Do you ever find yourself asking: Who am I? What do I believe in? What is my place in this world? If you do, you are not alone. Many people with borderline personality disorder (BPD) struggle with identity issues -- one of the core symptoms of the disorder.
Plenty of people without BPD struggle with identity issues, too. But people with BPD often have a very profound lack of sense of self. If you struggle with the feeling that you have no idea who you are or what you believe in, this may be a symptom you can relate to.
"Who Am I?" – What Is Identity?
What exactly is “identity”? Identity can be hard to describe, but let’s look at how some experts would define it.
First, most experts view identity as your overarching sense and view of yourself. A stable sense of identity means being able to see yourself as the same person in the past, present, and future. In addition, a stable sense of self requires the ability to view yourself in one way despite the fact that sometimes you may behave in contradictory ways.
Identity is quite broad, and includes many aspects of the self. Your sense of self or identity is probably made up of your beliefs, attitudes, abilities, history, ways of behaving, personality, temperament, knowledge, opinions, and roles. Identity can be thought of as your self-definition; it’s the glue that holds together all of these diverse aspects of your self.
Why Is Identity Important?
Having a sense of identity probably serves many different functions. First, if you have a strong identity, it allows you to develop self-esteem. Without knowing who you are, how can you develop a sense that you are worthwhile and deserving of respect?
In addition, a strong identity can help you to adapt to changes. While the world around you is constantly changing, if you have a strong sense of self, you essentially have an anchor to hold you while you adapt. Without that anchor, changes can feel chaotic and even terrifying.
The Question "Who Am I?" and BPD
One of the symptoms of BPD listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders is “identity disturbance,” or a markedly and persistently unstable self-image or sense of self. For example, consider this quote from a borderline patient that was included in a review of the topic published in the Journal of Personality Disorders):
“. . . 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.”
People with BPD often report that they have no idea who they are or what they believe in. Sometimes people with BPD report that they simply feel “non-existent.” Others even report that they are almost like a chameleon in terms of identity; they change who they are depending on their circumstances and what they think others want from them.
For example, you might find yourself being the “life of the party” at social events, but having a somber and serious demeanor at work functions. Of course, everyone changes their behavior to some degree in different contexts, but in BPD this shift is much more profound; many people with BPD report that in addition to behavior, their thoughts and feelings change to match the current situation.
Identity problems in BPD are sometimes called “identity diffusion.” This refers to difficulties determining who you are in relation to other people. Some people with BPD may describe this as having difficulties understanding where you “end” and the other person “begins.” As a result, many people with BPD struggle to set up and maintain healthy personal boundaries.
Why Do People With BPD Have Identity Problems?
Unfortunately, there has been very little research on the identity problems associated with BPD, but there are many theories as to why people with BPD often struggle with identity.
For example, Marsha Linehan, Ph.D., who founded dialectical behavior therapy, believes you develop identity by observing your own emotions, thoughts, and feelings, in addition to others’ reactions to you. If you have BPD and the associated emotional instability, impulsive behavior, and dichotomous thinking, you may have difficulty forming a coherent sense of self because your internal experiences and outward actions are not consistent.
In addition, many people with BPD come from chaotic or abusive backgrounds, which may contribute to unstable sense of self. If you determine who you are based on others’ reactions to you, and those reactions have been unpredictable and/or scary, you have no framework for developing a strong sense of identity.
How to Find Yourself
So how do you go about answering the question “who am I?” Of course, there is no magic solution for identity problems -- these issues are complicated. However, most treatments for BPD include components that can help you to begin to discover who you are and what you stand for. The first step in finding yourself is finding a good therapist who can help you work on identity problems.In addition, there are ways that you can work on identity issues on your own. For example, this exercise is one way that people begin to discover their own identity:
Fuchs T. “Fragmented Selves: Temporality and Identity in Borderline Personality Disorder.” Psychopathology. 40(6):379-387, 2007.
Jorgensen CR. “Disturbed Sense of Identity in Borderline Personality Disorder.” Journal of Personality Disorders. 20(6):618-644, 2006.
Linehan MM. Cognitive-behavioral Treatment of Borderline Personality Disorder. New York: Guilford, 1993.