Shapeshifting Chameleons and BPD (Borderline Personality Disorder)
One of the most disturbing aspects of borderline personality disorder (BPD) for many (but not all) who suffer is identity disturbance. This phenomenon and my willingness to finally face it and disclose it to my psychiatrist was ultimately what led to me finally receiving an accurate diagnosis of BPD. I realized and acknowledged that I really had no idea who I was apart from other people, and I had never truly developed a unique sense of self. Instead, I took on the mannerisms, behaviors, and even the beliefs and values of whatever company I was keeping at the time. And, while we all metaphorically wear different masks in different social situations (i.e., it’s healthy and expected that you would act differently with your boss than you would with your significant other), some with BPD seemingly become entirely different people from one setting to the next. I know I did. This is often why people confuse BPD with Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), formerly Multiple Personality Disorder or “split personality.”
In BPD, though, it’s not that the self splits and there are multiple personalities, but the person with borderline personality disorder rather “takes on” what they see modeled for them in another person, and it is largely quite unconscious, hence the title of this post, Shapeshifting Chameleons and BPD. So, why do we do this? When I look back, I remember feeling intrigued and curious about how I could so easily shift from one value system to another, one religion, political party, sexual orientation, school and career aspirations to another, at the drop of a hat, and then switch back, but I didn’t know how or why it was happening.
My hobbies and interests would presto-chango depending on my company in that moment. One of the things I feared most was ending up in a social situation in the same room with people in my life who were radically different. Who would I be? Someone would see that I was a phony. That I tried too hard. That I didn’t know who I was. One of the things I feared most was ending up in a social situation in the same room with people in my life who were radically different. Who would I be? Someone would see that I was a phony. That I tried too hard. That I didn’t know who I was. I couldn’t take it anymore and knew I needed help. In therapy, I began to explore this as well as what might have been the root cause of this particular suffering in my life. It’s not necessary, by the way, to pinpoint the cause in order to find healing and peace in the here and now.
TRIGGER WARNING / TW Domestic Violence / Abuse / Bullying
When I was a young girl, it behooved me to quickly adapt my mannerisms, behaviors, and beliefs to whichever adult was caring for me at the time. This was especially true with my father. I felt that I could be expressive and outgoing most of the time, but if my father came home in a foul mood and began taking out his anger and frustrations in the form of violence toward my mother, I became terrified. My father’s behavior, I believe, was largely responsible for me developing a very black-or-white, all-or-nothing view of the world: You’re in a good mood (you’re safe to be around)/You’re in a bad mood (you’re a danger to me). No time for shades of grey. Just survival. I quickly shapeshifted into the person I thought my father needed me to be in any given moment. I witnessed my mother change her demeanor and personality from outgoing and confident to quite the opposite. She did so quickly so as to try to calm my father down, and I mimicked this. Another example is that I was severely bullied for a number of years in my childhood. I would try to relate to the “cool” kids by adapting my mannerisms, interests, and behaviors to mimic theirs so that they would accept me and not hurt me.
END TRIGGER WARNING
So, I began “practicing” chameleon-like behaviors at a very young age, and I never stopped – until I learned I had BPD and began DBT. That was the intervention I so desperately needed. Finally, something was working. By learning and routinely practicing DBT Skills, I have grown to actual know myself – the real me – apart from the interests, values, preferences, mannerism, and behaviors of anyone else. I honestly thought I would just always be that person who adjusted who she was to accommodate the next boyfriend, girlfriend, roommate, boss, etc… whoever I was trying to please, win the favor of, or get to like or love me in that moment. If I could come from that place and now really, truly know who I am (and like and love her most of the time! :) ), I have hope for you, too!
So, who am I now that I know who I am? (That sounds rather Dr. Seuss-ish!) I’ll give you one example of something I know for sure about myself:
- I am a full-time vegetarian (100% of the time) and am plant-based (no dairy consumption) about 85% of the time. I have really strong values around ethical issues related to animals, and this is not something I am willing to sacrifice or change based on the company I keep. There was a time when I was very insecure and feared being alone or abandoned so desperately that I ate (and even prepared) meat for my love interest because I thought doing would help bring us closer. Instead just made me sick, but I kept doing it over and over to “show him” how much I was “like him.” That will never happen again. I won’t change into someone who eats meat or prepares it for her love interest. Those days are over.
Can you relate to shapeshifting and chameleon-like behaviors? What do you notice about your experience? Are there any things you know for SURE about yourself? Certain values that you are steadfast in no matter whose company you keep?
I hope this was helpful to you in some way.
Thanks for reading.
P.S. I believe that finding meaning in pain is part of creating and building a life worth living, and this is a concept taught in DBT. Part of my process and story is that I have gone through much pain, largely in part to having BPD, but I managed to overcome the disorder and no longer meet the criteria for the diagnosis. YES, this is possible. I now help people like us from around the world to have hope and to learn the skills that I learned. You can learn more on our ABOUT page.
Thank you for making this blog. Just last month I got a BPD and PTSD diagnosis and am slowly beginning DBT. I had two evaluations was told “I’ve seen world class borderline personalities and you are not one of them…but you have many of the core issues.” So…whatever that means. Do you have any recommendations for workbooks or approaches? My therapist is new to DBT I think and our sessions are kind of scattered and unorganized. I might join an outside group too to help because I have two sweet babies and a husband-to-be, that I want to be better for.
Anyway, I was intrigued by what you said about it not being necessary to pinpoint the cause of things in order to find healing in the present…I have a big problem with this. I’m always digging for the cause of EVERYTHING and it feels like I cannot move on until I figure it out. Hopefully I can get some help with that. Feeling kind of hopeless at the moment because I’ve been in “treatment” for 4 weeks but haven’t learned much. Arrrgghh.
Thanks again for having this site and being brave enough to share everything so to help others <3
I am so glad that you are learning DBT to help with your BPD and PTSD! These skills have helped me immensely in both areas. Many people who simply identify as “emotionally sensitive” or who have “borderline traits” have also reported finding learning and practicing the skills to be helpful and even life changing, so even if you are told you just have “core issues,” I have hope for you.
You are more than welcome to give my online, DBT psychoeducational skills training class at try to see if it would be a good supplement to the work you’re doing. You might ask your therapist to review what we offer and then you can consider signing up to see if it is a good fit for you. We meet weekly, live, online, with students from around the world. If you can’t attend the live classes, a recording is sent out each week. You can learn more on the CLASSES pages. Our next class opens next month.
And, yes, I know that feeling of wanting to understand the reason behind everything. It can be difficult to give that up, but it is such an amazing moment when we accept that we are in these circumstances due to some cause, yet, we can work on our healing and peace without needing to know exactly what it is. Maybe, someday, we’ll better understand and have access to that information, but not having it now doesn’t need to hold us back.
I hope this helps, and thank you for your kind words.
So timely…I was just discussing this with my therapist yesterday. He wants me to write out an integrated portrait of *who I am* and just the thought of it is utterly daunting, because I have spent my entire life being who I thought the people around me wanted/needed me to be. The only people I have ever been authentic with (and even then certainly not 100% of the time) is my husband and children. Growing up, I was one person for my mom, another for my dad, the straight-A nerd for this group of friends and the partying, drinking metalhead for this other group of friends – god, it was exhausting! After 3 years with my wonderful therapist I am WAY better at not caring what other people think and being true to myself, but I’m still trying to figure out who that “self” really is. What I know for SURE about myself – marine biology (specifically sharks) is my absolute passion and I am going to pursue it academically and as a career, even though I am currently 46 and will have to start all over again in school. It has been my passion since I was 7 years old, it’s never gone away, and I know that if I don’t go for it I will always regret it. So college, here I come, in the fall of 2016. : )
^ Good for you not letting fear hold you back from changing your career in your 40’s! My mother did that when she was in her 50’s and she’s so much happier….it wasn’t nearly as much college as Marine Biology requires, but I love that you’re going for it anyway :) Live life and pursue your own path!
Wow – this is timely! I think the project will serve to be challenging, telling, and rewarding. Telling in that it will give you and your therapist information on how you can grow in your development of your sense of self apart from others. I’m excited for you!
I can totally relate to being a different person for the various people in my life while growing up. It was exhausting then, and it was very exhausting as an adult who had some part of her that “knew better” and knew something was off.
Lastly, I am so proud of you for identifying and sharing the one thing you know for sure about yourself. I think marine biology is a fascinating topic, and you’re going to have a blast returning to school and studying this topic. Remember, Patch Adams (great movie made on his story) became a medical doctor later in life, and you’re only in your 40s. You can make this happen!
Thanks for sharing, Rebecca!
This is really interesting. I never fit in with most groups because I wasn’t able to let go my fear of punishment if I did something wrong. I wouldn’t smoke. For no one.I made myself fit into the geeky, non-cool group and became like them. I did let myself be compromised once against beliefs by having sex when I really didn’t want to. I wanted to remain a virgin. I was terrified of my parents, but I didn’t want to loses the boy. I did end up married to him unhappily for 23 years. But now I am learning he was probably a narcissist. I am learning a lot on here. So I do tend to change to fit the situation.
So many insights. Thank you for sharing, Tessa!
You are welcome. Hope it helped!
I love this so much! I’m 22 and was diagnosed at 13 with BPD. Yes, I was that bad even at a young age. About a year and a half ago, i started to slowly acknowledge my illness and the desperate need for change. But cause NO one in my town is familiar with dbt, I have been struggling on my own, and it’s been a never ending battle with myself to control my symtoms. With no professional to help me on my journey, i rely on textbooks, blogs, articles, and online testimonials to teach myself to control my illness. I have learned, and continue to learn, so much about myself that I already knew, but have never been able to communicate. This blog has been able to put in words what i could explain to my friends and family. Thank you:)
Thank you so much for sharing Berni. That’s a long time to have been suffering. It shows a lot of strength on your behalf. Please remember you are NEVER alone. There are people who can relate all over the planet. You are more than welcome to give my online, DBT psychoeducational skills training class. We meet weekly, live, online, with students from around the world. If you can’t attend the live classes, a recording is sent out each week. You can learn more on the CLASSES pages. Our next class opens next month.
I am so thrilled that this article helped you articulate your experience to friends and family. Thank you for letting me know!
Thank-you for your blog articles. They have helped me better understand my loved one’s struggle and given me new hope for a recovery for him.
I am so very glad to hear that. You are welcome, and I wish the very best for both your loved one and you on this journey.
Thank-you for sharing your story. I went through the same experience as a child and was shaped in the same way (unfortunately for us!)…I don’t wish that suffering on anyone, but it’s always nice to feel a little less alone and like someone understands.
I also was diagnosed with BPD but no longer qualify for the diagnosis..Unfortunately still struggling with C-PTSD. I definitely relate to the shapeshifting chameleon – I hate that I want to please others so much but I do (good old fear of abandonment/rejection)
Anyway just wanted to say hello and thank you for sharing.
Hi Katie – thank you so much for sharing and for your kind words! ♥
I can relate to this so so so much, thank you for posting it!! You’re words are great and so true and accurate.
*TW* similar to you, I learnt this from a young age. I had a similar experience between my Dad and my Mum and learnt some of it from my Mum. But also, because of their situation I was frequently shafted to anyone with a pillow and a floor. A different roof, a different ‘mum’ or ‘dad’ and a different set of rules. A different way of doing things. I think this is largely where I got it from. End *TW*
Its ridiculous, it even goes to the extent I start picking up on other peoples accents quickly. Its like I just want to be them. Sometime’s there is jealously involve, though it shames me to admit that.
But I am a t a similar place to you in finding myself, which is great :)
Thank you again,
Thank you for your beautiful comment, for sharing, and your considerate use of TW, Sammy! ♥
I’m not BPD. I now know I was involved with one for 7yrs.
I didn’t change who I was my beliefs. I’m an observer an to this day I’m in awe of how his pattern is in play he is a cameleon. Never stopping or addressing he does exactly the same with ea person. Its a facade, period.
Its taken me almost 2yrs to sort thru this situation. I was&still am devastated its on a different. level but its there.
I decided I had to do something I went bk to school graduate in 2mos. Thru the tears, hurt, confusion, I did it. No help zero support. I plan to get more education. It helped me a lot I just did it!
As I read articles some apply to me
some dont. Fear is the underlying issue with all of us.Abandonment goes along with that.
Were all gona have to be alone at some point, utilize that time to get strong, learn from our mistakes, dont repeat!
Dont compare yourself to others, all that glitters isn’t gold, believe me!
I’m more focused on getting my life in order, how can I get what I want Me feeling happy, confident. Its work daily, good days&baaaad ones .
Eventually we will be whre we need to be. Look at it this way if a situation ddnt happen that really effected us, we wldnt have the chance to get bk to us, fix us!
Yes in todays world evrybody wants to be the same, not possible.
It takes more guts to be you, than a copycat, lots of pseudo situations&people in this life.
It all comes bk around , evryone is gona have tho deal with themselves at some point in life.
Sometimes ya gota fake it till ya make it on the positive journey to you…
Peace Love Courage to all
peeps that haven’t bn thru tough excriciating circumstances? Don’t get it, so don’t b offended if Thyre not undrtstanding….. Its about you making you happy, confident, period
Thank you for taking the time to share some of your story and thoughts, M. :)
Thank you for the blog. I identify with the shapeshifter and the chameleon in terms of over compromising. I have done it in all my relationships and I adjust to people’s wants and needs. I end up a matyr. I end up resentful and I end up having to own the fact that it was my choice to do so as much as it is my choice also. I’m still working through this though but I have identified what it is and I’m helping myself where I can.
Thank you for reading and taking the time to comment! I think insight – being aware of our experience and where we are at – is the best starting point for change… so it’s awesome that you’re clear on this and want to take steps to work through these tough issues. Huge hugs! ♥