I had a realization this weekend. While I was prepping for a pub crawl with my boyfriend, I noticed that he kept wandering off to go grab things or do something else, and inevitably I would wander after him like a lost puppy. At some point he mentioned that I didn’t have to come with him everywhere, and jokingly I yelled “I don’t have any object permanence without you!”
Of course as is true with many of my jokes, there is a fair amount of truth hanging out in the middle of that statement. While it’s not true that I become worried about my own existence when I’m in a room alone, I do hang my sense of identity on other people’s validation and understanding of me far more often than is healthy. When I haven’t talked to anyone in too long, I start to wonder who I am and what I’m doing. Do I actually want to write all these things? Am I actually an empathetic person? Am I really intelligent or do I just fool people into thinking that?
My brain functions in comparisons. What does it mean to be smart? It means being able to understand more than other people, reach conclusions faster and better, speak more clearly or convincingly, or know more about more things than others. What if there are no others around? Then I would have no idea if I was smart or not. I assume that my experience of the world is the same as anyone else’s and the only times I know that there’s something good about me is when someone tells me that I’m different than others in some fashion: kinder, more compassionate, smarter. And so I crave those validations more than anything else. Without them I have no idea who or what I am.
One of the symptoms of Borderline Personality Disorder is a lack of self identity, an inability to solidly ground your sense of self without help from others. It can be one of the most difficult elements of the disorder to combat because it requires a fundamental reframing of who you are and how you exist in relation to others. When your identity is a comparison or a response to others, who you are is wholly dependent on them. In some ways, you cease to exist autonomously, because when the people around you stop talking to you or paying attention to you, you stop knowing who you are or what you should do.
In some ways, for me, this difficulty stems from a deep desire for objectivity. I am a perfectionist and I want deeply to be right about everything. That means that if I call myself intelligent, I want some sort of absolutely certain standard to which I can point. Comparisons are the only standard I’ve got. It’s my uneasy truce with the fact that in the grand scheme of the universe, “I am intelligent” is a meaningless statement. It may not be true that others with BPD crave this certainty the way I do, or that they use external validation because they’ve come to the conclusion that all meaning and knowledge is relative and self-made. But there are lots of parallels between my huge, existential temper tantrums and the concrete confusions of those who are struggling to define themselves independently.
So here are some of the conclusions I’ve come to about how to build a sense of self when all you want is for someone else to tell you who and what you are.
1. Stop asking. Seriously. It’s enabling. If you’re starting to feel uncomfortable about something (am I mean? am I stupid? am I annoying?) first try checking in with yourself and looking at some facts instead of getting someone else to give you the answer. Other people aren’t always around and other people can leave and sometimes you have to be ok on your own. So before you ask for reassurance, reassure yourself. Learn how to use facts and experiences to build up a sense of self. Am I annoying? Well, I have a lot of people who seek out my company, so probably not.*
2. Think about your values. Consciously. Constantly. Remind yourself what actually FEELS important to you. A great litmus test on this is to check in with yourself when you start feeling guilty or ashamed about something. Why are you feeling this way? Is it because someone else has told you that your behavior is horribly wrong, or do you think you’ve actually done a bad thing? If option 2, this is pointing towards one of your values that you have violated.
3. Practice uncertainty. Seek out circumstances in which you won’t have a concrete answer or label for something and just be with it. Get used to feeling like you don’t have a clear answer. It may never feel awesome, but you can start to desensitize yourself to it and get through the rough patches by knowing that there will be times that you feel confident and clear about who you are (protip: these are often times when you have just accomplished something, made a big decision, or spent time with people you’re comfortable around).
4. Labels can be really helpful. Sometimes it’s too hard to come up with a complicated self definition when you’re in a moment of uncertainty or fear or need. Having a list of go to’s can be helpful. “I’m a writer” is one that I rely on often, not only because it is so deeply true that I cannot imagine ever being anything else, but also because it gives me a path forward to start to figure out other elements of myself: writing them down. The label gives you something to rely on when you’re struggling. They don’t have to define you forever, but they can be a helpful stepping stone towards identity if you just want something simple.
5. Talk or write about it. It’s easy to get lost in your own head, but if you have to put words to who you think you are, it can clarify what’s actually important to you and how you think of yourself. You can also start to compare versions of yourself if you have a record (whether in writing or through a friend’s memory), and figure out either how those versions fit together or whether there’s one that doesn’t fit as well as the other. It can help you prioritize the elements of yourself and keep them in balance. That might sound super woo woo but all I really mean is “how much time and energy do I want to put into this interest/value, and how much weight do I want to give those concerns?”
6. Start building identities instead of identity. When there’s only one way you define yourself, it’s easy for it to be fragile. That identity has to hold all of you, be flexible enough to explain you in different contexts, and be 100% right all the time. Multiple identities lets you account for the fact that we’re different in different circumstances and no one identity is objectively you all the time. It gives you more flexibility and space to be and do different things.
These won’t solve any serious identity crises (for which I would suggest some therapy), but they are good ways to keep up a practice of strong self-identity if you struggle with your sense of self.
*of course sometimes it’s to the benefit of a relationship to check in and make sure the other person isn’t actually trying to send you signals that mean you’re horrible and they hate you, just for clarity’s sake