feel that, especially not from me. I know some of it is a need to not be abandoned either. But I also genuinely love to just do things for people. I also love to bake and cook. I simply can’t bake/cook the way I love to just for me. I need a crowd =) Fortunately I have a lot of friends that don’t mind one little bit.

How about this? Is this my identity?

But sometimes I’m not any of this at all. Sometimes I don’t care. Sometimes I’m angry and moody. Sometimes I’m sad and depressed. Sometimes I super happy and creative.

Is this all my identity? Pieces of it? Aspects of it? None of it at all? How about when I’m in a bad mood and it swings all over the place and I want nothing to do with any of this at all? Eventually I’ll come back to these things. I know these things will pretty much never change about me, no matter who I’m with. Then again, I never imagined the mood swings would change either. 

These are things I like. Things I do. Things I like to do for people or myself. But is that my identity? Especially when I feel nothing at all for long periods of time? Is the nothingness me as well? 

The thing that I think they don’t tell you about this flexible identity thing though. It can make you a GREAT partner as long as you manage to hold onto those things that make you, YOU. I am completely open to trying things that my partners are into. Hell I adopt them as my own interests like it’s nothing! As long as it’s not something that I’m morally opposed to like hunting or fishing (I’m strict vegetarian and live as cruelty free as possible).

More often than not I feel I’m merely consciousness sitting in a body waiting to do my next task.

When I’m immersed in a task I forget to dwell on my existence for a while but that doesn’t really solidify my identity in that task. Unless it does make my identity that task for the moment. I identify with what I’m doing in that moment? Hm. I don’t think that’s how that works. Or maybe it is.

Here’s my problem with a group of clinicians telling me what identity is. Who’s to say that it has to be a certain thing? Who’s to say that – the act of saying that it’s supposed to be a solid steady thing – isn’t what’s causing us this intense anxiety about it being so flexible in the first place.

I’m at a point at the moment (this may change, who knows) that my sense of identity doesn’t really bother me. It is what it is. I actually like who I am even if I don’t feel particularly solid. I dig the things I’m into and the things I’m good at. I appreciate the things I like to do for people on a personal level and in a grander sense (my advocacy). 

Who’s to say that identity is one specific thing? That to identify with yourself has to be in a certain way? Maybe some people just can’t? Maybe some people aren’t supposed to? Maybe that’s our particular defense mechanism? I imagine that’s what it is in a way. But I also don’t subscribe to the idea that everything has to fit into a nice neat psychological check box. Maybe I’m being too abstract with this one.

I also can’t fathom how to fix it. I admit to being completely flummoxed here. Pretty much everything else I know to at least help correct and begin to fix. I think this probably has attachments to dissociations on some level, but it has to go deeper and begin earlier.

Identity is such a tricky, tricky little beast. It’s your beliefs, your attitudes, your history, ways of behaving, temperament, personality, knowledge, opinions, roles, etc. It can be thought of as your self-definition; the glue that holds together all of these diverse aspects of yourself. Which is why it can be so distressing when other people come into our lives and we pick up aspects of them and start to bleed and diffuse into them. Our sense of self is so malleable that we don’t hold together so well. Our self-definition isn’t so well defined.

It can be so poorly defined in fact that we lose our sense of self completely to the person or people we’re with. Or we can just lose aspects of ourselves. Or just adopt new aspects of other people. I actually thing this last aspect is pretty great (or it can be because it allows us to keep a very open mind to new things and opportunities).  Then again this doesn’t have to have anything to do with other people at all.

“. . . it is very difficult for me to let other people get close to me. I am simply too afraid that they will discover that I am nothing at all, that I am nobody, a shadow, a ghost. I am afraid that they will find out that I don’t have any opinion about anything, no attitudes, no ideology, that I don’t know anything about anything, and suddenly they will figure out how boring I really am.”

This is almost the opposite of me. I read like a librarian with a full storage of encylopedias in my head. I’m very knowledgeable. I’m extremely opinionated and outspoken. Though internally I do feel like a shadow speaking well drawn conclusions. Someone sayings things the person I want to be would say, not someone I am is saying.

I try on identities like hats and see which ones I like best. I’ve done it my whole life. See something new? Try it on. Do I like it? Is it fun? Does it continue to suit me? No. Take it off. Move on. Pick up a new one. It won’t necessarily be a whole new personality but I’d do it with religions, career ideas, social ideologies, personal values, etc. Something here, something there.  That was without the influence of a significant other. Well, sometimes it was. Just trying to figure myself out. I never really had an intuitive idea. Does anyone really have an intuitive idea of who they are without self-discovery? I just believe that sometimes things wear out and become out dated; no longer relevant. Of course sometimes these personal evolutions occur much quicker for me than others. I tend to make my mind up overnight and then they stick for year. Still….



  1. Lovely article Haven, this sounds like the only sensible way to be! But why can't we always feel like that? Because of our shame-based cultural conditioning, probably =( x

  2. I read about an African culture that doesn't even consider a person to be a person until they are old enough to take on an accepted role in the community. Then there are cultures in which people change their names as their roles or defining characteristics change. Obviously, the concept of what identity means is culturally based, and different for different people, so how can it be clinically discussed apart from, perhaps, how it affects our functioning and distress levels?

  3. “... it is very difficult for me to let other people get close to me. I am simply too afraid that they will discover that I am nothing at all, that I am nobody, a shadow, a ghost. I am afraid that they will find out that I don’t have any opinion about anything, no attitudes, no ideology, that I don’t know anything about anything, and suddenly they will figure out how boring I really am.”

    - Borderline patients cycle between adamantly rejecting and then strongly relating to statements like the one above. They will likely admit to both points of view at different times, one moment feeling the embodiment of confidence and the next, very insecure and vulnerable to the threat of abandonment. The Borderline will often refuse to confront their behavioural and ideological inconsistencies when idealizing the Self, but ruminate excessively when devaluing it.

    - Clinically healthy subjects may also experience insecurity about their identity, especially during their younger years, but will not respond so radically to these natural shifts as a Borderline personality might. It is expected that a Non’s self-esteem will fluctuate, but never drastically back and forth over short spaces of time. Their sense of Self is not always concrete and they may struggle to articulate their perspectives, but inhibitive, self-destructive behaviour is rare.

    To a Borderline, a Non may well seem stable and kind when idealized, but cold and unfeeling when devalued. However, from an objective perspective, these may often be black and white depictions of a reasonably consistent personality. In the mind of a person who could be described like an “emotional third-degree burn victim” (Linehan), it follows that a stable personality might be perceived as “cold”, because there’s so rarely any evidence of burning passion for the Borderline to relate with. Likewise, a Non runs the risk of invalidating a Borderline’s experience as extreme, contrived and melodramatic because they have rarely felt so strongly in comparable situations. Neither person is necessarily “wrong” in these instances, but one has a more vivid experience of life than the other – which also makes it the more dangerous pathology.


Leave me a comment! It makes me feel good and less paranoid about talking to myself =)

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