Part 7 on my series on the similarities and differences between people with borderline personality disorder and those with narcissistic personality disorder. You can find part 1 here, part 2 here, part 3 here, part 4A here, part 4B here part 5 here, and part 6 here.
In a previous post, I explained that people borderline personality disorder and narcissistic personality disorder both have an awful sense of emptiness, a black hole inside them that can't be filled. One reason for this is that they both lack an identity; a sense of self.
Imagine yourself an amnesia patient, adrift. Sense the paralyzing emptiness that must go with it. Know that you couldn't go too long without some kind of strategy to deal with it. People with BPD and NPD respond by using different kinds of "pain management" behaviors, which we'll talk about later. But they also have specific—and different—approaches for dealing with their identity crisis.
BPs become human chameleons
People with BPD become human chameleons, changing their preferences, values—even accents depending upon whom they're with. Narcissists, on the other hand, develop what's called a "false self," that superior, entitled figure we've been talking about, to mask not only the emptiness, but all kinds of painful feelings. NPs are so good at this unconscious process that they believe all the lies they tell themselves about who they are.
In this blog post, we'll take a look at the borderline strategy. In the next, I'll cover the NPD perspective.
We all act differently depending upon whom we are with: We're one person with our parents, another with our coworkers (especially the boss) and yet another with our significant other. But with BPD—as it is with every other trait—the question is the intensity of the experience and how much it negatively impacts the person's life. We may show different sides of ourselves, but we still know who we are underneath it all. People with BPD don't.
This is a trait that most of us find hard to identify with because it's so different from our own experience. Perhaps the best way to describe it is to listen to someone with BPD:
Patricia: I have a hard time figuring out who I am. I act like whomever I¹m with. I¹ve had 14 jobs since I graduated from college 10 years ago, and every time I take a career test it comes out differently. I can¹t decide what religion I want to be, I called around to some churches and asked them to send me some information. When I'm faced with kinds of choices—from who to have sex with to whether or not to cheat on my taxes—I don't know what to do—especially when I'm stressed or drinking. I go from one extreme to the other.
Mary: The terror of being alone and the devastation of being abandoned strike so deeply at the core of who I see myself to be that to lose a significant other is to lose myself. A borderline¹s sense of identity is so shaky that we rely on someone else (our mate, our kids) to define our ego. If I cry out, "But I¹ll kill myself if you leave," it doesn¹t necessarily mean that I would entertain that notion. It does mean that I might as well be dead because I have no life other than that which is defined by being with you.
Jeff: The problem is that we people with BPD have nothing to call our own in this world, so we must rely on others to feel like we have sustenance. If a boat was an identity, then all we have is a little inflatable mattress in the middle of a huge ocean, where the waves get very big at times and sharks are all around. To survive, we must have a bigger boat. Rather than find or make our own, we hop on someone else's boat. The non-PD partner thinks they are helping a person with a small boat and it never occurs to them that the BP has no boat of their own.
Here's how this lack of identity plays itself out in relationships, with comments for non-PD partners.
Partners may pick up unwanted traits from others: She is dissatisfied with many aspects of her looks—personality, ability, intelligence—even though she is a remarkably beautiful and intelligent girl. She picks up others habits, accents, spiritual, religious beliefs at a quick pace just to be "normal." A very good example is her lie telling. Prior to September of last year she just did not lie. When she decided that everyone lies and it is normal, she started lying at a frenzied rate. She does not have the ability to differentiate a white lie from a doozy.
It contributes to no-win situations, blame and criticism: He may make an issue over something today, then tomorrow he won't care at all about that same matter. For example, one day he is friends with a person who is homosexual and so he is very concerned about the rights of homosexuals and was very critical of me for not being actively concerned with this issue. He berated me for not taking a stand and for not agreeing with his anger at the injustice done to homosexuals. A while later, when his friendship with the homosexual person has ended, he will have no sympathy for homosexuals, and will speak disparagingly of some public figure accused of being homosexual. He will have no memory of his former views.
It's hard to have a relationship with someone who is constantly changing. Before we met, when she dated a cowboy, she dressed like a cowgirl. When she dated a Hispanic man, she spoke with an accent, to the point where people believe she's mocking them. She also does this with people's mannerisms, expressions, and other speech patterns.
What self-image they have is often low and dependent on the roles they play or whether or not they feel liked or loved at any moment in time. This is especially true with conventional (self-harming, low-functioning) BPs. After I got divorced and got primary custody of the kids, she fell into a total depression and said if she wasn't a full time mother than who was she, and what was she worth?
Go here to find out about the false self of NPs.