Borderline Personality Disorder and Identity Problems

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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're not alone. Many people with borderline personality disorder (BPD) struggle with identity issues—one of the core symptoms of BPD.

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.

Understanding Identity

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 yourself.

Why Identity Is Important

Having a sense of identity serves many different functions. 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.

In addition, having a strong identity 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?

The Question "Who Am I?" and BPD

One of the symptoms of BPD listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), the standard for diagnosing mental conditions, is identity disturbance, or a markedly and persistently unstable self-image or sense of self.

People with BPD often report that they have no idea who they are or what they believe in. Sometimes they report that they simply feel non-existent. Others even say 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 say 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 and have difficulties in their interpersonal relationships.

Why People With BPD Have Identity Problems

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, PhD, a leading BPD researcher and the founder of dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), believes you develop an identity by observing your own emotions, thoughts, and feelings, in addition to others’ reactions to you.

Borderline personality disorder is associated with emotional instability, impulsive behavior, and dichotomous thinking. All of these can make it difficult to form a coherent sense of self, because internal experiences and outward actions are not consistent.

In addition, many people with BPD come from chaotic or abusive backgrounds, which may contribute to an 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.

Another potential factor is being able to think about the mental states of yourself and others regarding dreams, thoughts, emotions, and goals. This is known as mentalizing, and it is difficult for those with BPD. One study published in 2017 showed that this problem with mentalizing may play a key role in why people with BPD struggle so much with identity diffusion and interpersonal relationships.

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 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. You can begin to discover what you view as meaningful in your life. The act of categorizing and defining these areas can help you start on a path to discovering what's most important to you, which is a significant part of your identity.

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  1. American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th ed. 2013.

  2. De Meulemeester C, Lowyck B, Vermote R, Verhaest Y, Luyten P. Mentalizing and interpersonal problems in borderline personality disorder: The mediating role of identity diffusion. Psychiatry Res. 2017;258:141-144. doi:10.1016/j.psychres.2017.09.061

  3. Linehan MM. Cognitive-Behavioral Treatment of Borderline Personality Disorder. Guilford Publications, 2018.

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