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  • Writer's pictureSonia Neale

Borderline Personality Disorder – Identity and Emptiness

Part of the criteria for a BPD diagnosis is chronic emptiness and a persistently unstable self-image or sense of self. People with BPD can feel as though they have no identifiable belief system or set of core values with a very profound lack of sense of self, and sometimes feel as though they don’t even exist. When non-BPD people experience tragedy, hardship, job loss, divorce, moving house or some sort of personal crisis, having a strong set of stable core values and distress tolerance skills helps them on the journey back to where they were before the crisis occurred, and are usually wiser for the event. A stable sense of identity means being able to see yourself as the same person in the past, in the present, and in the future. There is an internal solid self, built upon layers of experiences, events, thoughts, feelings, actions and behaviours that can remain pretty much stable throughout life without faltering. They stay the same personality regardless of what is happening in their life.

Your sense of self or identity is made up of your beliefs, ethics, attitudes, abilities, past history, future yearnings, consistent or inconsistent behaviour, temperament and personality traits, education and knowledge, established roles in life and thoughts, feelings and opinions. A stable identity is the glue that holds together your place in the world, so that when you are alone you have a rich sense of groundedness, fullness, of purpose and of comfortable permanence sitting in your skin.

A person with BPD will often change their appearance, their clothes and hairstyle, their choice in music, their mannerisms and their opinions depending on who they are with, a process of merging which makes it difficult to know where they end and the other person begins. This is because an identity for them is a difficult concept to understand as it can be so nebulous, abstract and free floating, it’s like trying to capture a rainbow when you are colour-blind. How do you know what an avocado tastes like, if you have never tasted one? People with emptiness and identity issues respond, without awareness, to others becoming “chameleon-like” by mimicking and “shape-shifting” and absorbing themselves into others. People with BPD can consume others identity as a survival skill.

“Shape-shifters” is a term for people who change their fragile, fragmented identity around other stronger, more robust people to help fill the frightening emptiness and loneliness with something better, something tangible that is sensed and felt, yet without cognitive awareness. Or can need other more cohesive people to constantly reassure and validate them of who they are, who they are not and that they are ok. These are people who cannot meet their own needs, cannot fill themselves up or self-soothe when in distress. They can only relate to themselves through a relationship with another person, without which they are confused and lost in a terrifying foggy wilderness, with no foreseeable way out. People who can end up clinging to failing relationships rather than face the world alone. Who am I, without another to define me? I have to be me, even when I don’t want to be me. That is because there is no other workable choice.

Knowing this separateness, how to be alone, helps with knowing who is me and who is not me. Being able to mentalise what the other is thinking or feeling and not taking on board those thoughts and feelings because they feel more authentic, more genuine than your own, that is who I am meant to be but cannot. Having empathy without merging, but observing, self and others with awareness. Having compassion for who you are (and who you are not), self-esteem (valuing who you are), having healthy boundaries and the ability to let go and not letting others impinge on you. Internal stability of self helps grow a solid titanium backbone able to support your life with self-respect, grace and dignity, the way you want to live it, without people-pleasing in an attempt to stave off real or perceived abandonment and rejection.

BPD emptiness and identity is thought by some to be a structural brain developmental delay (this is NOT your fault) where people as children appear unable to learn what others generally pick up, seemingly without effort, through general observance and social interaction in the home, in the school classroom and playground, by knowing one’s own emotions, thoughts, and feelings. Also learning these valuable social skills through how other children react to you. Kindness, empathy and compassion to self and others involves good executive brain function abilities that allows flexible thinking and a curb on impulse control. People with BPD may have difficulty forming a cohesive sense of self because what is felt internally is incongruent with the outside world. People with BPD literally do not know how the world works, that is until they do.

Without executive functioning and a reasonable purposeful and meaningful internal sense of identity, it is easy to fill that great void with substances, like fatty and sugary food (which quite adequately fills the void with a warm sense of fullness – for a short time), or relying on the effects of alcohol for a sense of social adequacy, or mind-altering substances to fill the unfillable loneliness with a pleasurable elevated sense of equilibrium and being one with the world. Over-working can also fill the identity gaps, as can casual sex (but only, it would seem, while it is happening) anything, so as not to feel that great void of bottomless emptiness.

So where does this pervasive developmental delay, this black hole of emptiness, loneliness and identity emanate from? Is it nature or nurture? Genes and biology-v- environment and social causes? Complex trauma plays a large role, as does growing up in an emotionally invalidating or abusive environment where your emotional needs were not met, and gaslighting was a frequent occurrence.

Finding an identity is difficult, and involves teasing out slowly what you are interested in, what you feel strongly about, what are your independent values, which political party do you align yourself with. Having your own opinions about current affairs. What are your spiritual beliefs, religious ones? Are you an atheist, an Agnostic or do you believe in Jesus Christ? How do you feel about global warming? Chicken farming? Bacon production? Corona Virus conspiracy theories? What are you passionate about? Who do you want to save? What floats your boat? What causes do you feel strongly about? What causes you to disagree with other people, political parties or rabid environmental groups? Do you think celebrities have it all? How do you feel about Higher Education? The way schools are currently run? These opinions and others make up part of who you are, they are part of your identity.

Being consistent and feeling congruent with your values and ethics can help define your identity. Being able to agree to disagree peacefully, without the fear the other person will abandon or reject you can be the stabilising glue that helps cement your identity. No longer needing constant reassurance of who you are from other people because you can now reassure yourself, these are the things crucial to being comfortable with yourself.

What you think about and what matters the most to you when you are on your own is who you are. When you have a complete but flexible cognitive skin surrounding and encompassing your cohesive sense of self and you can finally, FINALLY, identify yourself in an identity line-up parade, you are on your way to filling up that bottomless empty well of life.

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